There tends to be confusion around what constitutes a leave of absence from work and what situations qualify, and even if you know you need to take time away from work, it can be difficult to ask the question of your employer.
We’ll help you understand what qualifies you for a leave of absence, what you may be entitled to while you’re out of the office, and how to broach the subject with your boss.
What is a leave of absence?
A leave of absence is an extended period of time off work that is excused by an employer. During this designated time away, the individual retains his or her employment status but may or may not receive pay or usual benefits. At the end of the leave, an employee may resume their regular duties.
This time off is considered separate from and typically lasts longer than other time off, such as paid vacation, paid holidays, and sick leave.
Employees who take a leave of absence often do so because of an illness, the need to care for a close family member with an illness, a death in the family (bereavement leave), military service, the birth or adoption of a child, or jury duty.
Am I entitled to a leave of absence?
There’s nothing that requires all companies in the United States to offer leaves of absence to their employees, but in some situations, you may be protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), or the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
Typically, it is at the discretion of individual employers to set standards for leaves of absence and define them within the company employee handbook.
What qualifies someone for a leave of absence?
FMLA—Companies with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the workplace are required to offer 12 weeks of leave to employees who have been with the company for at least 12 months and who:
Have just had a child or adopted a child (applies to both men and women)
Are unable to work due to a serious medical condition
Are caring for an immediate family member with a serious medical condition
Note that FMLA does not provide pay to employees or require companies to do so. It simply protects their job until they return and extends group insurance benefits during the employee’s absence.
Jury Duty—When an employee is summoned to appear in court as part of the jury, employers are obligated to allow time away from work to fulfill this service. However, if the employer feels this would negatively disrupt company performance they may write a letter to the court requesting the duty be postponed.
USERRA—The purpose of this act is to protect members of the military who are called into active duty. When these employees return from duty, employers are required to reinstate them into their previous or similar position.
Do you get paid during a leave of absence?
It's important to note that even though these situations are protected by federal laws, there is no rule that states companies must pay employees during any kind of leave of absence. It is completely up to the individual employer to choose whether leave will be paid and which will be unpaid.
How to request a leave of absence
So, you know you need to take a leave of absence, for whatever reason, now how do you do it?
1. Review the employee handbook
Understand exactly what your company says about the leave you need to request: paid vs. unpaid, any length stipulations, etc., and any paperwork you may need to provide with your request.
If your employer does not offer leaves of absence, consider asking to scale down to part-time hours or work remotely instead of taking a full hiatus.
2. Write your request
Write a formal letter requesting the leave of absence. The letter should include the reason for your leave and estimated start and end date for the leave. (More info on what to include below.)
3. Schedule a meeting with your supervisor
Schedule a face-to-face meeting (a phone or video call if you work remotely) with your boss to deliver the letter and discuss your need for leave. Be prepared to answer questions and provide documentation of outstanding projects.
Your boss may also have you schedule a meeting with human resources as well.
4. Help with reallocation of duties
Your duties will most likely be taken over by members of your team or a contractor will be hired to fill the gaps. If your need for leave is not an emergency matter, offer to help with that process and specifically outline all of your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks that will be affected.
What do I say when I ask?
A written letter should follow professional workplace format and style. Be as specific and transparent as you can while explaining the circumstances.
Start with a descriptive briefing of the situation and then clearly state that you will be taking leave. Use a phrase like: Due to my ongoing health problems, I will need to take a six-week leave of absence for my procedure and recovery.
It's acceptable to tell your boss you will be taking a leave when it’s covered by law or company policy, but make sure to ask for the time off when it's not.
Let your boss know how you will help prepare for your absence. Use language such as, I am giving a month’s notice to help plan for my absence,
You do not need to apologize for your absence.
State your proposed start and end dates. If you do not know the exact day you plan to be back you can say something like, I anticipate returning to work by [date] and will provide written notice if this will not be possible.
Say thank you. At the end of the letter or conversation, always thank your employer for their consideration and understanding: Thank you for understanding my need for this time away.