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The Difference Between Sick Time And PTO And Why It Matters

Updated: Apr 25

In Arizona, as in many states, understanding the distinctions between sick time and Paid Time Off (PTO) is crucial for both employees and employers. While these types of leave appear similar, they carry different implications for rights, obligations, and workplace morale. Here’s a straightforward guide to help clarify these concepts, highlight their differences, and explain their legal importance.

What is Sick Time?

Sick time, often called “sick leave,” is an employment benefit designed to provide employees with paid leave for medical reasons. This includes personal illness, caring for a sick family member, or attending medical appointments. Under the Arizona Paid Sick Time Law, part of the Fair Wages and Healthy Families Act initiated in July 2017, specific rules apply:

  • Employees, whether full-time, part-time, or temporary, accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

  • Companies with fewer than 15 employees must allow employees to accumulate at least 24 hours of sick leave per year, whereas companies with more employees must allow at least 40 hours per year.

What is PTO?

Paid Time Off (PTO) is a more encompassing term that includes any paid leave given to employees, which they can use for vacation, personal time, or sickness. PTO's flexibility is a key feature, allowing employees to use their days off for any reason. In Arizona, unlike sick time, PTO is not mandated by law and is at the discretion of the employer, who sets the rules on accumulation and usage.

Key Differences

  1. Purpose: Sick time is strictly for health-related needs, whereas PTO can be used for any reason, including vacation or personal days.

  2. Regulation: Sick leave is mandated by Arizona law, ensuring all workers have minimum health-related leave benefits. In contrast, PTO is optional and tailored by each employer.

  3. Flexibility: Sick leave is regulated with set rules on accrual and usage, while PTO policies vary significantly between different employers.

Importance of These Differences in Legal Protection

Under the Fair Wages and Healthy Families Act, Arizona protects employees from being unfairly treated, such as facing retaliation from employers, when they use legally accrued sick time. This protection ensures that employees can take necessary time off for health reasons without fear of negative consequences at their job. However, these protections specifically apply to sick time usage.

If PTO is used for non-medical reasons, such as a vacation, it does not fall under sick time retaliation protections. However, if PTO is used for reasons that would qualify as sick leave (e.g., dealing with a health issue), it may be protected against employer retaliation under the same legal provisions as sick time. An employer should be informed in writing if using PTO for a medical condition to increase the likelihood of protection.

Why Does This Matter?

  • Planning: Knowing the type of leave available helps employees plan their time off without fear of repercussions, especially when using sick time for health-related reasons.

  • Attraction and Retention: Employers who offer clear and generous PTO policies can attract and retain talented employees, enhancing workplace satisfaction and loyalty.

  • Legal Compliance: It’s vital for employers to adhere to sick time laws to avoid legal repercussions. For employees, understanding these laws can protect against unfair treatment.


Both sick time and PTO serve essential but distinct roles in supporting employees. In Arizona, a clear understanding of these benefits, along with their legal ramifications, is vital. This knowledge helps foster a respectful and supportive work environment, ensuring that both employers and employees can navigate leave policies effectively and lawfully.




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