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An Impossible Offer to Accept: Inequities in “Paid Time Off”

Author: Cassie Myers

Americans leave up to $172 billion in paid time off (PTO) on the table annually (Intuit).  In 2018, American workers failed to use 768 million days of PTO which is equivalent to an average of 6.5 days per employee (Zippia). 55% of Americans do not use all of their PTO and in Canada, 27% of employees take their allotted vacation time (Benefits Canada). Offering PTO is only effective when employees actually end up taking it.

To put it simply, while it can be an easy choice for employers to offer PTO, it is not as easy for an employee to accept the offer. Beyond being offered PTO there are numerous barriers employees face to actually taking time away. 

In this blog we explore some of the actions employers can take to address the PTO barrier. 

Paid Time Off Around the World 

Depending on where you live, the legislated minimum mandatory paid vacation days for a five day work week change. Some areas in Europe and New Zealand require between 23-28 days. Some countries in Africa, areas in Russia and Asia sit at between 16-22 days. In Canada, employees are entitled to 2-weeks for every completed year of employment (, and in the United States there are no federal laws regulating paid vacation minimums outside of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, meaning that an estimated 28 million Americans do not get any paid vacation or holidays (Zippia). Some American States have legislated paid time off, allowing employees to earn 1 hour or PTO for every 30 to 52 hours worked. In Arizona, California, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Oregon, employees earn 1h of PTO for every 30h of work, for Connecticut, Washington, Maine, and Nevada, workers earn 1h of PTO for every 40h worked and in Vermont, 52 hours of work earns a worker 1h of PTO (Factorial HR).

Why PTO is Important

Legislated PTO is meant to set a minimum for employers to model and to ideally protect the most vulnerable workers including, people with disabilities, people pursuing citizenship, parents, and racialized folks. Organizations that go above and beyond what is “legally required” have been praised for their internal policies. 

It is important that compensation is interpreted beyond a pay check to include flexibility, benefits, culture, advancement opportunities and PTO. PTO ensures that employees can complete the necessary work to live a healthy life at and outside of work. Sometimes this means rest, other times it means caregiving, additional jobs, chores, or volunteering. For systematically oppressed groups, clearly mandated and enforced PTO ensures that you are having fair access to time outside of work for any reason. 

How Employers are Offering PTO 

Organizations have increasingly ramped up the number of PTO days they offer teams. This is partially due to changing legislation and research that shows the benefits of PTO, including increased productivity, retention and talent attraction (Griffin Benefits). There are a variety of ways organizations have decided to offer paid time off, some replicate the legislated amount for their region, others offer a standard number of weeks above what is legislated, a few make every work-week 4 days and some categorize time off as unlimited. As we continue to ensure that we are looking at compensation as a whole with an equitable and inclusive lens, it is important that we do the same with PTO. 

Actions to Ensure PTO is Equitable and Inclusive 

Ensuring Workloads and Compensation Enable PTO Use 

There are often a few unspoken caveats to taking time-off in most workplaces. These can include the fact that your job still needs to be done; for example, if you have a mandatory meeting, perhaps a client call or a large project, you would be expected not to take time off if doing so would make a requirement for your job impossible. What happens, and is common for organizations that posit “unlimited vacations,” is that using PTO becomes impossible because the workload demands consistent attendance. A 2020 survey found that 43% of Americans feel guilty taking PTO because they feel they will fall behind and 46% have been called back into work while on PTO (Pays Big). 

If a workload requires someone to work unpaid overtime when they return, your workload is not structured in a way that supports PTO. 

It is critical that job expectations and workloads are structured in a way for someone to take a certain amount of time off. Sometimes this means that a team is a certain size, or that there is an equivalent member in a role, or that client expectations are tapered. This is not the responsibility of an employee to figure out, but of an employer to ensure the circumstances are possible. 

A TriNet survey revealed that lower-paid employees are more likely to use PTO for medical emergencies, family or personal obligations over actually taking a vacation (TriNet). The average salary of respondents who use PTO for pleasure was $76,000 (TriNet). Beyond a person’s workload is the issue with compensation;, while PTO implies that it is paid, sometimes if an employee is not being paid a living wage, they may opt to work overtime instead of taking PTO, or in dire circumstances, particularly when overtime is not an option, take another job during PTO. While employees have the right to use PTO for any use they want, if an employee is using it to work an additional job or for scenarios that should be covered through sick days, the benefits cease to exist. Sometimes this means offering compensation that reflects the work in addition to the tapering of job responsibilities. 

Creating a Culture of PTO Use

A 2018 report by West Monroe Partners found that 51% of employees are uncomfortable asking their manager for time off during the holidays (West Monroe Partners). Employers can offer the most generous PTO packages in their industry, but if there isn’t a culture of PTO use, the offer is irrelevant. A company’s “culture” can be influenced by a multitude of factors, including its mission and vision, its values and practices, the people, and the environment itself. Within these factors, there are a few actions organizations can take to ensure that the culture is one that encourages PTO use. First is in how people are recognized and celebrated; organizations that promote a busy and competitive business culture may have a problem with people not using PTO as they find that their advancement is linked to working more over other factors. It is critical that advancement evaluations and decisions are streamlined and acknowledge a team member’s ability to care for themselves and to be able to model that behavior to others. The reward of self-care can also be promoted through company vision and values that acknowledge the entirety of a person and the importance of team members taking time away. Another powerful way to a culture of PTO use is in the behaviors of leadership, it is critical that leaders, especially those that are visible to team members, use their PTO and promote the use for others. 

Evaluate Process to Take PTO 

Beyond company culture and workload, the process itself to take PTO can be a barrier for team members. Some organizations may start their PTO journey by applying some best practices, however, it is critical that organizations take time to look inward and evaluate the entirety of their PTO system. This can be accomplished by combining a survey to understand sentiments towards and of PTO as well as an outward look to similar organizations and how they might structure their PTO. If we look at the entire PTO process, we can understand some of the barriers that people could face in each. 

Thinking about taking PTOTeam Members might participate in a variety of reflections before moving to try and take PTO. A poor culture around PTO can make people feel like there will be negative consequences and opt to go without.  
Process of accessing PTO55% of Americans must give a specific reason when requesting PTO (Pays Big); having to give a reason is just one barrier in accessing PTO. Others include having to fill a form, give a long period of time prior, or independently find a replacement. While some of these actions might not be avoidable, if an organization lacks psychological safety, it can be close to impossible for team members to choose PTO. 
Taking PTO After PTO is requested and in some cases approved, there is the time off. 76% of Americans admit to checking work emails while on PTO and 51% admit to working during PTO out of fear of falling behind (Pays Big). Organizations need to offer the support needed for PTO to be realized. This might include bonuses, additional staff and boundaries
Coming back from PTO There are several barriers someone can face when coming back from PTO. Some might be difficult to avoid like work or getting organized again. Others are more avoidable, like the sentiments shared by those who stayed at work. 34% of Americans believe their boss or manager will judge them for taking PTO and 40% believe it shows poor work ethic (Pays Big). 

In understanding the barriers to accessing PTO at each stage, we can be better equipped to strategically implement supports and improve the system as a whole. 

As we discuss PTO use and the different experiences team membres have in the workplace, it is critcial to recognize that aspects of identity including ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age and more impact how someone can navigate the workplace. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to look at processes and systems like PTO with an equitable and inclusive lens, book a meeting with one of our associates

Header and Feature Image by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash ❤️

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