Mo’ PTO, Mo’ Problems?


This quarter, CCNY’s new unlimited PTO policy officially takes effect.  You may have heard the term before.  It is essentially a flexible paid-time-off agreement between employer and employee to manage his/ her/ their own schedule responsibly.  This means that employees can take as much time off as they need so long as they get their work done.

Household names such as Virgin and Netflix have implemented similar policies but does it work for everyone?  With only 1% of US employers making use of unlimited PTO, we sat down with HR Director, Martha Harlukiewicz, to discuss how it has taken shape at CCNY, why it was the right decision for us, and whether it could be for other companies.  Read on for highlights from our interview [edited for clarity] below:

JT: Is it strictly unlimited vacation?

MH: So it’s actually unlimited vacation and sick time- all grouped into one.  You can use anything you want.  There’s no distinction between sick and vacation.  The only thing we say is that if you’re out longer than five days for sick purposes, we do require a doctor’s note.  Because then it could turn into medical leave or disability, depending on the condition you’re in.

JT: What made you decide to implement unlimited PTO, just hearing about other companies out west doing it with success?

MH: That and also we’d already given a ton of time off as it was, so this was really no different than what we did before because people already received a lot of time before.  It’s just a nicer benefit for employees.  They don’t have to feel tied to their desks, 9 to 5 every day.  If they get their work done and their projects and deliverables are done on time – if everything’s good and it’s a Friday afternoon and they want to leave a few hours early, absolutely.  You don’t have to worry “Hey, I only have ten hours left, if I take two on Friday, I’m only going to have eight…”  There’s no thinking anymore.  It’s just “Do I have my stuff done?  Am I missing any meetings or deadlines?  Let me run it by my supervisor… Awesome.”

JT: That’s all it is, you just run it past your supervisor and you’re done?

MH: Exactly.

JT: There’s no time entering online?

MH: So you do still have to put either Vacation or Sick on your timesheet.  If you are truly sick, you still have to put it in as Sick.  If you want to take an afternoon off, have a vacation planned, or are taking a significant amount of time off, you know, ten days or whatever it is, we still want you to track it.  That just helps us internally to see trends, especially for sick purposes, if it ends up being something we have to look at medically-wise with our disability carrier and so forth.  But vacation-wise, to make sure people are actually taking time off –mental health reasons, that’s another reason we went to that too- we want people to take time off.  We want people to feel that if they come here and do what they need to do, get their job done…

JT: That there’s a sense of reciprocity?

MH: Yeah, and that they’re rewarded by being able to have flexible schedule as well, you know for the most part.

JT: You mentioned that you were already giving a lot of time off before, so was this new policy partly meant to cut down on the number of people constantly bugging their supervisors to see if they could take time off?

MH: No, the request off is still the same process.  We let each supervisor handle it the way they want to with their department but they still need to provide -we prefer- 48 hours’ notice.  Obviously, if it’s an emergency situation, we tell the employee to go take care of what you need to.  Once you’re in a safe spot or you’re able to let us know then that you had to run out, etc., just so we know you’re okay.  Whatever you work out with your supervisor, whatever they’re comfortable with –text, e-mail, IM, etc.- that’s not a problem.  Previously, after a year of employment, you would have had four weeks’ vacation, two weeks of sick, and a week of personal time.

JT: That is really generous, especially for this area.

MH: So that was for full-time employees.  The time off was always there.  The likelihood of someone taking more is probably slim-to-none.  So do I foresee people taking more time than they currently do?  Probably not but it’s still new.

JT: So it’s easier in terms of the admin side?

MH: Definitely.  There’s no looking at the bank of hours, wondering “Oh, do they have enough time to take off?”  That was an issue before –we’d switched payroll applications- and that information with our previous software was limited for supervisors, so they constantly asked me, “Hey, how much time does so-and-so have?  They asked for this day, I’m not even sure they have the time anymore…” but before they had to put how much time they had in the Notes section and the supervisors were just going off of people being honest or having to follow up with me.  Now it doesn’t matter.

JT: And that’s a good thing because as the company expands, you have less to worry about.

