10 Key Questions about Leave Laws in the US

June 17th 2024

Leave benefits help US employees meet their personal, family, and healthcare needs, all while managing their work life and productivity. These benefits can be paid, unpaid, or partially paid and are typically agreed upon between the employer and the employee or their representative, such as a union.

This article will explore ten key questions about leave benefits in the US, offering valuable insights to both employers and employees.

This Article Covers:

  1. What is a leave of absence in the US? 
  2. How does leave work in the US?
  3. What are the different types of leave available to US employees?
  4. Will I get paid while I am on leave in the US?
  5. How long is a leave of absence in the US?
  6. What happens to your benefits while you’re on leave in the US? 
  7. Can unused leave be carried over to the next year in the US?
  8. Are part-time employees entitled to leave in the US?
  9. Can you be fired while on leave in the US?
  10. Can you quit your job while on leave in the US?

1. What is a leave of absence in the US? 

A leave of absence is an extended period an employee may take away from work. It can be paid, unpaid, mandatory, or voluntary depending on the situation. Leave is commonly requested for significant life events like the birth of a child, a family medical emergency, or bereavement. Unlike paid time off (PTO) which covers vacations, sick days, or personal time, a leave of absence specifically refers to extended absences due to these special circumstances. However, ‘leave’ is also a broad term, commonly associated with any time off from work for a longer period of time.

2. How does leave work in the US?

A leave of absence in the US can be either mandatory or voluntary. Mandatory types of leave, such as jury duty or military duty, are required by federal, state, or local law and must be granted by employers. Examples include medical leaves governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as voting days in some states. Employers must comply with these laws to provide job-protected leave for eligible employees. 

Voluntary types of leave, on the other hand, are granted at the employer’s discretion and may be paid or unpaid. These are not required by law and include leave for various personal reasons. When requesting any leave, employees should provide as much notice as possible and submit details like the dates of absence and the reason for the leave through various means such as a formal request form, HR software, or email. The guidelines for granting voluntary leave and whether it comes with job protection are determined by company policy or labor union agreements.

3. What are the different types of leave available to US employees? 

Leave in the US is classified into various types, each designed for specific situations throughout an individual’s career. Common types include:

  • Sick Leave: For employees needing time off due to illness or medical care, often paid but sometimes unpaid, with some companies requiring medical documentation.
  • Vacation Leave (Paid Time Off): Allows employees leisure time away from work to recharge, with policies on availability and accrual varying by company.
  • Personal Leave: Used for personal matters not covered by other leave types, often unpaid, with availability depending on employer policy.
  • FMLA Leave: 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical reasons, including military family leave. Eligible employees may take this type of leave for a range of reasons, including caring for a newborn child, or for an adopted or foster child, or a family member with a serious health condition. It can also be used if an employee has a serious health condition that prevents them from working.
  • Bereavement Leave: Provided for grieving and attending to matters following the death of a loved one, typically paid.
  • Jury Duty Leave: Mandatory in most states for employees summoned to serve on a jury, with protections against employment penalties, though payment policies vary.
  • Military Leave: For employees fulfilling military duties, protected under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), ensuring reemployment rights and benefit continuation.

Federal laws like FMLA and USERRA govern these leaves, providing protections such as job security and health coverage continuation. States and local jurisdictions may have additional laws, especially concerning jury duty and military leave. The ADA requires reasonable accommodations for disabilities, which might include leave. Employers may also offer voluntary leave for reasons like bereavement, vacation, or extended personal or medical needs, with policies typically at the employer’s discretion.

In the US, whether you get paid on leave or not depends on the specific circumstances and the policies set by your employer. FMLA leave, for example is generally unpaid, as per US federal law. However, employers often provide a set or accrued number of paid hours that employees can use for personal matters. Unpaid types of leave, such as FMLA, allow employees to take time off without pay, but importantly, they do ensure job security upon their return. Common types of leave that may be paid include bereavement, parental, and military leave, though specific policies vary by employer and are typically outlined in employee handbooks. 

