Using Vacation Days Before A Severance Negotiation: BuzzFeed Case Study

Using Vacation Days When Negotiating A Severance: BuzzFeed Case Study

BuzzFeed, a VC-backed news and entertainment website, recently announced it was laying off 15 percent of its workforce, or roughly 200 people.

BuzzFeed’s head of HR, Lenke Taylor noted that the company is giving all laid-off employees severance packages of a minimum 10 weeks pay.

Unfortunately, those employees who only get 10 weeks of severance pay are getting shortchanged by 20 days minimum. Let me explain.

Whenever there are impending mass layoffs with companies with over 50-100 employees, companies must file a WARN notification with the state.

A company doing a mass layoff must then pay the state's required Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act pay.

The WARN Act of 1988 is a US labor law which generally provides 60 calendar-day advance notification of plant closings and mass layoffs of employees.

But in New York State, where BuzzFeed is headquartered, the WARN Act applies to private businesses with 50 or more full-time workers and requires companies to pay 90 days of WARN Act pay.

If you are a NYC worker getting 10 weeks of “severance,” that equals 70 days of pay. 90 days – 70 days = 20 missing WARN Act paydays. Yet so far, I've heard nobody fight for these missing days because few know the rules.

When an employee is laid off, generally what happens is that he or she doesn't have to come back to the office again. The employee proceeds to receive his or her WARN Act pay based on a normal payroll schedule for the duration of the WARN Act pay.

A Severance Is Separate From WARN Act Pay

Besides some not getting their full WARN Act pay, I’m guessing most BuzzFeed employees are actually not getting any severance at all.

WARN Act pay is required by law during a mass layoff. On the other hand, a severance payment is given on top of WARN Act pay.

A severance is completely discretionary by the employer.

Sadly, many uninformed employees who get laid off confuse their WARN Act pay with severance. This is why you hear so many employees say they received 1-3 months worth of severance even if they've been at their employer for 10 years.

Not coincidentally, WARN Act pay ranges from 1-3 months, depending on your state. Always look up your state's specific labor rules.

What I teach in my book, How To Engineer Your Layoff, is how to negotiate a severance on top of WARN Act pay. The more knowledge I can provide, the lower the chance of an employee getting hoodwinked.

Besides confusing a discretionary severance with WARN Act pay, what's also interesting is that all the laid-off employees, except for those in California were informed they would not get their Paid Time Off (vacation days) as part of their severance.

This nonpayment of PTO days caused a huge uproar because it is customary at BuzzFeed and many firms across America for employees not to take vacation days due to the pressures of work.

This is a sad cultural phenomenon that is quite different than every other part of the world.

Average vacation days by country

Here is the grievance letter the BuzzFeed News Staff Council published on Medium to pressure management to pay its laid-off workers all their unused PTO.

To Jonah Peretti, Lenke Taylor, and Ben Smith:

We are the BuzzFeed News Staff Council, a group of employees appointed to open up the lines of communication between News employees and company management. We have urgent concerns about the sweeping layoffs hitting the whole company — not just News. This letter is cosigned by current and laid-off staffers from across BuzzFeed who strongly share this concern.

Every aspect of the way that these layoffs have been handled so far — from communication to execution to aftermath — has been deeply upsetting and disturbing, and it will take a long time to repair the damage that has been done to our trust in this company. But there’s one thing you can do right now to help the employees who are losing their jobs.

BuzzFeed is refusing to pay out earned, accrued, and vested paid time off for almost all US employees who have been laid off. They will only pay out PTO to employees in California, where the law requires it. We understand that in other states where BuzzFeed employees have been laid off, state law does not require you to do so. But employers absolutely can pay out PTO — and often do. It is a choice, and for a company that has always prided itself on treating its employees well, we unequivocally believe it is the only justifiable choice.

This is paid time that employees accrued by choosing not to take vacation days, and instead do their work at BuzzFeed. Many of the employees who have been laid off had the most difficult jobs in terms of scheduling — such as the breaking and curation teams on BuzzFeed News who regularly worked weekends and holidays, or managers who weren’t able to use vacation time because they were expected to be available to their teams. They saved up those days (or weeks) because they were so dedicated to their work, and, in some cases, felt actively discouraged from taking time off. They have as much of a right to those days as anyone else.

For many people, paying out PTO will be the difference between whether or not bills and student loans will be paid on time and how their families are supported. It is unconscionable that BuzzFeed could justify doing so for some employees and not others in order to serve the company’s bottom line.

