my company charges us PTO when we work from home while sick

A reader writes:

I work at a small employer (under 100 employees) that, while dynamic and forward-thinking in its work, can be quite behind-the-times when it comes to administrative policies.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my employer made all of us sign an addendum to our work policies/procedures, saying that if we are sick and don’t want to go into the office, we can still work from home. However, when we do this, four hours of PTO will automatically be deducted from our PTO bucket, even if we work the whole day from home. While this policy has been temporarily lifted during the pandemic as we are all working from home anyway, I’m worried about them reenacting this policy after the pandemic ends.

This policy concerns me for three reasons:

1. We have a very small amount of PTO, lumped together as both sick and vacation. We don’t have separate buckets for sick, vacation, or personal.
2. I’m not sure if this policy is completely legal.
3. We have a few 100% remote employees who live out of town, so this policy doesn’t apply to them. Therefore, it’s not a totally fair policy for the rest of us, since we don’t get extended the same privileges as these employees do just because we live within driving distance of the office.

I am not senior enough to feel I can challenge this policy. I’m also afraid of any sort of retaliation from the company owners, especially as they reassess whether or not they need to lay off people in the future. But I also don’t think we deserve to be cheated out of our PTO when we do indeed work a full day from home while sick.

This is a ridiculous policy, but it’s legal in most states.

What the law generally cares about is that you’re paid for the work you perform. If you’re not getting paid, the law has a problem with that. But it mostly doesn’t care whether your employer charges that pay to “work time” or to “PTO.”

California, which often has stronger employee protections than other states, might be an exception to this but I haven’t been able to find anything that says that definitively. (In California, if you work during a vacation, your employer has to count that as time worked and can’t dock your PTO for it — but they treat sick leave differently, and when it’s one big PTO bucket there’s some complicated stuff about how they assess what part of your PTO is really sick leave.) But this is moot because you told me your state (removed here for anonymity purposes) and it’s not one of the exceptions.

So they’re allowed to do what they’re doing. But it’s a terrible practice!

There’s no reason you should be charged PTO when you’re actually working. I’m guessing that they’re doing it because they think you’re less productive when you’re working from home while sick — but if that’s their worry, then they should just tell people not to work at all when they’re sick, not dock your compensation (which is what PTO is) because you’re not working at a fast enough pace. (They also don’t get to dock your pay when you have a less productive day than usual. Ebbs and flows in people’s productivity is part of employing humans. Plus, this ignores the very common existence of people who accomplish just as much while sick at home as they would at work.)

It’s also a bizarre disincentive to work from home while you’re sick. If you’re going to be charged four hours of PTO, why would you work any more than four hours that day? (And again, if they don’t want people working full days while they’re sick, they need to say that — not institute this punitive and unfair system.)

If you felt comfortable pushing back, I’d tell you to push back with a group of your coworkers, pointing out everything above. But since you don’t feel comfortable doing that, I would simply … not work when you’re sick. At least not more than four hours, since you know they’re going to penalize you if you do.

If you’re pressured to do more than four hours of work while you’re taking a sick day (which by definition shouldn’t be happening anyway), try saying, “I can do that but since it will take more than four hours, I’d want to make sure I’m not being charged PTO for the day.” It’s possible your manager, when faced with work not getting done that day, will either push back on the policy herself or exempt you from it on a case-by-case basis.

But yes, this sucks.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 125 comments… read them below }

  1. Fikly*

    Yeah, if they’re taking half the day in PTO, you take half the day in actual PTO.

    1. Epsilon Delta*

      Seriously, do not work during the hours you are being forced to take PTO for. What a terrible policy. I do have to wonder how managers react if you say that you’ll WFH a half day and take the rest as PTO. I almost wonder if they’d deduct a full day of PTO based on how they are handling this to begin with. :(

      1. Alex*

        They would deduct 6 hours (4 for PTO and half of what you work). That’s my guess at least.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Uh-oh…Zeno’s PTO? :D

          I’d be very tempted to do four hours of work and claim I worked for eight, then. That would seem to be the only way to actually get paid for what you work. I don’t think I could actually do it, though, I’d probably wind up coming into the office sick most of the time, and if I had to take sick leave, taking whole days only.

          1. The New Wanderer*

            That’s pretty much the natural consequence of this kind of punitive policy, people coming in while mildly ill (and potentially contagious) because they *can* still work and prefer to be paid fairly for it.

            1. willow for now*

              Yeah, why won’t these employers understand that we are working for money?

    2. MK*

      I get the temptation, but that would just reinforce the company’s belief that people who work from home only do half a day’s work.

