Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a new policy and starting on January 16th, all full-time salary US employees were granted unlimited PTO. [cheering] Now, Kathleen Hogan, the company's chief people officer called this new policy a natural next step to modernizing how employees work.
On Monday, two weeks after the unlimited pay time off email arrived in employee inboxes, Microsoft announced it would lay off 10,000 workers. Presumably, for those who remain on the job, having 10,000 fewer coworkers might make it tough to head out for an extended vacation. It has all of us here at Team Takeaway asking just what is unlimited PTO and is it real?
To get some insight, I sat down with Rainesford Stauffer, she writes Teen Vogue's Work in Progress column, and as author of the upcoming book, All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive.
Rainesford Stauffer: Unlimited PTO is tricky and it depends largely on how the workplace actually executes the policy. When I was working on this column, what I heard from workers is that in the best-case scenario, unlimited paid time off is exactly what it sounds like. It's flexible, it's not a set number of days, it's very responsive to the needs of workers and perhaps most importantly, workers are encouraged or required to actually take that leave.
That's the really important thing to underscore because it's not enough for this benefit to exist in name only if employees are discouraged from using it or if the workload and structure of their workplace is so unsustainable that actually taking that "unlimited paid time off" isn't really accessible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wait, it could never truly be unlimited. If you're saying to me, I will get a paycheck even if I don't come to work this year, why wouldn't I just say, “You know what, see you in 2024 folks?”
Rainesford Stauffer: Absolutely. I wish that more of us had the opportunity to do that to be honest with you. I think that's the gimmick of the name. It largely depends on the organization or the workplace, but by and large, there is usually some limit somewhere based on the reporting and research I've done and some stipulation on when you can or can't take that leave. Where it gets really complicated for a lot of workers to the benefit of employers is that the process for how to take that leave, how much you have, who you have to clear it through, can be quite ambiguous.
There's no clear directive for how to request time off, let alone encouragement to take it, or a minimum amount of that leave you have to take. We know what that leads to. It ends up with people working more, having no leave, no time off, and feeling really burnt out and exhausted as a result.
Melissa Harris Perry: What does it mean to say that you are encouraging someone to take time off? What does that look like when it's being practiced well?
Rainesford Stauffer: One of the things that I heard from workers that I was speaking to when I was thinking about how to report this piece is that some of them were getting weekly or biweekly reminders that they hadn't taken any days off, that they needed to request those days, that they needed to mark them on their calendars. They felt like it was an ongoing conversation with their employer, that there was an expectation to take that leave.
I also talked to people where there was a minimum amount of leave they had to take over the course of the year, their employer wanted them to take those days off. For those people, it felt flexible, it felt accessible. I think the flip side to the unlimited paid leave policy is when most of the benefit goes to the employer at the expense of the worker.
Melissa Harris Perry: What kinds of jobs are we talking about here? We're not talking about people making hourly wages, right? The these are jobs of presumably relative privilege and authority?
Rainesford Stauffer: That's such an important point to highlight. In the column, I talked to Dawn Huckelbridge, the founding director of Paid Leave for All, who told me in an interview that the lack of paid leave in general is a crisis in the United States, one of the only countries that guarantees no form of paid leave for workers. There was a report from the Economic Policy Institute that showed two thirds of workers in jobs that pay low wages have no access to paid sick days and that's even been throughout this pandemic.
If you don't have access to paid sick days even just as a baseline, there's no way that your employer is going to say, “Of course you can have unlimited time off to reset, to care for your health, to take care of a family member, to take your child to school.” I think that when we talk about these workplace policies, it's really important to underscore who they exist for and who is included in that conversation.
Melissa Harris Perry: All right. We've gotten more with Rainesford Stauffer from Teen Vogue right after this.
We're back with Rainesford Stauffer of Teen Vogue. Let me lay out one scenario. For example, let's say making a radio show, this job isn't just any one person's job. I'm the voice that you hear, but phew, there's a whole team back there. I know we as a team feel responsible for each other and not just making radio, all kinds of different gigs where taking time off can feel like you're leaving your team hold in the bag. How can employers help in circumstances where even if there's relative privilege, there's also that coworker need?
Rainesford Stauffer: Two things immediately come to mind, both things that have come up in conversations I've had with workers in all types of work environments. The first one is understaffing. A lot of people brought up the fact that they were routinely expected to take on the jobs of two or three people at once, and they were not compensated accordingly. That was not built into their workday. It was just assumed that that work might melt into their personal time and that was supposed to be okay and acceptable.
I think the other thing that comes to mind is that in a lot of workplaces, taking time off is very weirdly, in my opinion, associated with disloyalty or being disengaged. It makes you feel like even if that time off is available you, you can't actually take it without risking your job, which is why those minimums, those encouragements to actually take time off and setting up team infrastructures where that's possible matter so much.
Melissa Harris Perry: How can workers protect against that?
Rainesford Stauffer: Unionizing your workplace. I think that one of the things that I heard about while I was reporting this column was the importance of unions being able to fight for better protections that were really responsive to the needs of workers. When I say needs of workers, I think something important to flag here is that, yes, the needs of workers within the workplace, but we know what happens at work does not stay at work.
Even if you individually are able to set great boundaries around work, workplace policies and lack of protection for workers seeps into school, childcare, it deepens inequities in labor and caregiving, it gets into your familial structure, your physical and mental wellbeing. If we know work touches all of that, then it only makes sense that we would want the people directly impacted, the workers to have a say in their working environment, to set up structures that work for them.
Melissa Harris Perry: Is that something that is going to require public policy to help make available?
Rainesford Stauffer: That was one of the things that came up in the conversation I had with Dawn Huckelbridge of Paid Leave for All. This needs to happen for everyone. Unfortunately, that means that we cannot be in a position where workers are relying on their workplaces or their bosses to do the right thing. In order to hold workplaces accountable, we have to be talking about broader action. I know that Paid Leave for All spoke to me in this column about asking every elected official and candidate for public office where they stand on paid leave and what they are in doing to advance a federal program.
I think that's the scope and scale we need to be thinking of because we've seen how profound these disparities are. They existed before the pandemic, they've continued throughout this pandemic, and it's not enough for workers to have to go to their bosses and hope that they're in a good mood and give them that time off. It's to the benefit of everyone that everyone has access to it.
Melissa Harris Perry: Rainesford Stauffer is columnist for Teen Vogue's Work in Progress column and the author of the upcoming book, All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive. Rainesford, thank you so much for taking the time with us.
Rainesford Stauffer: Thank you for such wonderful questions.
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