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What is a Leave of Absence?

By: Gabby Garland
Jul 22, 2021 • 6 min read

Everything You Need to Know About Taking a Leave of Absence From Work

Understanding the guidelines and expectations of a leave of absence can be confusing. In this blog, we will break it down!

A leave of absence is different from paid time off (vacation days or sick days) as employees take leaves of absence under extraordinary circumstances. Examples include welcoming a new child, the death of a loved one, or a medical emergency. Unlike paid time off, leaves of absence can be voluntary or mandatory, paid or unpaid.

There are federal laws in place that mandate companies to provide leaves of absence for their employees to have job protection while on leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act, the American Disabilities Act, and the new Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act are all crucial legislations that support employees during their leave.

Let’s dive in

The federal and state governments cover mandatory leave under the legislation mentioned above. Companies must grant job-protected leave under these clauses. Whether these laws apply to your job depends on the number of employees at the company and where you’re working since some aspects vary by state. These laws protect employees from losing their job or pay over jury duty, medical leave, military leave, and other state-protected leaves.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of the federal, state, and employer policies. Especially before you bring it up with your boss! This way, you can determine whether you’ll remain eligible for employee benefits and pay during your time off.

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What is the Family and Medical Leave Act?

The FMLA is a federal law that was originally passed in 1993 to help employees manage their work responsibilities and home life. The FMLA allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12 month period. Depending on your employer’s policies and state laws, you may be able to use paid leave while on FMLA leave.

It’s important to keep in mind that not every employer or employee is covered, and you may have to provide proof of the serious medical condition to get leave. While your employer is required to offer you a job after returning from leave, it may not be the exact job you had before.

What are the circumstances covered by the FMLA?

The FMLA covered three specific circumstances. The first is to deal with a serious health condition of your own or a family member. Second, the FMLA allows leaving for specific reasons due to certain military deployments or care for a covered servicemember. Finally, the FMLA lets employees take time off for the birth of a child, to bond with the newborn, or the placement of a child with the employee for foster care or adoption.

For medical leave, the FMLA gives employers the right to ask for certification of the condition from a healthcare provider. It’s advised by the Department of Labor that they request proof within 5 days of the request for leave. You’ll have 15 calendar days to provide proof.

There are some new FMLA guidelines in the American Rescue Plan. Under this new plan, Congress granted a voluntary option for businesses. You may be eligible for time off to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. There are many more regulations and provisions to understand specifics regarding leave until the FMLA. For the full list of requirements, we recommend taking a look at the DOL’s website.

What is the American’s with Disabilities Act?

Like the FMLA, the ADA is another federal law that covers mandatory leave. The ADA protects employees that have a disability featured on this list. Employers must provide leave if an individual qualifies under the ADA. However, the qualifications for coverage are vaguer than the FMLA. First, the ADA doesn’t explicitly define what a “reasonable” request for leave is.

Instead, it operates on a case-by-case basis, where employers work alongside the employee requesting leave to accommodate their needs. The main purpose of the ADA is to support people with disabilities to take time to do whatever they must to return to work and function as someone who does not have a disability.

Due to the lack of specificity of the ADA regarding defining circumstances needed for mandatory leave, we recommend checking state laws, as there will be nuances that the ADA does not address. A good rule of thumb regarding both the FMLA and ADA as federal laws is that the federal government sets the baseline, and the states take care of the specifics.

Where to find your state and employer’s leave policies:

Every employer is going to have different nuances about their policies. We’ll walk you through who to talk to and where to look for yours! We recommend reviewing your employee handbook in detail and asking any questions to your supervisor. If anything is unclear, definitely inquire with someone in the human resources department before petitioning for leave.

To find your state’s leave policy, all you need is a quick google search to pull up all the information you’ll need. For example, Massachusetts state policies for taking leave can be found here.

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So, why should you take a leave of absence?

There are many reasons to request a leave of absence from work, including many reasons not listed under any federal or state guidelines. Taking a leave for a reason not included under those protections may mean you will not be paid or have fewer protections. This will depend on the policy specifics of your employer regarding employee leaves. We’ll be covering how to find this in a later part of this article. So let’s address all the reasons you can and should take time off!

