Can You Be Fired for Using PTO? (Yes, here’s how)


If you’ve been at a job for any period of time, there is a chance you’ve accrued some paid time off (PTO). If it’s getting close to the end of the year, and your PTO doesn’t rollover, you definitely want to use it so you don’t lose it. But can you be fired for using PTO?

Here’s what I know having helped thousands of my former employees over the decades:

No, most employers will not fire an employee for using PTO. But, at-will employees can be fired at any time for any reason that doesn’t violate EEOC policy. Employees do need to follow proper time-off request policies & return to work as agreed or risk violating a company’s time and attendance policies.

But that’s just a quick snapshot. And sometimes the laws vary from state to state. So let’s dig in a little deeper and see if we can get you a more detailed answer to your specific problem.

Does your employer have to give you the time off when you request it? If they don’t give you the time off, do they have to pay you the unused PTO? Can they fire you when you get back to work after using PTO?

We’ll answer all of these questions and more.

Just keep reading!

Can I use my PTO whenever I want?

This will vary widely by the employer, and you should check your employee handbook and/or check with your HR department.

Typically, if you are a new employee, there will be some sort of probationary period before you can use PTO.

Generally, you can use PTO whenever you want. Some companies have specific limits for time off (paid and unpaid) broken out into different categories such as sick time, personal time, and vacations.

Other companies just grant employees a set amount of PTO to use anytime they are unable to work or don’t want to work.

If you get sick and need a sick day, you’ll be using PTO. Going on a cruise next month? PTO. So yes, you can use it whenever you want as long as you get approval from your supervisor first.

Depending on the company, they may have days that you’re not allowed to take a vacation. If you’re in retail, and they have a policy that everyone works on Black Friday, then you likely won’t be able to use PTO.

Or if you work in a small department, you may not be able to take PTO at the same time as another coworker.

When I was at Whole Foods Market, the busiest times of year were Thanksgiving week, Christmas week, and New Year’s week. We very rarely allowed anyone to take vacations during those weeks as it was all hands on deck.

That’s the reality for most retail stores.

But teachers almost always get most of those weeks off since schools are closed. So it all depends on the category your employer falls into.

Just be sure to follow company policy when it comes to taking PTO. And remember that employers don’t necessarily have to approve it. Especially if it will leave your employer short-handed.

Can an employer revoke PTO?

There’s no federal law requiring that employers give employees vacation or sick leave. And only a few states require that employees be given sick leave.

Because of this, there is no law preventing your boss from denying PTO, even after it’s been approved. (source)

So yes, your employer can revoke your PTO.

But it’s very unlikely; especially if you work for a reputable company. To be competitive and get (and keep) good employees, employers will offer PTO.

Any company that pulls PTO will get terrible reviews on Glassdoor. And they will have a really hard time keeping talented, hard-working employees. Right now there may be more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available. But that changes from year to year and city to city.

A good employer values their reputation in the workforce. Another thing that will ruin a company’s culture and reputation is gossiping.

When you work with a lot of other people, gossip is a natural by-product of that. While sometimes harmless, it can often be considered “creating a hostile work environment.”

Gossip is mean-spirited and not appropriate in the workplace. If you engage in it, you can end up jobless.

I wrote this recent article where I discuss the pitfalls of gossiping in the workplace and how it can lead to disciplinary action.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

What happens if I don’t use my PTO?

If you’re given PTO, you should definitely use it. Taking PTO can often feel like you’re doing something wrong. Sometimes it can even put you in a negative light and affect your career advancement.

That was especially true for me as a leader for Whole Foods. I had been there so long, I got 6 weeks of PTO each year (which luckily rolled over). But I never took that much time off out of fear of how my bosses would perceive it.

But PTO is there for a reason. Some studies show using your PTO days can be beneficial for your health and well-being.

One recent study found that vacationing more could actually be considered a risk-reducing lifestyle change. In fact, people that took the maximum 15 days of PTO faced a 1% probability of developing metabolic syndrome (risk of heart attack & stroke).

People that didn’t take any vacation days had a 47% probability of developing metabolic syndrome!

But if you are adamant about not taking any PTO, it’s really going to depend on your employer.

Some employers will allow you to roll over vacation days. This means that last year’s unused PTO will carry over into the next year, with some sort of cap on the amount of accrued days.

Some employers will let you “cash-out” those days, and just give you a check for the value of the days.

Others will have a “use it or lose it” policy, meaning that if you don’t use your PTO days, you’ll lose them. You’ll have to wait until next year to go on vacation.

So dust off that handy dandy employee manual and take a look. If you’re going to lose your days, you may as well take them. That’s why they give them to you, after all.

Can I be fired after returning from vacation?

Employees can be fired for anything that’s not protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (think gender, race, pregnancy, and disability), particularly if they are an at-will employee.

That means they live in a state in the US that is considered an “at-will” state.

An at-will employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, with a few exceptions that would violate federal employment law, like discrimination.

I go into a lot more details about what an at-will state is, including a state-by-state guide, in a recent article geared towards firing employees with a bad attitude.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Now, having said that, I firmly believe that employers have a moral obligation to be firm, fair, and consistent. And an obligation to make expectations and consequences crystal clear.

So if you’ve followed your company handbook, that spells out company policy, including the PTO policy, you shouldn’t get fired.

If you do get fired, and you’re surprised by it, I implore you to take a deep look inward.

Are you a team player? Do you do the minimum, or do you really give it your all? Did you come back from vacation when you were supposed to?

If you are genuinely surprised by being fired, then that’s a sign of poor leadership, and a reflection on your boss more than it is on you.

Does my employer have to give me time off if I have PTO?

There’s no federal law requiring that employers give employees vacation or sick leave. And only a few states require that employees be given sick leave.

As a result, this means they don’t have to give you time off if you have PTO.

Not only would it be bad practice to just deny employees PTO that they’ve accrued, but it would also be morally and ethically wrong.

However, it is perfectly reasonable for some employers to have “blackout” dates where you’re just not allowed to use PTO. Black Friday and big holidays for retail workers, for example, as I got into above.

Or if they have a policy that only one employee can be out at a time, and someone is already out the week you want to take off.

Or if everyone wants the Monday after the Superbowl off. It’s just not feasible.

If you’re asking for PTO at a time that could hurt your employer, or if it’s going to leave them short-handed, then they can, and probably should deny your PTO request.

Good employers try to be fair and reasonable, even when it comes to firing employees. That’s why it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get fired over the phone.

Unless of course, you’re just impossible to reach.

Read this recent article geared towards employers about firing employees over the phone if you want the scoop on how you could get fired over the phone.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Did I answer everything you want to know about using your PTO and whether you can get fired?

Every state or even local municipalities may have different laws regarding the use of PTO.

Generally, if you have accrued PTO, and follow company policy, you won’t be fired. Just be sure to follow company policy and return to work when scheduled.

Keep in mind that companies value employees that come in as scheduled, have good attitudes, and are generally team players.

If that sounds like you, you should be good to go on that vacation!

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

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