PTO: The Myth, The Legend, The Disappointment

paid time off workplace professional perks pto sick day vacation day

She sat across from me and laughed at me - not with me, at me. She couldn't even get her full sentence out between cackles.

I had started this position 2 months prior and had only really dealt with my supervisor a handful of times. This was my first "big league" job - I had been an independent contractor and worked with a lot of small businesses and more, dare I say, informal settings. This was my first full-time, benefits included, 8-to-5 , clock in and out job. And it just happened to be with a major (and HUGE) institution.

It was the first job where I received PTO - and quite a bit of it! That is, until I discovered all of the restrictions and limitations that went along with my Paid Time Off. And that is when my boss sauntered down the hall to my office, plopped into a chair and just started laughing - no words, just laughs.

Now, I like to think of myself as a knowledgeable, worldy individual. I understand  that PTO means Paid Time Off. I understand that it is given as a perk or benefit with certain jobs. And I understand that different companies will handle it differently - some are more flexible (Google anyone?) and some are more rigid.

But I was not expecting this at all.

Because we millennials are entering the workforce, expecting a new work style, most of the positions on the job market right now are shifting towards more of a flexible work schedule and more of a casual atmosphere.

When I started my job at this University, I did not know that it would be this "old school." I should also preface by saying that not a single person in my family holds a traditional 8-to-5 job. My family is full of independent contractors, small business owners, and artists - people who have the flexibility and control to set their own rules, hours, and standards. I didn't think that I was asking for that much. I knew that I was working someplace where I would need to clock in and out, where I would need to be there 8-to-5 every single weekday. But I didn't realize that my Paid Time Off would be so strongly regulated.

I get 12 hours of vacation time a month (a day and a half), and 8 hours of sick time a month (a day). And that adds up very very quickly! But, most of my "experiences" with PTO were from movies, TV shows, chats with my in-laws and friends, etc. And although companies and businesses will divide your PTO between "sick leave" and "vacation," most of the people I knew could use them interchangeably. And even those working in hospital administration could combine sick time with vacation time to take the time off that they wanted. Although it is technically separate, you can use your sick time for doctor's appointments or creating a long weekend when you need one. It is your time to do with as you wish. Or if you have already used your "sick" time but come down with a horrible flu or something, you can use your vacation time to cover that time off.

Not at my job.
(At least, not with my direct supervisor who approves my timecards.)

At my job, PTO is very very specific. and if my boss knows that I am planning on going on vacation, or taking a day off even for a mental health day,  I cannot take that day using my sick time.

For example, when I accepted the job, I made it very clear that I had two separate weddings across the country within two months. I had already purchased my tickets, and both trips were going to be about a week long due to the circumstances. I gave her my official dates on my second day there. My boss said, "Don't worry about it. We will figure it out. We might have to fudge some numbers on your timecard, but we we can make it work." And I really appreciated it as someone starting out in this brand new, formal position. But maybe I took that for granted a bit, or made some assumptions about her comments.

When I returned from that first trip, I needed to submit my monthly timecard. I had plenty of vacation time to cover the 5 work days that I was out, but I had some strange amounts in sick time and vacation time. I had like 6.40 hours of vacation and 3.25 hours of sick time. In my head, it made more sense to just max it out to zero to get rid of the strange remainder days. I gave myself 1/2 day of sick and 1/2 day of vacation for my final day of the trip. I just wanted to get them closer to whole numbers so I didn't have to worry about how many minutes I would have to take off for my second trip - I didn't want to be dealing with strange decimals of sick and vacation PTO.

I clicked the submit button, and not moments later, my boss came in. And I swear, she couldn't even say one word to me before she started laughing. And of course, at this point, I barely knew her, and this stranger is bursting out laughing in my office. So I start chuckling along with her - no idea why she is laughing, but just trying to be polite. And between every few laughs she would get a word or two out. "You can't use sick time when you are on vacation."

Which makes sense. I get it, but most modern companies and workspaces don't give a sh#t and do not operate in this way. This was my first time using PTO and she had told me that we might need to get creative with the math on my timecard. 

So I simply said, "That's fine. I'll just change my timecard and send it back to you." She sat in my office for a FULL 12 minutes (I did count) laughing at me. It was hurtful. It was inappropriate. And it was unappreciated. It was a simple mistake that I had made, I was ready and able to fix it in a moment, and she still just continued to laugh at me. 

Now, some businesses also offer "flex time" which just means that your hours can be adjusted to be "flexible" when necessary. When I first started this position, I was ensured that I would have flex time, and that it wouldn't be a hassle to use at all! Oh, the allure and shortcomings of "flex time"...... Here's another example (I am sad to say I have 20 or so instances),

I was going to be taking a few hours of vacation time one Friday afternoon. Instead of taking 4 hours of vacation (and my 1 hour of unpaid lunch) and leave at 12pm, I wanted to work an extra hour and only take 3 hours of vacation, leaving at 1pm. Not only did it benefit me (gotta save up that PTO), it also meant that I would be working an extra hour before vacation - good for my boss. I requested it through email as I always did, and was quickly denied the use of flex time because THAT was reserved for things like medical appointments. Of course, the very next week, my boss worked through lunch so she could hit up Kohls before "the 5pm crowds"..... yeah, that is definitely appropriate use of flex time - Kohls=medical appointment OBVI

Moral of the story -

Don't assume that all Paid Time Off is created equal.

Early on in your position, make sure you ask the important questions, not just "Do I get PTO and Flex Time?" but:

What are the restrictions on Paid Time Off?

How should I request the use of PTO?

How many days (or weeks) in advance do you need for vacation and sick time? 

Can you combine sick time and vacation time?

Does flex time need to be scheduled in advance?

What is your preferred use of Flex Time?

Can I use my sick time for medical and health related appointments?

How much information do you require when I call in sick?

Is mental health included in the realm of sick time?


I started off on (and continue to fall further onto) the wrong foot with my boss when it comes to Paid Time Off.

Don't make any assumptions - even if you have worked in a similar office or even in the same company! Different bosses, different departments = different policies, procedures, and preferences. Even if it is all under the same Human Resources Department, the standards may change between positions.

What other variations of Paid Time Off have you experienced? Have you found your positions to be flexible to your millennial standards? Or, are you stuck in an oppressive system of PTO?

I'd love to know if I am the only one! Send a tweet to @harvey_adulting or leave a comment below!