Tag Archives: paid-time-off

The New Cheese: Time Off

I believe I’ve actually addressed this issue previously, but for the life of me, I cannot recall. I want to discuss for a brief span the concept of time off. 

When we talk about time off, typically we are talking about time away from the workplace. And by workplace, that means paid for employment from an external source (differentiating between caregivers and parents who work hard, but are not necessarily reimbursed by an external agent in monetary form). There are different sorts of time away from work. These can be both paid or unpaid. For some there is differentiation between vacation and sick leave, but many employers have gone to a straight paid-time-off (PTO) system where a set amount of days or hours are given dependent upon pay grade and time in grade, and those hours/days can be used for whatever purpose needed. There are a bunch of other statutes and intricacies of labor law, such as short term disability and family medical leave act (FMLA) that govern other types of issues related to time away. Different states and countries have laws and regulations that govern these workforce and labor concerns.  For the current discussion, we will not be including paid holidays, bereavement, or mandatory closures (weather, weekends, drill/military, emergencies, disaster, etc.). 

Let’s delve a bit into history. There are some who would say that things like employee paid time off, paid holidays, sick leave, etc. are a modern invention in response to concerns for workers rights and health and unions. Turns out, probably not. It seems that there is archeological evidence to show that as far back as 1500 BCE the pharaohs of Egypt provided disability or sick leave for tomb craftsmen and workers while they received state sponsored health care to get them back on their feet (ancient workman’s comp claim… who knew?!?). So, it seems that there has been an understanding for a long time that it is cheaper to take care of trained workforce and keep them healthy than to deal with constant turnover and training new replacements every time you break one. 

There are, I know, a good deal more erudite folks on the matter of labor laws than I am with my Google searches and perusal of HR Direct mandatory policy and legal documents. However, I’ve had to develop some significant upgrades to my knowledge for my own occupations and assisting both my own employees and patients to navigate their benefits and job protection. 

As I stated earlier, some organizations, states, or countries have differences between sick time and vacation. Sick leave would be paid time for the purposes of attending to health. What are the benefits? Well, you don’t have people coming into the office and bringing plague to coworkers, patients, or customers. That’s a perk. Burnout is a thing, let me tell you. Employees who do not attend mental health and revitalization are less likely to provide quality service to customers or patients. Vacation time would be paid time that can be used for anything… namely, though, vacation, right? Time to do something for leisure. Some places give the paid time off as a lump at a designated time of the year (often January 1). Others set up accrual systems so that paid time is gained through out the year in increments (often based on time in service and rank). There are still a number of organizations that have unpaid time off, and typically to have paid time of any sort, you have to be a full time employee (so, somewhere between 35-37 hours per week minimal to qualify). Many places can get by not having PTO benefit by not having full time employees. If a worker is out, they just don’t get paid. Many hospitality roles do not have a paid time off benefit. This also applies to the self-employed and entrepreneurs out there. Independent contractors, business owners, free-lancers, etc… If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. That’s just the way it goes. However, that being said, the wise and wiley among the self-employed also build this into their business plans and taxes and all that jazz… but I digress.

What about those other categories I mentioned? The short-term-disability (STD, gotta love that, but seriously that is how it is frequently listed in the policy manuals… threw me a couple of times when reading those) and the FMLA. What are those about? Well, these are two very different things. The FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) has different pieces to the puzzle. This law protects those that qualify from losing their jobs if they are absent due to their own illness or due to mandatory care-taking duties for children, family, partner, etc. FMLA can also apply to maternity or paternity leave with some organizations who do not have such built in separately. FMLA can be all of a single block of prescribed length of time or it can be “intermittent.” We see a lot of the intermittent type with folks who may have other caretaker assistance, but will need to take time (sometimes without warning) to deal with issues related to the care of a loved one. The important part to take note of here is that FMLA does not supply income. It literally just protects the employee from getting canned due to work absence. Which brings me to the STD bit… Short term disability is the income piece. While FMLA is actually a reference to labor law and has legally regulated measure through state and federal government, STD is actually not a requirement or mandated benefit. Employers do not have to offer this. It is something that can be offered like healthcare benefits or life insurance. Sometimes, you will see it as a deduction from pay receipts. STD must also be approved. This usually requires some evidence supplied by an attending provider. If the evidence supplied through medical documentation is insufficient based on the criteria set by the governing agency of the claim, the STD will be denied, and this means that there may be no income. 

This is all a bunch of super-complicated intricately interwoven aspects of being off from a paid employment position. I am exceedingly happy to know that there are a bunch of people who have more extensive knowledge and “back-of-the-hand” understanding of these elements upon whom I can rely to help me navigate for myself, my own staff, or my patients. However, I’ve developed in the past decade or so probably enough knowledge and understanding to be exceedingly dangerous… So, here goes with an example:

Employee A (we’ll call him Bob) wants to go on a vacation with his family this summer. He earns a set amount of hours paid time off every pay period. At the first of the year, he starts banking those hours (we’ll assume he had no rollover hours from the previous year… because that just complicates things for our example). Bob wants to take the week, and his normal pay week is 40 hours. Bob earns 6 hours of PTO per pay period. He needs to work 7 pay periods to have the 40 hours. Now, some employers will allow staff to borrow against future PTO if the employee is in good standing. Again… we’ll not delve to avoid complication. The problem for Bob is that any unplanned time off needs to either dip into his PTO or potentially be unpaid if he wants to be paid for that week at Disney with the family.

