Late summer is usually a time for fun vacations and a little break from the office. With COVID and travel bans, however, PTO policy has become a fraught topic. Now you’ll need to apply or amend your vacation and accrual policy to handle a workforce that’s subject to travel bans, that might be traveling to unsafe areas, or may even be resistant to taking their PTO because there’s nowhere to go. As per usual, though, these challenges will be easier to handle if you already have a policy and plans in place. This article will cover the major potential challenges you might face when it comes to time off policy, as well as what the best HR strategies are for tackling them.
Business travel, vacation and accrual policy and travel bans
To start with what’s completely in your control, you’ll want to examine business travel. Decide what’s necessary and what isn’t. Cutting business travel to a minimum (or, ideally, completely) will cut down immensely on complications that your HR team has to handle. If you do have to send an employee on a business trip, you can require them to act in a safe manner to avoid COVID risks. You can indicate that they need to wear a mask, avoided highly crowded areas, wash their hands frequently, etc. You can also provide reimbursement for cars, so they use public transportation as little as possible.
Moving on to the vacation side, you’ll want to stay up to date on all travel bans that may apply to your company. If there are quarantine requirements and your employee is coming into the office, this is important. You can certainly check through your time off tracker system and see where people will be going on vacation. In this circumstance, you’re also allowed to ask directly where the employee will be visiting if you need to know for quarantine/return-to-work reasons. If your employee is planning on visiting high risk states that might require a quarantine, or simply might put your staff at risk, you are allowed to rescind the ok on a request or deny it if they haven’t gotten approval yet. As an employer, you have this right. It will be important to do what you can to also consider morale. Denying vacation requests will be a delicate topic, so you should proceed with caution. Creating a policy just for COVID and travel, and apply it equally to all employees, might help.
Getting tested and FFCRA hours
Keep in mind that if an employee gets COVID or has COVID-like symptoms and is waiting to hear back on a test result, they’ll be eligible for FFCRA emergency sick leave. This is true even if they need to get tested multiple times. They’re eligible for up to 80 hours of emergency sick leave, which is entirely different from their usual sick time or PTO. You cannot require that they use PTO or sick time first. For COVID-oriented situations like this, an employee is allowed to use up all their emergency sick leave time until they are at the 80 hours. When an employee has used up all their FFCRA emergency sick leave, any additional time off for testing, quarantine, or sick time can be pulled from their personal banks of time or it can be taken as unpaid time off.
General vacation and accrual policy notes
You can create an addendum in your employee handbook that changes your attendance and PTO policies for now. As you create your policies, remember that your staff may be encountering significant challenges, like a lack of childcare, sick or immunocompromised family members, or losing household income if a spouse is laid off. Another factor to remember is that you want to encourage employees to stay home if they or a close family member are sick right now. Especially if you normally have a strict attendance policy, now is the time to ensure people don’t fear that they’ll be penalized for staying home. If you don’t accomplish this, you’ll increase the risk of having a COVID outbreak in your workplace.
Right now, you want to head off a few problems. Employee burnout, PTO rollover issues, and everyone trying to take their PTO at the same time.
Employee burnout: These days people may be working extra hours to keep up with COVID challenges to the business, or they may just not want to take vacation days when they feel like there’s nowhere to go and travel options are so limited. You’ll want to still encourage people to take their PTO occasionally to stave off burnout. It can be a huge cost in productivity, if not in talent loss! One way to ensure your staff take their PTO is to have managers lead by example. If a manager takes PTO, their reports will feel more comfortable doing so themselves. Another is to make sure everyone is still taking their meal and rest breaks, whether they’re working remotely, they’re staggered in the office, or there’s any other differences. The last step is to discourage off the clock work. Try to avoid sending communications and instructions outside work hours yourself. Help employees feel like work should only occur during the usual hours, even if schedules have become more unconventional during the pandemic.
PTO rollover issues: Take some time to rethink your PTO rollover policy. While it might work well normally, during the pandemic it could be less adequate. If people aren’t taking their PTO because they have nowhere to go or feel overwhelmed by work demands, you may find that everyone wants to, or is poised to, roll over too much PTO for 2021. You can do a few things to address this. You can create a special pandemic policy for PTO rollover that caps it for 2020. If you do, let people know about this ASAP so they can start planning time off now. You could offer to pay out untaken PTO at the full or a partial rate. Again, let people know about this ASAP so they can plan accordingly. Lastly, you could institute a use-it-or-lose-it policy. If you do, you should check in with your HR and payroll services first. These can be banned by certain state laws and they’re tricky to implement without crushing employee morale.
Everyone trying to take PTO at the same time: As the end of the year draws closer, you may find that your staff is all saving their PTO and considering taking it around the holidays or the last few weeks of the year. If this will be a hardship on your business, you can take a few measures to prevent it. Firstly, you can create some fixed blackout dates. These will be days that nobody can take vacation. You can also start coordinating with people now about what days off they’ll want before the end of the year. Make sure you have a clear plan about who to give seniority if you have conflicts on the schedule. Applying a fair policy to everyone will be important—both for morale and for avoiding discrimination concerns!
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