Paid time off: It’s a common benefit many workers enjoy. Or, maybe more accurately for some, it’s a benefit we mean to enjoy, and then the year gets away from us, we’re buried in work, or we haven’t saved enough for that week-long getaway we wanted to take. Maybe next year, we say as a new year begins and our PTO days reset.

This mindset — eschewing our vacation days year after year, telling ourselves we’re too busy or broke to use them — collectively costs us a lot of money. According to a study by the U.S. Travel Association that cites data from Ipsos and Oxford Economics, 27.2 percent of PTO earned by U.S. workers was left untouched in 2018 — which equates to 768 million unused days and $65.5 billion in lost benefits.

That problem is exactly the one that Woodinville-based PTO Exchange seeks to remedy.

“It’s important for everyone to understand that PTO you’ve accrued as an employee is a part of your wage — and when you don’t use it, it’s part of your compensation that you’re giving back,” explained Rob Whalen, cofounder and CEO of PTO Exchange, who in 2013 started brainstorming ideas with cofounder and CTO Todd Lucas for a system to help employees convert their PTO into payable assets. After years of development “in the garage,” Whalen said, capital raising in 2018 got the now-11-person company off the ground.

“We found that there was a large appetite for flexible benefits, and we started to look at what people might like to do with their PTO if they could use it for something other than time off,” Whalen said of the early development process.

The problem with the way most of us think about PTO, according to Whalen, is that we fail to recognize the financial component of it: If someone makes $35 an hour, each hour of PTO she earns — let’s say 80 hours — is worth that same $35. That PTO has a monetary value of $2,800, then, and the worker ideally should have discretion over its use. Sure, she could use it to take two weeks off, but limiting her to only this — and forcing her to forfeit it if she doesn’t have the time or funds to take advantage of that vacation time — simply doesn’t make sense.

And PTO Exchange discovered that, given the choice, people would like to do a lot of things with their PTO other than take a vacation, depending on their life stage and circumstance. A recent college graduate could convert two weeks’ vacation into a payment toward her student loan in order to pay it off faster. A parent paying for his kid’s degree could funnel it into a neglected 401(k) account. A person lacking time to volunteer at her favorite nonprofit could convert PTO into a donation.

Companies can easily provide this kind of flexibility to their employees — which is itself a perk of sorts — by signing up for PTO Exchange, which the company can do for free, paying only when an employee uses the system. PTO Exchange makes its money through a 7.5 percent service fee charged on any exchange, meaning that the donation of one hour of PTO by an employee — originally $35 — would translate into $32.38. Companies also can put up “rails” of sorts, Whalen said, to keep employees from exchanging every hour of their earned time — breaks still are important — while also encouraging certain behaviors like matching a donation to a certain nonprofit.

This kind of system — which PTO Exchange patented early on in order to be the platform through which employees can easily navigate an exchange through the click of a button — becomes increasingly useful given the many uncertainties that the COVID-19 crisis has produced.

“Right now, it’s probably more common that people need extra funds to bridge themselves through transition, and they can do an emergency cash-out,” Whalen said, referencing the statistic from the Federal Reserve Board that even pre-COVID, 40 percent of Americans couldn’t afford an unexpected $400 expense.

Employees also can donate their hours to another employee who might need an extra break, like a single parent who is juggling work-from-home with full-time childcare and homeschooling responsibilities. And with so many nonprofits trying to support those most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19, employees — who probably can’t take that vacation right now, anyway — can help out by donating via PTO Exchange to COVID-19-specific relief organizations.

“I think what we’re doing is really, really important in today’s environment,” Whalen said. “And I think a lot of companies can see that, and they see that this approach is very relevant to the future of work. We believe that benefits will be completely flexible and portable in the future.”