Paid holiday has been the topic of many heated debates. How much is enough? While some companies are generous when it comes to employee benefits, some just don’t feel confident in doling out a liberal amount of vacation time.
If you work in Belgium you can feel fortunate, as paid holiday is an entitlement of all employees in the European Union. As per the Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC of the EU legislation, every employee is entitled to at least four weeks (i.e. 20 days on a full-time basis) of paid annual leave.
How much annual leave are you entitled to?
To be entitled to paid annual leave in Belgium, you must have been a salaried employee in Belgium in the preceding year. For example, if you want to take vacation time in 2018, you need to have worked in Belgium in 2017.
The length of the annual leave will depend on the number of days you have worked in the preceding year and the number of days you work in a week, i.e:
If you work 5 days a week, you will earn 1.8 days per complete working month. This adds up to 20 days of holiday a year. Similarly, if you work 6 days a week, you earn 2 days of leave per complete working month, adding up to a total of 24 vacation days a year.
Feeling happy already? Just make sure you remember that your absence in the relevant year will be deducted from the equation before the final amount of holiday is calculated. However, some of these absences will be "assimilated," that is counted as part of the total worked time.
More about assimilated days
Assimilated days are the days of absence taken in between work which count as worked days when calculating the total worked time. There are certain cases in which absence can be assimilated, including sick days, maternity/paternity leave, days taken off to attend court, leave taken for civil or military work, etc.
Remember that only full days taken off can be assimilated. Also, if you fall ill again within 14 days of your last sick leave, this will be seen as a continuation of your illness.
Additional vacation days
In certain cases, your employer may need to add additional days to your paid holiday.
For example, if you are working under a 38-hour contract, but the business hours of your company demand that you are at work 8 hours a day, you are actually working 5 x 8 hours = 40 hours per week. This will add 12 additional vacation days to your account every year.
However, if your contract states the number of hours per week that you actually spend at work (a 40-hour contract in the above example), then you are already remunerated for these hours as per your regular pay, and you receive no additional vacation time.
Double holiday pay
Employees in Belgium are entitled to receive double pay for vacation days, which is an aggregate of their regular pay plus a vacation allowance.
White-collar workers receive their double holiday pay directly from their employer (as opposed to blue-collar workers, who receive it from the National Employment Office). The double holiday pay for white-collar workers is equal to 92% of the gross salary for the month in which the vacation begins.
Just like the number of vacation days, double holiday pay depends on the number of full months worked the previous year.
For instance, if your contract started on 1 June 2017 and you have worked full 6 months without any absences that are not covered in the “assimilated days”, your gross double holiday pay in 2018 will be (92%/2)= 46% of your gross monthly salary.
Bear in mind that your employer will need to pay a withholding tax before paying out your vacation allowance, so the amount will be lower than 92% of your regular net monthly pay.
What about those who are working for the first time or who have changed job? Are they entitled to any holiday at all? Luckily, a clause has existed since 2012 which allows employees to take time off if they meet the below conditions:
- The employee is resuming work after being self-employed, working abroad or in the public sector
- The employee has been working with an employer for at least 3 months
- The employee has used all of their available holiday
Similar to the regular 20-day vacation time, European holidays are proportionate to the number of days the employee has already worked with their current employee, but in the year they wish to take the holiday and not the previous year.
For example, in the last week of your first 3 months with an employer you can take 1 week off. After that, you add 1.8 days of holiday per 1 month in service (calculation based on a 5-day week scheme).
European holidays are seen as legal holidays and therefore count towards your pension and next year's holidays as a working day, unlike unpaid holiday. However, you will not receive any vacation allowance for the duration of the European holidays.
Special holidays for juniors and seniors
People in certain age groups who cannot or do not want to use European holidays can use the special holidays paid by the National Employment Office (RVA in Dutch or l'ONEM in French).
- Junior holidays: Apply for these if you are an employee under 25 years of age and you are in your first job after graduation.
- Senior holidays: Apply for these if you are an employee over 50 years of age and restarting work after a period of absence, e.g. unemployment or disability.
Additional cases in which you may request holidays
Here are additional conditions where you can apply for leave:
Paid leave can be used for:
- Pursuing education. You can opt for leave if you are pursuing a course from an accredited institution or taking an exam.
Duration: courses of a minimum of 32 hours and a maximum of 80, 100 or 120 hours (depending on the type of course and time of day)
- Leave of absence. Opt for this leave to meet personal commitments such as:
- To meet family obligations such as communion, marriage, death, etc.
- To fulfil civil duties
- To appear in court
Duration: one or more days
Unpaid leave i.e. leave with loss of pay can be used in case of:
- Personal reasons not qualifying for paid leave of absence
- Unforeseen natural disasters, etc.
Duration: Maximum 10 days in a year.
Sick when on annual leave
If an employee happens to fall sick before their holiday starts, they can then use the corresponding annual leave at a later date.
Unfortunately, if you fall ill while on holiday, you cannot get any extra time off, as the sick time will be counted as vacation time.
However, there is a chance this legislation might change in the future. In 2012, the European Court of Justice reaffirmed its earlier decision from 2009, ruling that a worker should always be able to recover paid leave that coincides with sickness regardless of when the sickness occurs, in order to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation, which is a fundamental right of every employee.
Until now, there has been no change in the Belgian legislation following the ruling of the European Court of Justice, with the regulations still stating that an employee can only report holiday lost due to sickness if the sickness starts before the first day of the planned vacation.
Belgian laws have been suitably framed to ensure that employees get adequate time off from work. These laws have been framed with the belief that taking time off is not only good for your mental and physical health, but it can also make increase employees’ productivity, thus making them an asset to their company.
While additional time off continues to be treated as a perk to an already generous holiday scheme, companies must also remember that attractive vacation time benefits will help to attract top talent. With some companies drafting out enviable vacation time perks, it is undeniable that vacation benefits contribute to employee productivity and are therefore a tool which can create a win-win situation for both employer and employee.