Answers to 10 Common PTO Questions

person reviewing time off requests on a laptop while lying on the beach

Handling time-off requests is a balancing act. Employees may need time off for many reasons. As an employer, you to try to be accommodating, but you still need to maintain productivity. If handling PTO requests is something you deal with in your small business, keep reading for answers to 10 commonly asked questions.

1. How much time off should new employees get?

On average, salaried workers receive 10 days of paid vacation time after one year with a company. It’s common that a new hire won’t get the same number of days off that a seasoned team member will. Here are two ways you might handle PTO for your new hires:

  1. Set a probation period for your new team members. During this time, they won’t be able to take paid leave. It might be as short as 30 days or as long as six months – it’s up to you. Then, when the probation period ends, they can access their full PTO.
  2. Prorate time off based on the employee’s start date. For example, say you give your team 10 vacation days per year. If someone starts halfway through, give them five days off for the remainder of the year.

You’ll also want to consider whether you give your staff their time off in one lump sum at the beginning of the year, or if they receive it based on hours worked. For example, if everyone gets four hours off for every 40 hours worked, your new hires could easily jump in on the same plan.

Read also: How Many Vacation Days are Normal?

2. How far in advance should I require employees to request time off?

The sooner a worker submits their request, the easier it will be for you to deal with schedule changes or workflow disruptions caused by their absence. Be sure to cover how much notice you require in your time off policy.

For your part, try to respond to your team’s PTO requests as quickly as possible. Remember that they might be waiting for your answer before they book travel arrangements or commit to an event. With an online time-off management system, like Workful, you can quickly review and approve your staff’s requests from anywhere.

3. What if an employee uses more PTO than they have?

Unfortunately, workers may request more time off than they have. Sure, you can deny the request on the basis that they don’t have any PTO left to take. On the other hand, you can give the person that time as unpaid leave. No matter which option you decide, make sure you’re consistent. In other words, you can’t offer one person unpaid leave but deny the next person the same option.

If you choose to allow your team to take the time as unpaid time off, keep exempt vs. non-exempt laws in mind. If a salaried person is exempt from overtime, you cannot dock them a partial day’s pay. You can only reduce their wages by a full day.

4. Can I prevent employees from taking PTO during busy seasons?

If you can’t afford for your team to be absent during certain times, you can establish “blackout” periods. For example, if you own a tax preparation business, you probably don’t want your staff taking off from January through April each year. Or, if you own a retail store that gets busy near the holidays, you might require all hands on deck from Black Friday until Christmas.

If you decide to enforce blackout dates, make sure everyone on your team clearly understands when they are and what that means for them.

5. Two employees want to take the same time off. How do I deal with it?

Occasionally, two people will ask for the same day off. If your business can’t afford to have multiple people out of the office at once, this can cause a dilemma.

You could approve requests on a first-come, first-served basis, or you could make your decision based on seniority. Say a floor supervisor who’s been with your company for one year asks for the same day off as a cashier who’s been with you for two years. If you decide to give priority to the employee who has been on your team the longest, you’ll give the cashier the day off. If you base your decision on “rank” instead, then the floor supervisor will get the day off.

No matter what method you choose, clearly define how you will handle these situations in your time off policy to ensure fairness and consistency.

6. Am I legally required to approve time-off requests for a religious holiday?

Generally, yes. Under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for workers to observe their religious beliefs, unless the request would create an undue hardship on your business. You’ll face undue hardship if accommodating the request would

  • come with significant costs
  • decrease workplace efficiency
  • compromise workplace safety
  • impact the rights or benefits of other employees
  • require the person’s coworkers to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work

To avoid bias during the hiring process, don’t discuss religious observance until after someone has started working for you. Once they’ve begun their new position, ask them if they need any days off for a religious holiday that’s not on your company’s calendar. By planning ahead, you’ll have plenty of time to accommodate the request.

7. Do I have to pay time off for jury duty?

Under federal law, you must give your team members time off to serve jury duty. Your state may require that you compensate your employees for serving, although federal law does not. If your state or local government doesn’t have regulations about paying people for jury duty served, it’s up to you how to handle it.

8. Am I required to pay employees for federal holidays?

You do not have to compensate your team for federal holidays that your business chooses to observe. However, it’s common for small businesses to pay their staff for the following days:

  • New Year’s Day
  • Memorial Day
  • Fourth of July
  • Labor Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas

If your company is open for a federal holiday, your hourly employees might expect holiday pay of time and a half their regular rate. There are no federal laws, however, requiring you to pay extra if someone works on a holiday. Instead, it’s just considered a regular workday so you will only need to pay them extra if they worked overtime during the week. However, you can establish a practice of paying premium holiday rates, if you want.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island, however, may require you to pay time and a half an employee’s regular hourly rate if they work certain holidays.

9. How many vacation days should I allow my team to carry over?

A lot of small businesses implement a use-it-or-lose-it policy, where workers forfeit any unused time at the end of the year. On the other hand, you could allow your staff to carry over the remaining time to the next year.

If you let your workers hold on to their full PTO amount each year, it’s always possible that someone will request all their time off at once. If this would put a burden on your business, consider limiting the number of days/hours that your team can carry over.

10. Do I have to pay employees for unused time off when they leave the company?

When someone leaves your company (voluntarily or involuntarily), it’s common to compensate them for any unused vacation time. Many states consider unused PTO as earned wages, so they require you to pay former workers for them, including:  

If you would like more information about whether you have to pay your employees for unused PTO, you can contact your state’s Department of Labor.

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