      Personally I would never work from home when even slightly ill, and I would make sure to let the company know that I might have worked that day, if they didn’t have this policy. Well, assuming I could do so without consequenses, which I realise might not be possible for a lot of people.

      1. Fikly*

        But what does it matter if you reinforce it? Clearly actually getting a full days work done is not changing their mind.

        So why work when you’re not getting paid for working, but getting “paid” via PTO?

    3. LJay*

      Yeah, this reminds me of my high school’s absentee policy, which was that if you were more than 10 minutes late (I think, it’s been a long time) you were docked for a 1/2 day absence.

      So naturally, if you were going to be 11 minutes late, instead of going to class you went and did other things and only came back halfway through the day.

  2. Not really a waitress*

    A few years back ended up in the ER. Dr told me to stay in bed for 2 days, gave me some pain killers and wrote me a note. When I got home, at 2 am, I scanned and sent everything to my boss including my PTO form, took my pills and went to bed. I ended up fielding calls for about 3 hours the next afternoon troubleshooting computer issues since “Everyone else was tied up.” When I returned to work, I asked for that PTO time back and they refused. So the next time I was sick, I turned off my personal and my work phone. I got written up when I returned for being unavailable.

    I no longer trust employers say they are like a family…. it means they have no boundaries when it comes to your time.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      If everyone else was tied up, then they can PAY you for your time. I hate, hate, hate this.
      And how can you be written up for being unavailable if you were out on PTO? Like, they have no idea where you are? For all they know, you could be in surgery or unconscious.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        If “everyone else is tied up,” they can either pull someone else off other duties to deal with the computer problems (if they’re urgent) or just deal and wait (if they’re not).

    2. Oxford Comma*

      An employer is never your family and I agree, anyone who claims that is to be avoid/distrusted.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      My response to “we’re like family” is “a lot of families are dysfunctional and have to drink to be able to be around one another.”

      But to be honest, everyone I’ve known personally to use that phrase, much to my chagrin, has not been that awful and gross. I’m sorry you were treated this way. But I would strongly discourage this from being something you no longer trust someone over, it’s a cautionary flag but it’s seriously not as “all of them are evil and not to be trusted.” kind of thing. I wish people would stop letting bad experiences taint their perception of everyone who uses certain phrases or anything of the sort.

      If someone with pink shoelaces was crude to you, would you no l0nger trust someone with pink shoelaces? That’s not a healthy place to find yourself in!

      1. Sleepy*

        Yeah, I agree with this. My former boss would say things about being a family…Yes, she had a few boundary issues, but nothing I couldn’t handle by being firm with her. On the flip side, what she often meant by “family” was “I care about how my employees are doing beyond their performance at work,” and she lived up to that with a kind and caring attitude overall.

      2. Eukomos*

        Pink shoelaces aren’t super connected to negative behavior, though. They’re just an indication of your taste in clothes. Referring to coworkers as family is directly connected to having weird boundaries at work, which might turn out to be harmless but certainly isn’t always. Automatically distrusting people might be a little strong, but it’s reasonable to hold doubts about people who say that until they prove they treat coworkers and employees professionally.

        1. PollyQ*

          +1. “We’re just like family!” is at heart a dangerous philosophy for a business to have.

      1. Lady Heather*

        I have such a visceral reaction to that term that I’ve had to stop following youtubers that refer to their followers as their family, or as being a family.

        Just.. no. Nope.

        (Is it a parasocial relationship when the employer thinks their employees are their family? I think it’s got similarities..)

      2. IndyDem*

        My Great-Grandboss recently said to our department, “we are not family, but we are all co-workers”. It was great, except my wife IS my co-worker, so I was confused.

    4. Delta Delta*

      I really hope your username is because you had that awesome OPI nail polish called I’m Not Really A Waitress about 10 years ago. That one and Lincoln Park After Dark were my favorites!

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        …. I literally have both of those OPI polishes sitting on my desk Right Now, debating which one I’m going to use to do my nails this weekend, because they are two of my three favorites. (The third is Super-tropi-cali-fiji-istic, which is also a gorgeous color, but very very drastically different from the other two.)

      2. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

        Same! Not Really a Waitress is my lucky color for job interviews!

          1. Kat in VA*

            I looooove INRAW but holy cow, don’t *ever* use it without a basecoat. It stains your nail beds a deep, unpleasant yellow like no one’s business.

            Flip side – longest-lasting pedicure polish ever. I ended up having to remove it not because it was chipped or worn, but it had grown out enough to look weird.

      3. Not really a waitress*

        It is! But. I picked it when I took a year off from my career to take care of my mom and was waiting tables part time. So it’s both.

