What’s the Difference Between Vacation and Sick Leave?

The difference between sick leave and vacation is that sick leave is used to care for one’s own health (or sometimes, that of a child or other family member), and vacation days are for, well, a vacation or fun.

An employer can also offer “flexible” or “personal” time off, or just generic PTO. When it comes to termination pay-outs, accrual caps, and rollovers, these days are treated just like vacation days.

Many states‘ laws have three important differences and regulations between vacation and sick time:

  1. Limitations on time off: First, an employee has an absolute right to take an accrued sick day, regardless of the employer’s wishes. You can’t discipline an employee for taking accrued sick leave, even if the employee didn’t give you notice, or if you cannot find a replacement worker. In contrast, employers reserve the right to allow, deny, and set policies around employees’ use of vacation time.
  2. Reasons for time off: Second, an employee may only use sick leave for purposes related to medical treatment. An employer may request a doctor’s note to verify whether the employee took sick leave for an appropriate reason. Vacation, on the other hand, can be used in accordance with the employer’s policy for any reason: moving, DMV appointments–even sickness!
  3. Financial differences: Third, many states require employers to pay out vacation days when an employee leaves the company. However, most states don’t require sick leave to be paid out when they leave.

Now, these laws differ from state-to-state, be sure to check your state’s Department of Labor website. In particular, PTO-only leave policies and “unlimited” PTO policies present complex problems best resolved in consultation with an attorney or HR expert.

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