Vacation Days and Paid Time Off Work Policies – Top 10 Questions to Ask HR

Asking your Human Resources contact the right questions when starting a new job is essential to make sure that you fully understand your vacation benefits inside and out. The following list of questions can be used as a guide on what to ask.

Ask About Vacation Top 10 HR Questions

At some point you’ll be meeting with your HR representative whether that is one-on-one or at a new hire orientation session. This is your ideal time to gather details on the current vacation and paid time off policies at your new organization.

New Job Means New Vacation Policy

Have you already received a copy of or a link to an official Employee Handbook? Always first review the fine print to know what questions to ask and what questions are well covered by the written guidelines. Read through the policy document and make notes as to what is still unclear and requires further clarification either in-person or by follow-up email. If you do not have a preset new employee meeting or orientation day, consider scheduling an appointment with your HR representative during your first weeks of employment.

Ask The Right Questions About Taking Time Off

Remember that there are no laws governing paid time off policy in the United States unlike in Europe where vacation policy is much more generous and guaranteed to its citizens. My list of top questions covers standard guidelines and policies present at most U.S. organizations. What you are granted at your new place of employment can and will vary from the benefits available to your friends and family at other employers and in other industries.

Accept Job Offer - Ask About VacationBy making it a priority to get these time off policy questions answered up front, you’ll be able to “Take More Vacation Time Off.” That’s what VacationCounts.com is all about. We all want to take full advantage of every paid vacation day, company holiday, sick day, floating or personal day, and bonus or time off in lieu that you earned and deserve. Disclaimer: This guide is my own advice based on experience and industry research – use your best judgement and discretion.

Your work-life-vacation balance will be the ultimate beneficiary of your proactive approach to vacation optimization.

1.Vacation Days versus Paid Time Off (PTO)

Q: Do we have a traditional vacation time plus sick and personal days policy or do we have a combined paid time off or PTO allocation?

Vacation MatrixOver the years many companies have switched from offering a separate allocation of vacation days, personal days, and sick days to providing all employees with a bank of days that can be utilized to take off time for any purpose. Combined paid time off (PTO) has become a popular option at many organizations, but it may or may not benefit you personally based on how you currently take vacation days and how often you or a dependent family member gets sick in a typical year.

Read More: Pros and Cons of Using a PTO Bank Instead of Vacation and Sick Time (HR Daily Advisor)

One advantage of a pool of PTO days is that you will be given a greater number of “general purpose” days off each year. If you minimize the use of sick and personal days, you can apply those “sick” days toward a vacation break. The potential downside happens when in the past you often used all of your sick and personal days. If that is the case you may end up dipping into your “vacation” days due to an extended illness since paid days off all come from the same pool.

2.New Hire Vacation Limits

Q: Will I accrue vacation days right away or is there a waiting period?

A critical question to ask is when you will begin to accrue vacation time. Does it start as of your first day of work or only after an initial waiting period of several weeks or months? It is an unfortunate reality today that numerous major employers require entry-level hires wait an entire year before getting any paid vacation time.

Read More: Here’s How Long New Employees Should Wait Before Taking A Vacation (Business Insider)

Even if you start earning vacation days from your first day of paid employment or after an initial training period, you may not be allowed to use them right away. Ask if there are any new hire policies in place which restrict you from taking days off as a new employee. Regardless of any vacation waiting periods for new hires, remember that all your co-workers must take into account deadlines and seasonal busy periods before being allowed to take their vacations.

3. Vacation Accrual Rules

Q: How many days or hours of vacation do I earn each month, pay period, or year?

I’ll bet you already know the answer to this most important of questions as it should have been covered in your verbal offer or offer letter. Hopefully you have been offered more than the typical 2 weeks of paid vacation per year that is the unofficial standard for new hires in the United States. This is the type of question to ask before you accept a job offer to find out if there is any flexibility in company policy. Be cautious as you don’t want your likely new employer to think that vacation is the only thing you are worried about.

Employees with many years of prior work experience are often awarded an additional week or two of vacation time so they don’t revert back to a measly two weeks when changing jobs. The more senior-level the position the greater likelihood that you’ll receive the same amount of vacation as at your previous place of employment. That’s far from a guarantee of course. There are other factors beyond position grade and years of prior experience including college degrees, industry certifications, and the strength of the job market.

Read More: Example Vacation Policy Document Templates (HR Simple)

If vacation time is truly important to you (and it should be if you are reading this), there may be an opportunity to negotiate for additional vacation instead of an increase in your pay package. When an extra few days or week of vacation time is more important than a sign-on bonus, relocation package, or other perks, make your preferences known during the negotiation process.

