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If You Can, Should You Donate Your PTO to a Coworker in Need?

Put down that Ramones onesie you just eyed as a baby shower gift for your prego coworker and consider giving her some of your paid time off instead. That’s what everyone else is doing, according to The Washington Post, who noted recently that donating PTO to new moms is the new office trend.

But before you consider handing over your vacation days, consider a few things.

First things first: Even if you wanted to hand over your own PTO to a coworker in need, there’s a good chance your employer doesn’t currently offer the option. The Post noted the current trend they’re referring to exists in federal offices, based on Congressional law passed in 1988 that lets employees donate their unused leave to others. According to CNBC, only about 15 percent of private employers offer PTO donation programs.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) explains that the policies “can be great resources for people facing urgent situations,” and offers guidelines on how companies can set them up so the banks of unused time are available to everyone and used fairly. Given that they can also be used for natural disasters that put some employees out of work for extended periods of time, they note that they can be “administratively burdensome” for companies, particularly if you live in an area prone to several natural disasters a year. Still, they are argued as promoting camaraderie and boosting morale in the workplace.

Of course, something that would boost even greater morale would be paid leave or better PTO policies and job protections to endure the actual stuff of life. How did we even get to a point where the best option for most parents to get through a few weeks of critical newborn care and maternal recovery or other medical disasters is to rely on the kindness of their coworkers?

The answer is that, in spite of overwhelming Democratic and Republican support for paid leave, we don’t ultimately pass paid federal leave policies because of our relentless commitment to pro-business interests, and the very cool American notion that it’s hard work that leads to success, not government handouts.

That attitude puts us in rare company: The United States still is the only industrialized country that still doesn’t have any mandatory paid leave for new parents. Only about 14 percent of U.S. workers have any access to paid leave. (Trump’s budget pitch for six weeks of paid leave, still in review, has elicited concern about how states will pay for it.)

The other 88 percent are left to scrap for unpaid leave offered by the Family Medical Leave Act, passed over 20 years ago by Bill Clinton, which protects your job for 12 (again, unpaid) weeks while you care for yourself or a family member. That only applies, though, if the company has over 50 employees and doesn’t consider you so essential to the operation as to be replaceable (they can provide you with a job when you return, but it doesn’t have to be the same job you left). The majority of folks who use FMLA (some 55 percent) do so not to care not for a newborn, but to care for themselves or a sick family member. Only 21 percent take it for pregnancy or newborn care.

That suggests that new parents don’t use it because they can’t afford to work without pay. Most people who take leave to care for a baby do what I did when I had a kid 8 years ago: by cobbling together a series of benefits that include paid and unpaid time. That means you use some vacation days here, some short-term disability there, some unpaid FMLA time, and if you’re lucky, miraculously give birth on a long weekend or over a major holiday. That’s a very privileged position to be in, though.

A recent report found that in spite of the passage of FMLA, the number of women who take any form of maternity leave in this country has remained stagnant for two decades, at about 273,000 women every month. Under half were paid for any of that time. About a quarter of women return to work just 10 days after giving birth.

To put that in some perspective: Your vagina is still bleeding profusely after giving birth, whether you deliver vaginally or by C-section, for as much as six weeks, to say nothing of the other recovery, normal or otherwise, that happens after you have a baby. Two weeks doesn’t come close to cutting it for most people to bond with their children, but they suck it up and go back to work because they need to eat. What’s more, many women haven’t gotten anywhere near being physically back up to speed (to say nothing of the time needed to establish nursing), but they have no choice. Comedian Ali Wong joked in her new Netflix special Hard Knock Wife that maternity leave is not just about bonding with the baby, as most people assume: “Maternity leave is for new moms to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies.”

All this makes it sound like donating your PTO to a new mother is such a good, noble act that we should all be doing it. But it’s not that simple. There are numerous reports online of workers who donated their own PTO — usually for colleagues facing medical emergencies, not necessarily for newborn care — that illustrate the potential pitfalls. Employees at a Colorado hospital donated PTO so a colleague could stay with her adult daughter while she received cancer treatments. Utah workers at a rehab center gifted a colleague donated PTO so she could recover from chemo to treat her breast cancer. A woman working at Duke University in North Carolina needed beyond the 10 weeks of vacation she’d saved up when she suffered an aneurysm, so she drew from a pool of donated PTO from colleagues.

But employment experts warn of protecting workers against “their own good intentions,” as attorney Monica Whalen put it in a piece about compassionate PTO. “They can be caught shorthanded if they don’t have enough PTO to meet their own needs or family need,” Whalen said to UC Health. Additionally, employees who give the unused PTO may still be taxed on that income, and employees who receive it may also be taxed. And you’d need to understand that the rate at which you give your unused PTO might not be worth the same dollar amount as what’s received. PTO is more valuable the more you make.

But mostly, what happens if you donate some unused PTO to a good coworker cause and then find yourself suddenly in need of it? What if you apply to your company’s bank of unused PTO and are denied because your specific condition doesn’t meet the requirement, even after handing your unused PTO to someone else? Other human resources experts have raised numerous concerns about the practice along these lines. Writing at Quirky Employment Questions, an HR expert writes:

First, what will the employer do if one of the employees who has donated all of his/her sick time also becomes ill or is in an accident? Will the employer simply insist that the sick time has been used up and force the employee to take a leave without compensation? How long might this unpaid leave last before the absences would affect the employee’s continued employment?

Additional concerns include whether other employees feel some kind of pressure to contribute. They continue:

What if the employee who “encouraged” others to donate their sick leave is a manager? Someone with hiring/firing responsibility? If an employee did not agree to “donate” his/her sick time, would their be any adverse consequences for that employee? Third, what if the employee who is sick is herself a manager with disciplinary authority, or hiring and firing authority? Would employees being requested to “donate” sick-leave time to this individual feel comfortable rejecting this request?

The real question is not whether you should donate your PTO to someone in need, but rather, why this has been left up to coworkers to sort out.

If you can spare a day, by all means, pass it on. But unless you’re fit as a fiddle and in possession of a crystal ball, most of us are far too terrified to give that up, and we shouldn’t have to — particularly if you’re a parent. In one recent survey, over 60 percent of parents had at least a day in the last year their children were too sick to attend school, and some 40 percent missed as many as three days in a row caring for a sick kid. For young kids still building an immune system, this can be a couple of days every few months.

This is why I cling to my PTO like an earthquake kit under the bed, generally opting to work through my own illnesses and hers rather than use up precious guaranteed time off. To say nothing of the myriad other non-emergency causes of work absenteeism, from minor illness to back injuries to depression to hating your job to the general current problem of being overworked. As it stands, there is no PTO donation bank for that.