absent with leave
Sara Miller, Christian Science Monitor
May 4, 2005
would rather have employees schedule time off beforehand — not feign
ill with an hour's notice — if what they really want to do is root
for a child's soccer team or catch up on paying the bills.
That's one reason her company, the
Herman Group, switched from a traditional plan of vacation,
personal, and sick days to a paid time-off bank that makes no
distinction among the reasons employees don't show up.
The rise of such "PTO banks"
nationwide comes against a business backdrop in which many employers
are struggling to hold the line on wages and benefits.
Last year, unplanned absences across
the country were the highest they've been in five years, driving
production costs higher. It's a burden on companies, but experts say
it also reflects new burdens on workers: After waves of downsizing,
those left carrying the workload at many firms are straining to find
opportunities to escape their desks. Sometimes that means calling in
sick when they really aren't.
Supporters of the PTO system say
it's good for employees as well as employers, offering greater
flexibility and equal treatment for workers. Critics, however, argue
that time-off banks add new stress, often by limiting total days off
and forcing tough choices. Exceed a set number of days, for
instance, and you might have to forgo plans for a long weekend the
next time your child needs home care.
"This can be a two-edged sword,"
says Karen Noble, a senior consultant at the human resources firm
WFD Consulting in Watertown, Mass. "There can be intangible costs in
terms of negative impact on morale and commitment among employees"
who have the impression they are losing out.
Paid time-off policies like this one
have been growing in popularity each year, according to CCH Inc., a
human resources firm in Chicago that studies nationwide trends in
the workplace. In a 2004 survey of employers, 63% of respondents
indicated having paid leave bank programs, up from 27% in 1999. Many
who have adopted PTOs are noticing a change for the better.
"It's improved attendance, because
people don't have to lie to take the time off they need," says
Gioia, the North Carolina futurist. "When I talk about it on the
platform, [attendees] look at each other, and immediately dive for
the paper to write it down."
Unplanned absences are costly to
organizations, and while absences typically go down when job
security is tenuous, they increase when employees are unsatisfied.
And in today's reality of lean budgets, "most organizations now are
trying to operate shorthanded," says Robert Drago, a professor of
labor at Penn State University, creating a cycle of worn-out
employees who feel they can't leave the office.
Paid time-off banks were introduced
in the 1990s in the healthcare industry, a 24/7 operation where
replacing staff at the last minute is expensive. The model has since
branched to various sectors, from technology to insurance,
reflecting the changing needs of the workplace with a growing number
of dual-earning couples.
Companies who offer the flexibility
of PTO hours for employees to attend appointments or run midday
errands find that it translates into better management practices,
says Lisa Franke, a workplace analyst at CCH. For one, human
resources offices no longer have to act like hall monitors. "It
weeds out abusers of the system."
Yet while a child's soccer game can
be scheduled in advance, unplanned illnesses cannot. And it is that
perceived discrimination that has angered critics. "By definition it
rewards the healthiest people," says Joe Robinson, author of "Work
to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life."
Others, however, are reaping the
rewards. Take Suzanne Wagner, a physical therapist in Pittsburgh,
who says she has used only three sick days in eight years. But by
not needing those extra days, Ms. Wagner, who is unmarried without
children, says she lost two weeks of paid time off when she left her
last job. "With PTO you are free to use the time as you want," she
But there is a downside, says
Wagner, who manages a team that checks in with her daily: Employees
are more prone to come into work when they should be at home. "They
don't want to use their PTO as sick days," she says, "because they
see it as vacation time."
In moving toward PTO, some companies
merge all paid time off into one bank. But experts say many others —
operating under the assumption that not all sick time is used for
its purpose — end up offering fewer overall days.
"A lot of unions were very upset
because they said, 'Wait a minute, this is going to take away
vacation days,'" says Professor Drago. "And that's exactly what
Yet where critics see inequity, some
see a leveling effect in workplaces made up of employees with a wide
variety of backgrounds and beliefs — balancing the needs of singles
and parents, those who celebrate religious holidays with those who
do not. PTO banks "create an environment where no one gets favored,"
says John Challenger of Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, Inc.
But some are concerned the PTOs will
cause employees to fritter away time on errands and family
obligations instead of planning trips that could expand or enrich
their lives. "It shows what little value people attach to vacation
time," says author Robinson.
The USA, far behind many nations in
time taken off, is also behind in sick leave. A Harvard University
study showed that while 139 countries provide paid leave for short
or long term illnesses, the US only provides unpaid leave for
serious illnesses under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
"In America, we just don't have
enough time off, period," says Jodi Grant, the director of Work &
Family Programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families,
which has supported sick and family leave legislation sought in
almost half the states.
Even if time-off policies are
expanded, however, many experts say changing workplace culture is
the more important challenge. Drago says an environment in which it
is difficult to take time off is unsustainable. "Because of the
speed-up of the workplace, people are expected to do so much more,"
he says. "At some point people are going to say, 'I can't do this.'