We, the undersigned, stand together in demanding that BuzzFeed pay out earned PTO to all laid-off employees, regardless of the state they live in, to eliminate this disparity. It is the only just way to proceed — especially as this round of layoffs has been so damaging to your workforce as a whole — to pay your employees for the time they earned while working so hard to make BuzzFeed a successful company.


The BuzzFeed News Staff Council, alongside current and laid-off BuzzFeed employees (600+ have signed).

Think what you want about BuzzFeed's quality of reporting; these 200 laid-off employees are getting screwed by not getting their PTO either.

One day of PTO equals one day of pay. Some of these employees have accumulated over a month of PTO. To lose this money is a big blow.

In the end, BuzzFeed ended up relenting to pressure and announced they will pay for all accumulated PTO. If they didn't pay, they might have faced a readership boycott or experienced a further exodus of employees. Below is their follow up.

UPDATE: After meeting with the BuzzFeed News Staff Council on Monday afternoon, Jonah Peretti announced in a company-wide email that BuzzFeed will pay out earned and unused PTO to our US colleagues who were laid off this week, regardless of which state they live in.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to the nearly 600 BuzzFeed employees who signed this letter and stood in solidarity. Your support made this happen.

Creating public pressure works. See: Massive Reputational Destruction Is Why A Severance Is Possible. Employees have the ability to destroy a company's reputation in an instant nowadays.

Using PTO And Negotiating A Severance

My general advice is to take sick days instead of PTO if you plan to be out of the office a short while before negotiating a severance. Everybody needs to take care of their mental health.

PTO days have value that should be paid to you upon departure.

One of the mistakes I made during my severance negotiation process in 2012 was using five vacation days to go to Hawaii two months before I negotiated my severance. As a result, I lost five days worth of salary in my severance package.

Every year, for each of the 11 years I was at my firm, I earned seven sick days a year to use. Out of the 77 eligible sick days I accumulated, I used maybe 15.

As a result, my firm gained 62 days worth of my services for free.

Everyone needs to know how many sick days they get a year and use them. After you have exhausted all your sick days, then start using your PTO credits.

I have quietly consulted with over 60 individuals around the country on how to negotiate their respective severance since 2012. In not a single instance has a company not paid its employee for unused PTO.

If, during your severance negotiation discussions, you feel your company will not pay for your unused PTO, then, by all means, start rapidly taking all your vacation days during the negotiation process.

A successful severance negotiation on average takes between 45 – 90 days. Therefore, negotiators should have more than enough time to use their PTO. Further, you disappearing for weeks may actually give you more leverage in your severance negotiation.

I've rarely seen anybody accumulate more than 60 days worth of PTO because companies generally have a 30 day carryover limit.

There are so many nuances to severance negotiations. If you feel you're on unstable ground or want to leave your job, I recommend you buy my severance negotiation book and read all my severance-related articles.

Workers every day are getting shortchanged. If the average BuzzFeed worker in New York gets paid $80,000, losing three weeks of WARN Act Pay is equivalent to losing $4,615.

But the reality is, employees are missing out on much more in remuneration because they don't know the rules and are too afraid to fight for themselves.

The more you know the rules and understand various case studies, the better prepared you will be.

Leaving my job with at least five years worth of living expenses made all the difference in the world for my financial peace of mind.

Remember. Every time a valuable employee quits instead of negotiates a severance, a baby panda dies in the woods. Fight for your rights. Don’t be ignorant. Love our baby pandas.

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Related Posts:

How To Negotiate A Severance As A High Performing Employee – “Oh why would my company ever give me a severance? I'm so great at what I do!”

Sexual Harassment At Uber Reminds Us That HR Is Not On Our Side – Always remember that HR works to protect company interests first.

32 thoughts on “Using Vacation Days Before A Severance Negotiation: BuzzFeed Case Study”

  1. The problem with buckets of time with sick, vacation combined is some employees either don’t get much to start with or go through it all and then when they’re legitimately sick, they’re forced to come into work or be fired. I like that aspect of it as responsible folks like myself who don’t get sick much have more PTO, but when those who can’t manage their time are told they’re out of PTO and are forced to come in, they get others sick and it’s a vicious circle. This may not be an issue in nicer climates, but it was -28 last week and then quickly 50 last week. It will be 49 tomorrow during the day and dropping to 5 at night with more rain and who knows what else. Not looking for sympathy, but folks are sick constantly in the Midwest this time of year and when they come to work, we all suffer.

  2. I have been with my company for a long time, and this is one of the reasons it’s difficult to leave. I have accumulated many vacation days for my time of service, and if I leave, I will be back down to 10 or so. That will be tough when it happens.

