Staff Management

Answers to 11 Common Questions About Employee Vacation Time Rights

A team member from the office of ROB Professional Editor Laurie Sorrenson, OD, FAAO, on vacation. Dr. DeLoach says that employers have great latitude in what they do and do not allow in employees scheduling vacation time.

Kim Slaughter, OD, an associate doctor in the office of ROB Professional Editor Laurie Sorrenson, OD, FAAO, on vacation. Dr. DeLoach says that employers have great latitude in what they do and do not allow for team members scheduling vacation time.

How to balance patient care with employee time-off requests.

By Joe DeLoach, OD, FAAO

June 5, 2024

Summer months and holidays are common times when your employees would like to spend time with their family and friends.

It is also a time when your patients, especially students of all ages, often want to take care of their eyecare needs. These two desires/needs can sometimes conflict – what do you do?

I can start with the cold hard legal answer. There are no federal laws, and only a handful of state laws, creating legal mandates that you allow staff ANY vacation or personal time off (PTO) at all.

Vacation or PTO is a true benefit – one you have significant control over. How you manage employee time off is largely the result of your personal opinion and generosity.

Here are answers to the most common questions about vacation time and PTO that we get from our clients at Practice Compliance Solutions (PCS).

“Do I have to provide vacation or PTO for my employees?”

As stated, absolutely not. It is a VERY common benefit, though.

“Does any or all of vacation or PTO have to be paid?”

Absolutely not. That is up to you.

“Can I offer vacation AND PTO?”

Although uncommon, you certainly can. Most employers roll all the personal paid time off into PTO – it is simple and places management of time off more in the hands of employees. It also allows employees to request time off without making up some wild story about their aunt needing a ride to the coast and no one can take her.

“I offer vacation and/or PTO and have a policy that employees must submit a request for time off. Do I have to grant the time they request?”

Absolutely not. Employment laws always strongly favor the employee, but in this case, the business decides. The employer has total control over when employees may take personal time off. This is a tricky decision that requires balancing employee desires with the need to maintain practice efficiency, but in the end, you have a practice to run. The key is making sure your decisions are not based on any discriminatory factor.

“You say we cannot discriminate in our decisions, but shouldn’t we be able to be more accommodating of employees with seniority, better reviews or ones we might be able to do without easier?”

While the answer may be YES, it is a slippery slope. Anytime you make employee decisions that vary from employee to employee, the discrimination door creeps further open. Employees increasingly know, or are learning, about their expanding rights in the workplace. While you may have an office policy that vacation or PTO requests made during the same time can be granted based on certain factors such as seniority or other factors, the safest policy is “first come first served,” which always avoids any potential for a claim of discrimination. In all cases, make your policy and enforce it without discrimination at any level.

“Can I roll sick time into my PTO and have only one policy for personal time off?”

In many cases, yes! That is controlled by state law. Over half the states now have some paid sick time leave of absence, and the details are variable. Some allow you to roll sick time into PTO and some do not. Some do, but only in certain situations. Familiarity with individual state human resources law is simply a must.

“Can I have a policy that employees cannot take time off during certain times or periods in the year – like no one can take off in August or December?”

Again, you are in control. While likely unpopular with employees, those decisions are based on your desire to accommodate the running of your business. In every business I have owned or run, I never asked employees to do something I wouldn’t do, or to work harder than I do. It was nice having happy employees all those years – and still is.

“My employee used all their vacation/PTO, but is requesting more time off. Do I have to allow them more time off, and would that time be paid or not paid?”

This is totally up to you. Outside of various mandated leaves, which vary widely by state law (sick, military, bereavement, organ donation, harassment…it can go on and on), you decide if an employee can receive more approved time off and whether or not that additional time will be paid or unpaid leave. Again, decisions made for one employee generally will apply to the next one asking a favor. For legitimate emergencies, a policy of additional UNPAID time off with HR manager approval is often a good idea.

“Some employees do not use their accrued vacation and/or PTO time. Do I have to pay out unused time at the end of the year?”

Almost half the states require accrued, unused benefits to be paid out at the end of the year. Sometimes carrying over unused time is an option, but this can result in a very large payout down the road. Many consider the best policy to be “use it or lose it” when it comes to vacation and/or PTO (not legal in Colorado, California and Montana). Studies have shown employees are happier when they have some time away from work – that likely applies to all of us.

“I allow vacation and/or PTO – what are my employees’ rights to those times if they quit or I fire them?”

Outside of a handful of state laws that can dictate what happens, these decisions are usually in the control of the employer. The key is having a documented policy regarding termination benefits. While totally your decision, it is common for accrued benefits to be paid out for employees who provide any required notice they are leaving your employment. It is also common to restrict paying out accrued vacation and/or PTO when an employee is terminated with cause. Be careful as this can also be restricted in some states.

“Can I withhold or refuse to pay accrued vacation and/or PTO as ‘punishment’ for an employee violating company policy or not performing their job according to expectations?”

While this can be legal in some states, it would be hard to find any HR expert who would condone such action. Attempting to withhold benefits based on performance is never the way to handle an employee in trouble or not performing up to par. Progressive counseling with training, goals and encouragement are the order of the day – never financial retribution.

Have another interesting vacation or PTO question? Consult PCS or another HR consulting company. Always remember the old saying about mom, with an HR twist – if employees ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

An optometrist poses for a photo for an article in which he discusses how to follow all labor laws when working with remote employees.Joe DeLoach, OD, FAAO, is CEO of Practice Compliance Solutions. and former Clinical Professor at the University of Houston College of Optometry To contact: :


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