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What is PTO? Here’s a Comprehensive Guide to Understanding PTO

What is PTO

Let’s begin by painting a clear picture of what paid time off (PTO) is and isn’t — starting with what it’s not.

In the past, companies would separate their employees' time off benefits into a set number of days for sick leave, paid vacation, personal days, etc. Once you used all the days in a specific category, that was it for the year.

But PTO is totally different now in that it’s an all-encompassing policy.

So instead of having several separate policies, PTO rolls them all into one nice, neat, ‘ all-inclusive plan. It's the one benefit that employees really care about. In fact, it’s one of the top 3 most important employee benefits according to Harvard Business Review.

 3 most important employee benefits

Want to know more about paid time off? You’ve come to the right place.

In this guide, we will explain:

Table of Contents

What Is PTO (Paid Time Off) Meaning

What does PTO stand for? PTO stands for paid time off.

But what is paid time off? It used to be the norm for companies to offer separate paid time off benefits to employees such as:

  • Sick leave

  • Personal leave

  • Paid vacation leave

  • Etc.

Instead of having separate policies, paid time off rolls each of these policies into an all-in-one, inclusive plan.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 76% of employees from private companies in the US are offered some type of paid time off or paid leave.

Common PTO Terminology

Paid time off (PTO):

Unpaid Time Off:

PTO Banks:

Annual Allotment:

Unlimited PTO:

PTO Accrual:

Time that employees can take off while still earning regular wages

Authorized time off in which employees will receive no pay or compensation

The cumulative amount of paid time off awarded to an employee each year

The number of paid time off days that either expire or roll over after a specific date

There is no limit to how much paid time off days employees can take

The number of paid time off days that have been earned over a period of time

PTO Definition in Other Countries

United Kingdom

Statutory leave entitlement, Annual leave


Annual leave

New Zealand

Annual leave

European Countries

Annual leave

What is NOT PTO?

With terminology varying from company to company, it’s very important to establish what paid time off is and isn’t.

Remember that PTO is an all-encompassing policy. Separate policies like...

  • Sick leave

  • Personal days; and

  • Vacation plans

… are part of a traditional paid time off policy. Separate policies do not fall in line with the modern PTO model that companies are gravitating toward today.

A great way to think about PTO is this: Vacation leave is paid time off, but not all paid time off is vacation leave.


Want to know your state's PTO regulations?

Download our PTO Playbook


How Does PTO Work?

With a PTO plan, you do not have a set number of vacation days or sick days that you can take. Instead, employees are provided with a singular paid time off plan in which they can allocate time off for whatever reason.

Based on a company’s given policy, PTO hours can be:

  • Accrued each pay period

  • Accrued at other designated times throughout the year; or

  • Received in a lump sum

An employee can then use banked PTO days at their discretion without having to disclose a formal reason.

Traditional Paid Time Off Systems

In the past, most companies operated on traditional paid leave systems. These systems consisted of distinct categories such as sick leave, personal days, and vacation time, each with its own allocated days. Once an employee used up their allotted days in a specific category, they had to wait until the next year for a fresh allocation.

For example, if an employee had five sick days, ten vacation days, and three personal days, they would have to meticulously manage and ration these days throughout the year. If they fell ill beyond their allocated sick days or wanted extra time off for personal reasons, it often meant unpaid leave or borrowing days from future allocations.

PTO Bank Systems

In contrast, PTO introduces a revolutionary approach by consolidating all these categories into a single PTO bank. Under this system, employees are granted a pool of paid time off hours, and they can choose how to use these hours without being confined to rigid categories.

The accumulation of PTO hours can vary depending on a company's policy. Some organizations allow PTO to accrue gradually with each pay period, while others grant it at specific intervals during the year or even provide a lump sum at the start of the year.

What sets PTO apart is the freedom it gives employees to decide when and why they take time off. Whether it's for a well-deserved vacation, a personal day, or to recover from an illness, PTO provides flexibility that traditional systems often lack.

Unlimited PTO Systems

A growing trend in modern workplaces is the adoption of unlimited PTO systems. While "unlimited" might sound extravagant, it's essential to clarify what this means in practice.

In an unlimited PTO system, there is no predefined limit on the number of days employees can take off for personal reasons. However, this doesn't mean employees can take an indefinite amount of time off without accountability. Companies that offer unlimited PTO typically have policies in place to ensure that employees take reasonable time off without disrupting workflow.

The idea behind unlimited PTO is to promote a healthy work-life balance and trust between employers and employees. It acknowledges that employees are more productive and engaged when they have the flexibility to manage their time off as needed.

Are PTO Policies Affected by Law?

In short, yes.

There are several instances in which state law can impact PTO laws and policies, including:

  • Whether or not an employer can enact a “use it or lose it” policy

  • Whether or not PTO can be considered earned wages

  • Whether or not PTO must be paid out upon termination

  • Whether or not an employer can set the rules for PTO policies

It’s important for employers to issue clear PTO policies while coinciding with state laws. Conversely, it is also important for employees to fully understand their company’s PTO policies.

What is the Purpose of PTO for Employees?

PTO policies offer employees more flexibility and freedom to choose when they can utilize paid leave and for what circumstances. It also allows employees the opportunity to take full advantage of their paid time off.

For example, if an employee working under a traditional leave policy accrues more sick days than they need but doesn’t have enough vacation time to go on a family trip, they cannot allocate their additional sick days to go on vacation with holiday pay.

A PTO policy solves this problem.

With a PTO policy, you can use your banked paid time off at your sole discretion and fully use it without restriction within your company’s policy guidelines.

What Is the Purpose of PTO for Employers?

