Paid Vs Unpaid Employee Leave in the US
Paid time off (PTO) or paid leave of absence is when employees take their leave from work but still get their full pay and benefits for the time they are gone from work. PTO includes vacation, sick days, holidays, and days for personal time off.
Employees can use their PTO at once or divide their free days into shorter time off periods throughout the year with prior notice.
Unpaid employee leave or unpaid leave of absence, on the other hand, is when employees have run out of their PTO benefits, such as accrued vacation time and sick days, but they still need to take some time off (e.g., in case of health emergencies, urgent family matters, etc.).
In these cases, employees can submit a time-off request to their managers or employers asking for unpaid leave. Depending on the company’s unpaid leave policy and the leave circumstances, they will have their requests approved or rejected.
Employees are protected by federal law from losing their job while on leave, provided their leave request falls under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Different Types of Employee Leave in the US
Generally, there are two types of employee leave - mandatory leave and voluntary leave.
Mandatory leave is often a part of a company's mandatory leave policy, which requires that employees take their paid leave during the course of a year. The mandatory leave policy entails that employees must spend some (5 days or a whole week) or all of their accrued vacation days over the course of a year.
Employees are also eligible for mandatory leave in cases when they leave work for jury duty, military service, or other state-mandated leave, such as bereavement leave, religious holidays, parental leave, and more.
Voluntary leave doesn’t fall under federal law and is often offered as a company perk to employees who request leave without pay. The voluntary leave can be short (a week) but may be prolonged indefinitely by a mutual employee/employer agreement and can be paid or unpaid, depending on the company policy.
Generally, in the case of voluntary leave, the employer has the right to decide whether they will offer the employees their jobs back or a similar work role after their voluntary leave, especially if the leave is for an extended period of time. Companies often include specific voluntary leave guidelines in their employee handbook that explain who is eligible, how long can employees be on leave, and what qualifies for voluntary leave per company policy.
Who Qualifies for FMLA Employee Leave?
Employees that have personal health issues or someone in their close family (spouse, parent, child) who is experiencing a decline in health can requirest FMLA leave, which is covered by both federal and state laws.
Employees can request FMLA leave for up to 12 weeks over the course of a year without losing their job if they provide proof to their employer that they need time off from work because of their health or the health of a loved one.
In order to qualify for FMLA leave, employees need to fulfill a few conditions, such as full-time employment by an FMLA-covered employer for a minimum of 12 months and at least 1,250 hours of work during the 12 months of employment.
FMLA covers all public agencies, including federal, state, and local governments, as well as elementary and secondary school employees. FMLA-covered employers can also be private employers or private sector companies with 50 or more employees.
Aside from the FMLA minimum requirements of 12 months and 1,250 hours of work, employees also have to meet the following circumstances to be eligible for this type of leave:
- The birth, fostering, or adoption of a child.
- Serious injuries or health conditions that hinder the employee’s ability to work.
- The care of a family member with serious health conditions.
- Military caregiving for a family veteran or a veteran in general.
- Military deployment under USERRA.
Other Types of Employee Leave in the States
In cases when the FMLA isn’t applicable, employers usually implement an administrative leave policy that offers similar terms to FMLA. Administrative leave usually covers a shorter period of time, the most common being 7-days compared to the 12 weeks of FMLA leave, but employers are free to customize their policy the way it suits them and their employees best.
Bereavement leave isn’t federally regulated and can be either paid or unpaid, depending on the duration and the leave policy of the company. Bereavement leave is requested by employees after the loss of a loved one. This may include the loss of a spouse, parent, children, or other close or distant family members. During bereavement leave, employees are free to attend to their family matters without having to go to work.
With the present laws, bereavement leave falls under unpaid leave, but it’s still a common practice for employers to pay their employees and guard their position during such traumatizing events.
Citizens summoned to jury duty are required to appear on the stand, and employers are required to provide them with at least unpaid leave for the duration of their jury duties. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers don’t have to pay their employees for their time on jury leave. However, some local state laws require the opposite.
In such cases, employees are advised to check with their local department of labor to learn about any state laws on jury duty leave and remain in compliance.
According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), employers are required to provide paid leave for certain ranks in the active or inactive National Guard or Military Reserve personnel. Moreover, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) requires employers to reemploy enlisted military personnel when they return from active duty.