    5. Iron Chef Boyardee*

      They’re only “family” when they want something from you and you’re expected to comply for the good of the “family.” When you need something from them they’re a “business” and they don’t feel obligated to give it to you unless it suits their needs.

      1. Over & Over*

        I used to have a boss who made a big show of saying that employees were “family.” He said it to me once at a particularly bad time and I shot back that nobody in my family had the power to fire me. He never said it again (at least to me).

    6. DrRat*

      When an employer says, “We’re family” just remember that Charles Manson said that, too.

    7. squidarms*

      I left my last job for this reason. It was a tech startup that offered tons of weird, overly-familiar perks (XBox in the break room! Happy hour on Fridays! Three-day “vacation” at the beach with all of your coworkers!), but then expected employees to work incredibly long hours and be available for extra (unpaid) work at all times because “we’re like family here.” The blurring of lines between work and off-time, coupled with the implicit expectation that I be *happy* about it, nearly drove me to a mental breakdown.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, I’d be very wary of the sort of company that has everything from nap rooms to table football and game consoles, free dinner etc.

        1. Ancient Alien*

          Yes, exactly. Those sorts of things are huge red flags to me, not enticements or perks.

          1. squidarms*

            Unfortunately, I figured this out only after it became obvious that anyone who didn’t take advantage of the “perks” was singled out as a problem employee. For some strange reason, the idea that such people might prefer actual benefits like better health insurance or 401k matching instead of all the touchy-feely stuff never occurred to them. Now, if a company mentions anything more personal than a yearly holiday party, I run like hell in the other direction.

    8. NotRealAnonForThis*

      Similar situation. Was in the ER with my child for an asthma attack; we were released at 4:30 a.m. At this point I’ve been awake > 24 hours and I have a toddler who cannot go to daycare AND is hopped up on albuterol (think marching in circles in her crib). Also, I had a husband who is out of town on this particular week from heck, so there was no getting around me being the parent who was in the ER. I also had a pre-schooler at home who thankfully I was able to ask my neighbor if she could drop him off as it was on the way to work at the time she typically would be leaving for work.

      At 4:45 a.m., I texted my boss that I wasn’t coming in, including a brief description of the circumstances. And an apology for the short notice, but there really wasn’t a whole lot I could’ve done about it. In my panic the night before when my tot was gasping for air, I hadn’t grabbed my work-issued cellphone. (This was pre-everyone-had-a-smartphone days, and I had a personal flip-phone and a work flip-phone, because I refused to not separate the two.)

      By 7 a.m., I had received multiple phone calls about a bid that we had decided two days prior that we wouldn’t be submitting (because “overall hinky feeling about the situation”) was now suddenly a priority bid.

      By 9 a.m. I had snarled “I’ve been up for approximately d@mn near 30 hours. We decided on Monday we weren’t bidding this. Now, because for the first time in five years, I’m not in the office and not working remotely and not answering my phone, its a d@mn priority? Do you really want me putting together a responsive bid on something we deep sixed earlier this week when I’m at the point in sleep deprivation where I’m hallucinating?”

      I thought I’d switched my work phone off, but got another call at noon about it, and said “I took a freaking sick day, leave me TF alone”. So I basically spent my entire “sick day” fielding phone calls from the boss badgering me to come in, anyways.

      I heard about this entire situation AGAIN in my exit meeting five years later too. Such bull. But “we’re a family here”.

      1. Ancient Alien*

        I, too, live in RFP world and I know your pain around situations like this.

  3. Mama Bear*

    Agreed. I’d either eat the whole day of PTO and really do nothing or only work half a day. It is one thing to take a nap and use some PTO hours. It is another to work a full day and only get credit for half.

  4. MissDisplaced*

    Don’t work if you stay home sick!
    Just STOP, be unproductive that day and use your PTO time as intended–to fully disconnect. Do not do any work, check emails or answer phone calls. I know it sounds crazy to have to do this if you only have a minor sinus cold or medical appointment that day, but maybe doing this as a group will help it sink-in their policy is stupid and limiting.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      That was my instinct, too, but OP said they have very limited PTO. I think the solution is…find a halfway decent employer!

      1. rayray*

        And this is why people go into work sick. They have no PTO or Sick time left and/or get pestered by their employer about coming back to work. For pete’s sake, employers please give employees adequate sick time. Allow them to complete little tasks like finishing emails or whatever and PAY them for those hours. If they’re logged on for 2 hours, pay them for that, and then let them use six hours of PTO to cover the rest of the day and wish them well. And please, for the love of all that his holy please give more than six measly days of “sick” time. People get sick and should stay home. People have doctor and dentist visits. Sometimes people need surgeries or other things done. Please let your employees maintain their health while also being employed.

