Is it legal for an employer to pay out PTO to some employees and not to others?

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Is it legal for an employer to pay out PTO to some employees and not to others?

The company handbook describes how PTO is earned and that it is paid out by January 31. It does not state any exclusions on who is to receive it. I am a salaried physician and have not been paid PTO in 18 years. Shame on me for not paying attention to this. It was brought to my attention recently and looking back on past pay stubs, PTO hours are shown. I have researched state labor laws and all I can find is, if an employer promises a wage benefit and it is earned, the employer is obligated to pay it. This has been my company’s common policy and practice. Do I have a case for retroactive pay and damages, if my employer refuses to pay me?

Asked on January 31, 2016 under Employment Labor Law, North Carolina

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 5 years ago | Contributor

You *may* have a case--but also may not. Here're the issues:
1) Does the employee handbook actually create an enforceable contract? While it can, most such handbook's don't. If the handbook contains any of the following sort of disclaimers in it, that means it's promises or terms or not enforceable against the employer:
"All emloyment is employment at will."
"Nothing in this handbook creates a contract of employment."
"Policies in this handbook may be changed at will."
IF the handbook lacks any such disclaimers and states that PTO will be paid out in no-uncertain terms, then you may have an enforceable contract and could potentially sue for back PTO, subject to your state statute of limitations: 3 years (you could only sue for the past three years; anything else is too old/too late).
2) But if the handbook does not create an enforceable contract, then yes, your employer could choose whom to pay out PTO to and whom to not pay, under the rubric that when there is no contract tying its hands, an employer has free rein to set compensation, to pay bonuses or not, to give different vacation and pay related benefits to different employees, etc. Without some sort of a contract, they don't have to pay you PTO, even if they paid others.


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