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Taking a Leave of Absence: How Does It Work Logistically and Financially?

Taking an extended break from work certainly sounds nice, but there are important considerations to keep in mind before pulling the trigger.

February 1, 2022

It’s been called the Great Resignation. Millions of Americans are leaving their jobs — and thousands are staying out of the workforce permanently. Around 3% of the workforce quit their jobs in August 2021 alone. 

Some do so because they’re experiencing burnout. Others are providing care for loved ones. And others are staying out of workplaces for fear of contracting COVID-19. 

In any case, the trend is clear: More people are exploring alternatives to their current work life. But is there an option that is less extreme than actually quitting your job? 

Taking a leave of absence (LOA) may be an alternative. A leave of absence is essentially an extended break from work. But how does leave of absence work? 

How does leave of absence work?

What is LOA, and how does it work?

A leave of absence is simply an extended period of time that an employee takes off from work. 

Generally speaking, this leave is separate from standard vacation time or paid time off. For example, a week-long vacation would not be considered a leave of absence, but a 3-month break to care for a child would be. 

When you take a leave of absence, you are essentially taking a break from work. In most cases you will not be paid, but this depends on your employer. Additionally, you may or may not be temporarily taken off of employer benefits (such as health insurance), so it’s important to understand all the details before moving forward. 

Company leave of absence policy details will vary, so check with your human resources (HR) department for details. 

Also, each state has different rules for leaves of absence. You should research laws in your state, as well as the policies of your employer. 

Are employers required to give you a leave of absence? 

In some situations, yes. If the LOA is covered under certain mandatory leave laws, then the employer is required to give you leave (although they typically won’t need to pay you). For voluntary leave, employers are not required to approve your request. 

There are two types of leave:

Mandatory leave, which is mandated at the federal level. This includes coverage under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Only certain employers are required to comply with FMLA and ADA, and only certain circumstances qualify for coverage. But if you do qualify under the rules, your employer must provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. 

Voluntary leave, which is not required or regulated by any federal law. Voluntary leave is simply asking for leave without a qualifying reason. For instance, an employee may wish to take an extended vacation or take six months off to rest and recover from burnout. In this case, the decision is entirely up to the employer and they are not required to grant your request. 

How long is a leave of absence?

A voluntary leave of absence could be as short as a few weeks and as long as several months. Some employers may approve gaps even longer — potentially six months or even 12 months for excellent employees. 

Federally mandated leave under the FMLA is 12 weeks. You may qualify for FMLA leave if you have a new child, you’re caring for a sick family member, or if you’ve had a medical emergency. 

Indefinite leave of absence may also be an option. This essentially means that you are taking time off work, and you don’t know exactly when you’ll return. In this case, most employers will expect regular updates on your plans. 

Do you get paid for leave of absence?

At most companies, no. Some employers may offer to pay for a temporary leave of absence, but the norm is leave without pay.

Voluntary leave of absence, when the employee decides to take a break from work for no specific covered reason, is rarely paid for by employers.

Mandatory leave, such as family medical leave or disability leave, is federally authorized for many workers — but in most cases, employers still don’t have to pay employees. 

Maternity or paternity leave, which is reserved for new parents, is usually treated differently from a standard leave of absence. Some employers offer paid maternity/paternity leave, while very few offer paid voluntary leave. 

How to ask for a temporary leave of absence

  1. Understand your legal rights. If you are taking leave due to sickness, disability, the birth of a child or other qualifying reason under FMLA, you may have a legal right to unpaid leave. Research your rights to know your position before requesting leave.

  2. Understand company policies. Don’t be left in the dark wondering “How does leave of absence work?” Many employers have formal policies for how leave of absence works, and which employees are eligible. Check with your employer's HR department for details and read through any written policies that your workplace has. Check if paid leave is possible or if only unpaid leave is offered. You should also check what will happen to your benefits, such as health care, if you take a leave of absence. 

  3. Consider different options. You may wish to have a backup plan if a leave of absence is not approved. For instance, you may wish to ask to work from home some days each week or to reduce your hours to 25 per week from 40 per week.

  4. Speak with your immediate supervisor. Before going to HR, bring up the topic with your immediate supervisor. Your supervisor may appreciate hearing about your leave request from you before they hear about it from HR.

  5. Schedule an in-person meeting with your boss. Most experts recommend meeting in person to request time off, although some employers may prefer a written request. 

  6. Give plenty of lead time. Be respectful with your request and give your employer as much notice as possible. For instance, you wouldn’t want to ask for leave starting next month (unless you’ve had an emergency). 

One final consideration regarding leave of absence: If you’re ​​taking leave due to emotional stress, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to help you navigate your options for managing your stress.

Level up your career

Want to learn more about navigating careers? The Tally blog is a great place to start. Check out some recent highlights from our blog:

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