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What Managers Need to Know About Leaves of Absence

Business owners and team leaders know that employee absenteeism can be difficult. When your team members can't come to work, the usual workflow can be disrupted, which affects productivity. It's natural to want to encourage your employees to miss as few days as possible for the sake of the business and the rest of the team.

However, your employees are human, and work isn't their only responsibility in life. Sometimes, situations happen that prevent people from coming into work. If one of your team members is facing circumstances that require their long-term attention, they may need to take a leave of absence. You should know what a leave of absence is, what types you may encounter, and what you should do if an employee needs to go on leave.

What Is a Leave of Absence?

A leave of absence is time away from work. It can either be paid or unpaid, and it can vary in length. In some cases, leaves of absence are mandated or protected by federal and state laws. Other times, leaves can either be voluntarily approved or denied by the company.

Mandated Leaves of Absence

There are a number of laws that require businesses to give their employees time off of work under certain circumstances. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the following situations:

  • Birth of a child
  • Fostering or adopting a child
  • Taking care of an immediate family member with a medical condition
  • Unable to work due to health condition

The FMLA applies to public agencies and private businesses with 50 or more employees. To be granted leave under the act, an employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours for the company in the last 12 months, and they must have been employed for at least one year.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is another federal law that mandates leave under specific circumstances. The act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, and work leave is sometimes considered an accommodation. The law doesn't mandate a specific amount of leave employers must provide, so it varies on a case-by-case basis. The ADA applies to government agencies and private businesses with 15 or more employees.

Employers may also have to give their workers time off for jury duty. The laws vary from state to state, but most states require employers to provide leave for individuals who have been summoned to serve on a jury. A few states require employers to provide paid leave for jury duty, but most only mandate unpaid leave.

There are leave of absence laws for military members as well. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA) mandates leaves of absence for military members who go on active duty. For example, if a full-time employee also serves in the National Guard and is deployed, their employer cannot terminate their employment. This applies to military members whose reserve units are mobilized, too.

If the active duty service lasts for 90 days or less, the law states that employees can return to the same position as they previously held. If their leave lasts for longer than 90 days, the employer can instead offer a closely approximate position upon their return. There can be exceptions made if re-employment is impossible or would put hardship on the employer.

There are no federal laws that require employers to give their workers time off for voting. However, many states mandate that employers give leave during both local and national elections. Some states require paid leave, and some only require unpaid. Different states designate different amounts of time that can be given for voting, too.

Voluntary Leaves of Absence

Voluntary leaves of absence aren't protected by law, but companies often offer them as a courtesy or as a part of their corporate policy. For example, you may offer an extended medical leave to an employee who has used up their paid sick leave, or you might grant a personal leave of absence to a team member who has had a death in their immediate family.

With voluntary leaves of absence, it's up to management to decide the terms of the leave. The employers also can decide whether the leave is paid or unpaid. After an employee uses up their paid sick or personal days, you could either give them extra as a courtesy or allow them to take unpaid time off to attend to personal matters.

How to Determine When to Give Voluntary Leave

Deciding whether or not to approve a leave of absence is never easy. You want to support your employees, but a lengthy absence can cause hardship for your business. This is especially tricky for small businesses with only a few team members or when the employee has a highly specialized job and is difficult to replace.

Remember that a supportive and empathetic management team is one of the best morale boosters for the workplace. In many cases, offering leave is not just beneficial for the employee, but it also fosters a better attitude and a stronger sense of loyalty among the entire team.

At the same time, you have to ensure that your employees don't abuse leaves of absence. Be clear that the team needs to be present for the business to function and that leaves of absence beyond the usual sick or personal days will only be granted in extreme circumstances.

Although no two situations will be the same, try to standardize the process as much as possible. Put together a leave of absence request form that includes the start and end dates of the leave. Documenting the request will protect against disputes in the future.

What to Do When an Employee Takes Leave

As soon as you've approved a leave of absence for one of your employees, start planning how you'll cover their responsibilities. Make a list of the employee's tasks, and determine which ones can be delegated to others on your team. If you need to train someone for a particular task, start right away. If possible, request that the employee taking leave train their coworkers on the job before their time off begins.

You may need to hire a temporary worker if the other team members don't have the time or capacity to complete the work. Even if you do assign the absent employee's responsibilities to other workers, a temporary worker could assist with tasks like answering phones or filing paperwork. This frees up some extra time for the rest of your team, which will make it easier for them to cover for the absent employee.

Consult with your employee on their availability during their leave of absence. Depending on the nature of the leave, they may be able to answer some questions or reply to emails while they're away. This could make the transition much easier for your team.

It's important that managers and team leaders understand the federal and state laws regarding leaves of absence and that they follow the company's own policies on extended time off. By being clear, consistent, and prepared, you can grant your employees leaves of absence with minimal interruptions to your team's workflow.

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Alex Sumner