European workers who become ill or temporarily disabled while on paid vacation may take sick leave and use their remaining holiday time at a later date, the EU high court ruled.
The ruling stems from actions brought by several trade unions in Spanish courts seeking recognition for the rights of workers to paid annual leave, even when the vacation time coincides with periods of sick leave. The National Association of Large Distribution Businesses (ANGED) opposed the unions' position, claiming that workers who become unable to work before or during prescheduled annual leaves cannot take the rest of their vacations at a later date.
Spain's high court referred the matter to the Court of Justice for the European Union, asking whether EU working-time law trumps Spanish law that prohibits workers from taking the unused vacation time later if they fall ill.
The high court ruled Thursday that it does.
"According to settled case-law, the entitlement of every worker to paid annual leave must be regarded as a particularly important principle of European Union social law from which there can be no derogations and whose implementation by the competent national authorities must be confined within the limits expressly laid down by council directive," the decision states. "The right to paid annual leave cannot be interpreted restrictively."
The point of vacation time is rest and leisure, while sick time is for recovery from illness and injury - two different purposes, the court held.
"Accordingly, the court has already held that it follows in particular from the purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave that a worker who is on sick leave during a period of previously scheduled annual leave has the right, at his request and in order that he may actually use his annual leave, to take that leave during a period which does not coincide with the period of sick leave," the decision states.
Whether the illness or injury happens before, during or after scheduled vacation time is irrelevant.
"Consequently, the worker is entitled to take paid annual leave which coincides with a period of sick leave at a later point in time, irrespective of the point at which the incapacity for work arose," the court wrote.
"It would be arbitrary and contrary to the purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave ... to grant the worker that right only if he is already unfit for work when the period of paid annual leave commences," it added, handing the matter back to Spain's high court for final judgment.