Switching to a Paid Time Off Program (PTO) has Practical and Legal Implications

Traditional leave programs segregate time off into categories like vacation, sick time and personal time requiring HR professionals to track both the time off and the reason it is being taken. Sick time abuses are addressed by tightly monitoring the reasons for sickness-related absences and disciplining employees for excessive absenteeism. Many employers have decided to get away from policing the circumstances of an employee's absence by just creating a bank of paid time off that can be used for any reason. Once PTO is exhausted, time off is unpaid and subject to the attendance discipline policy. This certainly sounds like a great idea, but here are some practical and legal considerations in converting from a traditional sick pay program to a PTO plan:

Timing the Change Over to PTO:

Changes in leave policies should be coordinated with either the end of the leave year period or some other workplace change like moving to a four-day workweek. The obvious choice is converting to PTO bank at the end of the year, since most employers administer their time off programs on a calendar/fiscal year. For employers using anniversary date leave years, it is too difficult administratively to run dual programs, so they should pick a date and change over for everyone.

Effect on Four-Day Workweeks

Employers need to remember that a change in workweek from five eight days to four day ten hour days also affects time off policies. A handbook or CBA may describe time off (PTO, vacation, holidays, personal and sick time) in terms of “days”. However,

a workday, which used to be an 8-hour day, is now a 10-hour day. The 8-hour day was 20% or the workweek, but the 10-hour-workday is 25% of the workweek. If a day expands to 10 hours, employees are getting more time off and, as a result, the company is losing 5% productivity. If a day stays at 8 hours then employees can’t cover the whole day off. Converting the whole PTO bank to hours can address this situation. (see Energy Expenses And Gas Prices Motivate Employers To Move To Four Day Workweek: What Are The Legal Issues?)

Addressing the Perception of a "Take Away":

Converting to PTO means combining vacation, sick days, personal days, and other time off into one bank. Employers almost never credit the entire amount of sick time to PTO banks. Therefore, employers need to address the perception that employees are losing sick time. I have found that referring to the statistic mentioned in the prior posting (average 8 sick days, use 5) makes some sense. Based on this ratio, I convert 60% of sick days to PTO and couple it with an explanation about trade offs.

Dealing with Accumulated Sick Time:

Some employers allow the accumulation of unused sick time as an incentive not to use it. (This practice drives accountants crazy). The accumulated time may be used in some of the following ways: to satisfy a waiting period for STD/LTD; as a pay out upon separation, typically at a reduced percentage (50%); or it is simply forfeited. Employers may seize the opportunity to clean up their balance sheet and pay out a portion of the accumulated time or convert it to PTO. This approach softens the blow of the perceived take away mentioned above. However, an employer's flexibility in dealing with accumulated sick time depends on its written policy and practice with regard to payouts. Be careful not to create a claim for unpaid fringe benefits under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law.

Exhausting PTO:

Employees who use all of their PTO are unpaid for additional absences and are subject to discipline under the attendance policy. Some traps for the unwary include: the prohibition on salary docking for exempt employees; additional unpaid leave as an accommodation under the ADA, and discrimination claims under the ADA.

Administering FMLA:

FMLA administration becomes more challenging in a PTO program since the employer is not necessarily aware of the reason for an absence. A serious health condition under the FMLA triggers an obligation to notify an employee of his or her FMLA rights and starts the counting of the time against the 12 weeks of leave. Employers must also address the concurrent use of PTO and FMLA leave in their policies.

Integrating STD and other Leave Programs:

Some sick leave policies were designed to integrate with the waiting period for STD benefits. A move to PTO creates a disconnect. The disconnect can be mitigated by allowing an employee with accumulated sick time to use it to satisfy the waiting period if he or she becomes eligible for STD benefits. Otherwise, PTO or unpaid time is used during the waiting period. Employers might address hardships by creating a PTO donation program where employees may donate unused PTO to a fellow worker who needs additional time.

Contesting Unemployment Claims:

 An employer's proof of willful misconduct to deny unemployment benefits will generally look at the incident that gave rise to the discharge. If the reason is a violation of employer's attendance policy, the employee can show that the violation was not his or her fault. An employee who is fired for excessive absences after "squandering" PTO, may still be eligible for unemployment if the absence that gave rise to termination was for a legitimate illness.

Drafting a Policy:

A written policy on PTO is strongly suggested and it should address at least the following areas:

  • Accrual Basis or Award Basis
  • Notice of Absence
  • Unused PTO carryover or forfeiture
  • Concurrent use of FMLA and PTO
  • Consequences of Exhausting PTO
  • Discipline/Discharge