Unlimited Vacation Time: How Do PTO Policies Work in Practice?

The disparities are profound: A 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that two-thirds of workers in low-wage jobs didn’t have access to paid sick days even during the pandemic; a 2022 report from the Center for American Progress detailed that 37% of Black women who need leave don’t take it, and many have to go on leave without pay.

Huckelbridge outlines various kinds of paid leave, including paid time off, bereavement, vacation, and sick leave; but what Paid Leave for All generally means, she says, is paid time off to care for yourself, a new child, or a loved one dealing with a serious health condition. This underscores that no one should be haggling for paid time off amid the many moving pieces and needs that make up a life.

How do you know what kinds of leave you have?

Sturman says there are questions to consider about the leave policies at your job: “What sort of notice or permission do you need for taking vacation or sick days? Who do you need to ask? Who needs to approve it? How far in advance do you need to ask for vacation time?” This should be spelled out in an employee handbook, Sturman adds. 

And especially for employees new to the workforce, paying attention to leave details is crucial, such as differences between sick leave, vacation, and holidays, and how leave fits into a larger benefits package. “In short, don’t just assume that the company is going to be generous and help you out when you are sick or need a break,” Sturman says. With many hourly jobs, there is no paid time off, he says. “When faced with costs for rent, food, student loans, and so forth, many people simply can’t afford to take what might be a very needed break for their mental or physical health.” 

If someone runs out of leave time, Sturman says, the best-case scenario is an employer that approves additional time off without pay — a heinous solution, particularly for those working paycheck to paycheck. Sturman also flags a critical loophole: Employers cannot fire workers for being disabled, but they can fire people for not showing up to work, even if they are sick or have a doctor’s note. 

The same goes for taking time off without permission. Says Sturman, “Just because you have the option for paid time off does not always mean you can use it when you want to.” 

How do we demand better leave policies?

A union can typically negotiate to get its members paid time off, Sturman says, and it’s a good idea to talk to current workers about what managers expect and how policies are actually enforced. “Know your rights and be well-informed about the limitations of your rights,” Sturman recommends. If you do have unlimited PTO but struggle to take it, where you can, practice setting boundaries.

But there is a need for broader action too. We should be asking every elected official and candidate for public office where they stand on paid leave and what they’re doing to advance a federal program to “ensure everyone has access to it, no matter where they live, where they work, or whom they love,” Huckelbridge says. She notes, too, that there are resources under the Take Action section on the [Paid Leave for All] website.

“Paid leave is about public health,” Huckelbridge continues. “It’s about economic survival and growth. It’s about racial and gender equity. And it’s about being there for the people we love — what is more fundamentally human?”

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