        I am still holding onto hope that we might see more reasonable sick/pto policies because of this pandemic.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Yep. I really hope the one good thing that will come out of this is better sick leave policies. But that hope is diminishing as a lot of companies just want to get back to normal no matter how many lives it costs and as government officials bow to their corporate paymasters and to astroturf fringe protest groups that force the their way into government buildings with guns.

        2. MissM*

          Hear, hear! And also trust that your workers are actually working when WFH, and deal with those who dramatically show they aren’t as individuals versus knee-jerk blanket policies.

      2. Diahann Carroll*

        This is what I did, Cosmic Avenger. My last employer only gave us five sick days a year that didn’t roll over and 10 vacation days for the first five years (that also didn’t roll over). So if you just had a mild cold and wanted to work from home so as not to get anybody sick, you could – but only once. Any more than that and our Senior Director said he would require us to use sick time, which completely defeats the purpose of working from home when you’re not feeling well, but not sick enough to be unable to work. What pissed me off was that this was told to me around the same time I got approved for intermittent FMLA due to a chronic illness, so they still thought this policy made sense (even though our HR rep clarified with all of us that salaried employees could work from home if they had the means to while on intermittent FMLA and did not need to use sick leave and would be paid as if we were in office).

        I dusted off my resume and accepted a new job four and a half months later where I would be fully remote and wouldn’t have to deal with these problems (and my current company wouldn’t have such a dumbass policy anyway).

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, really.
      “Since there seems to be lots of confusion about wfh, with people working all day but only getting paid for half the day, I have decided for purposes of clarity I will not work the entire day. My phone and computer will be off. I think that this makes it transparently clear that I am not working.”

      You can tweak that of course, OP. The gist is you want to be transparently clear about what you are doing so there is no concern from anyone. You can say things like “I have always given my jobs 8 hours of work in exchange for 8 hours of pay. It’s never been a question in anyone’s mind.”

  5. Icarus*

    this sounds like a bush league policy of a fly-by-night company. You need to find a new job as soon as you can and write a review on Glassdoor.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        “As soon as you can” will be longer than it would have been last year, and maybe OP will decide to wait until vaccine is available — but I wouldn’t deride the advice. It’s a place I’d want to get out of!

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Or a crazy person heading up the staff policy division. I worked for a large organization run by mostly competent people who had a policy like this, implemented by the wholly incompetent head of HR who wanted employees to be flexible with their time for the company but was unwilling to extend that flexibility to us. (What happened was that managers essentially circumvented the policy and cancelled leave requests for days they knew people ended up working.)

      We got a new head of HR about five years in, and I had to explain the policy to them three times because it was SO absurd that they were convinced that they couldn’t possibly be hearing me right. I had to haul out the staff manual and then explain that I was not aware of a single manager in the place actually abided by the policy and how, if we did, it would create a major business issue that went beyond bad morale. Needless to say, we had a massive policy review and revision within the new person’s first four months.

  6. Batgirl*

    If you’re well enough to do actual work at home, I presume this is more of a “I’m contagious” issue than “I resemble the undead and have the abilities of a baby today”. It’s very short sighted management but sometimes the short sighted need it spelling out. Something like “I’m well enough to work a full day and can come in and do that. However, since I’m contagious, I can spare the others and yourself and do a full day at home *if you’d rather I didn’t come in*. What manager, when the choice is spelled out, is going to want everyone sick? No, don’t answer, I know they exist!

    1. Fikly*

      Not that I approve of this policy in any way, but there’s another category here – I’m not well enough to travel to the office, but I am well enough to work. (Or the I cannot be more than 10 feet from a bathroom that is not shared with other people, but am well enough to work version)

      A lot of people with chronic health problems, including myself, fall into the above category quite often. Being able to WFM, when needed, can be the only way we can hold down a job. But also, “healthy” people can have situations like this too.

      My mother, for example, has a long enough commute that she has had days where she doesn’t feel safe to drive, but does feel well enough to work, but because her job refuses to allow anyone to work remotely, she ends up taking a sick day.

      1. Batgirl*

        I agree there’s always a spectrum, but it amazes me that they don’t even go for the particular end of the spectrum where it will rebound on them to ignore it.
        But then again, they are getting a free half day from people so what do I know?

      2. MissDisplaced*

        That’s how I get at times Fikly.
        I’m not feeling well… but I am perfectly able TO get work done as long as I don’t have to drive over an hour to the office, use a shared bathroom, or sit out in the big open office sneezing and wheezing all day with a pile of tissues on my desk.
        For god’s sake! Let people WFH!

