Working in tech: the myth of “unlimited PTO”

Historically in the United States, the concept of “paid time off” has been a controversial one. The U.S. is the only industrialized Western nation to have zero national policy around paid parental leave in the world; some companies, some of which I have called customers, who are large multi-national companies with thousands of employees, have zero recognition for parental leave at their U.S. locations, and so when employees become new parents, if they choose to take time off, it’s deducted from their paid time off (PTO) allotment. We’re also the only Western country that does not require payment for time not worked, such as vacation leave, sick leave, or federally recognized holidays. These benefits are considered matters of agreement between an employer and an employee.

So it would appear that the U.S. values capitalism, productivity, and work, work, work as its number one priority. And it values human life or human health very little to not at all (we will not discuss healthcare in this post, though, as that is its own disgusting can of worms). It’s a wonder why people want to continue living here sometimes, self included.

But that idea inside, when you are living in a country that has egregious laws, or lack of laws, around paid time off, it would initially seem to be a sort of dream when you are finally employed by a company that actually has what is known as an “unlimited PTO policy.” The average American company across industries only offers around 10 days of PTO per year, so… unlimited? WHAT A DREAM LIFE, right?

Perhaps initially, it may seem that way. That’s why so many tech companies list it as a “benefit” or “perk” when you visit their Careers page or see one of their job listings on sites like LinkedIn. That’s why when recruiters do phone screens with potential candidates, it’s one of the very first perks they note on their calls. But in reality, it’s much more nuanced than this. No, just because you work at a company that has unlimited PTO does not mean you can just take off for half the year, a quarter of the year, or even a full month. Nope. They expect that you will still work as you would normally work as if there were a set number of days you could take off per year.

As an HR professional once told me pointedly, “‘Unlimited PTO’ is not a benefit to the employee; it’s a benefit to the company,” she said. What this means is: the day you decide you want to leave your company (or said company fires/lays you off), the company will be required to pay out zero accrued PTO days because you didn’t accrue anything; there’s an “unlimited” policy, remember? The company wants to “owe” its employees as little as possible, and this is their way of getting there while also at the same time appearing to do something that is beneficial and “perk” like for its employees. Yet, hmmmm. Despite having an “unlimited” policy, pretty much all companies that have this policy in place still require you to “log” PTO so that it’s still be tracked (to potentially be used against you later for baseless reasons). Fun, right?

“So then, how much PTO are you expecting I actually take with this policy?” I responded back to this HR professional.

She smiled. When HR professionals smile, you should really never trust them. Every time they smile, they are just lapping up their perceived power in the conversation. “You should take however many days you would have taken if you were able to accrue PTO at your previous company.”

Here is where I smiled back. “Well, it’s funny you say that because the last time I actually accrued PTO, I had 23 PTO days, 4 summer days, plus the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day off,” I said to her. “So in other words, here, do you suggest I continue taking 31 days off?”

Her smile faded. She paused, wrinkled her brow, unsure of how to respond. Frankly, I don’t remember what her response was to that in the end because it was so plainly insipid. But I did remember to tell her at some point of this conversation, “If the stance of HR at this organization is that ‘unlimited PTO’ is a benefit to the company and not to its employees, I would suggest that you stop having our recruiters talk so enthusiastically about it during their phone screens with prospective candidates, and also to remove it from our Careers page as a listed perk.”

That was when I made it clear to our HR professional that I wasn’t going to take bullshit explanations. It was also probably when they decided to wage a form of war against me. At the end of the day, stupidity and hypocrisy need to be called out, and I don’t really care if they enjoy it or not.

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