What does leave of absence mean? Simple explanations to share with employees

Physical therapist and a patient

Let’s face it. Life can get pretty crazy. COVID-19, newborn babies, sick family members, loss of a loved one, excessive job stress. The list goes on … and on and on. There are countless reasons why employees might need or want to take a little time off from work to focus on their own health or their family members’. That’s where a leave of absence policy can help.

But your employees not know exactly what “leave of absence” means, or how to take advantage of your company’s policy. Here are the most important definitions and explanations to share with them.

Leave of absence meaning

A leave of absence policy allows employees to take an extended period of time off from work. It can be voluntary (like a sabbatical or maternity leave) or involuntary (like a health problem or work performance issue). 

Some employers choose to pay their employees during a leave of absence, and others don’t. In some cases, employers are legally required to provide a leave of absence while others aren’t. Regardless of the type, a leave of absence policy ensures that an employee will have a job when they return. It also ensures that employees will still have access to their benefits, like health insurance coverage and retirement savings.

Still, employees may also be confused about when and why they should take a leave of absence. Some may take advantage of the process because they’re unhappy at work, rather than seek new employment. Others may not even realize it’s an option that can help them get through a rough patch so they can return to work in a happier, healthier place. With a formal leave of absence request, employers can plan ahead to some degree and set their coworkers up for success while they’re gone. At a minimum, employers can be more empathic once they know what’s going on.

This article provides several important definitions that HR managers can copy and paste into benefits materials to educate employees about the leave of absence process and creating a positive experience. Helping them understand reasons why someone might take a leave of absence not only saves time but it can also thwart off potential employee frustration.

Bereavement leave 

This type of leave lets you take time off to mourn the loss of a loved one. This could include an immediate family member or close friend. How much time is someone allowed to take? It’s at the employer’s discretion.

Maternity/paternity leave 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn, or for a recently adopted or foster child. Each state may have its own specific laws regarding parental leave. For example, Rhode Island guarantees that at least four weeks of your leave will be paid, while other states may offer other amounts of paid leave (or none at all).

Another note about FMLA eligibility: Employees eligible for FMLA are those who have worked for their employer for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1250 hours, and who report to or receive work assignments from a location that has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.

Disability-related leave

If you run out of leave under the FMLA—or you aren’t covered by the FMLA—your short-term or long-term disability insurance may cover you.

You might also be eligible for leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADAAA is a civil rights law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace, school, and other settings. It applies to companies with 15 or more employees, and it requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations for employees with permanent or temporary disabilities.

For example, an employee with a disability may need a leave of absence for reasons related to the disability, such as:

  • Getting medical treatment (e.g., surgery, psychotherapy, substance abuse treatment, or dialysis); rehabilitation services; or physical or occupational therapy
  • Recovering from an illness or side effect of the disability
  • Seeking repairs on a wheelchair, accessible van, or prosthetic device
  • Avoiding temporary adverse conditions in the work environment (for example, an air-conditioning breakdown causing unusually warm temperatures that could seriously harm an employee with multiple sclerosis)
  • Training a service animal (e.g., a guide dog)
  • Receiving training, like how to read braille or speak sign language


A sabbatical is a break from work to pursue an area of interest—for example, to travel, volunteer, or learn a new skill—without losing your job. Sounds too good to be true, huh? Not every employer offers it, but it’s becoming an increasingly popular perk for tenured employees. For example, many organizations offer employees a sabbatical for every five years they’ve been with the company. 

Jury duty

In most areas, employers are required to give their employees time off for jury duty. However, only some states require paid leave for employees while they’re away from work, so be sure to communicate your area’s specific rules to your employees. 

Medical leave 

Aside from caring for a new child, FMLA guidelines for employers also require leave for medical events. Under the FMLA, you can take up to 12 weeks off during a 12-month period due to a serious health condition or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. This includes COVID-19. During the pandemic, three out of four employers changed their unpaid leave policies to paid due to COVID-19, while one in three employers created new and separate COVID-19 leave policies.

FMLA guidelines also state that you can take time off for:

  • Overnight hospital stays
  • Conditions that prevent you or your family member from being able to work or attend school for more than three consecutive days and require ongoing medical treatment
  • Chronic conditions that cause occasional periods where you or your family member are incapacitated and require treatment by a healthcare provider at least twice a year
  • Pregnancy, including prenatal medical appointments, incapacity due to morning sickness, and medically-required bed rest

When asking for a medical leave of absence, you may need to provide medical certification, including provider contact information, when the serious health condition began, how long the condition is expected to last, medical facts about the condition, whether you’re able to work, and whether you’ll need the leave of absence continuously or intermittently.

FMLA guidelines under a new administration

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, an expansion of FMLA that former President Trump signed into law on April 1, 2020, included up to 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave for some workers at two-thirds of the employee’s regular pay. But that rule expired on Dec. 31, 2020. 

President Biden’s proposed COVID-19 relief package would cover leave for nearly all American workers in the following scenarios:

  • Caring for children whose school or day care center is closed because of the pandemic
  • Caring for family members who are sick with Covid-19 symptoms
  • Caring for older relatives or adult dependents whose long-term care facility is closed because of the pandemic
  • Needing time off to get the vaccine
  • Quarantining because of Covid-19 exposure
  • Sick with Covid-19 symptoms

Biden’s proposal would replace workers’ wages up to $1,400 a week, or $280 a day. Employees who earn up to $73,000 a year, for example, would be reimbursed in full during their leaves.

Military leave 

This type of leave enables you to take unpaid time off for military service without losing accrued seniority and other employment protections. Employees are protected specifically under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

Military family leave 

FMLA enables you to take up to 26 weeks in a single 12-month period to care for a service member with a serious illness or injury. This includes those serving in the Regular Armed Forces and the National Guard or Reserves.

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