Unpaid time off

I am a full-time hygienist in a wonderful general practice. I've been here four years, and I have five co-workers. The problem is that the doctor has started taking a lot of time off and expects me to take unpaid time off.

Jan 1st, 2004
Th 141069

By Dianne D. Glasscoe

Dear Dianne,

I am a full-time hygienist in a wonderful general practice. I've been here four years, and I have five co-workers. The problem is that the doctor has started taking a lot of time off and expects me to take unpaid time off.

Currently, I get two weeks paid vacation per year. I work in a "direct supervision" state, so I cannot work unless the doctor is in the building. Last year, the doctor took four weeks off. He and his wife adopted a baby from Russia and took two weeks to make the trip. The other two weeks were taken at Christmas so he could do special things with his children. The result was that I had to take two weeks off without pay, plus I had to take my vacation at a time when my husband had to work.

This year, the doctor took a week off for a missionary trip, a week off to play golf, and is scheduled for two more weeks off before the end of the year. Again, it looks like I will have to take time off with no pay.

Last week at our staff meeting, he announced that he intends to take 10 days off in March, so there goes my two weeks of vacation unless I want to go without pay.

Although I enjoy having time off as much as anyone else, I really cannot afford to take time off with no pay. I am feeling very frustrated and even cheated. My two weeks of paid vacation doesn't feel like a benefit anymore.

I also should mention that I do not feel comfortable talking about this with the doctor, as I feel it would be a sensitive subject with him.

Can you offer some guidance in this matter of unpaid time off?

Frustrated in Greensboro

Dear Frustrated,

First of all, let me say that your boss sounds like a wonderful human being. Mission trips, international adoption, family man - all these acts lead me to believe he has a caring, compassionate heart. I would venture to say that he is most likely a highly moral individual and a man of high integrity. You would also expect him to be reasonable and fair.

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However, I am also aware that many doctors take extra time off through the year and expect the hygienist to take unpaid time off, which is really unfair, especially if other staff members are compensated during those times. That doesn't seem fair or reasonable.

There are some hygienists who willingly take unpaid time off simply because they have a spouse who is also a provider in the family, and there are no financial "strains" on the home. I was one of these. My husband was the primary breadwinner for our home, and I was happy to take any time off I could get, especially when my children were young.

However, many hygienists do not have this option. Many families live from paycheck to paycheck. If you are the sole provider or there are financial pressures on your family, I can see where unpaid time off is a source of consternation and frustration. The bills do not stop just because the doctor takes a mission trip or adopts a foreign child.

There are some equitable solutions for this problem:

1. Do some fill-in hygiene in other offices. In some areas of the country, a hygienist can temp just as much as he or she desires. Temping allows you to broaden your clinical experience.

2. Arrive at an agreed upon amount, possibly a bit less than your daily rate or average, to be your compensation when the doctor is away from the office.

3. Ask the doctor to arrange for a temp doctor to come to the office when he is away so you can still see patients. This is a good solution, because the office can remain open, patients can come in to make payments, and hygiene production can be maintained.

4. Sign up for unemployment benefits. Unemployment laws vary from state to state, but most states allow full-time employees to sign up for unemployment benefits if they are out of work through no fault of their own. Call your local employment security office to find out what the laws are in your state.

5. Talk to your doctor about petitioning the state board to allow general supervision of hygienists in your state. Actually, you could show the doctor what it is costing him in terms of lost production to cancel hygiene. Not only is he losing actual production, but he is also losing future production by canceling any opportunity to diagnose dental needs on those patients. According to the ADHA, 40 states now have general supervision, meaning the hygienist can work without the physical presence of the doctor in the office. The graphic on page 38 that shows which states are general supervision states.

The last statement in your post speaks loudly about your relationship with your employer. You seem intimidated to even broach the subject with the doctor. My feeling is that people can take advantage of you only if you let them. Before you can do anything positive about this problem, you have to overcome your fear of discussing the issue. If you ask your doctor to put himself in your shoes — such as being asked to take unpaid time off and having to try to figure out how the bills would be paid that month — he may seek an equitable solution.

To be honest, I don't know of a profession or company anywhere that expects full time employees to take unpaid time off, simply at the whim of the boss. Being a business owner has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is having the freedom to decide when and how long vacations will be. A disadvantage is scheduling vacations when everyone will be happy, and that is a virtual impossibility when there is little or no flexibility or choice in the matter.

Best wishes,
Dianne

Dianne D. Glasscoe, RDH, BS, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Lexington, N.C. To contact Glasscoe for speaking or consulting, call (336) 472-3515, fax (336) 472-5567, or email dglasscoe@northstate.net. Visit her Web site at www.professionaldentalmgmt.com.

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