There’s no “good” or “bad” reason to take a leave. However, there are requests that are more reasonable and more likely to result in guaranteed pay and job security when returning. Some reasons not listed under the FMLA include treatment for drug abuse or mental health, taking a sabbatical, finishing a degree, or mourn the death of a friend/family member. You can request time off for several reasons similar to these. But, they won’t come with legal protections outlined in the FMLA and similar laws.

How to request a leave of absence

Remember, there aren’t any “bad” reasons to take time off. The way in which you ask will largely determine the ease of the process. Here are our tips on how to properly request a leave of absence:

Before making a formal request, do your research. It’s incredibly important to educate yourself on the federal, state, and employer policies before engaging in a conversation with your supervisor about taking leave. We recommend creating a list or document featuring the policies that apply to you and how they apply on all levels. This ranges from federal protections to employer policies.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself while you research:

  • Am I covered by the FMLA or the ADA?
  • Is my reason for taking time off supported by mandatory leave protection?
  • How much time off do I need, and does this impact my leave rights?
  • What are my employer’s policies, and who can I direct questions to?
  • What can my employer ask me to do?

Know your plan

Again before you submit a formal request, we suggest having as robust a plan as possible to ensure that you can present a clear case to your employer. This is especially key if you’re taking voluntary leave not covered by the FMLA or the ADA. Think about how much time off you’ll need, when you wish to return to work, and when you’ll need to start your leave. The FMLA explicitly states how much time off one can receive for the scenarios it covers. We highly suggest comparing it to your state’s policies as there may be some discrepancies to be aware of.

Of course, there are many scenarios and emergencies where you probably won’t have time to make a plan. Or, you might not know how much time you’ll need. We recommend familiarizing yourself with your employer’s policies as soon as you’re hired. In case an emergency does happen, you’ll be prepared in advance and know your rights.

Reach out 

Reach out to your HR department and your supervisor to discuss your plans for leave. Make sure to ask for time off instead of telling your employer you’re leaving, especially if it’s voluntary. If you’re a federal employee, you will most likely process your request through the S Department of Labor.

We recommend putting your plan in writing first so that your employer can have time to digest the information before engaging in a discussion. Schedule a meeting during a time when your boss or supervisor is least busy, if possible. If you’re taking a leave for a non-emergency, try to request as far in advance as possible in case your employer needs to adjust to your absence.

We recommend giving a brief explanation of why you need time off, but you certainly do not need to give all the details, especially if it’s for medical reasons. Keep in mind, your employer may request proof of medical or military documents, so be sure to have those prepared in advance. Depending on your state policy, you’ll be given time to procure those documents if it’s an emergency.

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Example request letter

Here’s an example of what a letter requesting a leave of absence could look like. The contents will change depending on the situation. You may not have time or space to send a formal letter if you’re taking leave due to a medical emergency, time-sensitive situation, or to mourn.

Jane Doe

1234 Main St

Boston, MA 01244


Mr. John Smith


XYZ Company

9876 Company Ave

Boston, MA 01234

Dear Mr. Smith,

I would like to request an x day leave of absence for personal reasons. (you can be as detailed as you’d like depending on how comfortable you are and your relationship with your supervisor) If it is possible, I would like to leave on this date and return on this date.

If approved, I will be doing XYZ during this time. (state your communication preferences so that your employer knows.)

Thank you very much for your consideration.


Your Name

How to prepare for your leave of absence

If you’re planning to take a leave of absence to return to school, take a sabbatical, move to a new place, or do anything that can be planned for in advance, it’s crucial to plan. First, make sure your finances are in order and that you’re prepared for the possibility of not being paid during your time off. Next, make a backup plan in case you cannot take a leave of absence. There’s always a chance your employer could say no in situations that are not emergencies or necessary.

We suggest exploring options, such as reducing your hours, doing school part-time, or using vacation days. We also recommend educating yourself on the possible changes in your employee benefits during leave. While the FMLA does require your employer to provide benefits during your leave, there may be some changes depending on state policies and your employer’s policies. These are all key aspects to be aware of before taking your leave so that you can accommodate any changes.

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Final thoughts

Even if you’re not planning on taking a leave anytime soon, we hope this article helped inform you on how to navigate the leave process if a situation ever arises. Best of luck!

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