Here's an Explanation of Common Time Off Terminology

Wait, there is more than one kind of time off?

As PTO gains more and more traction, new subcategories have emerged as an attempt to categorize specific types of time off. For example, sick leave and vacation leave are the most common, while parental leave and family leave often go unnoticed. 

Paid time off (PTO) is just one type of time off you can encounter. Some (like sick leave or vacation time) are paid, while others (like FMLA or parental leave in some states) aren’t. You’ll probably encounter all these types of time off at your employer. Let’s clear the air and explain some of these commonly used time off terms.

Don't worry–we'll explain.

While some terms may be more applicable to you than others, it is essential to know them all–you never know when one of them will come in handy! 

Paid time off (PTO)

Simply put, paid time off (PTO) encompasses any paid time off from work While some companies separate sick time and vacation time, others group the two under a general PTO umbrella. Through this approach, employers don't have to keep track of an employee's reason for taking time off. Offering a PTO allows employees to take time off for any reason. The average number of PTO days in the U.S. is 9.7.

Sick leave

Whether you are sick or caring for someone else, employers can offer their employees time off for this purpose. Employers generally require that employees provide proof if employees request sick leave. Even though it seems as though offering sick leave should be expected everywhere, there are merely a few states that make this a requirement.


Whether you're hopping on a jet across the Atlantic or just planning on sitting on your couch and doing absolutely nothing, vacation leave can apply to anything. Like most PTO policies, employers are not required to offer paid vacation time to their workforce.

Flexible time off

Flexible time off is another way to say “unlimited PTO.” With flexible time off, employees can choose precisely when they need days off–most of the time, without keeping track of the hours. 

Paid leave

A blanket term for any time away from work: sick time, vacation time, family leave, and compensatory time off.  With paid leave, an employee is guaranteed compensation or partial compensation. Paid leave doesn’t include paid short-term or long-term disability, catastrophic leave, or similar benefits. 

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

FMLA allows employees to take time off from difficult situations, such as personal or family health issues. Whether you need some time to take care of your newborn child or care for yourself or a family member, the FMLA Act guarantees 12 weeks of leave.​​ The catch? The 12 weeks are unpaid. However, employers must ensure your job is secure when you’re ready to return. 

Paid holidays

Employers have the choice of whether to make holidays paid PTO days. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), no federal law requires employers to offer paid holidays. In this case, "holidays" refers to state, national, and religious holidays. 

Parental leave

You could be eligible for parental leave if you have just given birth or recently adopted a child. Due to FMLA, parental leave is required but often unpaid. However, paid parental leave may be available depending on your state. 

Currently, eleven states, as well as D.C., offer paid family leave:

  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Colorado
  • New York
  • Connecticut
  • Oregon
  • Delaware
  • Rhode Island
  • Massachusetts
  • Washington
  • Maryland
  • District of Columbia

Paid or unpaid PTO…how do I know?

As with most PTO legislation, it is up to the states to determine the law. For a good reason, sick leave is required in most states; however, some state laws allow companies under a specific size to forgo enacting a sick leave policy. Often, such as in Washington and New York, sick days are accrued. Usually, employees who worked at least 40 hours would be eligible for one hour of sick leave. 

States with such requirements will permit employers to frontload leave, offering their employees a specific number of leave hours instead of employees accruing this time off. In addition, if the employer utilizes this method, most state laws will waive the carryover requirement. This way, employers don't have to carry over unused hours into the next year or pay period. 

COVID-19 unearthed some hidden problems the U.S. has when it comes to paid PTO, the biggest one being the lack thereof. Although FMLA is a federal requirement, states across the U.S. are pushing to enact PAID family and sick leave. 

Be in the know of your PTO

Despite its triumphs in the last couple of decades, we can all agree that specific PTO policies need a serious upgrade. While we patiently wait for any positive PTO changes, always be in the know about what your state legislature's PTO policies are. 

Learn more about common time off terminology and other aspects of PTO in our ebook. Download Now

Published on Sep 01, 2022 by Marketing

Subscribe to blog updates

Discover The Real Story Behind Unlimited PTO 

Unlimited PTO might not be as amazing as many HR executives make it out to be. Find out more with this research report conducted by Lighthouse Research and Advisory.