MH: Exactly, and also, the kind of company we are, we’re not a 24-hour facility or somewhere you need someone at the front door or someone checking people in or in charge of children or something where you constantly have to monitor people.  We’re more like consultants, so that’s a flexible schedule for that type of work and we want people to feel that when they come work here.  That they can take time… especially as new employees.  Under our prior policy, if you just started or you were only four or five months, you wouldn’t have that time yet.  You did have to wait that six months whereas now, the policy is sixty days.  After that, it’s unlimited.  Now prior to sixty days, when there’s an emergency or if you’re sick, clearly you can but you really shouldn’t be taking time off within that period.  It also helps to attract people as a nice benefit that other organizations can’t provide.

JT: For top-performing employees, that’s a definite draw knowing that that’s one less thing to worry about.  And it’s very rare in this region as opposed to major tech hub areas.  It helps to advertise CCNY as a more progressive environment to work in.

MH: Yeah, the old model was very corporate and with technology these days, given how companies run, we’re going on that route.

JT: Do you foresee a model in which a physical office eventually rendered unnecessary or would it still be preferable to have a base of operations.

MH: I think we’d prefer to have a home base.  I mean, we do allow employees to work remotely and that’s something you have to work out with your supervisor, but for collaborative reasons, we still like to have a base of operations.  You can teleconference but I think that having one spot for everyone to get together is good.  It’s for employee morale and just getting to know your cohorts.

JT: There are conflicting stances on this.  Yahoo! had banned working from home a few years ago while others fully embrace it because in their minds, it helps to reduce overhead costs as well as attract and retain the best talent.  I personally prefer a kind of middle-ground.  Flexibility is important but there are also some things you really need to discuss face-to-face.

MH: And if someone’s based solely out of their house, it could even potentially be a liability.  Here, the building and all the equipment is insured.  So yeah, definitely, middle-ground?

JT: Who is responsible for implementing this policy?  Is there a board meeting or just the directors?

MH: For something like this, just Heidi and myself.  A lot of things, if they go to the board, they’re really more as a courtesy.  The policy technically went into effect fourth quarter, 10/1, but starting in 2018, an employee has to take off five days during the first half of the year, so from January 1st to July 1st and then another five days from July 2nd to the end of the year.  Really, it’s forty hours, you don’t have to take it all in a row, and you can break it down by hour.  So that’s our way of saying, “You HAVE to take off forty hours at some point.”  You can take more than that, of course, it’s unlimited.  But the mandate is that you have to take at least that amount.

JT: While I don’t see this as being a common scenario in the first six months, what would happen if hypothetically, someone did want to take off several weeks at once?

MH: If an employee wanted to take this time off and it was not feasible, their supervisor would inform them and deny it.  There is a separate form that the supervisor has to fill out that goes to the employees and explains why it was denied.  And there is also an appeals process that they can go through if they don’t think that’s fair.  It then goes to HR, myself and Heidi and we discuss it further.

JT: Has anyone ever submitted an appeal before?

MH: [laughs] No, not yet but this just started.  That was as of 10/1 as well. But no one in the last two months.  We hope it never gets to that point but we wanted to have a process in place just in case it ever does happen.

JT: Of course, you have to cover all your bases.  So what other concrete reasons did you and Heidi have for pushing unlimited PTO forward?

MH: I think a lot of it has to do with greater employee freedom.  It’s an added benefit for non-profits.  A lot of times, non-profits -due to our funding restrictions- we can’t pay the high salaries that major corporations can.  It’s a great recruiting tool because for-profit companies often don’t allow this level of flexibility, especially if you’re an individual with children or other obligations outside of work that they have to take care of.

JT: In terms of recruitment, have you noticed this as something people frequently ask for off-the-bat?

MH: Not off-the-bat.  Sometimes they tell about situations they’re involved in and ask about the hours but when I do say there is unlimited PTO, their eyes light up.  Or if it’s on the phone, they go, “WOW, that’s great”.  It’s definitely something that surprises people in a positive way.

JT: How do you think it would benefit other non-profits?  Would you recommend that it be pushed across the board?  Or is this something unique to CCNY given the kind of structure/ hierarchy that exists here?

MH: I’d say both.  Definitely, unique to CCNY because we’re not watching children and most of our employees are salaried.

