Contractors cautiously navigate time off during the cooling season

Summertime has arrived, and the majority of people in the U.S. are dreaming of camping trips, bonfires, long days by the pool, a week at the beach, or even a weekend barbecue. This is often not the case for those employed within the HVAC industry. Summertime in this industry means long hours of hard work in sometimes extreme conditions.

While the busy season can be stressful for HVAC contractors, it’s also a moneymaker. As a result, some companies go so far as to black out the summer months and highly discourage, or even restrict, employee vacations at this time.

AGE-OLD DEBATE

Though IC Refrigeration in Ceres, California, allows its employees to take summer vacations, the practice has been a point of consternation between company president, Rich Imfeld, and his father, Dick Imfeld.

“My dad has been with the company for 54 years, and he is just now starting to slow down,” Rich Imfeld said. “He hates it. He hates the idea of letting guys take time off. I have always recognized that people have lives and people have kids. Every time somebody takes time off, we argue about it, but it’s not going to change. It does affect operations. It’s hot, he can’t get his customers taken care of, and he gets excited about it. He’s 77, and he’s from the generation that insists a person should be happy to have a job. My grandfather never would have thought to allow summer vacations. Traditionally, you just didn’t take time off this time of year. Well, times have changed. We’ve always argued about it, but that’s OK. I stand up for the guys, and, to date, I have prevailed.”

Rich Imfeld has two stipulations for summer vacations: Employees are only allowed to take one week at a time, and if an employee takes a week, no other employees can take off the week before or after his or her vacation. The idea is to give the company a week fully staffed to catch up on work.

The summer vacation policy applies to every one of the company’s 45 employees, including technicians, installation crews, and office personnel. Employees who have been with IC Refrigeration for 10 years receive three weeks of vacation time, individuals with two to 10 years receive two weeks, and those with less than two years are awarded one week off.

“In the winter months, we encourage them to take one week off at a time. They don’t have to, but we encourage it,” Rich Imfeld said.

Hamstra Heating & Cooling Inc. in Tucson, Arizona, does not have a formal policy regulating summer vacations or paid time off (PTO), but implementing one has been discussed during leadership meetings, according to Wade Hamstra, vice president of the company.

“We do encourage employees to utilize vacation time in months other than May, June, July, and August. It’s a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. On one end, the business and our clients need each and every employee working overtime in the summer months to keep up with demand. If an employee is on vacation, it has a direct impact on company revenues and customer service.  However, on the other side, we know from experience, if we push our staff to work 55- to 70-plus hours every week for 16 weeks straight, call-outs, injuries, callbacks, and turnover go up while performance goes down. I believe there is a balance point somewhere, and it actually may make more sense from a big-picture standpoint to force field staff members to take a long weekend or two during the summer to keep them fresh.”

Hamstra Heating & Cooling requires all employees to make vacation requests 30 days in advance, year-round. The company also has an incentive plan in place for field staff members regarding their attendance.

“If employees have no absences during the second and/or third quarters, they can earn up to an additional four days of PTO,” Hamstra noted. “In 2015, we had a major problem with callouts, especially with our service technicians. So, at the beginning of 2016, I worked with the technician team on the issue and allowed them to build our attendance policy. Since it was launched, we have had virtually no call-outs from our 16-member technician team. Even I have been blown away by the success of this program.”

Hamstra Heating & Cooling currently employs 75 people. Vacation time, like most other companies, is based on years served. Employees who have been with the company for one year get one week of PTO; five years, two weeks; and 10 years, three weeks. Additionally, Hamstra said employees are not formally limited on how much of their vacation time they are allowed to take at once.

MANAGING WORK/LIFE BALANCE

Employees of Alvin, Texas-based Clear the Air are allowed to take limited vacations during the summer, according to Jason Stom, CEO of the company. “We do allow our employees to take limited vacation time during the peak season. April through August is very busy, and while we want to make sure we are able to handle all labor demands, we also understand that employees experience burnout during this time.”

Each department manager is responsible for managing his or her own labor and reviewing all vacation requests, Stom noted.

“It’s the responsibility of each manager to make sure he or she has enough people to cover the demand,” he said. “Any employee requesting time off is required to submit a request no later than two weeks prior to the date requested off. In addition, the individual is required to make arrangements for any on-call duties they may be assigned during that period.”

Clear the Air currently has 25 employees who are eligible for up to 40 hours of PTO annually after one year of employment. After five years, they earn 80 hours annually; however, employees may not take more than three consecutive business days during the months of April through August.

“We are a family-owned business, and we encourage employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance,” Stom said. “Allowing employees to take time off during the busy season allows us to make sure employees are able to spend time with their families, are well rested, and enjoy working for our company. Ultimately, we have happier, more loyal employees with this policy.”

Todd Kletz, owner, Classic Air’s One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, Virginia Beach, Virginia, also allows his employees to take vacations during the busy summer months.

“Those days off are extremely important when it comes to addressing burnout and achieving a work/life balance,” he said. “We do ask for advanced notice, so we can plan accordingly. Whether it is summer or any other season, we proactively address what our staffing needs are going to look like. In turn, we ask that our team members take that into account when planning their vacations.

“The process is very hands-on and involves multiple managers communicating with each other as to staffing needs to make sure we’re not granting too many people’s requests on any given day,” Kletz continued. “Just as important as the communication amongst our management team is the conversations that take place with the team members who submit requests. We guarantee to approve or decline a request within 72 hours, so our team members are not held up in making plans. But, if we are declining a request, we will speak with the team member and see if there are any alternatives that would work for both them and us.”

Kletz said summer vacations have historically been made out to be monsters.

“With vacations, it was always a constant battle,” he said. “By simply opening the lines of communication with our team members, we have been able to work through those challenges. Our team seems invested, and by not having a blanket no-vacation policy for the summer, we have received further buy-in for our goal of providing a world-class service experience year-round.”

Classic Air’s One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning currently employs 75 people, and vacation time is also based on years served.

“Our team accrues time off based on longevity with the company,” Kletz said. “Our newest team members have the fewest paid days off, but we treat their time off requests, paid or unpaid, with the same sense of urgency as someone who has been with our team for 20-plus years. Tenured team members earn nearly a month paid off to be used at their leisure. All team members have the opportunity to earn additional paid days off through our ‘make hay while the sun shines’ contest each summer.”

Additionally, Kletz said his employees are not limited on how much time off they can take at a given time.

“It all goes back to our desire to promote an atmosphere where we are one team and we work for each other as much as we work for our customers,” he said. “This isn’t to say we would freely grant someone excessive amounts of time off during the summer; however, if there is a situation that is extraordinary, our team will address that on a case-by-case basis.”

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