Understanding PTO vs. Sick Leave: Navigating Your Benefits

Kellie Hanna, CPRW
By Kellie Hanna, CPRW, Career Advice Expert Last Updated: August 25, 2022

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There are many things to consider when you attain a job offer. But did you know that it’s wise to consider the PTO and sick leave policies too?

After a few rounds of interviews and positive feedback from hiring managers, it’s perfectly natural to get excited about your pending job offer. Everyone likes winning, and too often, candidates are expected to see any offer as a “win.” But be careful.

When you receive your offer, thank your employers for their interest and request 24 to 48 hours (at the very least) to look over the terms of your agreement. As you do so, make sure your base salary measures up with industry standards in your area, and review your benefits. Some of these benefits,like your company’s time-off policy, may or may not meet your needs.

Some background on sick leave

A generation ago, most companies offered specific terms regarding the paid hours that employees spent away from the office. Vacation time and sick time meant two different things. (Many companies went so far as to require a note from a doctor if an employee used sick time.) In theory, this prevented sick workers from staying home unless they were in truly dire straits. This meant more time on the clock and higher company profits.

Now days, most employers recognize the flaws in this rigid approach to time off. When sick employees stumble into the office, they spread their germs to everyone around them. This hurts the bottom line, instead of boosting it. This also led to legal issues regarding workplace safety, in some cases.

PTO and sick leave: what’s the difference?

As an alternative, many companies now offer a simple solution: PTO, or paid time off, without the need for doctor’s notes or intrusive personal questions. Employees can use their allotted number of paid time off days to take vacations, recover from illness, take care of sick children, run errands, or even just take a short break. Managers don’t ask questions and employees don’t need to explain; they just need to keep their total yearly PTO time within the limits defined by their employee agreement.

There are some concerns, however. Sick days count as your days off. This means that if you get sick after using up all of your vacation time, you’ll find yourself in a tough place with your employer. Or, you might be tempted to come into work sick so that you can go on vacation later.

Now, let’s cover sick leave again. Some companies offer a certain number of days for vacation and illness. Just like the old days, you simply call in sick when you’re ill. Those days will be taken out of your sick bank. When you want to go on vacation, you arrange to use your allotted vacation days. Some companies look the other way when an employee uses a sick day to extend a vacation. As we mentioned earlier, this policy sometimes encourages employees

What should you look for in your offer?

For starters, see how much PTO the company offers. Next, see if the company differentiates between this and sick days. Finally, consider your needs. Ask yourself questions like the ones below.

Does this plan interfere with the annual family vacation?

Does this plan allow me to care for my sickly child?

Will I be tempted to take advantage of a generous PTO system?

Entry level employees are usually offered around two to four weeks of total PTO per year. Your total days should increase after each year you spend with the company. When you leave the workplace, your company should also pay you for each PTO day that you haven’t used (a rule that doesn’t usually apply for traditional sick leave).

Consider your circumstances. If you have children or personal obligations outside of the office, PTO may be a wiser choice. But if you’re working part time and you live in a state that requires employers to pay sick leave (CA, MA, OR, and Vermont), this option may be the most that your employers will provide.

What to ask before saying yes

Before you accept an offer, clarify how your leave time can and cannot be used, and make sure you understand how you’ll be paid for unused leave at the end of your relationship. These questions may not be appropriate during a first round interview, but they’re perfectly reasonable — and necessary — during the final stages of the hiring process.

For more on how to find a job that’s right for you and negotiate a fair deal before you commit, explore the tips and resources at MyPerfectResume.

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