(CN) - Loved ones of the dead are entitled to any vacation pay earned by their recently departed, the EU's highest court ruled Thursday.
EU law gives all workers at least four weeks' paid vacation annually, and workers can cash that leave out if their employment relationship ends.
Putting that policy to the test now is the widow of a German man who worked for retailer K+K for more than 12 years until his death in 2010, accumulating just over 140 days of annual leave.
K+K refused to let the widow cash those days out and questioned whether vacation leave can be inherited. Germany's higher labor court - where the widow took her appeal - had similar questions and asked whether a worker's death extinguishes his earned vacation time under EU law.
The European Court of Justice held Thursday that even the dead cannot be penalized for failing to use accrued vacation time.
"It should be noted first that, according to the court's 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 may be no derogations and whose implementation by the competent national authorities must be confined within the limits expressly laid down by EU law," the justices wrote.
"The court has previously stated that when the employment relationship has terminated, and therefore it is in fact no longer possible to take paid annual leave, the law provides that the worker is entitled to an allowance in lieu in order to prevent all enjoyment by the worker of that right to paid annual leave, even in pecuniary form, being lost because of that 'impossibility,'" their ruling continues.
EU law does not expressly exclude death as a way in which an employment relationship ends, and the Luxembourg-based court said its hands are tied to take a more restrictive interpretation of what has become a fundamental right across Europe.
"Indeed, if the obligation to pay annual leave were to cease with the end of the employment relationship because of the worker's death, the consequence of that circumstance would be an unintended occurrence, beyond the control of both the worker and the employer, retroactively leading to a total loss of the entitlement to paid annual leave itself as affirmed in the directive," the court concluded.