Should I take paid or unpaid leave during the government shutdown?
October 1, 2013 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I am a contractor and am required to take leave due to the government shutdown. I have the choice of taking paid or unpaid leave. Given that I'm young with no dependents, my savings are in great shape right now, and my unused vacation will roll over into the next year, I am inclined to take leave without pay and save my paid vacation. Are there any drawbacks here that I'm not seeing? (I probably don't need to officially declare my choice until the end of the month, so long term advice in case this drags on is also helpful.)
posted by anaelith to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Save your paid vacation for what?

You'll get more next year.

Bank the money and if you want more time next year, take it as unpaid leave.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:14 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

What happens to your various leaves if you resign/get laid off/get fired? Because that could definitely change the matter. F.ex, if you get paid out for your paid leave but not for the unpaid, then use your unpaid now, and if bad things happen you'll have a cushion.
posted by Lemurrhea at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am an overly paranoid type and would worry that I might not be able to take paid leave in the future if the shutdown lasts long enough that I lose my contract. Therefore, I would take the paid leave now.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Does taking unpaid leave mean that you'll technically be "let go" with a promise that you'll be officially "rehired" once the shutdown is resolved? If so, then take the paid leave, because it'll be a lot easier for them to just "forget" to rehire you, and it'll be more of a hassle even if they do remember.

Do you expect your leave time to be more valuable when you leave the company -- that is, do you expect to get a raise between now and then? If so, then take the unpaid leave, because cashing out any unused leave will be more money in your pocket.

Do you anticipate any unanticipated expenses in the near future? I know, that sounds oxymoronic, but have you had your car thoroughly inspected recently? Is your roof new? Is your pet young? Take a look at all your possible expenses that might eat through your savings and weigh that accordingly.

Is there any reason you might need to take all of your leave in the near future (wedding plans, taking care of sick relatives, you hate December in New York, whatever) and your company won't let you go into the hole or take unpaid leave in lieu?
posted by Etrigan at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2013

Are you actually getting paychecks during the shutdown? Or is it just a promise that if you take the paid leave, you'll get retroactive paychecks after the shutdown ends? Because it's not clear how long that will take, so you may want to factor into your thinking exactly when you're expecting to be paid for any paid leave you take now.
posted by decathecting at 12:18 PM on October 1, 2013

If you take the paid leave now, can you take the same amount of unpaid leave later?
posted by musofire at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2013

If this shutdown weren't happening, what would your vacation-day planning for the rest of the year look like? Would you be spending a couple of days at Thanksgiving and another week at Christmas, or do your winter holiday celebrations not call for many vacation days? Would you normally have days left over at the end of the year? Are you hoping to bank an extra week of vacation into 2014 so you can do something exciting or do you just like the idea of having extra vacation saved up?

My advice:
1. Yes, take some unpaid days. Only take as many paid vacation days now as you would have to spare including all your regular holidays and known upcoming events; don't end up having to either work through Christmas or take unpaid days, just because of the shutdown.

2. But no, don't arbitrarily save vacation days. If you want to do a trip to someplace exciting in 2014, hoard them all you want, but not if you just want "a cushion", or to be able to brag to your friends that you could take 5 weeks of vacation. (because no, you probably couldn't, not all at once, not without annoying your boss, so go ahead and spend it)
posted by aimedwander at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2013

Would you be able to get unemployment for any part of the shutdown if you take unpaid leave? Might be something to investigate and consider.
posted by zachlipton at 12:32 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Take your paid leave. In the long run, you're going to get screwed.
What chance to you think you have of eventually getting paid for your unpaid leave the way things are going?
You really trust them with your money?
posted by BlueHorse at 12:36 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd be inclined to take the leave unpaid, but my salary is high enough and my vacation days precious enough that I'd probably take a pay cut in exchange for more vacation even absent a shutdown.

One thing you might want to pay attention to if this drags on, though, is whether it will create a huge headache to figure out how to pay your portion of health insurance or other benefit premiums if you take the time unpaid and the shutdown lasts long enough to result in no paycheck for an entire pay-cycle. This is an issue for a lot of women at my job who take 12 or 16 weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave; oftentimes they'll take it almost all unpaid but charge 4 or 8 per pay period to PTO so that they get paid enough to cover their health insurance contribution without needing to send a check directly to HR.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:58 PM on October 1, 2013

Are you furloughed? I am also a contractor (essential though, I'm working during the furlough) and the government agency I sub under sent out instructions that states a furloughed employee cannot be in any type of pay status (annual leave, sick leave, court leave) or use comp time or credit hours. This is because paid leave creates a debt to the government. Therefore agencies are required to cancel all paid leave during the furlough period. Just to be safe I would take unpaid leave if you could afford it. Check to see if your leave rolls over to the next year, you don't want to be in a use-or-lose situation.
posted by Rob Rockets at 1:03 PM on October 1, 2013

the government agency I sub under sent out instructions that states a furloughed employee cannot be in any type of pay status

