Most companies know that they need to have a vacation policy for employees, but they don’t always have a policy for things like extended sick leave, parental leave, bereavement, or mental health crises, and they should.
A detailed policy that helps employees and managers know how to handle leaves of absence helps protect your team and navigate difficult HR situations. In this guide, I’m breaking down everything you need to know about these policies, including what to include and examples of companies doing it well.
What Is A Leave Of Absence?
A leave of absence in the workplace refers to more extended periods of time where employees have to be away from work for reasons that don’t include vacations or small personal tasks.
Some examples that might be considered a leave of absence are illnesses, bereavement, adopting children, or caring for sick family members.
A leave of absence policy is an official company document that outlines the rules for taking a leave of absence, what is considered voluntary and involuntary, what is covered, how long the leave can be, whether the leave is paid, and the procedures for requesting a leave of absence.
Some of this can differ from company to company, but some federal regulations cover certain types of leave of absence and must be included in a leave of absence policy. Let’s cover the two most common ones and when they apply: FMLA and ADA.
What You Need to Know About FMLA
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA) is a federal policy that protects certain employees during leaves of absence for reasons related to illness, family, or military duties.
The FMLA gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave every year for medical or family circumstances and requires that group healthcare benefits are maintained during this time.
The FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and all companies with 50 or more employees. Employees are eligible if they have worked for their employer for 12 months or more, or at least 1250 hours over the last 12 months, and work at a location with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
The law also states that once an employee comes back from leave, they must be given their job back, and if it’s not available, they will get one that is equal in status and pay.
So, what is covered under the FMLA?
Medical and family situations are determined based on FMLA regulations, and it can be on a case-by-case basis, but generally speaking, FMLA covers things like:
- Pregnancy and the care of a newborn
- The placement with an employee of a child for adoption or foster care
- Care for an immediate family member
- A serious medical issue that leaves an employee unable to work
FMLA also covers certain types of leave related to military family needs. For example, if a spouse, son, daughter, or parent in the Armed Forces is notified of an upcoming call to active duty.
The guidelines on FMLA are quite clear and can easily be accessed on the US Department of Labour website. Remember that legally, this needs to be part of your leave of absence policy.
What You Need to Know About ADA
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) is a federally mandated policy designed to protect workers with disabilities, including both mental and physical.
ADA is a little more complicated than FMLA because there is no set leave period–it’s determined based on the job and the disability on a case-by-case basis. What makes this extra difficult is that employers can’t ask for an unreasonable amount of information related to someone’s medical history, so it can be tricky to determine how much leave is appropriate.
The law states that the leave has to be granted unless it will cause a company or an employer undue hardship (which needs to be proven). An employer can ask for medical information to back up a claim for leave, but they can only ask for as much as is needed to determine the amount of leave necessary.
It’s important to know that when asking for these records, they must be kept separate from other employee records for privacy reasons.
Because ADA is on a case-by-case basis, there isn’t a definitive list of when it will apply to an employee.
For employers, ADA applies to both the public sector and private businesses with more than 50 workers. More information about the act can be found on the government’s ADA website.
Should You Have a Leave of Absence Policy?
If there is already federal guidance for granting a leave of absence, is there any point in having your own policy?
For most companies, the answer is yes.
Even if you think you don’t, it’s better to have something you can return to so there is no dispute or confusion between you and your employees.
Because only some federal guidance is clearly defined or mandatory, it’s good to have a leave of absence policy to hold your team accountable, keep track of absences, and support your team in a crisis.
Having a leave of absence is important for protecting employees, too. Some employees will try to stay at work even when sick or distracted, so having a policy that lets them know their jobs are safe will make them more likely to take time when they need it.
Your policy also helps managers plan for when employees are out of the office. It can also help your team know how to prepare for an absence and how to divide the work or assimilate temporary workers covering the leave. Adding temp workers to a team can be very stressful and disruptive, but having a policy can minimize the learning curve and make the transition smoother for everyone.
Key Factors When Crafting A Leave of Absence Policy
When creating your policy, you’ll likely need to include the FMLA and ADA, even if you are a smaller business. But outside of that, there are a few factors to consider. Let’s look at the primary decisions you must make with your policy and what you need to include.
Communication Within The Company
One significant consideration is how the leave of absence policy will be communicated to managers and all employees. Everyone must be on the same page and follow the policy accurately to avoid any mistakes or violations.
All employees need to know where the policy is located, what it includes, and how to apply for a leave of absence.
One of the easiest ways is to appoint someone in charge of absences as a point of contact for all employees. This will ensure that decisions are consistent when considering a request and at least one person is trained and well-educated on the policy. Usually, this person would be part of the HR team.
Another factor to consider with your policy is what requirements someone needs to meet to qualify for leave outside FMLA or ADA. So, for example, you’ll need to set your own rules for things like mental health breaks, sabbaticals, or employees who have been with the company for less than 12 months.
You must also decide what constitutes paid and unpaid leave and how much warning must be given beforehand so the company can find a replacement.
Returning To Work
Something crucial that often gets overlooked when it comes to leave of absence policies is the process for an employee returning to work after an extended break.
Some companies accidentally stop employees from returning to work when they are ready with things like ‘fully healed’ clauses. Your policy should break down the requirements for an employee to return to work and what that procedure looks like regarding getting back up to speed and reassuming responsibilities.
This shouldn’t be too restrictive, and consider how you will support an employee returning to work and whether someone may need to start with only a few days a week, for example.
Leave of Absence Policy Examples
When creating a leave of absence policy, it’s a good idea to look at what other companies are doing, especially ones in your state with similar business sizes.
Your market research will be different than mine. So, let’s look at two of the largest companies and what they have built for leaves of absence.
Amazon has a very corporate but well-thought-out leave of absence policy that outlines its different rules for employees and absences outside the FMLA and ADA, such as education. Here’s an example of one of the clauses:
“An employee may be granted a leave of absence to help alleviate personal/family situations that are not covered by FMLA, that may arise during the course of his/her employment or to allow the employee to pursue educational opportunities for an initial period of up to six (6) months.
All requests for leave of absence must be submitted to and approved by the employee’s Department Head/Agency Head/Elected Official. Requests for leave of absence beyond FMLA requirements [see FMLA Policy for information pertaining to this type of leave] must be approved by the County Manager.”
The policy continues on to cover details about how to apply for a leave of absence, who approves it, how long a leave of absence can be, and even what benefits coverage they receive while on leave.
In addition, Amazon’s policy details returning from an extended leave, including notifying the company 10 days before returning to work and whether any healthcare or fitness evaluation will be required.
Walmart breaks down its leave policy into many categories clearly marked with which ones offer job protection and paid benefits.
Here’s an example of their clause on personal leave:
“If you need to be away for more than three days, personal leave allows time away from work for a qualifying reason. These can include:
- Medical conditions (you or a family member)
- Birth, adoption, or foster care placement
- Extended family member care
- Expatriate spouse/partner leave (related to international relocation)
- Military spouse/partner (to accompany your spouse/partner, or attend to family/personal matters if spouse/partner is a U.S. service member called to active duty or to care for a military spouse or partner
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) reassignment
- Educational Leave
- Bereavement (when more than three days are needed)
- Compelling reasons
- Quarantine or Isolate due to COVID-19”
It details individual state and local leave laws and then includes paid leave options for extended family care, worker’s compensation, parental leave, and more.