If an unexpected tragedy occurs in your life, your workplace may have leave policies in place to protect you. In most cases, employers provide a leave of absence (LOA) so that you can tend to the situation, whether for yourself or a loved one.

Not all types of leave are the same, so we're here to help you understand the different scenarios where someone might take a leave. The most important distinctions are between mandatory, voluntary, paid, and unpaid leave of absence. We'll dive into these types, some examples of each, and any other essential things you need to know.

What Is a Leave of Absence?

A leave of absence is when an employee can guarantee their employer an extended period off of work. This period enables them to handle any significant personal events. It's up to the employee's superior to determine whether it will be a paid or unpaid leave.

4 Types of Leave and Examples

Leave of absence: pregnant woman holding her belly

Just like sick days are different from vacation days, there are different types of leaves of absence. Leave of absence supports employees when their other benefits (sick leave, paid vacation, paid holiday, paid time off) won't cover them.

Below we've listed four main categories with some examples to help distinguish some key differences:

1. Mandatory Leave

Federal law enforces mandatory leave. Whether it's paid or unpaid is another story, but the leave will be granted for the following reasons:

  • Anything that qualifies as FMLA leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act
  • For reasonable accommodations for any employees who are eligible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • When an employee must attend jury duty
  • To vote (this can be either paid or unpaid depending on individual state's laws)
  • All government-enforced leave scenarios
  • Military leave from work for military service enacted by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

2. Voluntary Leave

This type of leave can mean you're still entitled to an LOA. A company's policy will determine whether the following reasons for leave will be compensated:

  • Paid time off (PTO)
  • Sick leave
  • Prolonged maternity leave (to extend the FMLA leave)
  • Paternity leave
  • Bereavement leave 
  • Sabbatical or personal leave

3. Paid Leave

Most employers offer some paid leave to help provide some financial stability to eligible employees during what is understandably a difficult period.

It's common for employers to set some paid hours towards any personal reasons for leave. The other option is that an employer will allow employees to accrue paid leave over time as they work more days and hours.

Since every company is different, it can be helpful to explore this topic early with human resources or by reading about the policies in the employee handbook.

4. Unpaid Leave

While unpaid leave offers financial compensation during the leave of absence, it does ensure their health care plan continues and that when they return to work, their vacation time remains intact.

If your employer is covered under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the act deems your purpose for leave valid, it can mean you're entitled to job protection. Sometimes, an employer will allow you to apply vacation days to your unpaid leave to receive compensation (at least partially), but it is a case-by-case scenario.

Some reasons covered employees might be granted unpaid leave under FMLA:

  • Military family leave, including military caregiver leave status or to support a service member who has been called for active duty or military service
  • The birth of a child or other medical reasons related to a newborn child (parental leave)
  • Child care for an adopted child under the age of 18 (parental leave)
  • Foster care or legal guardianship of a child (parental leave)
  • A sick immediate family member
  • Personal medical conditions and serious health conditions

FAQ for Leave of Absence Requests

Manager holding a tablet while looking at the camera

During an uncertain period, it's normal to have questions about a policy that provides such a crucial safety net. Here are the answers to some common questions that come up.

How much time am I entitled to under FMLA?

If you meet the eligibility requirements, you can receive up to 12 workweeks of leave. To be eligible, you must have:

  • An eligible employer, which typically includes public agencies, elementary and secondary schools, and some private-sector employers
  • Worked at least 1,250 hours in a 12-month period, not necessarily consecutively
  • Employment with a company that employs over 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of their location (this only applies to private-sector employees)

Where can I find the correct forms to apply for FMLA?

See all the forms at-a-glance in this FMLA forms article. You will find all the FMLA forms on the Department of Labor's website.

Who can I ask for questions about my upcoming leave of absence?

Your best point of contact would be your human resources team.

Does an employee need to take leave all at once, or can the leave be spread out periodically or within a reduced schedule?

For specific medical conditions, taking FMLA leave intermittently can make sense. 

If the leave is for a planned medical procedure, the employee should make arrangements that consider the employer's operation where possible.

How do I prove that I have a serious health condition?

Employers may request certification from a medical professional and must provide you with 15 days to acquire it. 

You are not obligated to share personal medical records or documents with your employer.

Can my employer reassign my job type when I return from FMLA leave?

No. According to the FMLA, the employer must hold the same job or one practically identical open for the employer upon your return to work.

Identical means:

  • The same work schedule and at a location that doesn't involve a significant increase in time or distance in commute
  • The same or similar duties, responsibilities, and level
  • A similar level of skill, responsibility, and authority
  • Identical pay which includes premium pay, overtime, bonus opportunities, and any unconditional pay increases that occurred during FMLA leave
  • Identical benefits (for example, life insurance, disability insurance, sick leave, vacation, educational benefits, pensions)
  • It involves the same duties, responsibilities, and status
  • It includes the same general level of skill, effort, responsibility, and authority
  • An offer in identical pay, including equivalent premium pay, overtime, bonus opportunities, profit-sharing, and any unconditional pay increases that occurred during FMLA leave

If a medical condition limits me to a 40-hour workweek and my employer assigns eight hours of overtime per week, can I take FMLA leave for the overtime?

Absolutely. Employees with medical certifications can apply for FMLA leave to cover the required overtime hours. 

Know Your Rights for Your Leave 

Whether it's to manage your own personal health situation or to care for a loved one, there are various types of leave of absence put in place to protect you — many of which we've covered today.

If you're an employer who is managing FMLA or other types of leave, check out our guide to elevating leave of absence management. Digitizing your process could help you avoid unnecessary expenses, ensure productivity, and help your employees when they need it the most.