In January 2019, BuzzFeed laid off more than 200 workers across the nation. The way they approached the layoffs infuriated many of the workers and shined a new spotlight on paid time off laws in the U.S.
BuzzFeed Has the Law on Its Side
Paid time off (PTO) statutes differ dramatically from one state to another, and that’s where BuzzFeed felt the heat regarding its layoffs. Some states, like California and Montana, require companies to pay out accrued PTO as earned wages, but most states do not. So, when BuzzFeed announced its intent to pay out accrued time off only where mandated, staffers – current and laid-off alike – pushed back.
Nearly 600 employees banded together, demanding that all who were losing their jobs – regardless of the state in which they worked – be compensated for the paid time off they earned but did not use. The ad hoc group, which called itself the BuzzFeed News Staff Council, penned an open letter to the company. BuzzFeed relented and agreed to pay out accrued PTO to all laid-off workers.
Paid Time Off Laws (or Lack Thereof)
In 2018, a number of states upped their game with new statutes for paid time off. Paid time off (or PTO) plans provide a bank of hours for employees to pool sick days, vacation days, and personal days to use as desired. Combining the various types of PTO into one may benefit employers and employees alike.
The employer has just one PTO record per employee to track, and pooled time can reduce abuse of sick leave. Employees benefit by gaining both flexibility in how they can use their paid time off and the potential to collect accrued PTO when their employment ends.
However, no federal employment or labor laws require employers to provide employee paid time off. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal regulation of equal pay, overtime pay, and the minimum wage, but it does not require employers to grant an employee time off from work, paid or unpaid. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does require employers to grant time off to eligible employees to care for themselves or family members, but it does not require employers to pay for that time.
Despite the lack of federal laws, many employers voluntarily provide paid time off to attract and retain employees. Such employers are required to document and abide by the limitations and conditions of their PTO policies. One of those conditions – which BuzzFeed did not have – may entitle employees to collect accrued PTO earnings when their employment terminates.
PTO Laws by State
Because no federal laws guide paid time off policies, each state can institute its own mandates. Most states have some laws, but some have none. The laws regarding paid time off vary from state to state in three specific areas: PTO pay, use-it-or-lose-it policies, and payment of PTO upon termination.
- Paid Time Off as Wages. California leads the pack when it comes to implementing paid time off guidelines. It mandates, for example, that earned PTO be treated as wages, and views vacation time earned as work performed.
- Use-It-Or-Lose-It Policies. Some states, California again being an example, prohibit policies that force employees to use or forfeit vacation time. Texas, contrarily, permits employers to require employees to use earned leave by a set date or lose it.
- Payment of Accrued Paid Time Off Upon Termination. This is where BuzzFeed encountered resistance. Its California workers were legally entitled to accrued PTO, but the laid-off workers from other states were not.
While California leads the way, other states (Florida and Georgia, for example) remain way behind with regards to paid time off. These states have no statutes in place to address any of the above three criteria.
The Impact of Politics on PTO Policies
Because federal laws do not exist and states are still coming into their own, paid time off issues are likely to see little immediate impact from the new House on Capitol Hill. But things may change over time. The current Congress is generally labor-friendly and may eventually take steps to explicitly address PTO rights and introduce legislation to help guide them.
The first step in finding out what type of paid time off you’re entitled to begins with your employer and its written policies. If you believe that your employer has wrongfully deprived you of paid time off, consult an attorney.