Surprising PTO Trends During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published on June 17, 2021

During the pandemic, the way millions of us viewed work changed dramatically. Millions of Americans began working from home and with quarantine and social distancing measures in place. With nowhere to go and many of us unable to even visit family, this made for very surprising PTO trends from employees. 

To better understand the trend in unused vacation days during this unique global health crisis, VacationRenter conducted a survey of over 1,000 participants to understand more about how they utilized their job benefits during 2020 and their plans for the future.

Unused PTO Trends

To start, this survey first examined how many participants received PTO from an employer. Over 81% had PTO time to use in 2020, with participants noting they had 16.7 PTO days, on average. Of those who received PTO, just over half – 62.2% – said they previously used all of their vacation days.

In 2020, however, 41.2% of individuals reported taking less PTO than in previous years, leaving some PTO on the table. And, only 61% of participants worked for an employer that allowed them to roll unused PTO over into 2021.

Of the groups surveyed, this study also found that millennials were the group most likely to say they left vacation time on the table in 2020.

Why People Took Less Vacation Time in 2020

Working from home can make it difficult to unplug from work. With millions of Americans working from home in 2020, one might think that they would want to take more time off to decompress. However, since more Americans used less PTO than before, this survey looked at the reasons why so much vacation time went unused.

Overwhelmingly, most participants cited not being able to spend their vacation time as they wanted (traveling, seeing family, etc.) as the primary motivation behind taking less vacation time (44.9%). Health concerns because of COVID-19 and large workloads also topped this list at 39.4% and 35.6%, respectively.

Despite taking off less time overall, 65.7% of those interviewed said they don’t regret their decision. This number correlates roughly to the number of respondents able to roll over their vacation time, so it’s possible there’s some overlap here. In fact, just under half (46.2%) of participants admitted they were intentionally taking less time off in 2020 to store vacation days for when the pandemic ends.

Vacation Trends for 2021

Although millions of vaccines have been administered and more cities are reopening across the U.S., it seems that most respondents are still hesitating on vacation until travel seems safe, and the pandemic is fully over. Most respondents plan on taking the same amount of vacation time as last year, though 36.8% did report planning to take more. Gen Xers were the most likely to plan more time off in 2021.

One of the reasons employees may not be taking more PTO yet is that they don’t feel comfortable taking the maximum time available at their job. Depending on the company culture, employees might view taking more PTO as a negative mark on their job performance. When asked, most respondents noted that offering more companywide days off and offering individual PTO time as an incentive for a job well done would be the best ways employers could encourage proper rest and recuperation.

On top of this, over 36% of employees were worried about finding proper coverage when taking PTO, which hints that employers should be sure that every employee has a backup or resources available to cover their workload when out of the office.

Encouraging Vacation Time May Lead to More PTO

The pandemic altered our work schedules, increased the need for job security, and may have left millions of Americans feeling like they couldn’t take PTO when they were lucky enough to have a job. Overall, this survey shows that in order to encourage more employees to use PTO, employers should build positive reinforcement around PTO usage into their culture.

Even with these efforts, it’s safe to say that many Americans are afraid of “wasting” PTO days while the country still reopens and may wait on taking them until we’re well past this health crisis.


Nicole Velez is a communications expert who is passionate about collaboration in the workplace and specializes in team optimization. Nicole moved to South Florida 10 years ago and is now pursuing a master’s degree in media management at the University of Miami. She has since worked in various roles continuing to expand and grow her writing and media talents.

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