Converting to a Paid Time Off System: Practical and Legal Pointers

Merrill Lynch tried to prevent abuses in sick time by clamping down on 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 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:

Most employers administer their time off programs on either a calendar/fiscal year or employee anniversary date. In the case of a calendar/fiscal year, the obvious choice is converting to PTO bank at the end of the year. For anniversary date employers, it is too difficult administratively and for employee relations to run dual programs, so pick a date and change over for everyone.

  • 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's 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 not paid 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.

  • 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.

  • 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
    • Consequences of Exhausting PTO
    • Discipline/Discharge
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