Leave of Absence: What Is a Leave and How Does an Employee Apply?

Want to Know How to Apply for an Unpaid Leave of Absence From Work?

Employees extend maternity leave past the 12 weeks allotted by the FMLA by requesting an unpaid leave of absence.
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A leave of absence is time allowed away from work, generally requested by an employee, to cover unusual circumstances occurring in the employee’s life. The 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.

Application for an unpaid leave of absence often occurs when an employee has used up his or her existing paid time off. The unpaid leave of absence does not extend the employee's pay during the leave of absence but it ensures other continuity that is critical for employees. For example, an unpaid leave of absence allows an employee to continue coverage by certain employer-provided benefits.

Most Important Component of an Unpaid Leave of Absence

The most important component of a leave of absence is that the employee’s employment continues during the leave of absence. Either by law or by choice, depending on the circumstances, many employers also continue an employee’s health insurance during a leave of absence.

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

A leave of absence is either paid or unpaid (most frequently) and some leaves of absence are required by law. A leave of absence is also allowed by employers, on a case by case basis in most employer policies.

Why Employees Might Ask for a Leave of Absence

Parents, for example, may want to request an unpaid leave of absence to extend their absence from work past the normal period of time allowed for parental leave by the company. Another example of a leave of absence involves giving an employee a paid leave of absence as required time away from work while an employer investigates allegations of wrongdoing by the employee. (Until allegations are proved, the employee receives pay.)

In another common example of why an employee might request an unpaid leave of absence, the employee was designated as the estate administrator by a relative. When the person dies, bereavement leave will not generally cover all of the time the employee has to invest in taking care of the deceased's estate.

In a final example, employers have granted an unpaid leave of absence to a new employee who requires the time to move their family members across the country and into a new home. (Many employee benefits are accrued, so the new employee might not have the time built up in their paid leave bank that is needed to orchestrate the move.)

Legal Issues Around Employee Leaves of Absence

You need to become familiar with the laws that govern the required leaves of absence in your state or country. In the U.S., requirements vary from state to state and some leaves of absence are required by federal laws.

Examples of a legally required unpaid leave of absence are time allotted by the Family and Medical Leave Act and by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Bereavement time is an example of a leave of absence during which employers pay the employee for a certain number of days and then, the employee can extend the time away from work by applying for unpaid leave.

Jury duty is another example of a paid leave of absence that is required by law in most jurisdictions although the employer may set policies about how long they are willing to pay the employee's salary for an extended trial.

Caring for a sick family member who is not a member of their immediate family, obtaining medical treatment in another country, an extended visit to an employee’s home country to see family, extra time for parental leave past the 12 weeks that are allotted by the FMLA, and time away from work to deal with the estate of a loved one are examples of why employees might want to take unpaid leaves of absence.

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.

How to Ask for an Unpaid Leave of Absence

You've learned what you need to know about an unpaid leave of absence from work and you've decided that you need to take one. This is how you can ask for unpaid leave. You will want to take these two steps to achieve an official unpaid leave of absence from work.

Give your employer as much notice as you possibly can.

The employer is going to have to make sure that your vital job components are covered by other employees during your absence. He will appreciate that you have kept him informed along the way so that he is not blindsided by your last minute request for an unpaid leave of absence.

For example, your grandparent is dying and you are the designated estate administrator. Let your employer know that you will have this family obligation to deal with the estate when you realize that your grandparent is likely dying. Keeping your employer abreast of the turn of events is professional, respectful, and likely to signal positive messages about you as an employee.

In a second example, 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. Your household has a second income so you can afford to take unpaid leave. Let the employer know as soon as you are considering the possibility. This is the professional way to approach an extended leave of absence. Employers appreciate when employees don't blindside them with a request for an unpaid leave of absence.

Unpaid leaves of absence are not like an employee benefit such as negotiating a flexible schedule. To do that, you need the employer to see some benefit for the employer in granting your request. With an unpaid leave, you may find yourself in the position of having to ask for leave even when taking leave would not be your choice.

Know the state and international laws where you live. In some cases, your employer may not even have the right to refuse your request.

Ask politely for an unpaid leave of absence and provide a full explanation about why you need the leave and when you plan to return to work.

Your employer will appreciate a face-to-face notification rather than an email or text message. He will also appreciate the transparency of any request you make so that he knows what is going on in your life. If you have kept the employer in the loop, your request will not take him by surprise.

Brainstorm with your manager or employer how to cover your job while you are on the leave of absence.

Let your colleagues, coworkers, and customers know that you are taking an unpaid leave of absence.

You do not need to tell them why you are taking the leave. But, since they will have to pick up the slack while you are off, you will want to tell them when you plan to return. You will also want to tell your customers who they can contact while you are out on your leave of absence.

You can comfortably ask for an unpaid leave of absence using these three steps. Think of your employer's interests as well as your own and unpaid leave of absence should have no negative impact on your career success and progress.

Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.