5. How long is a leave of absence in the US?

The duration of a leave of absence in the US can vary significantly depending on the type of leave and the specific policies of the employer. The following are some general policies regarding the duration of common types of leave:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for certain family and medical reasons. This can extend to 26 weeks in a case involving care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness.
  • Vacation Leave: The duration of vacation leave varies by employer. There is no federal mandate for a minimum or maximum amount of vacation leave, and it typically depends on the policies of the employer.
  • Sick Leave: Duration varies by employer; some local and state laws require certain amounts of paid sick leave.
  • Bereavement Leave: Typically, a few days. The exact time is generally determined by employer policy, as there is no federal requirement.
  • Jury Duty Leave: Generally lasts for the duration of the jury service. Employers must allow employees to take this time off, though the specifics can vary by state.
  • Military Leave: Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), there is no set limit for military leave; the cumulative length of time an individual can be absent from work for military duty and retain reemployment rights is generally up to five years.

6. What happens to your benefits while you’re on leave in the US?

In the US, the impact of a leave of absence on your benefits largely depends on the type of leave you take and your employer’s policies. Here are some general guidelines on how different benefits are affected during leave:

  • Health Insurance: Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), if you are on a covered leave, you are entitled to maintain your health insurance benefits under the same conditions as if you continued to work. You must continue to pay your portion of the premiums, which are usually handled through payroll deduction. If you’re not on FMLA or your leave extends beyond FMLA protections, the continuation of health insurance can vary based on employer policies. Some might allow you to maintain coverage by paying the full premium, including the employer’s share.
  • Life and Disability Insurance: These benefits can often continue during leave, especially if the leave is paid or partially paid. However, if your leave is unpaid, the policy specifics will dictate whether coverage continues and for how long. You might need to pay premiums to maintain these benefits during an extended unpaid leave.
  • Paid Time Off (PTO) and Sick Leave: Accumulation of PTO and sick leave typically pauses during unpaid leave. If you are using PTO or sick leave during your leave of absence, you’re essentially receiving pay and continue to accrue these benefits as normal.
  • COBRA: If you lose your health insurance coverage because you’re no longer eligible (e.g., due to a reduction in hours worked), you may be eligible to continue your health insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) for a limited period, typically up to 18 months. However, under COBRA, you would need to pay the full cost of the premium.
  • Job Protection: After FMLA leave, employees are entitled to return to their same job or an equivalent job with identical pay, benefits, and other employment terms. 

7. Can unused leave be carried over to the next year in the US?

Whether unused leave can be carried over to the next year depends largely on the type of leave and the policies of the employer:

  • Vacation Leave: Many companies allow employees to carry over unused vacation days to the next year, but there are often limits to how much time can be carried over. Some employers implement a “use it or lose it” policy, where employees must use their vacation time within the calendar year or forfeit it.
  • Sick Leave: Carryover policies for sick leave vary by employer. Some states and localities that require employers to provide paid sick leave also mandate that a certain amount of unused sick leave be carried over to the following year.
  • Personal Leave: Personal leave carryover is less common and is typically up to the employer’s discretion.
  • PTO (Paid Time Off): For employers who combine vacation, sick, and personal leave into a single PTO bank, carryover rules can vary. Some may allow all or part of unused PTO to roll over to the next year, while others may have caps or limits.

8. Are part-time employees entitled to leave in the US?

Yes, part-time employees are often entitled to some form of leave, but the specifics can vary based on state, and local laws, as well as employer policies. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), part-time employees are eligible for FMLA leave, but only if they have worked for the employer for at least 12 months, have a minimum of 1,250 hours of service during the 12 months prior to the start of leave, and work at a location where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to all employees, including part-time staff, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, which might include providing unpaid leave. Personal and other types of leave are also subject to employer policies, and part-time employees might have access to these depending on the terms set by their employer.

9. Can you be fired while on leave in the US?

When considering taking leave from work, many employees worry about job security. Fortunately, several US laws provide protections for employees needing to take leave, most notably the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA offers eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for specific family and medical reasons. However, the protections are not absolute. An employer may legally terminate an employee on FMLA leave under specific conditions unrelated to the leave, such as serious misconduct or if the employee’s position is eliminated due to legitimate business reasons. Another scenario where a termination could be justified and lawful is if an employee exhausts their FMLA entitlement or no longer meets the eligibility requirements. 

10. Can you quit your job while on leave in the US?

Quitting your job while on leave is permitted in the US, in line with the “at-will” employment doctrine. “At-will” employment laws allow employees to resign at any time, for any reason, including during medical leave, unless they are bound by an employment contract that states otherwise. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees are not obligated to return to work after their leave nor to provide a two-week notice if deciding not to return. 

Important Cautionary Note

This content is provided for informational purposes only. While we make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, we cannot guarantee that it is free of errors or omissions. Users are advised to independently verify any critical information and should not solely rely on the content provided.