  3. That graphic is misleading. In EU countries there is a requirement for 20 days’ paid holiday but that can include public holidays. The U.K. decided to gold plate it so the 8 public holidays were in addition to the 20 days. Therefore the 28 days quoted for the U.K. is including bank holidays. Not sure where the 9 public holidays quoted come from – maybe Scotland but it was only 8 in England in 2016.

    In general, workers in Germany, France and Spain will get several more days’ leave than U.K. workers. In the Netherlands, around 40 days’ leave plus public holidays is not unusual.

    Difference between Europe and the US is we have a lot of involvement and agreement from works councils to ensure we don’t get shafted by our employers.

    Work/holiday in Europe and invest in the US?

  4. My company was 100% PTO (ie. no sick days) and was use it or lose it as well. So basically every employee was gone in December as they had like 2 weeks of PTO they had yet to earn, but had to take it or lose it. We got bought out by another company and we still have no sick time, and only PTO. What sucks is that PTO is my vacation time. I never take a sick day (I took 1 day off when my appendix burst and lose a week long vacation I had paid for because I only had 2 weeks of PTO that year). I hate not having PTO and sick time.

    1. You do have sick days, as you are getting paid on days you don’t work because you are ill. You just don’t have a distinction of days off – some sick and some vacation.

      1. And that is the problem. Companies went from giving you 15 days of vacation and 5 sick days and gave you 16 days of PTO. Less time for the employees. At least here in the Midwest companies will not negotiate on amount of PTO. So as somebody who has worked for 20 plus years, I get 3 weeks of vacation and maybe 1 sick day. That is what the problem is – not the combination of vacation/sick into PTO.

        1. I agree then that was a raw deal. If you had 15/5, they should have gone to around 18 days of PTO.

  5. Depends on State, obviously. But all you need to do is have a “use it or lose it” policy. We do. Paid Time Off is a benefit for EMPLOYEES. You get it while you are an employee. If you are terminated, then you are no longer an employee. The rules are clearly defined.

    The employee can demand their PTO all they want but they aren’t going to get it.

    How does that work out in a practical manner and why is it not the “greedy mean company” that it may seem on the surface…. Well. Employees who leave on good terms, we’ll let them take their vacation before officially quitting. Kind of like Sam suggests. We have never had to lay off someone, but in that case we again, could easily let them take their vacation before quitting. What this DOES do is allows us to not have to pay out substantial sums of unused PTO to employees who are terminated for misconduct. So it works out pretty fairly as far as I’m concerned.

    If you are leaving on good terms or we are letting you go, then it may be things outside of your control and we can work with you. If your unemployment is from your own gross misconduct, then too bad. You reap what you sow.

  6. I run a small business, and several years back we went to just PTO rather than vacation and sick days. That way people don’t feel they need to call in “sick” if they want to use all of their days. But we also eliminated any carry over, so no one can build up a significant number of days of PTO that they demand when they chose to leave the job.

  7. I should have taken mental health days last year. I didn’t and I’m burned out now (used my sick time for surgery). It’s taken me some time to accept that mental health days are acceptable, but I’m in agreement now: if my body is sick and needs a break from work activity for a day, then why shouldn’t I feel that if my mind is unwell that day and needs a break from the soul crushing work grind, it’s the same kind of thing – to keep myself in a better condition overall as a human being.

    It might mean that I lay around all day, or it might mean that I craft all day on something that gives me so much JOY instead of stress. And then I go in the next day feeling so much better! I think it’s worth it. Sick is sick – physically, mentally, emotionally.

  8. My company allows your vacation and sick time to rollover and maxes out at 500 hours (~62 days) for each, respectively – so it’s easy to grow a large balance if you avoid taking PTO days. When you leave the company, it also pays out for PTO/vacation days, and 1/3 for any unused sick days (which seems pretty unique). \

    So while unused sick days do have SOME value when I leave, I still try to use sick days when I can over vacation/PTO if I’m taking a day or two off due to the lesser value they hold to me during my eventual exit/payoff from my Company. FYI I’m in the U.S.

  9. Plenty of jobs in SF with unlimited vacation days which means no vaction days. Plus they don’t have to pay one penny when you leave because you don’t have any accumulated. I gladly got out years ago, but i teach my interns about these scams. Check out the fees on these SF companies 401k’s. It’s against the law.

  10. I’ve unintentionally accumulated over 340 sick leave days over the past 20 years. Not sure how many I can use before I’m done working.

    1. Impressive! I have only heard of those figures from government/state/city employees. Would you happen to be one? Is there no carry over limit?

