Negotiating PTO as a Tech Contractor or Consultant

Many tech pros are contractors, and while the contracting lifestyle has its advantages (including the flexibility to choose projects), there are also some significant downsides—unless you anticipate and negotiate ways to mitigate them. Take Paid Time Off (PTO), for instance.

Full-time employees (hopefully) get a certain number of PTO hours per year from their employer. But this isn’t a perk automatically afforded many contractors, even though many companies supposedly recognize the benefit of giving all workers a chance to rest and recharge.

Negotiating successfully for PTO also hinges largely on the nature of your contracting gig—specifically, whether you’re an independent who scores their own work, or someone who works for a larger contracting firm. Let’s break it down.

You’re an Independent Contractor/Consultant

Let’s say you’re a freelance developer tasked with building a new mobile app for a company, or setting up an e-commerce website; you might even be working remotely, with zero plans to ever set foot in your client’s office. If you’ve been in the game long enough, you (hopefully) have an idea of your ideal “rate.” But even experienced professionals sometimes forget to bake PTO into their pay rates and structuring.

How much time do you want to take off? Add up weeks of vacation and subtract the total from the number of working weeks per year (52). Next, take your desired income and divide it by the number of working weeks—so if you’re taking two weeks off, and your desired income is $150,000 per year, you’re dividing $150,000 by 50.

That result ($3,000, in the case of $150,000/50) is your target gross weekly income. Bill your client appropriately. Now actually schedule those vacation weeks, and—voila!—your vacation is effectively paid for.

If you absolutely must take a vacation in the middle of your contracting stint with a company, let your supervisor know as far in advance as possible, in order to ensure that everything runs smoothly. If you’re providing IT services or something mission-critical, make sure you have a subcontractor or other means in place to cover your tasks while you’re gone.

Alternatively, you can wait to go on vacation until after your contract is completed—after all, it’s been effectively paid for!

You Work for a Contracting Firm

If you work for a contracting firm (as opposed to being an independent contractor), negotiating for PTO is a little trickier—lack of transparency is a real threat here.

If you’re lucky, your contracting firm will offer you PTO, and your employer and client will have a clear process for arranging that PTO.

But if such a process isn’t in place, you might need to negotiate for PTO. This can prove a nerve-wracking experience, even if you clearly have a skill-set that your employer and client require. Before heading into negotiations with your boss, make sure that you know what you want (i.e., how many days of PTO per year), and be prepared for some back-and-forth; for example, your boss might argue that they can’t fulfill that PTO request because they don’t have the people to cover your role while you’re on vacation.

If you’re hit with pushback, it’s worth questioning (politely) the reasoning behind that pushback, and asking if there’s a potential solution. If you’re a valued contractor or subcontractor, chances are good your boss won’t deliver a hard “no”; they just want their fears assuaged. Understand that they might be managing several contractors for multiple clients, and have some compassion for their position.

You (Yes, You!) Need PTO.

Tech pros are constantly told that grinding hard will result in big rewards, and in many cases that’s true. But taking PTO is a necessity, whether you’re a full-time employee or a contractor. Burnout is very real, and it’s a killer.