07/09/2020 Steve Lovell

PTO and nowhere to go

Just in case you were feeling like 2020 wasn’t difficult enough, it’s time to brace yourselves for the PTO tsunami! While employees have largely spent spring and summer hunkered down at home, vacations and planned time off fell by the wayside. Now, in the back half of an already trying year, employers are facing major challenges in managing the stockpiles of unused vacation days accumulated by workers whose spring and summer plans were curtailed by COVID.

As many companies return (or make plans to return) to the office, employers are bracing for an explosion of requests for time off in the fall and around the holidays. Employers are already struggling with how to accommodate requests without creating vacuums in staffing during what, for many companies, is a busy time of year.  

While employees with excess PTO pose one issue, on the other end of the spectrum are the workers coming out of the first wave of the pandemic “PTO poor.” Many employers upped their paid-leave offerings in response to the pandemic, and the government requires companies with fewer than 500 employees to provide 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-19 illness or quarantine. But even with these expanded policies, some people have still run out of time. Employees who may have exhausted their PTO tending to illness, or fulfilling responsibilities such as child or elder care, will be in a difficult situation if any further needs arise before the end of the year.

Whether the balance is too much or not enough, these two groups of employees shine a light on problems with the current system for issuing sick leave and paid vacation. Like many of our pre-COVID policies, we’re finding current norms for PTO straining under the weight of our present circumstances. 

As a short term solution to the issue, many companies are capping the amount of leave employees can take during certain periods. But even with these caps, there is still the matter of how to handle the “use it or lose it” policies that may apply to the balance. Some employers are offering to cash out excess PTO, while others are altering rollover policies to allow employees to carry over more vacation days into next year. Leave Bank programs where employees can donate excess PTO to a shared pool that can be accessed by coworkers in need are another option gaining popularity during the pandemic. 

When looking at the long-term view, some companies are now weighing the pros and cons of  unlimited PTO policies, where there is no set number of days off, rather employees take the time they feel is reasonable for vacation, sick leave or other obligations. This model may be  particularly well-suited to our current circumstances as it avoids the pressure to use vacation days before year’s end, and there are no unused days to pay out when employees leave.

As employers consider how best to manage surplus PTO, there is one option that should not be ignored: encouraging employees to utilize their time off NOW. This potential solution is a mutually beneficial one. Not only does it serve to reduce the number of end of year PTO requests, but it helps employees avoid burnout during a particularly stressful time. For many, the events of the past few months have caused varying degrees of mental and emotional drain that can erode long-term well-being as well as productivity. It’s been difficult for everyone, and it’s crucial that people take breaks to rest and recharge.  

When it comes to encouraging employees to use PTO, there may be some resistance. As the pandemic still rages and people responsibly opt to stick close to home, “what the heck would I do with time off?” is a common refrain. Many employees also feel pressure, whether real or perceived, to remain available in order to secure one’s job in tumultuous times. Amid record numbers of job losses, this fear is far from unfounded. These concerns and others leave employers with the responsibility of communicating the importance of taking PTO to destress and decompress, as well as modeling that behavior themselves.

Company leadership should be sure to utilize time off and be vocal about the restorative effects. Offer suggestions for creative ways to use vacation days that are focused on self-care and don’t require one to venture far from home; and encourage employees who have already done so to share their experience. It may just require that little spark of inspiration to encourage someone to take a few days to focus on home projects, cooking, reading, or catching up on much-needed rest. Creating a culture where self-care is supported and encouraged is relatively simple and it can have huge positive impacts, both on companies’ bottom line and the well-being of its workforce.