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45% of Americans Have Gone to Work Sick Due to a Lack of Paid Time Off

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Paid time off (PTO) is an important consideration for workers, especially during a pandemic. MagnifyMoney surveyed more than 1,300 consumers to see who has PTO, how they get it and how they use it.

Amid a pandemic that poses new physical and mental health challenges, 45% of Americans report they’ve gone to work sick because they lacked PTO — and nearly a third (32%) of currently employed consumers don’t have PTO.

Key findings

  • Nearly a third (32%) of American workers don’t receive paid time off. The lower a consumer’s household income, the less likely they are to get PTO. In fact, 52% of those earning less than $35,000 don’t have access to paid leave, compared with 20% of those making $100,000 or more.
  • 45% of Americans — in particular, 61% of Gen Zers — have gone to work sick because they didn’t have PTO. Similarly, 32% of consumers have worked remotely while ill instead of taking a sick day.
  • Nearly 30% of workers would prefer more paid time off than a bigger paycheck. Among those most likely to opt for vacation over money include those earning $75,000 to $99,999 (34%) and $50,000 to $74,999 (32%), and millennials (31%). On the flip side, a bigger paycheck could allow them to boost their savings.
  • Workers provided with PTO took an average of 14 days off in 2021, including sick days, vacation and personal time. The highest-paid workers took nearly twice as much time as the lowest-paid — 18 days for those making $100,000-plus, compared with 10 days for those making less than $35,000.
  • More than half (53%) of those with unlimited vacation days say they take less time off than they would with a set number of days. As for those without unlimited time off, 45% say their unused days roll over to the next year.
  • 97% of workers think employers should be required to provide employees with paid sick leave and paid vacation. The majority believe two weeks each would suffice, totaling 20 paid days off.

About a third of American workers don’t get PTO

Overall, about a third (32%) of currently employed workers don’t receive PTO for sick days or vacation. This is seen to varying degrees across income levels. While 20% of those who earn six figures or more don’t have PTO, Americans who earn the least — $35,000 or less annually — are the most likely not to get PTO (52%). Research shows that many employees classified as essential workers (in grocery, retail, agriculture, public transportation and other fields) earn low wages.

“Everyone deserves time off,” says Ismat Mangla, MagnifyMoney executive editor.

She notes that offering PTO can be advantageous to employers by contributing to employee retention and improved performance — a win-win policy.

For those who have PTO, the majority (55%) are offered a set number of vacation days and another set number of sick time. About 1 in 5 (19%) get unlimited vacation days.

Here’s a full look by the various breakdowns among those who get PTO:

  • 55% get a set number of vacation days and a set number of sick time
  • 16% get a set amount of time off in a single bucket (for example, 20 days that can be used for vacation or sick time)
  • 14% get unlimited vacation days and sick time
  • 8% get unlimited sick time and a set number of vacation days
  • 5% get unlimited vacation days and a set number of sick time
  • 3% get a set number of sick time (and no vacation days)

Working under the weather because of a lack of PTO

So what consequences can this lack of PTO cause? About half of all Americans (45%) have gone to work while sick because they didn’t have PTO.

But despite many Americans working when sick (and some even taking on debt) due to a lack of PTO, only a relatively small percentage (18%) have left a position because of it.

Members of the youngest generations — who are establishing their careers and, perhaps, their families — appear to struggle with a lack of PTO.

Have you ever done the following? (By generation)
Gen Zers (ages 18 to 25)Millennials (ages 26 to 41)Gen Xers (ages 42 to 56)Baby boomers (ages 57 to 76)
Went to work while sick due to a lack of PTO61%60% 40%27%
Worked remotely rather than taking a sick day48%39%31%18%
Taken on debt due to a lack of PTO35%34%19%9%
Been reprimanded for taking PTO38%32%16%6%

When left to choose between time and money, Americans pick $$

While most workers in the U.S. (72%) value income over PTO, 28% prefer PTO.

The groups with a larger desire for more PTO are:

  • Those earning $75,000 to $99,999 (34%)
  • Those earning $50,000 to $74,999 (32%)
  • Millennials (31%)
  • Midwesterners (30%)
  • Women (30%)
  • Remote workers (30%)

The groups with less than a quarter of its members preferring PTO were:

  • Those earning less than $35,000 (21%)
  • Westerners (23%)
  • Baby boomers (23%)

Hoping to turn unused vacation days into cash

Among the 45% of American workers who get a set number of PTO days and can roll them over unused days to the next year, 42% don’t use it, aiming for a cash payment when they leave the company.

