Employee Benefits: Leave My Leave Alone

Recently at a conference, I met some middle managers with a sad tale they were only too eager to share.

Senior leaders revamped the sick leave policy at XYZ, Inc. to save a few bucks. Under the new employee benefits policy, employees are required to use annual leave for the first 3 days of any illness. After 3 days, they may start accessing sick leave.

“Wow,” I said. “So if I stay home with a migraine, that’s a vacation day?”

“Yep,” they answered. Some vacation, I thought. A cruise to the Bahamas pales in comparison!

“How’s that working for ya?” I asked, trying to keep my sarcasm under wraps. Okay, I admit I didn’t try that hard.

“Not so great,”  they answered.

Now, when people are sick, they routinely stay out for 4 or more days rather than the former 1 or 2. Employees are out longer because they valiantly soldier through early symptoms before succumbing when illnesses worsen and  FMLA situations are way up. Of course, some people stay out longer because they are pissed off; they are going to stay home long enough to use their sick leave, dangit!

XYZ’s morale has plummeted. The new sick leave policy is a disaster, my new friends told me, and everyone knows it backfired except the CEO and his inner circle who seem totally oblivious to the destruction around them.

I don’t mind saying I felt a certain amount of judgment and moral superiority for several days as I thought about XYZ’s misguided move.

I shared the story more than once, and upon hearing it, people usually gasped, “Is that legal?” I’m no lawyer, but in general I think it is. In some cases though, XYZ risks violating at least one law, Maryland’s Flexible Leave Act. But more to the point, it feels wrong morally and is a really bad business idea.

I was feeling kind of righteous. A lot righteous, actually. Then I opened my ears and realized I was hearing complaints about leave benefits all around me online, at conferences, and even in the halls of my own office.

  • John repeatedly forfeiting annual leave because his workload precluded  the luxury of a vacation anytime in the near future.
  • Common complaints of people feeling permanently connected to work through wifi, laptops and smart phones even on the weekends or on vacation; they can’t truly get away.
  • An hourly worker, with unpredictable assignments that frequently leave her several hours shy of 40, who uses annual leave to make up the difference. While she wouldn’t mind doing this occasionally (and in fact might be grateful for the buffer in those cases), habitually relying on annual leave to attain a full paycheck takes the wind out of her vacation sails.
  • Anthony going to work in great pain the day after having two teeth extracted because his boss expected him at an important quarterly meeting; missing the meeting simply wasn’t an option on any level.

I thought of all these stories and asked myself whether the XYZ’s sick leave policy is in fact all that much more reprehensible than any of the other scenarios I list. In reality, they all fall way short of the ideal.

Organizations spend gazillions of dollars on employees benefits yet the full value of employee benefits is experienced by neither employees nor  management. Employees are already feeling the pinch of high health insurance premiums, deductibles  and co-pays and their benefit packages  feel less valuable even though we’re contributing more than ever. When we make people jump through hoops to take a much needed sick or vacation day, we’re leaving a bad taste in our employees’ mouths and we’re throwing our money down the drain.

Let’s stop doing this.

Photo by zzathras777

About the Author

Krista Francis

Krista Francis, PHR, is nonprofit HR Director and sometimes Acting Executive Director. She lives outside of Washington DC with her soccer-crazy hubby, two active teenagers, a neurotic cat and the best dog in the world, Rocky, aka Party like a Rockstar. In her loads of free time, she tries to keep her scooter running, tests margaritas for quality control purposes and blogs at aliveHR. You can connect with her on Twitter as @kristafrancis.


Krista Francis

Jennifer, I do like the PTO idea, though when we floated the idea to our own employees, they nixed it.

I know what you’re saying about some people irresponsibly using leave, e.g. people calling out on Mondays after the Redskins win. (Come to think of it, that hasn’t happened for a long time!! But people are still known to call out after they lose….)

Jennifer Miller

May I suggest a middle road? I manage leaves of absence for a large corporation, and I’ve certainly seen some abuse of leave and sick pay in my time, and it is wildly frustrating. However, I have to also say it is very rare. On the other side, I think having large sick leave banks without consideration of limited ways it can be used can encourage even good people to make irresponsibile decisions, like calling in for the “brown-bottle flu.” The laws we have to manage are very complex and entitlements many, so where we can have an impact on the behaviors of employees while also considering their needs is in our benefit policies. For instance, if average employees may take up to 6 or so days of absence per year for illness reasons – for their family or themselves. So by only providing 6 days of sick leave per year would serve the average employee, and to incent employees to not call out for frivoulous reasons, you could convert any unused sick days into vacation at the end of the year. Another alternative is to build a Paid Time Off plan where additional days are built in to cover the average sick days, rather than just keep the vacation balances the same. That way the employee chooses how to use it, and if they do get sick more than the average bear, then they can use whatever remains of PTO. Our jobs in HR is to both consider the business reasons for our decisions and the needs of our employees. An engaged employee who has to pick up the slack when another employee is sick on payday just as we do – crazymaking! And they want us to do something about it.


I’d be curious if many other organizations are doing this, but we don’t know about it. I think many orgs are doing anything to save money right now (i.e. revamping benefit plans to cut corners, etc.) Maybe I am completely off base. HOWEVER, I don’t agree with it. Being forced to use vacation because I get sick would drive me crazy. There isn’t much we can do to keep ourselves from getting sick. People are more likely to try to work through the sickness in order to save using that vacation day. And, let’s not forget employee engagement, which you mentioned. YIKES.

Good read, Krista. Scary, but good. 🙂

Krista Francis

I should have said, “I shared the story more than once, and upon hearing it, people usually gasped, “Is that legal?” I’m no lawyer, but in general I think it is *in Maryland, although other jurisdictions may have different laws.*”


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