JT: But why is it easier to give salaried individuals unlimited PTO?  Because hourly employees have to prove they were in the office for a certain number of hours?

MH: Exactly, because hourly employees have to punch in and out.

JT: With unlimited vacation though, if someone were to say, “I want to go and to spend the next month in Sardinia”, realistically, how likely is a supervisor to approve something like that?  I feel like that “unlimited” could be a tricky term for some people.

MH: [laughs] Sure, it is.  I think the likelihood of it being approved is probably slim-to-none but I think with enough time –we do have a few employees here whose native land is not the US- so if they went back home to visit, with enough notice, they could work something out with their supervisor.  If you were in December and knew you needed to be wherever you were going for all of July and you’re talking about it now with your supervisor, that gives you six months to prepare.  Once again, it’s up to your supervisor and I can’t say it would be approved but we wouldn’t rule out the possibility.  Maybe if they look ahead of the projects, “Who’s going to take over for you while you’re not here?  As projects come in, let’s keep in mind that so-and-so will not be here for all of July.”  The likelihood of someone even asking is slim-to-none but we’re definitely open to it.

JT: I like to play devil’s advocate and test boundaries. [laughs]

MH: Oh, yeah, sure.  I mean, if you’re a hardworking, honest individual and you come to your supervisor, “Hey, listen, I have this opportunity, I’d really like to explore this and work with you to come up with solutions.”  And if you have backups, I think you could work something out.  Personally, I, right now, wouldn’t be comfortable taking a whole month off because I’d drive myself crazy but definitely, I think everyone should take at least a couple of weeks off.

JT: Two weeks at a time?

MH: Yeah, with enough notice and you work it out with your supervisor, it should be fine.

JT: As an HR specialist, how did you come to the realization that vacation is so important?  Is it from personal experience or something you studied when you were getting your degree?  Why do you feel so strongly about its necessity?

MH: I think if employees are happy outside of work, they’re much more productive and happy inside of work.  And if work allows them that added happiness, it just makes them that much more excited to come to work.  It can be stressful here at times, just like with any job.  Knowing that you have the opportunity for that extra couple of days or cash to spend on a vacation, just makes you appreciate your job that much more and that in return, probably makes you a better employee who will show up to work and perform.

JT: A better person, really.

MH: All around, exactly.

JT: I completely agree with you and the general ethos here, but what you’re saying is not a common refrain in the HR world, so how did you arrive at this conclusion?  Was it a personal belief you’ve always held or something you learned the hard way?

MH:  It’s definitely personal.  If I’m happier outside of work, I’m happy at work and vice versa.  I also think with CCNY’s culture here, it’s a lot easier to implement, especially with the shift we’ve been taking and the type of work that we do.  I do personally feel passionate about it. Just having something fun to do, take your mind off things, I just think it’s a great program but I also think that it works well here.  I don’t know that I could say that if I worked somewhere else.

JT: From a labor rights perspective, how would you respond to someone –regardless of industry- who says, “Hey, that sounds really awesome.  It’s so unfair that I don’t get to do that where I am.”  Do you tell them they need to switch jobs, you should try to find a company like CCNY?  It’s like when people discuss healthcare in this country sometimes, it ultimately devolves into “Well, move to Sweden then!” and of course, it’s not that simple.  How do you advise people who are eager to experience the positives of a CCNY-like environment but doesn’t necessarily want to work for a non-profit?

MH: Right… yeah, that’s a hard question.  It’s one thing to like what another company does and feel a bit of jealousy, “Oh, that’s cool, your friend gets to do that and you don’t.”  But are you truly happy in your line of work?  Because if you truly love what you’re doing with another organization, then you shouldn’t want to leave over a couple benefits.  Or maybe if you’re not that happy, look for another company in the same industry that does offer those benefits.  It may not be exactly the same as CCNY’s but maybe one of the reasons you’re unhappy, is  that you have really long hours or your company is abusing employee rights that you should have access to legally but you’re just not receiving because of the culture there.

JT: Do you believe that a minimum of two weeks’ paid vacation should be offered at all companies?