  7. Bopper*

    We had PTO = sick days + vacation and all that did was to encourage people to go into work sick.
    Or we would WFH and do as much as we could.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Then you weren’t being given enough PTO. There are pros and cons to PTO depending on your life situation. I don’t have young kids and I rarely get sick so I prefer PTO. I’d rather use most of it for vacations. But if the company isn’t giving you enough time off (whether it’s all in one bucket or separated) that’s a different problem.

      1. MayLou*

        No matter how much PTO you get, unless it’s genuinely unlimited, any time you take because you’re ill is time you can’t take for a vacation. People will always be weighing up whether or not they’re ill enough to sacrifice a potential day on the beach.

        1. ik ben anoniem*

          Dutch person here. Unlimited sick time (at 70 per cent pay) plus 4 weeks vacation by law.

          That theoretically incentivizes employees to get sick on vacation, because if you get sick on vacation, that’s sick days, not vacation days!

          Checks and balances apply.
          Unlimited sick time: if you’re out sick long, you need to participate in a plan to get you back to work, and if you are sick so frequently as to be an unreliable employee, you might be fired (which needs a court order if you’re employed for indefinite time), and if you are on a temporary contract, it might not be renewed. Calling in sick on vacation: you need to prove you’re sick, you need to call in on the day of, and if your collective bargaining agreement has negotiated more vacation days than the law provides, those days are generally days that if you’re sick, it’s a vacation day, not a sick day.

          It’s really interesting to compare the ways Americans talk about sick time and PTO to the ways we talk about them.. but that’s more a general comment than that it has to do with this thread or even this post.

          1. Random IT person*

            Dutch person here as well.
            Still shocked at the differences in how employees are treated there and here.

            And, maybe totally dazed about the fact that a company offers 10 vacation days is seen as generous there. (of course, i have a pretty comfy contract – where I can support my family on my income alone, and still have about 5 full WEEKS of holiday/vacation days – and 6 days off assigned by the company) and if i`m sick – sucks, but no problem. If longer – the company offers to arrange support / medical service or something.

            The image that the US projects is: if you dare get sick, you`re doomed.

            1. ik ben anoniem*

              Yes, and it’s not just employers – the narrative/consensus about it is different as well. If you get sick in NL, your colleagues will be like ‘sucks to be you! I hope you feel better soon!’ whereas I’ve read US people complain that ‘it’s not fair sick people get more time off than well people’.

              Which is, frankly, surreal.

              One thing the US does do better than us is laws around independent contractors – I think US law says that you can’t be an independent contractor if your job is integral to the employer’s business (so a nurse can’t be an independent contractor to a hospital, though a plumber can be). Here, some people want to be independent contractors (e.g. some nurses, so that they can refuse to work night shifts without getting fired) and others want to be employed (e.g. construction workers) but almost no construction companies will hire employees, only contractors.

            2. Jules the 3rd*

              Yes, the US still has a strain of ‘illness = moral badness’ in our mental model of the world, probably from the Puritans.

        2. Spencer Hastings*

          Yup. And they won’t take the full amount of their PTO, either, because they have to save it just in case they get sick.

        3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

          Of course, if you’re only getting 2 weeks of PTO annually, which was my point – companies are stingy with their time off policies. I get 4 weeks plus 5 personal days annually. I wish I could afford to go on 5 vacations every year.

        4. NotAnotherManager!*

          I disagree. I get more paid time off – but not unlimited – than I could use in a year and still achieve my objectives. I have to take days off for illness, to take my children to appointments/school events/activities, and to run personal errands that must be done during business hours, and my leave bucket is still generous enough to provide for multiple weeks of vacation. I have never sized up a day I was sick and felt like I was trading it for a beach day because my leave pool is adequate to do both.

          Some leave pools create this problem – my mother is given 10 PTO days per year, only two of which can be call-outs for unexpected illness. I think that’s nuts and unreasonable.

    2. Jedi Squirrel*

      Alison has mentioned before how this is a really bad policy, because then people are always coming in sick to have longer vacations. For me, this is a big red flag for any company that does this.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      We had that, combined with a fairly strict (ie not in the handbook that I can recall, but if you came to work contagious, you’d get sent home) policy to WFH when contagious. In this combination, it worked really well.

      We have separate sick days now, but it’s only three days a year. I don’t know what people who get sick often, do after they have burned through their three days. Thankfully we are also strongly encouraged to WFH when contagious.

  8. I'm just here for the cats*

    I wonder if you couldn’t make it I to office because of weather, would they charge you for PTO if you worked for home?

    1. Random IT person*

      Of course.
      You should have known and prepared for that – or just cancelled the weather.
      I mean, you do have a direct line to the weather, right? /s

  9. Cordoba*

    I don’t disagree with LW overall, but if I were making the case I’d leave their point #3 out of it entirely.

