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For context, I live in the US, in California.

As a new employee, I get 10 days of PTO to use in our first year of employment, pending approval from our boss. We're asked to submit our PTO request as early as we can, preferably at least 2 weeks in advance, and will be accepted or denied based on company needs. That all makes sense to me.

One month before my birthday, I requested PTO because I was going to Vegas (I requested 1 day, the Friday for a 3 day weekend). I hadn't gotten approval or heard anything back so 2 weeks before my birthday, I followed up and asked if my PTO was approved. My boss then proceeded to say the following: "We'll see how much work you get done in the next 2 weeks. If you get enough done, you can go." As I work in software development, we work in 2 week sprints. So basically she said "Get enough done in this sprint and show me you've gotten enough done at our retrospective and you can go."

I understand not being able to accept and grant every PTO request based on business needs, like "there's an important deadline coming up" or "there are too many people taking PTO for this weekend", but is it legal to deny PTO based on performance, and even more so hold my PTO hostage and finally only accept my PTO request the day before the actual requested day off?

As a side note, this has already happened and has passed. I ended up just putting in a little bit of overtime to make sure I would get my day off. I just want to know the legality of basically holding my PTO hostage contingent on the work I get done in a specific sprint.

  • Is your boss aware that you are going on a pre-planned trip and that by cancelling it you might have to pay penalties and fees? – Dan Jul 20 '18 at 12:45
  • @Dan Luckily, in this instance, I had a special deal at a hotel so I didn't have to worry about that. But the reasoning for this question was because I was worried about future PTO requests I would make where that may apply. But my boss did know the plan was Vegas, and I would assume she would make the assumption that there would be fees if cancelling, but I can't say that for certain. – Jun Kang Jul 20 '18 at 14:55
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    If your manager is giving you a hard time over a single day of PTO requested a month in advance, it's not a good sign. That's more than enough time to plan to get any critical tasks done or shifted to someone else. And if you put in unpaid hours to make sure you got your time off, then you weren't getting PTO, you were just shifting your hours. – Caleb Jul 20 '18 at 20:30
  • Is there an employees handbook and if so are parameters for requesting/granting time off defined there? – Myles Jul 23 '18 at 15:14
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To me, this isn't refusing to give you PTO based on your performance, but rather not giving you PTO, because your manager isn't confident you'll complete your work by a certain schedule (or that's the reason s/he's using this time to not grant your PTO).

"Get enough done in this sprint and show me you've gotten enough done at our retrospective and you can go."

This quote sounds like your manager needs to be confident that your work will complete on schedule before granting your PTO. It could be that the project you're working on affects other upcoming projects or it was promised by a certain time frame.

I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but, in my experience, what you experienced is both common and legal. Your manager typically needs to approve you taking PTO.

However, not granting one day for a birthday seems a little petty to me.

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    The thing is, I have always completed my assigned tasks every sprint thus far, since the start of my employment. I even help others in my team get their work done when I finish my tasks early, and she knows this. In my mind, it didn't seem like she needed to be confident that (my) work will be complete on schedule before granting (my) PTO. It seemed more like, to me, that she was trying to squeeze more work out of me by holding my PTO hostage when she had no real reason to. But regardless, the answer remains the same, that this is legal, so thank you for your answer! – Jun Kang Jul 20 '18 at 15:01
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    @JunKang I would keep an eye on your manager's behavior around PTO and hopefully this is an isolated incident. – jcmack Jul 20 '18 at 17:59
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While what your employer is doing is pretty rubbish (and would annoy the hell out of me!) as long as the employer’s decisions are not discriminatory based on race, sex, religion, disability or another protected class under federal or California law, the employer is free to set the parameters in which vacation is scheduled. Any accrued PTO counts as "wages" in California and they have to ultimately let you take it or pay you for it but in the scenario you find yourself in they can certainly set the conditions they have (even if it is a rather harsh).

  • Thank you for your answer! It just seems strange to me that this is legal. I mean, technically that would mean that an employer can just offer PTO to employees, but never grant them to people and just pay them out for it. I would have thought there were laws to protect an employees vacation time and ability to take it, at least to some degree. – Jun Kang Jul 20 '18 at 15:03
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    @Kang - Indeed they could never approve time off, but they won’t do that, because they wouldn’t be able to keep people like yourself if they did that. – Ramhound Jul 23 '18 at 3:26

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