Having been in HR for a while, we know how rare it is that there is ever a clear-cut answer to anything. And once again, the answers are about as clear as mud when it comes to the topic of asking employees to provide details about their use of PTO!
To be honest, in researching this topic, there was even LESS definitive information than we can typically dig up when it comes to these always murky topics. With this in mind, we sought out the experts in the form of our own in-house HR pro, who conceded that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule, but there are certain guidelines you can follow to help you get the answers that you need while keeping you on the right side of the law.
If your company divides time off into a bank of vacation days and sick days and a person calls out sick, as a business owner, you do have the right to ask about the nature of the call-out (injury, illness or other) and when you might expect them to be back in the office. This line of questioning doesn’t violate HIPPA laws because it doesn’t ask them specifics about the clinical nature of their actual illness, but does give you the information to plan accordingly should you need to call in backup for their position. Should the employee indicate that their absence will extend to three days or beyond, per some state laws, you can use this opportunity to remind them that a note from a doctor explaining their absence will be necessary, provided this is something outlined in your company policy and employee handbook (yup, that again!)
There is, however, an important loophole here. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are not permitted to ask an employee with a disability about the nature or severity of the disability, meaning that if you ask an ADA-protected employee why they are calling out, you might find yourself in violation of the law and thus open the door to potentially costly lawsuits. As noted above, however, you can ask when the employee expects to return to work and note that a letter from a physician will be required stating that their absence was medically required should the absence extend beyond three days.
But what if you’re one of the many companies that rolls your sick time and vacation time into an elusive paid time off (PTO) bank? Again, you’ll want to treat that early morning call in as a sick day and ask only the above questions as necessary. Further, you’ll want to ensure that you have a definitive vacation and PTO policy in place that helps employees to understand how this bank of time should be used and what the processes and procedures are for its use for elective time off. At Abel HR, we also recommend that you have a system in place that allows employees to quickly and accurately check their accrued hours, easily submit time-off requests, and plan their time off easily so that you encourage its use.
We’d also like to share that for many of our clients, ourselves included, the holidays are the busiest time of the year. For us, it is both the close of the quarter and the end of year, and is a huge time for taxes, payroll, and renewals. As such, we have a policy that PTO is strict during these crucial weeks. Instead, we do what we can in the weeks before and the weeks after the busy holiday season to make sure that our employees have time to decompress and relax. If you, like us, are as busy during the holidays, we recommend that you be upfront with prospective employees and your existing workforce that time off during this period isn’t an option and be sure that it is written as such in your employee handbook so that employees understand that unsanctioned leave, with the exception of sick leave, violates the terms of their employment and will result in consequences.
What is your call off policy? Do you prohibit time off at certain times during the season? Let us know in the comments.