If my employer cancelled my time off the day I was supposed to leave, what are my rights regarding reimbursement for non-refundable expenses?

UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022

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If my employer cancelled my time off the day I was supposed to leave, what are my rights regarding reimbursement for non-refundable expenses?

I have a family vacation planned and paid for. We were supposed to leave today but 2 hours before I left work they told me they reevaluated my days off and I can’t go. So if I call off for the week and go they’ll fire me. Is that legal? How can they deny me leave? I’m going to be out thousands of dollars? The vacation insurance doesn’t cover this reasoning. Do I have any legal rights when it’s been planned for months and months now?

Asked on September 30, 2016 under Employment Labor Law, Pennsylvania


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 6 years ago | Contributor

They could have denied you leave up front--stated that the proposed week did not work for them--and not only would that be legal, there would be no consequences for them. You'd have then picked another week, when the schedule worked better for your employer.
Doing it right before you leave and after you have spent thousands of dollars in reliance on their approving the vacation is legal, but there may be consequences for them--you may be entitled to compensation.
Under "employment at will," which is the law unless you have a written employment contract to the contrary, an employer may terminate, or threaten to terminate, an employee at any time, for any reason. Therefore, they could threaten to terminate you if you went on vacation; and if you did go, they could follow through and fire you.
But if you booked your vacation in good faith in reasonable reliance on their authorization of it, they have to pay the costs you lost (the direct economic costs; not the lost opportunity for leisure or family time); if they will not voluntarily compensate you, you could sue them for the money, based on the theory of "promissory estoppel" (which can hold a promise, even a noncontractual one, enforceable if you did something to your detriment, like incurring nonrefundable expenses, in reasonable reliance on their promise) and/or on breach of contract (violation of the oral agreement pursuant to which you work in exchange for compensation, part of which is vacation time; if they at the last minute deny you use of your vacation, they are arguably taking away part of the compensation you worked for and earned). 
One caution: if you exceeded your number of vacation days for the year, or if you failed to get the proper approval for the vacation--that is, if it's essentially your fault that you can't go--then you would not be able to sue them.

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