How to calculate PTO hours + accruals

By Gabriella Fundaro

Mar. 6, 2023


  • Paid time off comes in many different types, including vacation, sick leave, personal leave, and bereavement time. – More

  • Your company can also choose to have workers accrue their time off, offer PTO up front, or even offer unlimited time off. – More

  • No matter your company’s specific time off policy, automatic PTO tracking software calculates leave for you and ensures proper coverage. – More

Workers are finally starting to take more time off for vacation and rest, a pretty significant shift in America’s always-hustling working culture. According to a Korn Ferry survey in 2021, 79% of workers said they planned to use more vacation days that year than in years past, and 82% said they would appreciate more vacation time in our post-pandemic world.

Paid time off (PTO) has always been valued by employees. 76% of American workers feel that it’s very important their company provides PTO. Paid sick time (74%) and paid holidays (74%) are also very important among workers. 

Also read: Paid Sick Leave Laws by State

Employers can retain more workers, lower stress levels, and improve productivity among their workforce by developing a clear and fair PTO policy. But there’s no “one size fits all” approach to adopting the perfect plan for your company — you’ll have to sort out the right policy based on your workforce needs, then make sure you’re calculating time off banks correctly to help each worker get the time they’re entitled to.

Breaking down the types of PTO

There are a few different reasons why an employee might use their PTO. Depending on your company policy, they might use any available PTO day for any of these reasons, or they might have an allotment of days for each category.

  • Vacation: This is your run-of-the-mill bank of time for employees to use for day trips, staycations, travel, weddings, or the like. If it’s something they’re planning for, they’ll likely use vacation days.
  • Sick time: If an employee isn’t feeling well enough to work, they can take a sick day to rest up. Well-being also includes mental health; according to a survey by Breeze, 63% of respondents said they had taken a mental health day in the last year.
  • Personal days: Personal time is for when things happen outside the worker’s control. Maybe they’re stuck in a blizzard coming home from their in-laws, or they have to say goodbye to the family pet. Personal leave is there for life’s curveballs.
  • Parental leave: Companies aren’t legally required to offer paid parental leave, but some still offer it as a benefit to their workers. More businesses than ever were paying maternity and paternity leave benefits after the pandemic, but that trend is curtailing again. According to SHRM, 35% of companies offered paid maternity leave in 2022, and 27% offered paid paternity leave.
  • Jury duty: If an employee gets called in for their civic duty, their employer may choose to offer them PTO for at least part of their service.
  • Bereavement: Bereavement time is meant for employees who lose a loved one. Some companies only allow bereavement leave for close relatives. Workers can use this time to attend the funeral or other memorial services, or just take time for themselves to grieve without thinking about work.

How does PTO work?

You can allocate time off to your employees using a few different systems. In a traditional PTO format, workers accrue time off based on their hours or days worked. But more employers these days are leaning towards more flexible time off policies.

Accruing Time Off

With this type of policy, your workers will accrue time off based on every hour or day they work. The accrued time off will be added to their PTO bank, and they can take time off when they have enough hours banked. You can choose to lump all types of PTO together or distinguish between vacation and other types of PTO.

Usually, employees accrue different types of PTO at different rates. For example, for the year, your policy might grant ten days of vacation, five sick days, five bereavement days, and three personal days. Then, for each 40-hour workweek, employees will accrue their vacation time faster than their sick time, bereavement leave, or personal time. Employees with more years of service might also accrue more paid days of leave per year.

With an accrued time off policy, employees have to wait until enough time is banked to use their PTO. That means that you can’t just look at scheduling needs when weighing PTO requests — you’ll also have to track each worker’s banked PTO to ensure they have enough balance.

Unlimited Time Off

In an unlimited time off system, there’s much more flexibility for employees to take days off as they wish. There is no set number of days in an unlimited PTO system. Instead, employees can take off as many days as they’d like, for any reason, as long as the time off is approved by the company and they’re still fulfilling their individual responsibilities.

This flexibility can be a benefit to employees. There’s usually a level of trust that workers will take the time they need to stay rested and attend to personal matters while remaining productive at work.