Let’s say that poor Bob has an unexpected injury that resulted in a hospital stay or prolonged absence from work. Bob’s manager (or Bob himself) would contact HR to set up FMLA. The first part of that is to safeguard Bob’s job position so that he is not laid off or terminated during this recovery time. However, this does not actually solve any issues with Bob’s income. Depending on policy, Bob may be required to utilize any PTO accrued before application for STD or being eligible for same. However, some employers may allow STD to be applied without exhausting the PTO. This would, of course, be better for Bob and his family (Disney looming, remember). Depending on the medical details and information provided by Bob’s attending physicians, Bob may not meet criteria to be approved for STD. Bob then has a choice (again, depending on the policy of the organization) to take unpaid leave or exhaust his PTO. 

Now Bob’s buddy (we’ll call him Carl… I borrowed these guys from a friend, don’t judge) has a situation with a family member which requires his close attention and a good many hours of his time to arrange and manage care. Carl has obtained caregiver support through the family member’s own healthcare benefits, but that doesn’t pay him for his time. He is still often required to take the family member to appointments and be present as, perhaps, medical power of attorney. And so, Carl faces some issues. He, too, would like to have some vacation/leisure time with his family, but the frequent demands on his hours of work do not technically fall into the STD criteria. Carl applied for and was granted intermittent FMLA which allows him to take frequent absence from work without anxiety about losing his position. However, he doesn’t get paid for that time. So, Carl has to pick and choose his use of PTO accrued (which may not allow much for a planned vacay with the family) or take the time away as unpaid to save the PTO for the planned use later in the year. Depending on Carl’s employer, he may not have a choice and be forced to exhaust his PTO before taking time as unpaid. The point being, Carl will likely need to consult his own HR guru at his place of employment for guidance. 

As you can see/read/whatever, there are intricacies and specifics, and all of them are dependent upon the policy of the employer and what benefits are actually provided by the organization. There are, unfortunately, employers who are a bit dodgy and will try to get out of paying the time off benefits. However, there are a good many studies showing that the benefit to the employee is often a benefit to the company in the long term. 

And… before I wind this particular piece up, let’s talk about the new challenges of modern time away. I’ve often written about the challenges and issues with the modern technological conveniences upon the work-life balance. While technological improvements and evolutions have provided opportunity to shorten commutes to literally a few feet down the hall, it makes it a bit too convenient to access job when allegedly being away from job. It has created some interesting concerns and solutions. For instance, I have a horrible habit of calling into meetings or checking email when I am supposed to be on vacation. Part of this is my own work-life boundary issues, but also it is stress due to expected work overload when I return. Because of the fast pace of corporate environment and (let’s be honest) a little lack of boundaries on the part of the organization, emails, phone calls, projects, and such do not get put on pause while any given employee is absent. That train just keeps on rolling, and there is an anxiety that develops about being pushed out or possibly made superfluous by merely taking time off. It’s probably an unrealistic fear, but with the current job market, anxiety is there. The other part of that work-life issue is coming back to over 1000 emails and having to spend a week or more just trying to figure out what happened while you were out. I often tell peers and employees, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I’m trying to get better about staying away and delegating, but old habits die hard. And did I mention the anxiety?

Which brings up another, slightly trickier issue. What about those legal categories? Not the planned vacations or unplanned brief sick leave, but what about the STD or FMLA? These present some significant issues for telecommuter culture. With normal workplace culture, people on STD or FMLA simply do not come to work. They aren’t working because they are not there. For a telecommuter who can work from home and has access to work through technology, how does that work?!? So, that has presented some interesting issues. It might not seem like a big deal, but legally it is. If a person is on FMLA or STD but is also working? Yeah, that develops into ugly words like fraud or abuse. Anyhow, it’s difficult to police or monitor work and lack thereof when the person doesn’t actually come to an office and clock in, right? The solution to this in some companies is to shut off access. The literally turn off the ability for the employee to log into the workplace network. It solves the problem, but it adds that layer of complication and difficulty with the IT department and the employee when they return to work. Bottom line? They can’t just *poof* come back. There are forms and requests and logic to reprogram, oh my… 

In wrapping it all up and tying with a bunch of red tape, I think there is more positive to be said for allowing employees paid time off than not. I encourage my self-employed and independent contractor folks to program that into their own budgets and schedules. Physical and mental health is easier to protect than try to reclaim when overtaxed physical and psychological systems burn out. I’ll tell you all, as I tell all my staff, “The advice is good, even if I’m not terribly good at listening to it myself.” I’m a work in progress, what can I say?