What Is a Leave of Absence?

Definition and Examples of a Leave of Absence

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A leave of absence is permission for an employee to be away from work for a period of time. It might be voluntary, mandatory, paid, or unpaid.

Learn when someone might apply for a leave of absence and what might happen if one is granted.

What Is a Leave of Absence?

A leave of absence is time allowed away from work, generally requested by an employee to cover special circumstances occurring in the employee’s life. An unpaid leave of absence is used when the employee’s time off from work is not covered under an employer’s existing benefits such as sick leave, paid vacation, paid holidays, and paid time off.

Unpaid leave doesn't provide wages to the employee during their time away, but it does ensure employment continuity, which can be important especially regarding certain employer-paid benefits such as accrued vacation time or health insurance coverage.

The employee may need to pay for other benefits such as dental insurance or life insurance during an unpaid leave of absence.

As an example, imagine you have an ailing relative. You have found out their illness has progressed and they don't have much longer to live, and you have been designated as the estate administrator. When this relative dies, bereavement time may provide you time off to mourn and attend funeral services, but if you need more time to handle the estate, you'd need to ask for a leave of absence.

In a second example, say you have just welcomed a newborn into your family. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), your job is protected for 12 weeks after the baby's birth or adoption into your family, because your employer has more than 50 employees and you've worked there more than 1,250 hours. (Your boss is not required to pay you for those 12 weeks, however.) You are fairly certain that you will want to remain home with your infant child for a period of time after your family medical leave benefits are used up, so you would ask for a leave of absence to extend your time at home with the new baby.

When a Leave of Absence May Be Legally Protected

There are some instances when an employer is legally required to provide a leave of absence.

Jury duty: Time off for jury duty is required by law in most jurisdictions, although the employer is not required by federal law to pay the employee during the time off. If the employer does choose to pay an employee during their time away from work for jury duty, they may set policies about how long they are willing to pay the employee's salary for an extended trial.

Military duty: Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), an employer is legally required to provide an unpaid leave of absence for an employee's military service. It also ensures that they can maintain health insurance coverage while they are away.

Voting: Some jurisdictions require that employers allow workers to take time off to vote, but how much and whether that leave is paid or unpaid varies by state.

Find out the state and federal laws that apply to your situation, because your employer may not have the right to refuse your request for leave.

In any case, the employer needs an application process and policy for granting a leave of absence. The employer must apply the policy in a nondiscriminatory manner. With a policy in place, employers ensure that they are fairly and equitably treating all employee applications for a leave of absence.

Asking for an unpaid leave of absence is different from negotiating an employee benefit such as a flexible schedule, where you need the employer to see some benefit for themselves in granting your request. With unpaid leave, you may find yourself in the position of having to ask for it even when taking leave would not be your choice.

How Does a Leave of Absence Work?

When you ask for a leave of absence, give your employer as much notice as you can, because they will have to make sure that your essential job duties are covered by other employees while you are gone. Notify your employer as soon as you discover that you might need or want to take leave.

Ask politely for an unpaid leave of absence and provide an explanation about why you need the leave and when you plan to return to work. Consult your employer face-to-face to ask for the leave, but follow up in writing to make sure you have the details confirmed.

You may offer to brainstorm with your manager or employer about how to cover your job while you are on the leave of absence. This shows you are willing to provide solutions.

You'll probably also want to let your colleagues and coworkers know when you are taking a leave of absence. You don't need to tell them the reason, but since they will be picking up the slack while you are off, it's a courtesy to tell them when you expect to return. You may also want to tell your customers or clients who they can contact when you're away.

Key Takeaways

  • A leave of absence is authorized time away from work, often for special circumstances in an employee's life.
  • A leave of absence may be paid or unpaid.
  • Some laws cover certain instances of leave, such as jury duty and military service.
  • It's best to give an employer as much notice as possible if you intend to take a leave of absence.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "VETS USERRA Fact Sheet 3." Accessed July 1, 2020.

  2. SHRM. "State Laws: Time Off to Vote (primary dates vary)." Accessed July 1, 2020.