Having a Very COVID-Summer Vacation: Avoiding the 2020 PTO Glut


Summertime traditionally is a time for fun and relaxation, as so many classic songs attest:

  • “Summertime and the living is easy.”
  • Vacation, all I ever wanted. Vacation, have to get away.
  • “Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,
    Those days of soda and pretzels and beer.”

Unfortunately, those vacation songs seem a bit out of place this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some vacation destinations to close and large events to cancel or postpone until after summer. Others have scaled back their recreation and dining options and amenities. As a result, employees are seeing their vacation options reduced and many are leery of unnecessary travel or hotel stays.

With some feeling like there is no place to go and nothing to do, a growing number of employees are skipping vacation plans and, in some cases, even avoiding taking any time off at all. Instead, they are opting to continue working and accruing leave time to take later this year or the next. This can lead to increased stress, burnout and reduced productivity for employees.

It also creates problems for employers. Accrued paid time off (PTO) is a liability on a business’s books. The possibility of many employees rushing to request leave after pandemic restrictions are lifted could result in a scheduling nightmare. Business operations may be disrupted due to short staffing caused by multiple overlapping leaves. On the other hand, if employees opt to allow employees to cash out all or a portion of their vacation time that can’t be used, the cost to buy out the unused leave time could run very high.

The Benefits of Vacations

Although neither federal nor state law requires private employers to provide paid or unpaid vacation time, annual leave enables employees to attend to personal needs, and can minimize the stress they may experience caused by conflict between work and family obligations.

Employees taking vacation time provides benefits to employers as well. Individuals who take time off on a regular basis are less likely to be absent from work because of illness or accidents. Regular vacations help employees to rest and restore their energy. This can reinvigorate them and improve their morale and productivity.

Vacation is a key benefit in helping employees:

  • Achieve work-life balance;
  • Attend to personal needs;
  • Prevent burnout;
  • Decompress, de-stress and recharge their batteries; and
  • Maintain or improve morale and productivity.

Helping Employees Take Time Off

Many workers don’t take enough vacation already, a pattern that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. Employers should encourage employees to plan and take annual leave to help maintain employee welfare and ensure employees do not build up excessive leave time at the end of the year.

This starts with leave policies that create an organizational culture that values employee wellness and work-life balance. The employer can put the policy into context by explaining:

  • Employees’ annual leave entitlement;
  • Arrangements for paid holidays;
  • The carry-over arrangements for annual leave; and
  • The employer’s expectation that employees will take annual leave on a regular basis and make full use of their leave entitlement.

The annual leave procedure should determine which individuals are responsible for encouraging employees to take regular breaks – typically, supervisors.

Rather than focusing on where they can’t go or what they can’t do, encourage employees to rethink of a “vacation” or “staycation” as a time for focusing on family, providing caregiving or volunteering and engaging in self-care. Finding creative ways of taking time off and relaxing during the pandemic can help employees balance competing priorities and support mental well-being.

The #1 way employers can encourage employees to take their vacations, however, is by example. When employees see their managers and supervisors taking annual leave, it sends a clear message: Employees’ wellness and work-life balance are valued. Spending time with their families will not limit opportunities at work.

Adjusting Business Policies and Practices

With all the public health restrictions that employees have been facing, it is more important than ever for employers to be more flexible. Encourage employees to take shorter periods of leave more often. Taking frequent breaks can help to reduce the buildup of stress levels, especially if employees are encouraged to unplug from work entirely and avoid checking or responding to work emails.

If there is a use-it-or-lose-it policy in place, consider allowing more accrued leave to be carried over so employees do not fear they will lose earned vacation time that they aren’t able to use. In connection with that, it may help to extend the amount of time an employee has to use carried-over leave.

Employers may also need to make other policy adjustments to help avoid a glut of incoming overlapping vacation requests once pandemic restrictions are lifted. It might be helpful, on a short-term basis, to establish vacation “blackout” dates, during which employees cannot schedule PTO due to expected high business volume.

Another option for avoiding too many employees being out at the same time may be to replace a “first come, first served” practice of granting leave requests. An employer may want to temporarily consider additional factors when prioritizing leave requests. These might include things such as seniority, time since an employee’s last leave or the purpose of the leave (i.e., for childcare, medical need or other urgent needs).

When revising policies and practices, it always is advisable to ensure that the changes do not conflict with provisions of any collective bargaining agreements that may be in effect or with state or local laws.

An employer that follows best practices in instituting its annual leave or PTO policy can gain a reputation as a considerate employer and an employer of choice. This can encourage talented individuals to apply for positions and improve retention rates.


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