PTO is often used as a selling point for recruiting or retaining employees since the flexibility of a PTO bank can be attractive to employees. PTO bank systems may also be a cost-effective option for employers, as they may help reduce work absences and boost employee morale.

7 PTO Types That Can Be Included in Your Policy

The type of PTO included in a policy can vary from company to company, as well as within state laws. Here are 7 different types of PTO that can be included in your company policy.

  • Holidays

  • Vacation Days

  • Paid Sick Leave

  • Paid Personal Time

  • Paid Bereavement Leave

  • Parental Leave

  • Jury Duty

Paid Holidays

Paid holidays are typically days when employees are given time off with full pay. These holidays often include national and cultural observances, such as New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Paid holidays provide employees with the opportunity to celebrate and spend time with loved ones without sacrificing their income.

Vacation Days

Vacation days are perhaps the most familiar type of PTO. Employees accrue these days over time and can use them to take planned time off for rest and relaxation. Whether it's a family trip, a solo adventure, or simply a staycation, vacation days allow employees to recharge and return to work with renewed energy.

Paid Sick Leave

Paid sick leave is essential for employees facing health-related challenges. It allows them to take time off when they are ill, recovering from surgery, or dealing with a medical condition without worrying about losing income. Providing paid sick leave promotes employee well-being and prevents the spread of illnesses in the workplace.

Paid Personal Time

Paid personal time is a versatile form of PTO that employees can use for various personal reasons. It can encompass anything from attending a child's school event to handling personal appointments or pursuing hobbies and interests. Paid personal time recognizes the importance of work-life balance.

Paid Bereavement Leave

Paid bereavement leave is granted to employees who have suffered the loss of a loved one. It allows them to take time off to grieve, attend funerals, and manage related responsibilities without the added stress of unpaid leave. Compassionate organizations understand the significance of supporting employees during difficult times.

Parental Leave

Parental leave is specifically designed to accommodate employees who are becoming parents. It includes maternity leave for birth mothers, paternity leave for fathers, and adoption leave for parents welcoming a child through adoption. Parental leave promotes family bonding and helps employees transition into parenthood.

Jury Duty

Jury duty leave provides job protection and often partial or full pay to employees who are summoned to serve on a jury. It recognizes employees' civic responsibilities and ensures they can fulfill their duty without financial hardship.

Learn more about the different types of PTO and paid time off examples, in depth.



Improve Employee Wellness While Saving Costs For Your Company


3 Different Types of PTO Policies

Let’s go through the three main types of PTO policies generally offered.

#1: Set Number of Days

This type of policy means that employers earn a set number of PTO days per year.

#2: Accrued Time Off

This PTO policy allows you to accrue a certain amount of time off at a given period, such as a pay period.

#3: Rollover Allowances

Your employer’s PTO policy may allow you to roll over your earned PTO from one year to the next.

Advantages of PTO Policies

PTO policies can be advantageous for both employees and employers.

Below we will discuss the benefits of PTO by highlighting three pros to utilizing PTO policies vs. traditional time off policies.

#1: Employees Appreciate PTO

The bottom line is that employees truly appreciate the personal benefits and flexibility of PTO.

Employee satisfaction is a win-win for both employees and employers. And understanding the importance of balancing PTO and inflation in current times can further enhance this mutual benefit."

#2: PTO Can Facilitate a More Honest Employee/Employer Relationship

Allowing employees to utilize PTO can help facilitate a more honest employee/employer relationship.

Instead of cashing in sick days for vacation, personal time off, or other reasons, employees can simply use their paid time off at their discretion without having to be dishonest.

#3: PTO Can Help Alleviate Last-Minute Employee Absences

Think about it: Would you rather have employees using sick days to extend their vacation last-minute, or have them utilize their paid time off as they see fit in the first place?

When employees are able to allocate their paid time off days accordingly without having to dip into sick days, employers can receive more notice for time off, allowing them to fill in absences without any last-minute stress.

#4: PTO Helps Reduce Employee Burnout

Employee burnout is a common workplace issue, but a well-implemented PTO policy can mitigate it. PTO allows employees to rest and recover, reducing stress and promoting work-life balance. It helps prevent presenteeism and encourages a healthier, more sustainable approach to work.

#5: PTO Attracts the Best Talent

In a competitive job market, offering a robust PTO policy can give your organization a competitive edge. Prospective employees value work-life balance and flexibility, making a generous PTO policy an attractive incentive. It also helps build a positive reputation, contributing to recruitment success.

#6: PTO Increases Employee Retention

High turnover is costly and one of the best PTO benefits is employee retention.Job satisfaction, reduced stress, and long-term commitment are outcomes of a PTO-friendly workplace. A positive organizational culture, rooted in employee well-being, fosters loyalty and reduces turnover rates.

Make PTO a Win-Win with Sorbet

Unused PTO is a lose-lose for employees and employers.

Unused PTO can lead to tired, burnt-out employees and rack up billions of dollars in liabilities for employers.

Sorbet is the sweet PTO solution to this problem!

Check out our PTO Calculator here.

Sorbet turns broken PTO systems into a win-win for employers and employees by:

  • Suggesting pre-approved dates for employees to utilize PTO

  • Allowing employees to instantly cash out unused PTO time so it doesn’t go to waste

  • Saving employers money by reducing annual accrued liabilities

Interested in improving the work-life balance of your employees while saving expenses and liabilities for your company?

Click here to schedule a free demo today.


Want to predict and reduce your employees’ accrued time off payouts while offering innovative cash-out benefits?

Sorbet’s complimentary Health Check uncovers the economics behind your Paid Time Off Policy ensuring you get a clear picture of actionable data with a simple, guided process. Email to get in touch and coordinate your free Health Check.

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