Kathy Westover didn't take all the vacation time she had coming last summer, but now, with Christmas little more than a week away, she's glad. Westover, an ultrasound technician at LDS Hospital, decided to trade a week's vacation for a week's pay - and she's got a couple of great presents for her kids hidden away at home to show for it.

Westover, and other employees of Intermountain Health Care's (IHC) 24 hospitals, are taking advantage of a relatively rare fringe benefit that the health services company has implemented: cash for accrued vacation time.The program is offered to all full-time IHC employees with more than five years experience, excluding top management. Of the 15 days annual vacation earned by five-year employees, five can be traded for cash.

"It's a win-win situation for IHC and its employees," said Paul Jackson, director of Human Resources for LDS Hospital. Employees like it for the obvious reason that an extra week's pay is always welcome, particularly at Christmas. Conversely, the personnel-strapped health care industry would just as soon pay the money and keep people on the job.

"When someone goes on vacation they have to be replaced," said Max Loertscher, the hospital's chief financial officer. "Often that means using someone from a revolving nursing pool, which can cost us twice as much, or having a nurse work an extra shift, which costs us time-and-a-half. . . . It's a great deal for the hospital because we don't have to pay higher rates to get those hours covered."

Patients, he said, benefit from "fewer seams" in continuity of care.

There are two basic ways that businesses usually deal with employee vacation time, said Jackson, a former executive at Deseret Mutual Benefit Association. The first, used by most Utah companies, is the "use it or lose it" approach. The second is to allow employees to accumulate vacation time and then use it for long-term leave, such as for childbirth or early retirement.

The "use it or lose it" plan, Jackson said, encourages workers to take vacations at times that may be inconvenient to the company, or even to the employee - a tactic that may take some of the luster off a vacation.

The second approach, stockpiling of vacation days, can become a huge liability for a company to carry on the books. IHC's cash-in policy relieves at least a portion of those disadvantages. It gives employees more control over their schedules and, as Westover found, it can be a great source of extra cash. "I was paid twice," for the week, she said. "Once for the hours I actually put in, and once again for the vacation time I'd earned."

IHC canceled the program two years ago in an effort to encourage employees to take the vacation time they had earned. But they quickly reinstated it when they found that veteran workers - who get three weeks vacation a year - enjoyed having an option for that third week.

Ironically, being paid for that third week they don't take, often provides employees the money they need to enjoy the other two.

"People who are allowed to accumulate their vacation time often never get away from their work," said Jackson. "This plan gives people some options, but it also encourages them to take their vacation, to get away from their jobs, which is good for everyone, particularly in a high burnout industry like health care."