4. Vacation Calendar Year

Q: Does paid time off accrue and get tracked by calendar year or according to my anniversary date?

Read the Employee Handbook on VacationCompanies tend to use a calendar year (January through December) for all employees when it comes to accruing vacation days. Sometimes your accrual and usage period will be based on your actual start date and end 12 months from that date. This is known as your anniversary date. Your vacation calendar is also used for applying a roll-over policy from one year to the next.

Being aware of your vacation accrual calendar means that you can accurately monitor your earned days or PTO as you earn it each pay period. Your HR policy manual should describe the calendar period along with key dates and numeric limitations at your company.

Read More: Paid Vacation: What Are Your Rights? (Nolo Law)

Also find out the exact number of vacation days you will accrue in your first year of employment. Since most employees do not start on January 1st, your pro-rated vacation days will limit the number of trips you can plan for this partial year.

5. More Vacation… When?

Q: After how many years of service will I be “promoted” to additional vacation days?

Search your Employee Handbook or HR benefits portal for the vacation benefits table. It typically includes line items listing the number of years of service alongside the number of vacation days an employee is entitled to. You already know how many vacation days you’ll get this year and next. This table is your guide to calculating the number of continuous years of service needed to move up the vacation ladder. Again since there is no U.S. labor law standard, as a full-time employee you may have to wait 3, 4, or 5 years before you are promoted to the next level of paid vacation accrual.

Read More: Paid Vacations – Number of days of service requirement (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

This is one area where HR policies vary greatly across companies even within the same industry, not to mention the disparity between public (government) and private sector jobs. Review the rules which apply to you today and schedule a future reminder on your online calendar (e.g. Outlook, Google Calendar) to pop up when you are about to reach this big milestone. You’ll want to verify that your paycheck stub accurately reflects the additional vacation days due you.

Example Vacation Benefits Table

6. Breaking Up Vacation Days

Q: Can I take paid time off in hour or half-day increments, or only full-days?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take a half-day of vacation when feel the need for a stress-free break from both work and life? Depending upon the job flexibility and your personal and team responsibilities at work, you may have the option of taking time off in hour or half day increments. The ability to break up vacation days into hours can help a great deal when you need to run errands, spend time with family, take a class, or volunteer in the community.

For those of you who cannot take off hours or blocks of hours at a time, ask whether you can take a half day off from work in order to partake in a micro-vacation. Allocating several half-days off for vacation purposes might be exactly what you need to reduce stress and improve work-life balance.

Read More: Take a Half Day Off From Work – Tips on How to Plan a Micro Vacation (VacationCounts)

Regardless of your options, most employers calculate vacation days in hours and fractional hours for financial accuracy. Consult your pay stub or online HR portal to see how it is tracked and reported at your company. If earned vacation “days” are actually tracked as an hourly figure, it makes sense to be given the flexibility to take a few hours off when you wish to reward yourself with a micro-vacation. Let’s hope your boss agrees!

7. Vacation Approval

Q: How far in advance should I ask my manager and inform HR to get approval for taking time off from work?

Are you the type of person who plans all of your family vacations months ahead of time and can give your manager super-advance notice about these trips? Or do you prefer to be a spontaneous traveler and take advantage of last-minute travel deals online?

Regardless of your vacation planning style, you must take into account the vacation approval policies at your place of employment. It serves two purposes. First you can ensure that you are granted your preferred time off during the year. The second point is to be able to meet deadlines while avoiding inconveniencing your co-workers who have to cover for you.

Read More: Have a Great Vacation (if It’s Approved) – (The New York Times)

Does your company use seniority to determine who gets preferential treatment for time off scheduling or is it on a first-come first-served basis? Either way my recommendation is to get your vacation requests approved as early as possible. That way you can transition into trip planning mode and reduce the risk of postponing your big vacations until it is too late.

8. Use It or Lose It

Q: Does the organization have a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy or “cap” when it comes to vacation roll-over?

Vacation Rollover Survey GraphicUse up all your vacation days! OK, that’s my policy but even my wife or myself occasionally have a few leftover days that must be rolled over at year-end. Well before you reach the end of the year, review the roll-over policy and make a promise to yourself to never lose even one vacation day. Can you roll-over a fixed number of vacation days from one year to the next? If you can, what is the time limit to take those previous year vacation days. Your policy may require written permission from HR as it is not always automatic. Rollover policies usually involve a cap which states the maximum number of days you can keep on the books. After that maximize you will stop earning addition days off until you go below that limit.

What if you don’t have a rollover policy? In many private companies you may be prohibited from rolling over days and therefore if you don’t use them you’ll lose them. This is called the “use it or lose it” vacation policy. Use-it-or-lose-it policies are being challenged in many U.S. states and fortunately in some states like California they are not legal at all. I encourage you to search online for your particular state to familiarize yourself with the current labor laws.

