It’s the most wonderful time of the year—when stores across the country hire armies of extra help for the holidays. From warehouse pickers and packers to cashiers, gift wrappers, drivers, greeters, and even Santa’s elves, American businesses hire hundreds of thousands of employees for temporary holiday work. According to the federal government, annual employment in retail businesses peaks every December, and drops by almost a million jobs by February.
Although they may not work a full year, temporary holiday workers are employees. That means all of the employment laws that protect year-round workers apply equally to Santa’s helpers. However, because some employment rights depend on earnings or hours worked during the year, not all employees get every benefit.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about temporary holiday employees.
Can an employer pay temporary employees less than regular employees?
Yes, with a few caveats. Employers are free to set different pay scales for temporary employees—and many do. But employers still have to follow wage and hour laws. For example, an employer may not:
- pay temporary employees less than the minimum wage
- deny overtime pay to temporary employees who have earned it by working more than 40 hours in a week or, in a few states, more than eight hours in a day, or
- pay female temporary employees less than male temporary employees for doing the same job, in violation of the Equal Pay Act.
Do employers have to pay employees extra for working on actual holidays, like Thanksgiving or Christmas?
Many people believe this is a legal requirement, but the answer is no. The law doesn’t require employers to pay more for holiday work. That said, some retailers that require employees to work on holidays offer extra pay anyway. It’s an incentive or reward for taking on these unpopular shifts.
Do temporary holiday workers get lunch breaks and rest breaks?
It depends on state law. Temporary employees have the same right to breaks during the workday as regular employees. If your state requires employers to provide a meal break or rest periods to employees (find out if it does here), then you are legally entitled to those breaks whether you work there for a week, a month, or a year.
Do temporary holiday workers qualify for paid sick leave or vacation time?
It depends. No law—state or federal—requires employers to provide paid vacation to anyone. That means employers have a lot of leeway when designing a vacation-time program. Employers might not give the benefit to temporary employees. Or, they might provide paid time only to those who have worked for the company for six months, for example.
The same is true of paid sick leave, as long as state law doesn’t require employers to provide it. In the dozen or so states that do require paid sick leave, employees are generally entitled to start earning paid sick time as soon as they begin work. There’s a catch, though: Virtually every state that mandates paid sick leave allows employers to impose a waiting period (typically 90 or 120 days) before an employee can actually use paid sick leave. As a practical matter, this means most temporary employees won’t get a chance to take a paid sick day.
Do temporary holiday workers get unemployment benefits?
It depends on their work history. Generally, employees who are out of work through no fault of their own qualify for benefits, as long as they meet the state’s other eligibility requirements. If an employer lays off a temporary seasonal worker for lack of work after the holiday, the worker may qualify for benefits. In most states, however, employees must also meet an earnings requirement to get benefits—that is, they must earn a minimum amount in a one-year period (called the “base period”) before they apply for benefits. And the base period usually ends more than a full calendar quarter before you apply for benefits; it may not even include your temporary job. But if they earn enough in the base period, temporary workers may qualify for unemployment benefits.