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Can my employer cut my paid time off?

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am an exempt employee working 12 hour shifts, 36 hours on week 1, and 48 hours on week 2. For the past 4 years our previous manager required us to use 8 hours of  Paid Time Off (PTO) per vacation day. Unfortunately this manager has moved on to a new company and I am left with a new manager and some unwelcome changes. In a bid to reduce the amount of coverage needed due to PTO my new manager is requiring us to use 12 hours of PTO per vacation day, turning our 22 days of PTO into 14.6 days. How can he do this?

First of all, there are no federal laws and very few local laws surrounding vacation or paid time off. If an employer wishes, they can provide PTO but they don't have to. They can also change the amount of PTO pretty much whenever they feel like it. (Assuming there is no contract.)

However, this doesn't mean that cutting PTO is a good move. It may save money in the short term, but it will almost assuredly cause turnover to increase. And who is most likely to leave? Why the good employees who can find a new job, of course. The people who cannot find a new job will stay and be angry.

Let's talk about the logic here. I'm on the side of your new manager as far as logic is concerned. If your normal day shift is 12 hours, when you take an entire shift off, it makes sense that it should count as 12 hours. It makes no sense to count a whole day off as less then that.

However, on the illogical side I've never heard of a company offering 14.6 days off. So, this leads me to believe that your first manager was probably more in line with what the company intended. And, according to Salary.com, the average employee with 5 years of service has 21 paid time off days. (Of course, people are going to argue that on your 3 or 4 days off per work week you already get plenty of time off, but we're dealing with change here.)

So, while it's perfectly legal for the new boss to change the PTO policy, it's not nice, and I would speak up about it. First of all, a cut in vacation is equal to a cut in pay. I realize that you still get identical paychecks, but now you have to work more hours to get those paychecks, therefore it's a cut in pay.

Who do you need to speak to? Well, you always start with your boss. Don't get hung up on the hours, speak in terms of days.

I have a concern. We used to get 22 days of PTO, but now we only get 14. That's a significant drop. Can you tell me what prompted this?

Now, you now what prompted this--he was having difficulty covering people's shifts. So, when that is stated, you can restate:

So, what you're saying is, it's difficult to cover people's shifts when they are out on PTO? And the purpose behind the change in PTO is to decrease the difficulty in obtaining coverage?
Your manager will, of course, agree. So, then you you propose a solution that doesn't require giving up 8 days of PTO. Since you're manager has already stated that the issue is coverage, coming up with a solution should solve your problem.

But, unfortunately we're living in the real world so it probably won't. In which case you can bump this up to both your boss's boss and HR. If the boss's boss is the same he may reinstate your old program or you may find out that this change was his idea in the first place. If most people in your company work 8 hour shifts and get 22 days of PTO, you're going to be hard pressed to get them to allow those of you who work a condensed work week to get way more time off than everyone else.

But, the issue here isn't the number of days (although it feels like it), but the fact that they essentially changed your employment conditions for the worse without any compensation in other areas. Keep your focus on that.

For further reading:

What if you had unlimited vacation?
Bosses: Let your employees take vacation
How to fight a bad vacation policy?

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your question to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Scott Ableman.

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