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Posted by Lisa Farrell, Marketing Manager on Aug 17, 2020 2:48:24 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a lot of weaknesses in our legacy work processes and policies. That large-scale disruption has also opened up an opportunity for developing and implementing newer, better policies. Policies regarding paid time off (PTO), in particular, are finally getting the facelift they deserve.

Local governments and employers are taking notice. Colorado governor Jared Polis recently signed a bill extending COVID-19 leave to employees whose employers were not covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). Many employers are reworking their policies to provide better leave options, too. “People are rethinking their policies,” points out Mercer senior partner Rich Fuerstenberg. “The pandemic stress-tested PTO policies — and it’s exposed cracks.”

Here’s how to revamp your PTO policies to support employee needs and produce a healthier, more-balanced work environment.

Account for Heightened Employee Needs

Some companies have historically combined sick leave and vacation time for easier management. However, the pandemic has shown us that traditional sick leave doesn’t cut it. Since COVID exposure triggers a quarantine event, employees need more time off from in-person work processes than they’ve traditionally been granted. Employers who aren’t covered by the FFCRA should still provide paid emergency leave for employees who test positive or have been exposed. Not having these policies in place introduces the risk of employees coming in with symptoms and potentially spreading the virus to others, Fuerstenberg says.

Limited access to schools or daycare centers complicates PTO even further. The expanded FMLA under the FFCRA covers some paid leave for parents, but only for organizations under 500 employees. You can allow working parents to use vacation time when they must stay home with children. Or, to demonstrate support and understanding, accommodate parents with some form of paid leave for childcare.

Encourage Employees to Take Time Off

Many employees will have more unspent PTO accrued than they usually would by this time of year. And as economies across the country continue to reopen, there’s increased friction between employers, who need people to work and employees, who want to take time off now to enjoy the experiences they’ve put off during the shutdown. Many employees are not using accrued time off because there are currently fewer options for traditional vacations.

“Take some of the air out earlier in the year by encouraging — or potentially requiring — people to take some time off,” Fuerstenberg says. Your employees have been through a lot in the past few months, and everyone needs time to stop and recharge, even if they just stay home. Shutting your whole company down for a week during your annual slow periods can ensure that employees take a much-needed break.

“Managers should recommend employees don’t wait until the end of the year to schedule or use PTO days,” suggests Craig Maloney, CEO at Maestro Health. Maloney recommends setting the example from the top by taking time off yourself, even if you just stay home to recharge.

Develop and Communicate Rollover Policies

If you have a “use it or lose it” policy, the tension regarding PTO will be amplified heading into the year’s final quarter. So what can you do about it? “Companies should consider adjusting their policy to allow for more rollover days,” Maloney suggests. “This provides the flexibility employees need to create a healthy work-life balance and plan for the year ahead accordingly.”

Consider implementing a balance of caps and rollovers. For example, if the final quarter is your busy season, put a cap of the number of days employees can take off (in addition to paid holidays). But give employees flexibility in rolling time over to the following year. To make rollover more manageable — and to encourage employees to take time off this year — put a cap on the number of days off you allow employees to carry into 2021.

Whatever new policies you develop to account for unused PTO, you must communicate them clearly to your employees. “Smart communication now can help you avoid conflict later on,” Fuerstenberg says.

Implementing flexible PTO policies demonstrates sensitivity to employees’ situations while still maintaining operational excellence.

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