That said, agencies all seem to be doing their own thing. Someone I know (contractor to an agency) is being forced to use their vacation time while furloughed.
posted by inigo2 at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another thing to consider, though I don't have situation-specific experience - if you take unpaid leave and have health insurance or a flex spending account (aka health savings account) it could cause a break in coverage. I took unpaid leave to go on a program abroad and didn't realize that I had to use my flex spending money in a very specific way regarding the dates it was spent on.
posted by brilliantine at 1:17 PM on October 1, 2013

As a rule of thumb, I always think the money is better in my pocket than someone else's, so I would definitely take the paid leave now. As well, the shutdown now may create a greater volume of work when it's over, so you may not have the chance to take paid leave later for having to clear out a backlog of work. If you can take the money now then do it. You never know if/when/how it will be available later.
posted by slogger at 1:25 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Take the paid leave. You'll get more vacation hours, so if this mess doesn't drag on too long you'll have plenty for a vacation next year. But we don't KNOW how long it'll drag on; your savings may be fine for now, but how long could you go without a paycheck? Better not to risk it.

Full disclosure: I'm one of the, ahem, 'lucky' folks sitting at home thinking evil thoughts about Congress while not being paid who weren't given this choice --- if I could do it, yes indeedy I most definately would take the paid leave. A confirmed full paycheck now versus saving vacation time for a vague possible vacation next year? No question.
posted by easily confused at 2:14 PM on October 1, 2013

Make hay while the sun shines. Take your paychecks.

Do inquire as to what happens regarding insurance, retirement or even paid leave accrual if not receiving money. At my government contracting job I would be responsible for the employer paid portion of medical, dental, vision. I would have no retirement money added to my 403b. My employer generously gives paid time off per calendar week, not hours worked per week, but I've worked places where I would not continue to accrue leave while not working (be it sick or vacation leave).

Not to mention creditors might find a pay gap suspicious.

Maybe make a challenge to yourself to invest this week or two of pay and have the returns finance that vacation in the future?
posted by fontophilic at 4:12 PM on October 1, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry for lack of response, was off enjoying my "holiday". In no real order--

I can't normally take unpaid leave (they offer it for illness, emergencies, or unexpected situations--inclement weather, government shutdown, and so on, but not just "hey, a vacation sounds great").

We have no possibility of losing our paid leave, it is either paid out or rolled over into the next year.

I am not worried about losing my job unless all federal employees are more or less fired. My project is "essential" and about a third of the people on my team were excepted...just the most senior ones, not me. Also, up until now my company has frantically been trying to hire more people for a number of different contracts, most of which are very stable.

I have about five months of pay (after taxes and withdrawals) in my savings, which is about ten months of expenses with my current lifestyle--or a lot longer if I cut back. In addition, my family is also a safety net if things get to that extreme.

I only have about two and a half weeks of leave for the rest of the year. I was planning on taking a few days around the holidays and rolling over two weeks (maximum allowed roll over, anything over that is paid out at the end of the year) to be my buffer for next year. This is my first year with my company, so I only got 2+1 weeks of vacation (we have one week of "sick leave", but it is really just regular vacation that they want you to save in case you get sick). Next year I'll get 3+1 weeks of vacation.

My company is a private company which (sub) contracts to the government. None of the federal rules about spending, paid vs unpaid, etc., come into this because my vacation hours are not billed.

I don't have a flex spending account, my health costs are typically lower than our yearly minimum for those.

My work is not the type that creates a backlog (or we have nothing but backlog, take your pick). I don't worry about being able to take my leave, as long as I give a reasonable warning and avoid a few specific days (which I know about well in advance).

I will look into unemployment if this stretches on (although, I would feel bad, or at least silly).

I'll ask about what happens to my insurance, etc. Currently my company covers 100% of all benefits.

I will ask if I continue to accrue more paid leave while I'm taking unpaid leave.

I know my 401(k) won't be added to if I'm not being paid, but I'm OK with that. Two weeks of contributions does make a difference, but truly not a very large one.

We are paid monthly, so I won't see any fallout from this until the beginning of November.

Lots to consider here, fortunately I have plenty of time to sort through all of it and decide. Thank you, everyone.
posted by anaelith at 9:16 PM on October 1, 2013

Definitely check with HR what being in an unpaid status does to your benefits. Here, you lose your health plan unless you want to pay the premiums yourself, earn no paid time off, do not accumulate time toward promotion (for jobs that consider seniority) and a host of other small things. In some cases, it can reset the "worked here since..." date which screws you if layoffs come around and it's done by seniority. LWOP is a bigger deal than most people realize.
posted by ctmf at 11:38 PM on October 1, 2013

I might be a bit late to this one, but I'd take paid now as if this continues on to the debt ceiling showdown, it's going to take the government a while to catch back up and start issuing POs again to your company. If you're a sub (especially if you're a sub with a prime) your company might decide to wait to bring you back until it starts receiving funds again.
posted by skittlekicks at 5:46 AM on October 2, 2013

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