MH: Oh, yeah, definitely.  If you’re over-worked and stressed out, it comes out in all areas.  Even just the working relationship, if everyone had a more flexible schedule –and I hate to say that, because it can be difficult in certain industries, like at hospitals…

JT: A lot of that, in my opinion, comes down to technology and proper planning.  Because if you make full use of available technology and also have the logical, rational sense of mind to plan, you can make it work.  I feel the problem often revolves around persistent understaffing in every industry.

MH:  Yeah, definitely.  A lot of it also comes down to efficiencies and processes.

JT: And money.

MH: Yeah, money, by all means.

JT:  What are your thoughts on the potential for employees abusing an unlimited PTO policy?

MH: I think it helps that we’re a smaller organization.  When you get above 100 employees, especially with different locations, it gets very hard to manage something like this.  The rule used to be at least one person per 75-100 people but maybe the rule’s changed.  You would definitely need more people and even here, like anywhere, the policy can get abused and then you just deal with it, or with that employee.  A lot of times, I don’t even think the ownership should go on the individual.  Sometimes, it’s just the interpretation of things.  Maybe if it were better explained or they sat down with their supervisor or HR and discussed what they were dealing with, it probably could be eliminated.

JT: Do you think it’s necessary to put any countermeasures in place?  Is it worth it or even possible to try and manage it or do you just need to be extra-careful from the get-go hiring people who you know you can really trust?

MH: I think it’s just the gamble you take.  From the beginning, even during the hiring/ interview process, someone can really put on a show.  You really don’t know until they’re actually in the position.  And vice versa, you might think “Oh, this person won’t fit in at all” and it turns out they were just nervous or an introvert and they’re stellar at their job.  Yes, you can read a person ahead of time but you still won’t know for sure until they’re actually in that environment and in that culture.  I definitely think that working here isn’t for everyone.

JT: Really?

MH: Yeah, if you love a lot of structure in your life and you need someone constantly over your shoulder telling you what to do –a micromanagement type- or you need to be somewhere for a certain amount of time, then you won’t fit in here.  We’re looking for more innovative people who can take initiative and who can take things and run.  Once you’re trained and comfortable, as supervisors, we love being able to trust our employees to do what they need to do.

JT: I think much of that has to do with our educational system.  For all of the Bennington Colleges out there, how many more institutions –private or public- are super-restrictive where every single minute of every day is blocked out for you?  I love those liberated models where you’re told “Yeah, you go and learn whatever you want to learn and come back and write a paper in six months” but what most American students experience is quite oppressive sometimes.

MH: Yeah, and that probably has a lot to do with why some people are so comfortable with that system, because it’s what they know.  And you could still have that system here, but you’d have to create that structure for yourself and work that out with your supervisor.  And that’s fine too but as an individual, you need to take that on.

According to a recent study, 54% of Americans working full-time forfeited vacation days.  662 million unused days in 2016 amounted to $66.4 billion in lost income, or a donation of $604 in work hours per capita to employers.  This in turn cost our economy about $236 billion.  Even more worryingly, use of vacation in the US is at a four-decade low.

Much of this has to do with long-held American values vis-à-vis work martyrdom.  38% of employees reported wanting to be viewed by their bosses as work martyrs,  not realizing that this behavior does not help them get ahead and may in fact be hindering them. They were less likely to receive a raise or bonus and no more likely than their non-work martyr cohorts to have received a promotion.  The only discernible difference was that of stress; work martyrs consistently report experiencing significantly higher levels of stress.

More broadly speaking, many Americans don’t actually receive PTO to begin with and when they do, they often feel uncomfortable making use of it.Furthermore, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 43% of Americans simply cannot afford to take a vacation, adding further stress to the equation.

Unlimited PTO packages, while perhaps not ideal for every organization out there, are a great way to streamline administration while encouraging employees to take care of themselves as needed.  The increased transparency and simplicity reduce stress and build trust.  It also helps companies avoid potentially hot-button issues such as re-naming recognized days of religious observance or re-allocating block holiday time to suit a more diverse population.  When people are treated respectfully as decent, responsible adults, they are more likely to behave that way.

Bottomline is, vacations matter.  Burnout is an all-too-common feature of the American workplace and if you’re fortunate to receive paid time off, regardless of its structuring, you should capitalize on it.  For your next vacation, remember the following: know the rules, plan ahead, and skip the guilt.  Your mind and body will thank you.