    Remote work-from-home employees are going to have lots of things that shake out differently than on-site employees simply due to the practical nature of their working arrangement. Sometimes this works out to their benefit, sometimes it works out to their detriment, and it’s probably never going to be 100% completely equal either way.

    That a specific policy impacts employees differently based on their location and schedule is not (in itself) a reason to not have that policy.

    Remote employees don’t get to take advantage of company provided gyms, day-care, coffee, snacks, etc. That doesn’t mean that companies should be discouraged from providing these things.

    1. MK*

      Yes, #3 is not a convincing argument. Given how suspicious this company seems to be about WFH, I am surprised they even allow it; possibly their permanent remote workers have easily quantifiable work or they are contractors.

    2. Bostonian*

      While I agree with everything you’re saying, I don’t think this should be true of a core benefit like PTO. It’s similar to how you shouldn’t expect remote workers to never have sick days because they’re “already at home”. How PTO is docked should be applied equally.

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        This 100%. If I just have a cold and am perfectly capable of getting my work done, I shouldn’t be penalized if I’m usually in the office, because I’d rather not infect my colleagues. That just encourages people to come in when they should keep their germs at home.

        1. Random IT person*

          On the flip side of this.
          Can I hold the company accountable if their policies cause me to get infected with something?

          1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

            Good luck proving one of your colleagues gave you a cold.

      2. Malarkey01*

        I don’t completely agree that how PTO is docked should be the same. In my company, there are some differences in PTO between virtual and onsite people (but it’s opposite this LW). Onsite people get occasional longer lunches, early dismissal, and official time to use on “non-work” activities that occur at work (there are other companies on site that hold free events that onsite people can head to for a few hours on occasion). However our virtual workers need to take PTO for any hours not on their computer.

        For our company it’s a perk for people who do go into the office. Full time telework is already considered a perk (some may not agree with this after covid) but they don’t get these bonus “off record” PTO as a matter of official policy.

  10. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

    I’m thrown by the concept that it’s perfectly legal to (1) give people PTO (2) charge them PTO time when they’re working. I mean, it makes sense, since PTO is not any kind of legal thing here in the US. I shouldn’t be surprised, and yet I am.

    1. MK*

      When PTO is not legally mandated and the employer doesn’t have to provide it at all, it’s not very surprising. Alison often says that PTO is part of the worker’s compensation, but it seems to me many employers see it as more of a perk, or even a gift they give out of the goodness of their hearts.

      1. D3*

        Some employers think WAGES are a gift they give out of the goodness of their hearts.
        Some employers stink.

        1. Iron Chef Boyardee*

          Yeah, like you’re there because you care about the company’s “mission.”

          Ask Stanley Hudson how passionate he is about the idea of selling paper.

          1. Mashall*

            It is, of course, possible to be there both for pay and because you care about the company’s mission.

            Surely nonprofits can pay people less than for-profits because people work at nonprofits because they believe in doing some social good?

    2. I am Jack's Something-or-Other*

      Me too! I can’t believe this is legal. Get it together, USA.

    3. Mr. Shark*

      The problem is that the employers don’t understand the acronym. The O stands for “off”, so therefore you should not be working if you’re getting PTO. It’s that simple.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      [Evil grin.] So if charging a person PTO when they are working, then paying them to work while they are taking PTO should be fine also.
      Oh, that’s a problem?

  11. BasicWitch*

    Yeah, this would guarantee that I would work a half-day at most or simply take the whole day off and use the PTO for actual rest and recovery.

    And if I really felt up to working a little, I’d use that energy to job hunt.

  12. Tori*

    “Ebbs and flows in people’s productivity is part of employing humans.” Holy crap that’s a revelatory thing to realize, especially as someone who constantly feels guilty for not being 100% productive all the time at work.

    1. Fikly*

      It’s also part of “employing” machines. They become less efficient as things wear out, and they break, and they go down for repairs, etc.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It’d be my guess that 75% of the employers out there have NO clue that this is NORMAL.

      My husband used to say, “Some days you bite the bear and some days the bear bites you.” This is more of the windshield/bug and bat/baseball relationships. Some days everything a person touches just falls apart and becomes a much bigger project than ever anticipated.

  13. voyager1*

    I have worked at some places with some weird as heck policies, but man this is outrageous.

    I would probably just come into work sick or take the whole day off, no way would I work from home.

    Would love to know what reason is given for this policy.

  14. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I don’t care if it’s legal or not. You force me to take 4 hours of PTO to WFH when I’m sick, you’re only getting 4 hours of work from me that day. You take sick time to recover from an illness and if you choose to WFH to avoid infecting others, you shouldn’t have to take PTO. This just encourages people to come to the office when they should stay home. I would definitely try and push back on this as a group because this is BS.

