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  1. Blog
  2. Flexibility

What Unpaid Time Off (UTO) Is and When to Take It

What you're entitled to, what it's for, and how to ask for it

Woman resting after taking unpaid time off
Photo courtesy of Miriam Alonso

Americans work a lot. In fact, we’re the most overworked industrialized country in the world.

“On average, U.S. workers have just 10 days off per year,” writes Miles Kampf-Lassin, web editor at In These Times magazine. “Fewer than 40 percent of low-wage workers in the private sector receive any paid time off, and they work more total weeks than higher-income earners, making it difficult to take any blocks of time off at all, even unpaid.”

And when unpaid leave is granted, how many of us can afford it?

Read more: The 20 Best Companies for Paid Time Off

What is unpaid time off?

Unpaid time off (UTO) is exactly that: time you take away from work, without pay. It can be a couple of hours, a day or two, or several weeks.

There are two main types of unpaid time off: that mandated by the FMLA and everything else.

As employment lawyer Ann-Marie Ahern tells InHerSight, “When we talk about unpaid leave, the threshold question is whether it is for medical reasons or childbirth (or placement). When a leave is for the employee’s own or a close relative’s serious health condition or the birth or placement of a child, the employee may be entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).”

FMLA applies to public agencies and schools as well as private sector employers with at least 50 employees. The employee must have worked a certain number of hours during the 12 months prior to the start of the leave in order to qualify. FMLA is job-protected and requires that any group health benefits you have at your job continue throughout your leave.

Generally, however, approval for all other unpaid time off is left entirely up to your employer.

Read more: Why You Should Play Hooky (& 14 Things to Do with Your Time)

What can you use unpaid time off for?

Unless you’re requesting job-protected unpaid time off under the FMLA, unpaid time off can be used for anything. 

You can request UTO from your manager if you’re sick, if you need to attend an appointment during work hours, or if you’re taking a vacation. Obviously, the time off you require might change from a few hours to a couple of weeks; an extended period away from work is known as unpaid leave of absence. Like any other form of unpaid time off, a leave of absence is granted at the discretion of your employer, who is under no obligation to do so.

Read more: Why We Should All Resolve to Ditch Hustle Culture in 2022

The cons: arguments against unpaid time off

The problem with unpaid time off is that it’s unpaid. Even if you take an extended leave and your boss has agreed to protect your job, you will not have an income for that entire period. 

And many people can’t afford to go just a few days without their income, let alone weeks or months. Research shows that “as many as 23 percent of employed mothers return to work within 10 days of giving birth, because of their inability to pay living expenses without income.”

In other words, as U.S. Congressman Jimmy Gomez (CA-34, Los Angeles) tweeted on February 5, 2022, “Today is the 29th anniversary of the Family & Medical Leave Act, but nearly 7 million workers don’t take #FMLA because they couldn’t afford unpaid time off.”

And if you’ve got a case of serious envy for workers who have unlimited paid time off (PTO), that grass isn’t always greener. It completely depends on the company policy, culture, and even the department manager. Unless employees are actively encouraged to take time off, they typically don’t take much. And in most cases of unlimited paid time off, employees are not paid for unused paid time off.

Read more: The Best Work-Life Balance Companies & What They Do Right

The pros: arguments in favor of unpaid time off

If you can afford it, unpaid time off has its benefits to both the employer and employee.

There are health benefits of taking time off work. As an employee, you can de-stress, focus on your personal life and relationships and get healthier physically. You can also use that time as bereavement leave.

Employers enjoy the obvious benefit of saving money, especially if that business is seasonal and employees take UTO during the quieter times. Companies that make it easy for staff to take unpaid time off see increased employee satisfaction and a better work environment.

Unlike paid time off, unpaid time off is often unlimited (to a point). Workers generally try not to use up their two weeks paid vacation a year for doctor’s appointments and to attend their child’s daytime performance at school. An afternoon of unpaid time is usually affordable, can be made up if required and leaves their allotted yearly paid time off intact.

Unpaid leave can increase your vacation time, and if you plan it right, you can reduce the amount of income you’ll lose. This is especially true if your job can be done remotely. If you can work a couple of days per week on your three-week vacation, for instance, and plan it around a long weekend, you can save six or more days of unpaid leave.

Read more: Why You Should Be Taking a Sabbatical & How to Ask

How do you ask for unpaid time off?

Before you ask for unpaid time off, review your city and state laws as well as your company’s policies and procedures.

That’s because your state or city may have its own laws regarding paid and unpaid leave. For example, “employers with four or fewer employees in New York State and a net income of less than $1 million must allow employees to take up to 40 hours of unpaid leave.”

If you need to take time off to address domestic or sexual violence and you’re in Illinois, for example, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to seek medical, legal and other assistance. Several other states have also enacted laws, but they vary significantly so it’s important to review your state’s laws.

Read more: Why You Should Take a Personal Day, According to Research

Businesses have different policies for requesting unpaid time off. Once you know the laws that govern UTO in your area, review your company’s policy. 

For example, some employers require you to use up your paid time off before asking for any unpaid time off, and most have an upper limit on the number of unpaid time off days you can take. Others have time off accrual rules (adding UTO days to a worker’s balance for each month worked) or spell out the circumstances when longer term unpaid leave is allowed.

Typically, the best approach to ask for unpaid time off is to do so in advance, if possible, and confirm that in writing. However, your job will dictate how best to manage the request. A small, family-run business might be happy with a text message; a large corporate office may demand a formal request (with reason) sent to the benefits person in HR.

Read more: Hello, Flexibility: The 23 Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance

Tips to getting your unpaid time off request approved

Once you know the laws and your company’s procedures governing unpaid time off, it’s time to make your request. How you ask can go a long way to getting your request approved.

  • Try to schedule your UTO request for a relatively slow time at work. Don’t expect to take a vacation during tax season if you’re in an accounting firm, or if your department’s annual report is coming due. Don’t choose a major holiday when you know that lots of other workers are booking time off. Chances are, your request will be denied.

  • Be specific with the dates you’re asking for. Instead of asking for a week in June, say you’ll be away from June 10 to 15, inclusive. That specificity makes it easier for your department head to manage scheduling.

  • Don’t ask if you’re just coming back from vacation or have been calling in sick a lot recently. It helps too if you can say you’re caught up on work.

  • Be helpful. If your planned time off is going to leave your coworkers in a tight spot, offer to leave later or come back earlier.

  • It’s usually better to run your request by your manager in a casual conversation first to gauge their response. Then you can follow up with a formal written request or confirmation.

Read more: How to Ask for Time Off Before Starting a New Job

Things may get complicated when you’re requesting a significant amount of unpaid leave. Be prepared to counter objections. Your boss may think that giving you that kind of time off sets a bad precedent, and that everyone will be asking for weeks of UTO. A manager might question whether you’re planning to come back to work at all. 

An approach that can help is to tell your department head how you envision your time away and what performance benefits you might bring back to the company. Even if you plan to laze your days away, you’ll return to work rested and rejuvenated, boosting your concentration and productivity levels.

About our source

Employment lawyer Ann-Marie Ahern is a Principal and OSBA Certified Specialist in the area of Labor and Employment Law at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal and Liffman in Cleveland, Ohio. She focuses on employee agreements, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and discharge and counsels executives and management level employees on sensitive career transition issues.

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