      As a hedge, I would start using them more aggressively just in case they don’t pay.

      Besides, you’re not going to look back on your life and you wish you worked more. Trust me on this!

      1. I’ll have to work on my strategy to see what I can use. I do appreciate that I’ve been healthy. I work for a large company, the rules have changed so I’m sure newer employees can’t accumulate so many in the future. They are moving to a new system of PTO.

  11. I used to not take sick days unless “sick”. Now sick is loosely defined – kids are sick or I’m sick or I need a day off. Saving sick days and only using vacation days is giving up a benefit. It’s built into your package so you should use it. Looking back over the years I didn’t take more than 5 sick days total for 10 of the last 12 years excluding the last 2. In the last 2 years I have changed my position completely and have taken 10 days total that we’re allowed; 5 each year. Spoiler for this year – I’ll take another 5. Use your time don’t give it back for free. Mental health day or contagious illness take the days!

  12. Is there any way to negotiate this with an unlimited vacation policy? Like maybe this is the average vacation days in the US for number of years worked so can you pay me out for that?

    I’ve been sure to take as least as many PTO days each year as I would have had based on number of years worked before my company switched to unlimited vacation but I don’t particularly like the idea of losing negotiation leverage.

  13. I had no idea that PTO wasn’t required to be paid out in so many states. Having spent my FT career only in CA I thought that’s how it was everywhere.

    Glad to see there was a positive resolution on the PTO payout for those who got laid of regardless of which state they worked in.

  14. In addition to “unlimited vacation” policies, another common tactic is to structure PTO such that you accrue it over the course of the year and make it “use it or lose it”. That way, it’s pretty hard for employees to bank any significant amount of time. The positive side is that it makes it less acceptable to ask staff to postpone or cancel vacations, and employees are more likely to take time off given its use it or lose it.

    Your suggestion of using sick days in lieu of vacation days is a gray area. Some companies have policies which theoretically forbid that. Or, if you use a certain amount of sick days in a row (say 3 or more) you have to get a doctors note. Personally, I wouldnt want to be relaxing on the beach in Hawaii having to call my boss each day pretending to be sick.

    1. Do you have perfect mental health? If not, I suggest taking a sick day. If you do, would you be interested in writing a guest post on how you are able to obtain perfect mental health? I know a lot of people who are suffering, even depressed despite having a high-paying job and good physical health.


  15. Taking a sick day when I am not sick? Sorry, my moral code won’t let me go there. A day’s pay used to be worth a couple of grand, that is significant, but the price of my word, that is nonnegotiable, or priceless, if it is a Visa commercial. And if the company is being evil, well, that’s on them, I’m fine with fighting but I only fight fair regardless of how someone else fights. What anyone else does, not my problem, what I do, I have to live with that guy.

    1. This is why you would make a great employee. Many of my manager and CEO friends love employees like you. Their goal is to have employees be max loyal to the firm, while they enrich themselves with max reward.

      I think more employees should take mental health days off with their sick days. But employers are able to successfully make employees grind and grind and grind until their mental health and physical health deteriorate due to our culture of always be grinding.

      That’s so sad.

      Any interest in doing some freelance work for me?

      1. I live in Australia and honestly believe that American workers are shafted every single day.
        Here’s what my leave entitlements are each year:
        Annual Leave – 23 days (3 days above the National Employment Standards)
        Personal Leave – 18 days (8 days above the NES) I’ve been employed with the same employer for 10 years and have accrued 170 days personal leave. I consider this as a bit of an insurance policy while I’m young and in case I do get sick, but I have every intention of using every day prior to retiring.
        Long Service Leave – 90 days after 10 years of service and 9 days accrued every year of service there after.
        Public holidays – 10 days (each state varys slightly)
        We also have access to a range of other entitlements such as 2 miscellaneous days leave to account for natural disasters or public transport issues, 6 months paid maternity leave, bereavement leave, domestic violence leave, leave without pay, carers leave the list goes on.
        The profits that America companies make are mind boggling, yet these seem to be at the expense of their most important asset…. Employees!
        Its time the American people started demanding their share of the pie!

      2. Actually I loved almost every day of a thirty plus year career. I usually felt overpaid and to my knowledge have never had a depressed or burned out day in my life. I don’t think my job hurt my health at all. I ran a thousand miles a year for most of my career and had an active tennis life with decent tournament success. Nowhere near your skill level at 4.0. I think I maybe took three or four sick days in my entire career because at our company they were defined as only for sickness and I never got sick. Oddly I am extremely lazy and suck at work I don’t like, I was lucky I liked most of it. I’m a compulsive rule follower, could be accused of being a sheeple I guess. But as a boomer it may just be I was indoctrinated differently. I had great autonomy in my job and got to do things that felt very cool. I only work for fun now and I also suck at freelance admin stuff so you wouldn’t really want me. Your content is the best, always thought provoking even when I disagree. And when I do I usually end up thinking I’m probably wrong but on this I think I did what was right for me.

