How to handle the 2020 PTO backlog

By Cheryl Meyer

Summer is usually the time when CPAs flock to the beaches, fly to Europe, or take a cruise. Busy season is over and it's time to relax and regenerate.

Not so this year. With the tax filing deadline extended to July 15, accountants and their teams are faced with the reality of an unorthodox schedule and limited travel options due to COVID-19.  

"Who wants to go on a vacation?" quipped Gayla Hannon, CPA, at Mueller Prost LC in Clayton, Mo. "Options are limited for what you can do."

This leads to a genuine conundrum for public accounting firms: how to deal with the inevitable backlog of paid time off (PTO), since few employees — most of whom are working from home — are taking extended breaks. As the end of the year approaches and workers need to use some of their PTO, firms will inevitably face scheduling challenges since too many employees can't be gone at once. And workers could forfeit coveted vacation time if they can't find an opportunity to take their allotted time off.

"Burnout will be the biggest challenge we have this year," predicted Debbie Ames, a partner at Goldin Peiser & Peiser LLP in Dallas.

We spoke with HR experts Ames, Hannon, and Dawn Hagman, a partner at DiCicco, Gulman & Company LLP in Woburn, Mass., about how their firms are handling this potential PTO crisis:

Goldin Peiser & Peiser's 77 employees can roll over 40 hours of PTO annually if they do not use their time. But so far this year, some employees are using their PTO hours to take long weekends or stop work earlier in the day. "We are encouraging them to find ways to unplug, refresh and renew, and de-stress," Ames said. "A lot of our employees have gotten into the notion of taking off Friday and Monday, and trying to recharge." As of late June, the firm had not altered its PTO rollover policy, but was encouraging employees to take time off "just for mental health," she noted. GPP planned to hold internal meetings and speak with other firms about ways to deal with a potential PTO backlog. Ames's advice: Managers or partners should help each employee develop PTO plans for the year. "It's about individual conversations, and is not a one-size-fits-all approach," she said.

Mueller Prost employs about 180 people in the United States and 40 in India. Roughly two-thirds of the firm's employees are CPAs and/or professional tax, audit, and accounting consultants, Hannon said. Most have not taken breaks amid the heavy load of aiding clients during this difficult time. Employees can carry over 120 hours of vacation and 160 hours of PTO into the next year, which should stave off a potential backlog. Still, Hannon met with the firm's chief operating officer recently to address the issue, and managers are already tapping employees regarding their 2020 vacation plans. "We can't have everyone take off the month of December," she noted. Hannon advised communicating with employees now about a potential PTO buildup, and pushing them to take a couple of days off occasionally. "People are feeling that they are working all the time," she said. "It's important to encourage employees to disconnect."

DiCicco, Gulman & Company, with about 170 employees, has taken a slightly different approach: It is requiring each worker to take five days of their PTO by Aug. 31. "We've been doing a lot of Zoom meetings with people, so we communicated all of this live," Hagman said. The firm is also allowing employees to roll over an additional 20 hours of PTO into 2021 compared to previous years. "It's still going to be a challenge to get people to want to take the time," she admitted. "In Massachusetts, things haven't completely opened up, and they are not going to their beach vacations." The firm is asking staff to send in PTO requests now so that employee vacation schedules can be modified in case of a backlog later. Her advice: "Plan early. Don't wait until the end of the year."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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