Midwesterners (49%), Westerners (48%), baby boomers (47%), those who have a hybrid work schedule (46%) and those who make $50,000 to $74,999 (46%) are the biggest contributors among those who save PTO in search of a future payout that could be stashed in a high-yield savings account or elsewhere.

Workers provided with PTO take average of 14 days

On average, workers with PTO took 14 days off in 2021. Assuming a five-day workweek, Americans had about three weeks off during the year. Breaking that down, four were sick days, eight were vacation days and two were personal days (such as bereavement).

The amount of vacation that workers took increased with age and income. For example, baby boomers and those making $100,000-plus took at least double the average amount of vacation days in 2021 compared with Gen Zers and those making less than $35,000.

Meanwhile, people who work in person are slightly less likely to use PTO than those who work remotely and those on a hybrid schedule. Americans on a hybrid schedule take the most PTO by a small margin, about a day more.

Across the demographics, here’s the time off that Americans are taking, when sick days and vacation and personal time are mixed:

  • Men: 14 days
  • Women: 14 days
  • Gen Xers: 16 days
  • Millennials: 15 days
  • Baby boomers: 14 days
  • Gen Zers: 10 days
  • Hybrid workers: 15 days
  • Remote workers: 15 days
  • In-person workers: 14 days
  • Those earning $100,000 or more: 18 days
  • Those earning $75,000 to $99,999: 16 days
  • Those earning $35,000 to $49,999: 14 days
  • Those earning $50,000 to $74,999: 14 days
  • Those earning less than $35,000: 10 days
  • Midwesterners: 16 days
  • Northeasterners: 14 days
  • Southerners: 13 days
  • Westerners: 13 days

What PTO has looked like during the pandemic

Workers are split on how the pandemic impacted their time off: 26% take more PTO than pre-pandemic, while 25% take less.

Those taking more PTO now include:

  • Gen Zers (43%)
  • Those earning $75,000 to $99,999 (37%)
  • Remote workers (33%)
  • Hybrid workers (32%)
  • Millennials (29%)

That said, many Gen Zers could just be starting their careers and may not have been offered PTO before the pandemic.

Americans with unlimited PTO: Do they take advantage of it?

For those lucky Americans with unlimited vacation time, more than half (53%) say they take less time off than they would if they had a set number of days. Despite the generous nature of the policy, only 17% take more PTO than they would if their employers provided a limited amount of PTO.

“Culturally, Americans often don’t take all the vacation days they are owed, and when there is no clear number, they may take even less,” Mangla said.

She says the degree to which employees take advantage of unlimited PTO can depend on company culture, noting that there will sometimes be workers who abuse the policy.

The groups who say they took less PTO than they might with a set amount include:

  • Westerners (70%)
  • Remote workers (62%)
  • Southerners (62%)
  • Those earning $100,000 or more (61%)
  • Those earning $75,000 to $99,999 (58%)
  • Gen Xers (58%)

Americans overwhelmingly believe employers should have to require paid vacation, sick time

An overwhelming majority of Americans (97%) think employers should be required to provide employees with both paid sick leave and paid vacation.

Most think the minimum should be two weeks each, totaling 20 days of PTO. However, the second-largest group thinks that only one week each is sufficient, for a total of 10 PTO days in a year.

Only 5% of Americans think that unlimited vacation days should be standard, but that number rockets to 10% for unlimited sick days.

Methodology

MagnifyMoney commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,323 U.S. consumers (including 799 who are currently employed) from Feb. 15-21, 2022. The survey was administered using a nonprobability-based sample, and quotas were used to ensure the sample base represented the overall population. All responses were reviewed by researchers for quality control.

We defined generations as the following ages in 2022:

  • Generation Z: 18 to 25
  • Millennial: 26 to 41
  • Generation X: 42 to 56
  • Baby boomer: 57 to 76

While the survey also included consumers from the silent generation (those 77 and older), the sample size was too small to include findings related to that group in the generational breakdowns.