  15. ComputerMan122*

    Hi everyone, this is the letter writer. I wanted to say thank you all so much for your helpful feedback. I will definitely take all of your advice (along with Alison’s, of course!) to heart.

    I want to emphasize that while I disagree with this administrative policy (and a few others), my place of work is a wonderful place to work. I love what I do, and my work makes a difference in the community. Most of my coworkers are amazing and foster a family-like atmosphere. I am grateful to have this job and do not intend on leaving any time soon!

    Again, thank you all for taking the time to comment. I will continue to read them as they come in! I appreciate you all.

  16. Eliza*

    This is not a criticism of Alison, but so often the response to these kinds of letters is “That’s terrible and bad management practice–a *good* manager wouldn’t do that! But, unfortunately, it’s totally legal.” Clearly we can’t rely on people being good managers or on corporations being ethical. We need stronger legal protections for workers. We need mandatory paid sick leave and mandatory PTO. And we need other things too, but I’m just saying the state of U.S. labor laws is abysmal.

    1. pope suburban*

      This. Clearly, many people and organizations will not do better because it’s the right thing, it attracts/retains better talent, and/or it’s actually more cost-effective in the long run. So we need to hold their feet to the fire with stronger workers’ protections and laws.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Adding, we have grown more sophisticated in the years I have been watching work trends. We are better able to articulate why something is unfair and the support for correcting the situation is much broader.

      On the down side change goes at a snail’s pace. Worse yet, people “learn” how to be broader thinking but when put in a position to do so, they chose NOT to! I am looking at a person who was the first to talk about fair wages. But when this person opened their own business suddenly Person could not pay more than $8/hr. The disconnect there was the size of the Grand Canyon. I tried to say that some restructuring needed to be done, but it fell on deaf ears.

    3. Black Horse Dancing*

      This is why unions were so vital and unfortunately, way too many people–including people on this site==demonie unions.

  17. AKchic*

    “You didn’t do any work while you were at home!”

    “Well, if you aren’t going to pay me for the work, and make me take PTO while I’m home, why should I give you free labor?”

    The only real option here is to stop working from home as long as they aren’t going to *pay* you for doing it. PTO usage isn’t really working from home.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      “I see your lovely offer to pay me for a half of day’s work, when I work a full day and I have decided to turn down that offer. When I call in sick, I will be available on my next working day.”

      Okay maybe skip the word “lovely”. My snark is leaking out there.

  18. BPT*

    I worked at a place where, under former management, if we had a doctor’s appointment or something like that that took 1-2 hours out of our day (or we got in at 9:30 from an early dentist appointment), we didn’t have to worry about tracking it, because they knew everyone worked at least 40 hours per week, so they gave us the flexibility to take care of our business as long as we ensured the work got done.

    Then we got a new CEO, who changed the policy. Now, any time you had a doctor or dentist appointment or similar, you had to use sick time, and you could only use it in 4 or 8 hour increments. Even if you were only gone an hour. So people started sending emails stating “I have a doctor’s appointment at 9:00 AM today. I will be in at 1:00 PM as to take the four hours of sick time required.” That made leadership take notice and start thinking about changing the policy back.

    It was terrible leadership for other reasons anyway and I left before the issue was resolved, but sometimes making a clear point of it can make people think “oh hey, this doesn’t really make sense.”

    1. WellRed*

      “So people started sending emails stating “I have a doctor’s appointment at 9:00 AM today. I will be in at 1:00 PM as to take the four hours of sick time required.”

      I love it when a dry, unemotional statement of the obvious (and ridiculous) works. The OP and her coworkers should do similar.

        1. Ancient Alien*

          “Malicious compliance”. I love that. I had no idea there was an actual term for what I’ve been doing. Thank you for this.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      One place I worked actually made a change like this and it was driven by the insurance company. This was the insurance that covered people on the job. They wanted a clearer definition of when people were or were not working to make insurance decisions if something happened.

      Something you might want to think about, OP. If something happens to you while you are forced to use PTO while working, you may want to consider what the insurance implications are here. If you (heaven forbid) have an accident while you are working on PTO, I am not sure how that would play out with comp because the company labeled you as NOT working.

  19. anomaly*

    This reminds me of a screwy thing my company does. I work with an incredible manager who consistently pulls 70-80 hour work weeks by continuing her work at home every evening and nearly every weekend. She has certain time-sensitive projects that she needs solitude and focus to complete effectively. She has asked to work from home during normal office hours when those projects come up (they’re all planned months in advance so it’s not an issue of needing more notice). Management allows it…but only if she uses a full day of PTO. So she burns a PTO day by scheduling a “sick” day, and actually works 10-12 hours that day.