However, an unlimited PTO policy also comes with some severe drawbacks. Studies show that employees, on average, take less time off under an unlimited policy than those who operate under a traditional policy. This is most likely due to a sense of guilt and other unspoken, toxic workplace stigmas around taking leave. 

Just like in a traditional accrued time off structure, managers and company leadership still have to approve time off in an unlimited policy. If you opt for this type of format, the difference is you won’t be looking at the hours available in an employee’s time off bank. Before you approve any leave, you’ll still typically review factors like workforce coverage, scheduling needs, and productivity.

Under an unlimited PTO policy, you also don’t have to pay employees for the time off they’ve accrued when they exit your company. In a traditional PTO system, you do owe workers for any unused PTO time that they’ve banked during their tenure. When an employee leaves, they’re usually entitled to a payout of the days of PTO they accumulated.

How to calculate PTO

Small-business and startup consultancy Bizfluent notes that calculating PTO by pay period allows organizations to evenly distribute an employee’s time off accumulation throughout the year.  Organizations with hourly or part-time employees should consider providing PTO based on the number of hours worked. When an organization calculates PTO hourly, it allows employers to award less PTO for hourly employees who do not report to work (for whatever reason) or for part-time employees who do not always work the same number of hours in a pay period.

One metric employers can follow to calculate PTO is dividing the annual PTO hours by annual work hours. For example, if an hourly employee earns 80 hours of PTO each year and works 40 hours a week, or 2,080 hours per year, divide 80 by 2,080. That works out to an employee earning 0.038 hours of PTO for each hour worked.

The PTO formula is:

Hours of PTO / hours worked each year = hours of PTO earned per hour worked

So in our above example, the organization’s PTO formula for this employee would be:

80 hours / 2,080 hours = 0.038 hours of PTO earned per hour worked

How to navigate common PTO challenges

Even if you set a clear PTO policy, there are bound to be situations or employee requests that fall outside of the policy that you’ll still have to balance. The key is to treat all employees fairly and accurately track PTO balances so you know exactly where you stand.

A sick employee has already used all their days.

Combining sick leave and vacation into one PTO category can lead to unplanned consequences for employees. If a sick employee has used all their PTO days, they might feel compelled to show up ill and risk infecting co-workers.

Help employees plan for this by offering guidance during onboarding or in posts throughout the year via internal communications about the importance of banking some PTO for sick days. For example, advise employees to consider paid time off as five days of vacation, four sick days or an unplanned emergency, and one day for a special occasion.

A new employee needs to use PTO days before accruing them.

Companies often hire employees with previous personal commitments for which they need time off after being hired. Prospective candidates often are honest and upfront about this as the hiring process progresses. 

Since most policies establishing how to calculate PTO makes it hard for employees to take time off in the early months of their employment, many employers will allow employees to “borrow” their PTO. Allowing 40 hours of borrowed time gives an employee a full week off. To avoid lump accumulations and to calculate PTO more accurately, companies can implement earning PTO incrementally with each pay period.

If you allow your employees to borrow ahead on their PTO plan, you’ll need to track the borrowed hours accurately. You’ll also need visibility into the rest of your attendance and scheduling to quickly identify and resolve any coverage issues, especially for unplanned absences like a death in the family.

Tracking PTO doesn’t need to be difficult

Effective leave management is crucial for shift-based workforces. For one, it promotes employee well-being and reduces burnout. It also keeps you compliant with various wage and hour laws in your state. But most importantly, handling PTO properly keeps shifts organized and lowers the chance of scheduling mistakes. 

You could manually approve, calculate, and track PTO across your workforce – this is fine enough for a small business. But one slight misstep can wreak havoc on timesheets and schedules. To save yourself the headache, utilizing an automated PTO tracker is a good idea. For shift workers, it is important that something like this be mobile-first and optimized for self-service; this way, the admin work is as non-intrusive as possible.

Mobile app that employees can use to request PTO

An app like this can do things like:

  • Automatically track leave balances
  • Calculate and apply PTO to timesheets
  • Prevent employees on leave from accidentally being scheduled
  • Allow employees to request leave and check their balances
  • Let managers review past and upcoming time off on a calendar
  • Allow managers to create custom accrual rates

Pretty sweet, right? If you want to learn more about how this all works, contact us today. 

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