I'm Exempt: Can My Employer Deduct PTO for Doctor's Appointments?

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 1:37 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am an exempt employee who works for a company that does not keep time sheets or any records of time worked on their exempt employees. I work 50-60 hours a week and if I have to go to the Doctor they expect me to use 2 hours paid time off (PTO) even though I worked well over my 40 hrs. that week. There is no record to prove I work all those hours because there aren't any records kept.

Isn't it a law to keep a record of employee work hours and as an exempt employee who works 50-60 hrs. a week, how can they justify I take 2 hrs. leave to go to an appointment?

My boss's boss insists that if you leave during the work day for an appointment, you deduct the time off as leave, no matter how many hours you worked. I'm concerned if I bring this up, even if I am right, there will be repercussions.

You would think there would be an easy answer to this question, but of course, there is not. First I'll tell you what should be the scenario: You, as a hard working exempt employee, should be allowed to take a couple hours off without having your vacation/sick/PTO time affected. Exempt employees should be treated like real grown ups and trusted to get the job done. As long as the job gets done, no one should care how many hours they are in the office.

That's my opinion. That makes for a great work environment. Employees that take advantage of the flexibility and don't perform well should be dealt with because of their lack of performance and terminated if they don't pull it together. But, that's Evil HR Lady's little ideal world. Your world is not quite ideal.

First, some definitions. An exempt employee is someone who is not subject to the overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). There are rules that determine your status as an exempt employee. In answering this question, I assume you meet these criteria. One of the key components is that you must receive the same paycheck every pay period. You are not paid by the hour, and so it doesn't matter if you work 10 hours or 100 hours, your paycheck should not vary. (Bonuses are a different story.)

This means, that if you have no "leave" time left and you go to a 2 hour doctor's appointment, your employer can't legally deduct the time from your paycheck. The employer can discipline you, fire you, or make your life generally miserable, but cannot dock your pay.

But, the general consensus is that they can dock your time off bank (whatever that is--vacation, sick leave, or a general PTO bank) for time out of the office.

My bet is that your boss's boss feels that he MUST make you take vacation time for any time you are outside the office between normal business hours. The thinking is that being rigid is being fair, and no one wants to be accused of being unfair. It's much easier to manage by the clock then to look at each employee individually and say, "Is Jane meeting all expectations of her job? Is Peter meeting all the expectations of his job? Is Bob meeting all the expectations of his job?" The latter takes thought and attention. The former takes a calendar or a spreadsheet. It's easy, it's backed up by hard data, and it's "fair." It's also bad management.

Here's what I recommend doing.

Keep track of your own hours. Just because your company doesn't, doesn't mean you can't.

Make sure you're an above average performer. You're going to be asking for a change to policy and bosses are more willing to bend for their best performers

Go to your boss, not your boss's boss who requires the PTO deduction. Why? Because you need an advocate.

Present your time sheets to your boss and explain that you've been working much more than 9 to 5 hours. Of course she knows this, but seeing it laid out will be helpful.

Ask that your next appointment not count against you. With the evidence that you are working above and beyond (both in hours and performance), now is the time to ask that this policy be changed. Explain that you always get everything accomplished, that you always do a good job, and that you stay late/come in early whenever needed. Therefore, because you are flexible for the company's sake, the company should be flexible for your sake.

Your boss will say, "I agree with you, but..." Ask your boss to present your case to her boss.

Help your boss to see that it's in her best interest to keep her best performer (you!) happy. This isn't a threat. This is just demonstrating that you go above and beyond and you'd like some flexibility so you can continue to do this.

Hope for the best

This strategy will help you avoid the backlash for questioning a policy. It's not a case of saying, "You're doing this wrong!" but rather, "can we all do this better?" Yes, it's a matter of semantics, but it's far more likely to succeed than going to the boss's boss's boss or HR and screaming "unfair!" Even though, in all honesty, it is unfair and bad policy to boot.

Ilustration by caricaturas, Flickr cc 2.0