    She insists that she’s okay with it so I try not to vent to her face about it. But it drives me absolutely crazy. She is a trusted, respected employee who nearly literally puts her entire soul into her work. I understand that my company gives ample PTO when you’ve been here as long as she has — I know many people with similar tenures who have weeks or months of PTO stockpiled — so it’s not as big of a hit for her as it could be. But that’s part of our compensation! I feel like she’s effectively “paying” to work for a full day and it just grinds the heck out of my gears to think my company is okay with that. It really changes the way I see them and see my future with them.

    Granted, 90% of my site has been working from home since March, and she has told me repeatedly how much happier she is with this setup. I know many of my colleagues feel the same way (including me), and we are all meeting or exceeding our goals. So hopefully there will be a big push from employees and a shift in perspective from higher-ups. It’s so frustrating when WFH is not allowed for no reason other than corporate gibberish that translates to “we don’t trust you.”

    1. WellRed*

      She IS paying for the privilege of working. She’s overpaying in fact. She’s also setting a bad example and bad precedent whether she realizes it or not.

    2. Ms. Norris.*

      Yes. She is paying the company to work more and she needs to stop it. That is not OK.
      I mean it. My father and my grand father both martered themselves to work and it was not appreciated. Tell her to stop it.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      She’s making it harder for everyone else who won’t or can’t do that. At some point it stops being all about me-me-me. She has to think about how her actions are hurting others. Eventually, she will impact the company’s bottom line because their actual expense for doing business is being misrepresented here.

      I am the first person who can over look 15 minutes here and there. Eh, stuff happens and we cope. This is far beyond anything that is able to be ignored.

      1. Ancient Alien*

        This. It sets an impossible level of expectation for others around and under the person.

    4. Ancient Alien*

      I used to have a boss like this. Great guy, everybody loved him. I don’t know the details, but his health took an abrupt nosedive and he was forced to retire at a fairly young age (mid-50s). Granted, he was compensated enough that I’m sure he could financially afford to retire early, but I don’t think that was at all what he had envisioned for himself. The company and my department lost a great leader virtually overnight. I hated to see him go, but I feel like people that do this are taking their own health for granted and their employers, in turn, take them for granted. At least until the bottom falls out…

  20. Jill*

    I’m a little confused. Is he expecting you to work from home while sick and is only paying 4 hours out of an 8 day of sick leave, or is he allowing you to take a whole day at home but “working” a max of 4 hours if you think you can?

  21. W&H Lady*

    Yeah… This practice is legal, but it’s icky. Technically employers can require you to use PTO for instances like being stuck at home in a snow storm (instead of just giving you the time off) or, in this instance, being home sick, if only contagious but not incapacitated. As long as they are compensating you for time worked, which they would be if you chose to work from home during those hours they were compensating you out of your PTO bank, they can get away with it. My only guess as to why the employer would be doing this is: 1) the employer probably doesn’t trust the employees to “actually” work from home without supervision, especially when they are sick and 2) it’s a sneaky way to run down the employee’s PTO bank so they have less PTO to use later on in the year.

    Signed, a wage and hour employee

  22. JM60*

    Regarding the parenthetical about California, it seems that if an employer combines all sick leave with PTO, California considers all of that PTO to be vacation. From a law firm’s website:

    “When vacation and sick leave are combined, however, employees must be paid for all accrued, unused PTO. In other words, PTO is earned on a day-by-day basis, and once vested, paid time off days cannot be forfeited. Consequently, an employer will end up paying for those earned, but unused sick days. [snip] In short, if you combine sick leave and vacation into PTO, all laws which are favorable to employees related to sick leave or vacation must be applied to the PTO.”


  23. William*

    I have serious concerns over the legality of this policy. If you are a non-exempt (hourly) employee you must be paid for all hours worked. If you are exempt (salaried) you must be paid a for a full day even if you only work a partial day in most circumstances. You also may have to be paid if you are required to be available for work, even when sick. Tons of red flags here. Look up the FLSA and call any attorney if you want clear guidance. Though i would possibly wait until after the COVID pandemic abates to avoid a higher chance of being selected for lay-off.

  24. Tricia*

    An option if you don’t feel comfortable addressing this with Management/HR would be to set up a new email account that doesn’t identify you and send in your concerns that way.

  25. TootsNYC*

    why would you ever tell them you’re sick? Just work. (in the Olden Days, lots of people went to work sick and worked there, with their germs)

    Try to be as productive as possible, and just never tell them. After all, you’re not “out sick”; you are working, right?

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