Employers in the Atlanta area may have heard about this story of a school teacher seeking additional paid time off to care for his wife, who is suffering from a rare bacterial infection that required the amputation of her hands and feet.  His co-workers have tried to come to his aid:  other teachers at the school have offered to “donate” some of their accrued paid time off (“PTO”) to the teacher, who has already exhausted all of his PTO caring for his wife.  However, the school board rejected those offers, citing a policy that prohibits employees from transferring PTO.  Here is how a school board spokesperson explained the situation to a local newspaper:

While we understand this is a catastrophic situation for this employee, this is not a simple change.  As a school district we have on average 550 people on leave at any given time.  Currently, we have 131 people on leave who are not receiving pay because they have used all of their available sick leave.  In looking at this request, decisions must be made that are fair and sustainable for all 22,000 [employees].

This is obviously a difficult situation for everyone involved.  The school board’s HR department is facing a tough choice.  It can grant an exception to its policy and allow teachers to generously donate their PTO to a co-worker who is facing a difficult financial situation while he cares for his wife.  Or, the school board can continue to apply its leave policy uniformly and prohibit employees from donating PTO. What should the employer do?  In this case, there is no “right” answer.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both options.

Employers should always strive to apply their policies in a uniform manner.  But it can be okay for employers to occasionally make exceptions for compelling reasons.  Policies are helpful because they set expectations and guidelines for employees.  But they should not be enforced rigidly, blind to real life and real personal and business circumstances with no exceptions.  Employers who are thinking about making an exception to a policy should consider the following:

  • Is there a business reason to make an exception?  If so, the employer should document that reason (in case the employer is later accused of making exceptions that disadvantage employees in a protected class).
  • Will other employees likely request a similar exception?  If so, what kind of burden would that place on the employer?  How will the employer explain the exception to other employees?
  • Would it be “fair” to make a one-time exception?  How will other employees in similar situations react to this?

In this case, the school board may have decided that the business reasons for considering the exception (helping an employee in need and maintaining positive morale) are outweighed by the potential fairness problems associated with a one-time exception that does not apply to other employees on leave.  As the spokesperson noted above, the school system has approximately 550 employees on leave at any given time.  What do you think?  Should the employer make an exception here?  Please drop us a comment and let us know your thoughts on this issue.