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Dilemma of the Month: How Can I Get My Employees to Take Sick Leave and Paid Time Off?

Back Article Aug 4, 2021 By Suzanne Lucas

We have sick leave and paid time off, but our employees never schedule PTO and never call in sick. We always remind them to take PTO, and they sometimes do but not very often. We’re struggling to figure out how to say it’s OK for our employees to use their sick leave. We don’t have a policy requesting a doctor’s note. Please advise.

This story is part of our August 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

I was hoping that COVID-19 would have taught people that it’s OK to stay home when they are sick. But I suspect I know what your problems are, and I know how to fix them. There are two leading possibilities. We’ll start with the easiest one to fix.

Problem 1: You allow people to accrue unlimited amounts of vacation and pay it out when they quit.

California law requires that you pay out earned vacation time when someone quits or is terminated. But it doesn’t require you to allow them to accrue vacation forever. You can set maximum amounts of accrual.

If this is your policy, change it today to allow people to accrue up to a reasonable amount of vacation (four weeks, for example), and then they can’t gain any more until they’ve used it. This method has two significant advantages. People take their PTO time when they are sick or need a break, and you get rid of the considerable vacation liability on the books.

Now, you cannot take away what people have accrued, but you can prevent them from accruing more. So, if Jane in accounting has 57 weeks of accrued vacation, she gets to keep all 57 weeks, but she doesn’t get more until she’s used 53 weeks of it.

Problem 2: Your culture discourages PTO usage.

Many businesses say one thing but do another, and I suspect this is the real problem here.

Do leaders take time off? Or is the senior vice president coming into work with a fever and hacking cough? Was the last time your chief marketing officer took a vacation for her wedding, and even then it was a long weekend?

If you want people to take PTO, they need to see that it’s accepted by management. That means the bosses have to take time off. And when the bosses take time off, they need to truly take time off — they shouldn’t be responding to work emails or phone calls.

But most importantly, your leadership needs to encourage people to take time off when they are sick and take vacation time every year. Remind leaders that when employees are on vacation, they should not respond to emails, stay logged into Slack, join a conference call or get that one little report done. 

Managers need to reward people who take a vacation and not punish people who take a break with worse assignments, poor performance ratings, or negative comments. The latter is a tough habit for some people to make.

Think about a meeting Monday morning where Joe just got back from a week of vacation time. What do you say? If your first instinct is, “Well, I’m glad Joe decided to join us instead of taking a week to be lazy,” you’re not funny. You are discouraging people from taking a vacation.

Try saying: “So good Joe is back! I hope you had a wonderful time. I can’t wait until next month when I’m taking two weeks off!” It switches the viewpoint.

For sick time, managers need to set the tone by staying home and not working remotely either. Being ill means time off. You will need to work on cross-training employees so someone can handle emergencies. 

And you need to train people to let other people be sick. Getting sick isn’t a sign of weakness or lack of career dedication. It’s a sign that you are mortal. Unless your company has solved that mortality problem, people do get sick. Morally, you need to encourage people to take time off when they are sick, and you need to make absolutely sure that contagious people do not come into the office. Period. 

And one scary note: Having a culture that punishes people for taking PTO means you’re opening yourself up to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family Medical Leave Act. People are entitled to protected time off in many situations. If you make it clear that people who don’t work all day every day aren’t eligible for promotions, projects or praise, you’re inadvertently committing ADA or FMLA interference. It’s not what you want. 

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