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Just How Flexible Are U.S. Companies Being With PTO Right Now?

If you didn’t use your vacation days in 2020, and your employer didn’t roll them over into 2021, you’re not alone.

During a pandemic, where are you going to go? Acknowledging this, many U.S. companies, big and small, gave their staff flexible policies to allow for those unused vacation days to carry over into 2021.

The rise of remote work has lengthened the workday, and those with kids have had to balance parental obligations and end-to-end Zoom meetings. Since March, an overwhelming majority of Americans have shortened, postponed, or canceled their planned time off, according to a July survey.

Just 42%  of American companies made changes to vacation/sick leave/PTO programs in 2020 to boost flexibility.

Some major firms stayed firm with their paid time off (PTO) policies though. From General Motors to American Airlines to Reuters, these businesses decided to enforce their use-it-or-lose-it programs, which is in line with another figure: Just 42%  of American companies made changes to vacation/sick leave/PTO programs in 2020 to boost flexibility, a Willis Towers Watson report found.

A more encouraging number for American workers is that many other companies decided to adapt to what the pandemic wrought on vacation plans. Rollover-friendly companies include Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Target, and Maestro Health.

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T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announced that the company would let employees roll over an extra 40 hours of PTO from 2020 to 2021 (previously, it allowed 80 hours to roll over). Sievert told employees at the time, “I really want to remind each of you to do what you can to take time for yourselves and use your PTO—despite the pandemic.  We all need a break and it’s important that you work to find time to safely get away from your work life—no matter how briefly…I would rather you take the time away, but if you can’t, for this year we are increasing our rollover.”

The Nerdery, a digital business consultancy with offices in Chicago, doubled the number of days people can roll over into next year.

Other companies take a different approach to accommodate the unprecedented year their employees have endured.  Latshaw Drilling, an oil service company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is usually fine with office workers rolling over up to three weeks of vacation time. In December, Latshaw told its office employees, according to  The New York Times, that it would buy up to one week of unused time beyond that amount, which they would have otherwise lost.

“Being open-minded really helps with retention, and these days, the companies that have been doing well are the ones that have treated their staff really well.”

Rob Toole, a partner at Kona Consulting Group based in Southport, Connecticut, said in an interview the economic cost of rollover vacation days might intimidate employers, but they should be consistently flexible with PTO policies during the pandemic. “Being open-minded really helps with retention,” he says, “and these days, the companies that have been doing well are the ones that have treated their staff really well.”

A highly-circulated report echoes Toole’s theory. According to Limeade’s 2020 Employee Care Report, one in three employees left a job because they didn’t feel their employer cared about them as a person.

Toole predicts vacation day requests could get crowded in 2021, as all those unused weeks descend on late summer or early fall when vaccine rollouts are scheduled to blanket the U.S. “If you’re an employee looking to get time off, you also have to be flexible, because your boss doesn’t want everyone taking two weeks off at the same time and leaving the company with barely any staff,” Toole says.

Other companies are playing with the scheduling angle of vacation days. Automattic, the maker of the website-building tool WordPress, encouraged employees who work together to coordinate their vacations in order to lessen the friction that discourages breaks.

“We’ve been experimenting with entire teams taking time off simultaneously,” Lori McLeese, the company’s head of human resources, told the Times. “We’re hoping that this may reduce the amount of ‘catch up’ work employees typically return to after taking a vacation, making their transition back less stressful or overwhelming.”

It’s important for companies and staff to recognize legal issues can vary from state to state, too. Everyone should review how state laws treat time that is rolled over or cashed out and also review their own vacation policies, or start to rewrite them.

In some states, such as California and Montana, use-it-or-lose-it policies are prohibited, as the Society for Human Resources Management notes. In other states, such as Illinois and North Dakota, employers have to give employees a reasonable opportunity to use accrued paid vacation time.

If 2021 paves the path to a safe and healthy way to travel again, airlines and hotels should brace for a surge of Americans intent on using their carried-over vacation days. On the other hand, if another COVID-19 wave spreads across the country, employers should be flexible enough to adapt their benefits packages.