As an 18-year-old airman at my first duty station, I had a supervisor who was, by all accounts, a man out of time. Sporting a gnarly 70s ‘stache and hair parted down the middle, this guy was probably putting away a fifth of Jack Daniels every night and he looked more like an old catcher’s mitt than a human being.
But before getting claimed by the post-Gulf War drawdown, this guy had two very important things going for him. First, he was a superior aircraft mechanic. His F-15 carried MC rates among the highest in the squadron, and pilots considered themselves lucky when they drew his tail number. Second, he knew how to take care of people. He expected his crew to grind out long shifts and do excellent, meticulous work … but he fought hard for their downtime and protected their training opportunities like a junkyard dog.
What I took from him, more than anything else, stayed with me for a quarter century. I remember as if it happened yesterday him telling me “remember … leave is an entitlement, not a privilege.” He recognized that paid vacation was a legal component of a service contract, and not something anyone should be begging to enjoy. He taught his troops the rules and encouraged them to request leave unapologetically, demanding any denials in writing.
Fast forward 25 years and multiple wars, and his approach has been all but eradicated. These days, airmen are conditioned to believe their vacation days are provided at the pleasure of their bosses. Many feel guilty for taking their downtime. Airmen at all levels accept unquestionably the imposition of unlawful limits, requirements, and conditions on their leave. Units devise local “county option” policies restricting leave in various ways, none of them legitimate. “No leave during” is the most favored of these … routinely employed during approaches to deployments, exercises, and inspections, or sometimes just because a misguided commander thinks his special project is more important than federal law.
But the more subtle and ultimately more pernicious form of restriction is that which places multiple approval steps between an airman and his entitled leave, creating an undue burden on an individual to get several sign-offs before he can make a formal request. This is a way of allowing multiple parties to place conditions on someone’s right to take vacation to which the’ve been legally entitled by Congress. Gas mask inspection might expire while you’re at Disney World? Denied. Haven’t attended Green Dot? You shall not pass. Now multiply by every chucklehead in the hemisphere who believes his job is the only thing separating the liberty of ‘Murica from teeming hordes of fascist anarchist terrorist socialists. You get the point.
This kind of jackassery comes in many shapes and sizes. This recent example from Travis is among the worst I’ve ever seen. Have a look for yourself.
Three levels of approval. Twenty individual hurdles to surmount, including some that can just be arbitrarily filled in with whatever restriction someone wants to impose. A massive burden of time and energy that falls totally upon the person seeking to use entitled vacation days … rather than on the unit whose job it is to look after its people.
The message is clear: we don’t want you to take leave. Your vacation is a pain in the ass for us. So we’re going to harass you in order to discourage and perhaps bar you from leaving. Oh, and if you do get through all these wickets, you still need to submit an electronic request using the system built to replace paper systems like this one … and we could disapprove your leave at that stage as well.
This is the sort of thing that should get commanders sidelined. It’s unacceptable. Congress has determined that 8% of the year for every airman will be spent on paid vacation. This means 8% of the population of every unit needs to be on vacation at all times in order to comply with federal law. When we take into account periods of the year where leave can’t be taken — deployment and spin-up, PME, the aforementioned inspections and evaluations, etc. — the number is actually much higher. Usually 15-17% for most units.
It’s the job of commanders to make sure they set the right targets and design the right processes to have the right number of people on leave at all times to ensure everyone has an opportunity to use their entitlement. It’s not the job of individuals to beg for that entitlement. It’s certainly not the role of the commander to stand in the way.
This reinforces a recurring theme of late with all things Air Force: Congress passes legislation, but bureaucrats, in their interpretations of statutes, fashion the rules that impact the daily lives of individuals. Through misinterpretation, the object and purpose of law is confounded. Such is the case with leave, something budgeted and paid for by the American taxpayer but routinely kept from its beneficiaries because of labor shortages created by the supposedly brilliant highly-paid help.
I encourage airmen to question processes like this one. They’re manifestly not legal. Talk to the commander, the IG, and the local lawyer. Talk to Congress, a dysfunctional body that nevertheless has individual members who would be very interested to know you need twenty sign-offs to use your vacation days.
When all else fails, vote with your feet, as many continue to do. In good, well-functioning companies, employees tell employers when they’re taking vacation on a by exception basis rather than the other way around. Good companies understand that success is elusive when people live to work rather than working to live. They know that downtime is critical to the focus and productivity of working professionals.
Stuff like this is why morale is not pretty darn good.