        1. Wonderful to hear you’ve never felt burned out or depressed in your 30+ year career! Do you think perhaps it’s because you never pushed yourself to the max? I remember my track coach told me in HS, “If you aren’t puking after the end of this practice, you aren’t trying hard enough!”

          Do you think if you tried harder, you could have retired earlier and done something else with your life? What did you do for 30+ years in your career?

          Perhaps you can write a guest post about how you’ve never felt depressed or burned out in your life. I would say you’d be in the top 0.1% of people on Earth, and many people would find your tips and strategies very helpful.

          Let me know! Thx

          1. Anyone would be honored to guest on your blog but I’m not sure I have a message. I think it is very simple why my career was a joy when so many others were not. I’ll make a bad analogy, do you think Roger Federer has enjoyed his career? Do you think he has had to struggle to find motivation to practice and put it all out there in matches? I doubt it, the very fact that he is among the most talented to have ever lived is huge motivation and huge satisfaction to him. He wins and has won far more than he has lost and he’s been rewarded with adoration and material riches. It is self fulfilling, when you win you want to keep winning.

            On similar but very tiny scale I was the best. The best in my corporation at designing, operating and managing a chemical complex. I had social skills, I could write and give entertaining public presentations, a rarity among engineers. I had no real competition much of the time because they did not have the same talent level. Many of them worked much harder but I worked pretty hard too because the prize was always getting to the next level. I was known to be a star across my industry and that is just plain fun, to be that good and to be recognized for it. I was in my zone of excellence and like a sports professional I did not want to walk away from it for a long time. I don’t know how to manufacture that, even though my life is awfully good now I can’t say I possess the same level of mastery at my current side gigs or volunteer work and certainly not in my blogging.

            As far as depression and burn out who knows, maybe the running helped stoke my endorphin level so much that I was high most of the time?

    2. I love it! Always be grinding until the day you die. That’s what makes America great!

      I’m personally going to take more sick days. Sam is right. Sick days are a part of our compensation package. And I have a ride to take a sick day if I’m mentally not feeling great.

    3. Steveark,

      I respect the fact that you place such a high value on your word and reputation, but I think you might be overvaluing it a bit. I don’t mean overvaluing yours specifically in relation to that of other people, but rather overvaluing these concepts in the context of the American workplace.

      I vividly remember when I used to work in retail banking and I called out sick one day. It was a rare event, me calling out. But I called out when I got laryngitis and was regularly coughing up gunk. I finished an entire day of work like this, too. But I called out one day and my boss called me into his office to give me s*** about it. Gave me the whole guilt trip and everything. I wrote a whole article about it just to prevent myself from ever forgetting that.

      I think the difference in our attitudes toward this issue stem from how employers used to be vs how they are now. You said you are a Baby Boomer, and so I hear, employers used to care for their employees and earn employees’ loyalty. Now, well, they simply do not. So I don’t know about back then, but today a single day’s pay being worth “thousands” of dollars (well done) is more valuable than than earning a “reputation” (a reputation of someone who puts company needs over personal needs, that is). One pays the bills, and one is forgotten before it is ever acknowledged.

      Mind you, I don’t think either of should be considered “right” or “wrong”. I’m just musing on how these differences came to be. I learned a hard life lesson sitting there in the manager’s office as he asked me if I was really that sick and I literally couldn’t answer him due to me coughing up a storm (I was still sick that day, but only came in because I had an appointment with a customer (a no-show, would you believe)).

      ARB–Angry Retail Banker

  16. I work at a company that switched to “unlimited” Vacation a few years ago which means not only do you not get your time off, you no longer can accumulate or sell back unused days.

    1. My wife’s company is the same. On the surface this looks awesome, but now I’m seeing the potential downsides as well.

      1. isn’t the answer then to go on immediate indefinite ‘vacation’ as soon as negotiations begin?

  17. Knowing your rights is imperative but not everyone will know this information. It’s a good thing you’re here to fill in the knowledge gap.

    I’m glad to see the laid off employees stand up to fight for their earned PTO they accrued on account of accommodating requests (re: requirements) to be available to their teams 24/7.

    We need to quit killing so many baby pandas in the woods. It’s unconscionable.

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