Unless your otolaryngology practice is in the state of Connecticut, or in a place like San Franscisco or the District of Columbia, chances are you are not legally bound to provide paid time off for your employees. If you want to attract the highest-quality employee, however, offering some paid vacation and/or sick days is likely essential.
But the question of how much time off to provide, as well as how to ensure staff does not abuse the policy, can leave practice managers confused. Here, we help you navigate the waters of paid time off.
How Much Time to Offer
According to Jeffrey W. Dudley, CEO of the Sacramento Ear, Nose and Throat Surgical and Medical Group, Inc., and president-elect of the Association of Otolaryngology Administrators, the amount of time off a practice offers for sick and/or vacation days varies. “For the most part, vacation accruals start after six months of service at the rate of two weeks per year [10 working days],” he said. This vacation time typically increases by five days every five years and is usually capped at five weeks per year. For paid sick time off, Dudley said an accrual rate of five days per year is a good starting point.
Although additional paid days off, such as personal days or paid birthdays, can be nice perks for employees, “sometimes it is just easier to tell an employee to take a Friday off with pay—they appreciate it and don’t have to dip into any of their accruals,” he added.
Since labor laws vary from state to state, it can be very beneficial to hire an attorney proficient in employment law to write your employee handbook, said Nina Ries, principal at Ries Law Group in Santa Monica, Calif. “Most critically, you will want to make sure you have complied with the laws of your state,” she said. “On a related note, you will want to make sure you have taken the strictest position available in your state. Borrowed employee handbooks or ones that you find on the Internet may not be relevant to your state, may include provisions that are broader than your state requires and may not make sense for your business type or size.” For a quick overview of leave benefits, including the Family Medical Leave Act, visit dol.gov and click on “Leave Benefits.”
Paid time off encourages people who are actually sick to stay home and recover, instead of coming to work and infecting their coworkers. But what if you suspect an employee is taking advantage of paid sick days? “This is pretty easy to spot,” Dudley said, explaining that patterns are usually easily uncovered, such as repeated Friday or Monday sick calls.
In addition, watch out for employees burning through paid time off at the end of the year. The employee handbook should be explicit about corrective action taken against employees who misuse the paid time off system, said Dudley. “If employees abuse the system and you enforce the handbook, the consequences should not be a surprise.” It’s important to deal with the situation when it arises by giving the employee the required warnings, then suspending and/or firing if necessary. Ries added that employers should maintain records of all employees’ absences as a matter of course to ensure universal application of the rules and to assist the employer should any claims of discrimination arise.
Nevertheless, it’s critical to determine the reason for absences and tardiness. “If absences are due to a medical condition, the employee may be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the employer may be required to make certain accommodations,” said Ries. “Other protected statuses may also exist, such as pregnancy. Before taking adverse actions against employees, an employer should consult with legal counsel to discuss the facts and determine how best to protect the company.”
However, the benefits of offering sick time typically outweigh the possible negatives. In addition to ensuring that your staff remains as healthy as possible, “sick time recognizes that things happen in our lives,” said Dudley, who used the example of a parent taking a sick day to tend to an ill child. To encourage staff to use their sick time only when appropriate, try offering those who did not use any sick time a bonus of 50 percent to 100 percent of the actual time at the end of the year.
An employee won’t always know ahead of time when he or she needs time off, but all other requests for leave should be approved and scheduled in advance. “Look at the schedule, see who is already off and determine if you have adequate staff to allow for a vacation,” Dudley said.
Even though an employee may be on vacation for a week or two, your practice doesn’t have to suffer. The key to easily navigating the times when an employee is out of the office is ensuring that the entire staff is as adequately cross-trained as possible. “Cross-training your staff means you can move people from less time-sensitive areas to more time-sensitive areas,” such as those requiring patient contact, Dudley said. For longer periods of time off, such as short-term disability, it’s up to the practice manager to determine if it is in the practice’s best interest to hire a temporary replacement.
As important as it is to have as complete a staff as possible, it’s also important to ensure that they’re able to maintain a reasonable work-life balance, which includes taking vacations. After all, added Dudley, “Employees need to rejuvenate.” To discourage staff from accumulating excessive amounts of vacation time, consider capping employees’ cumulative accrual. For example, if you allot three weeks of vacation time per year, an employee could accumulate six weeks of vacation time, and after that his or her accrual would cease until time is taken. Be sure to check with state and local legislation to ensure the legality of this practice in your area.
Ultimately, when it comes to sick and vacation time, it is crucial to remember that people are not machines and shouldn’t be treated as such. “Accommodate requests as much as possible,” said Dudley. “Employees who are not allowed time off will become former employees.”