Why can’t I use my vacation time the way I want?

The Covid-19 emergency produces not only novel scientific questions, but legal ones too.  Millions of California employees will be required by their employers in the coming weeks to take involuntary leave, and to use their vacation time during this leave.  I’ve been getting calls from prospective clients asking if their employer can  require them to use their “Paid Time Off” [vacation/sick leave/personal days] during an mandated Covid-19 leave of absence.  I conclude “yes,” in most cases. My reasoning follows.

You likely consider your PTO as earned wages, and to be used by you on your terms, not the employer’s.  Not necessarily so.  True, you may prefer to hold these “in the bank” for something you considered a greater emergency than the Covid-19 quarantine.

While there is no clear precedent within existing law to categorize just what kind of leave is applicable to a Covid-19 quarantine. One common element is that the leave is “involuntary” and it is related to the existing duty of an employer under state and federal law to provide a safe workplace.

The Bottom Line

My conclusion is that your employer may legally pay out vacation time [and PTO] as as a benefit during an involuntary quarantine even if you the employee do not request such. I reason from the CA Unemployment Insurance benefits model. The EDD will treat unpaid vacation as “wages” to reduce U.I. Benefits IF there is a layoff of indefinite duration of leave. A definite date for return to work by contrast is deemed by EDD to be a “termination of employment,” whereupon the employer’s “vacation benefit” becomes earned wages due at “termination.” Since the quarantine is indefinite (i.e., subject to extension), there is no termination of employment. Thus, the vacation pay or “PTO” remains in benefit status, subject to unilateral right of the employer to pay out the benefit in its discretion.