Read More: About Rolling Over Vacation Days (VacationCounts)

9. Personal Vacation Days

Q: Can employees use a Personal Day or a Floating Holiday for vacation purposes?

Calculating Time Off DaysPersonal Days, Floating Holidays, PTO, … aren’t they all vacation days? For those of you who wish to take as many trips as possible in a given year or take a really long vacation all at once, “personal” days can come to the rescue. Again policies vary per employer so ask whether you are allowed to tack on one of these “floating” days to your vacation leave.

These days are intended for personal, family, and religious reasons, such as to make up for holidays that you celebrate but are not official company holidays. They are commonly used to tackle life and parenting obligations including school appointments, medical emergencies, home repair, or running errands such as the DMV or closing on a home.

Read More: Floating Holiday: Employer Considerations (About.com Money)

With PTO you have a bank of paid days off to use as you wish, but with personal or floating days there could be explicit rules in place. From my experience personal days or floating holidays are treated like sick days and do not roll-over from one year to the next if left unused. My own advice is to try to save up your personal and floating days for the end of the year to extend your Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday vacations.

10. Forced Vacation

Q: Does the organization shut down at the end of the year or have other forced vacation time?

I know people who work for companies that close down at the end of the year in an effort to save money and get accrued vacation off their books. This means that all staff are required to take paid or unpaid vacation days during this fixed calendar period. Is it fair? I don’t think so, but a fixed vacation is better than no vacation. This policy may be referred to as a furlough and with it comes complex pay and labor law considerations. The law varies by state and whether you are an exempt (salaried) or non-exempt (overtime eligible) employee. Whether you get paid can also depend on whether the closure is a full week or less. Also be aware that a furlough period may overlap with official company holidays which means you’ll likely get paid for those days separately from your vacation pay.

Read More: Closed for the Holidays: Should Your Company Pay Employees? (Paycor)

Unfortunately there is no law requiring employers to offer any flexibility as to when you can take vacations. Most employers are reasonable, but you may be limited in other ways as to when you are allowed to be away from your job for more than a week. If your company does close down for a week, ask if you have the option of taking those work days as unpaid in order to save your precious vacation benefit for a time of year that is best for you and your family.

More Posts on Vacation Policy and Benefits for Readers of VacationCounts

How Do Your Vacation Benefits Compare?

Add your opinions and advice to the Comment area below this post. What vacation benefit issues have you had to deal with when starting a new job? Share ideas on how you are able to optimize and maximize your time off benefits policy. Let’s all help each other take more vacations each and every year!

  • karyn johnson says:

    when applying pto, should i apply for days off as well as the days i work? like is the pto something you have to apply towards the whole week or minus the days you have off?

    • I’m not sure I fully understand how your company handles PTO, but that is to be expected. There is no one standard for how employers grant, accrue, track, and authorize paid time off in the US. As with all benefits questions, the best source is to communicate with your HR department or supervisor/manager who is in charge of these rules. I am glad that you are trying to make the most of all your paid time off at your job as readers of VacationCounts are trying their best to do. Good luck.

  • can a company use your paid time off to make up the hours they don’t give you if you were hired for 40 plus hours a week

    • I wish I could help you with this very specific question. The purpose of this article is to remind people of the type of questions they should ask about time off policy when starting a new job or at their current place of employment. Knowledge is key to time off policy. This site cannot and does not provide legal, employment, or labor law advice so you’ll have to follow up with your employer and/or your local government agency/non-profit organization in your state, county, or city area. Good luck and thanks for sharing.

  • Before beginning a new job, before accepting the position, is the best time to negotiate benefits like vacation time. Ask for an extra 5 or 10 days of vacation time per year, especially if you have extensive work experience.

    • I definitely agree Charles on the need for experienced job applicants to negotiate for vacation days. Often people are happy to get a job offer and solely thinking in terms of salary and start date. Paid time off is money too. If you are like me and want to travel more, asking for additional vacation days is a slam dunk. Thanks for contributing your voice.

      • Joan says:

        It was so good and timely to hear this. I was looking to see WHAT might be negoatiable, and I’d rather have more time off than pay. Being paid for 5 more days to not work is, in itself, a raise in pay.

      • Thanks for your feedback. You know I agree. Once my salary is high enough for my needs, I know I would prefer additional vacation days over a pay raise. Unfortunately too many employers are not willing to negotiate or be flexible (the key word is ‘may’ be negotiable) so you may not be so fortunate. My hope is that eventually all employees will be given a choice of rewards whether it is more pay, benefits, or paid time off. Good luck.

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