What is a Leave of Absence? It’s More than Just the FMLA

June 25, 2024

When employees take time away from work, their absence can fall into many different categories. That’s why, for HR and leave managers, it’s essential to understand what a leave of absence is.

Let’s say an employee’s out sick. And another team member is spending a few days at the beach. Someone asks for a mental health day. Someone else is taking time off to volunteer at the animal shelter. Your supervisor is gone recovering from surgery, on unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) . Your favorite coworker won’t return for another week — she’s on maternity leave provided by the state.

Do you know how to categorize each of those employee absences? Which ones are a leave of absence? And which qualify as typical paid time off (PTO)?

Leave requests are on the rise for the second year in a row, according to AbsenceSoft data. Because employees are more comfortable requesting a leave of absence than ever before, HR needs to be equally comfortable recognizing, categorizing, and carrying out leave requests.

This ability begins with understanding the various forms of leaves of absence — something we’ll break down in detail in this article.

What is a leave of absence?

When you hear the term “leave of absence,” it’s tempting to think it refers to any time an employee’s out of the office. The term’s true definition is slightly more nuanced. Generally speaking, a leave of absence is when an employee is away from work for reasons that fall outside of the traditional time-off buckets like vacation, paid time off, and sick days.

An employee who takes two weeks off to go on a cruise isn’t taking a leave of absence. An employee who takes two weeks off to recover from hip replacement surgery is.

It’s important to understand these distinctions. To build a strong leave program, HR must begin with the knowledge of what leave is and when it’s appropriate for employees to take it. With this foundation, HR can implement a leave program that satisfies employees’ desire for leave benefits — something 42% of job seekers view as a must-have, according to a recent AbsenceSoft survey.

What are the kinds of leaves of absence?

A leave of absence is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple types of leave. Consider the following categories:

Paid leave of absence

During a paid leave of absence, employees are off-duty but receive some or all of their normal compensation. Paid parental leave or caregiver are common examples of this type of leave.

Unpaid leave of absence

Employees are away from work but receive no compensation during an unpaid leave of absence. Leave provided under the FMLA is unpaid, job-protected leave.

Voluntary leave of absence

Employees take time off from work by choice, in accordance with an employer’s policy. Voluntary leaves of absence go beyond or replaces other banks of time off, like PTO or FMLA leave.

Involuntary leave of absence

Employees are typically placed on this mandatory leave by employers, sometimes as a result of a situation that may later require disciplinary action.

There are many other types of leaves of absences — think bereavement, jury duty, and caregiver leave — many of which fall into these subcategories.

How long can an employee take a leave of absence from work?

Because there are so many different types of leaves, the length of leaves of absence varies greatly. Consider one of the most common forms of leaves of absence: FMLA leave.

The FMLA designates up to 12 weeks of leave, but this standard can shift. Employees aren’t obligated to take the full 12 weeks at one time. Workers could take a couple of weeks to care for a family member. They can also take intermittent FMLA leave, where they take less than an hour of FMLA leave to deal with ongoing health conditions like asthma or arthritis. Some employees may qualify for extra leave beyond the standard 12 weeks as a disability accommodation, as granted by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  

Federal, state, and local leave policies all provide different lengths of leave. The state of New York, for instance, recently passed a law requiring employers to provide 20 hours of paid leave to pregnant employees who need to attend medical appointments and procedures.

How do I know if someone is eligible for a leave of absence?

Just as the length of a leave of absence varies, so does employee eligibility. Let’s consider some of the most common types of leave and the standards of eligibility for each.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Eligibility

To qualify for the FMLA, employees must work for a covered employer. Before taking leave, they must have: worked for that employer for a total of 12 months; worked at least 1,250 hours; 50 coworkers working within 75 miles of their jobsite. The FMLA also provides military leave for family members of servicemen and women.

The ADA and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) Eligibility

These laws provide leave as accommodations to certain conditions. Typically, both laws cover employees with certain conditions — qualifying disabilities under the ADA and certain pregnancy-related conditions under the PWFA. These laws obligate employers to provide leave when it is a reasonable accommodation to these conditions.

State Leave Law Eligibility

State leave laws will lay out specific eligibility requirements that will vary from one another. That said, there are certain trends: State laws mandating paid family and sick leave are increasing, and they are available to parents, caregivers, and people with serious medical conditions.

Company Leave Policy Eligibility

The policies in your employee handbooks will set up specific requirements defining eligibility. As with eligibility under state laws, it’s important that leave is administered consistently among similarly situated employees.

With any leave of absence, eligibility can be difficult to determine, especially in large, complex organizations, like hospital systems, school districts, and retailers. In these settings, there are multiple groups of employees who work different types of jobs, in different shifts, at different locations.

In the higher education and K-12 school settings, for instance, the academic calendar makes simple hour accrual calculations challenging. Some employees like leadership, guidance counselors, and janitors work throughout the school year, while traditional teachers work according to the academic calendar. In these instances, the right leave technology can help HR teams calculate eligibility automatically, while taking into account these complex factors.

What should I know about approving or denying a leave of absence?

It’s extremely important to approach leave of absence decisions with the utmost care. Denying leave incorrectly or discriminatorily risks legal action. So when you think it’s appropriate to deny someone leave, it’s always important to double check and gather multiple opinions.

When it’s determined that denying leave is the only course of action, it’s important to work with the employee as much as possible. It may be feasible to provide an unpaid, voluntary leave of absence to employees who don’t qualify for FMLA leave, for instance.

When leave is approved, remember that the work isn’t over. Managing employees on leave means tracking their time taken, following up on any re-certification or fitness for duty requirements, and strategizing their return to work.

While implementing leaves of absence according to legal requirements and company policy is non-negotiable, keep in mind that leave experiences color the overall employee experience. According to a recent AbsenceSoft report, employees feel like a valued member of their organization when their leaves go smoothly. But when a leave of absence goes poorly — when employees feel uninformed, confused, or frustrated by their leave experience — it impacts motivation, loyalty, and overall retention.

What are the options for managing leaves of absence?

When it comes to managing leaves of absence, employers have three choices: outsourcing, co-sourcing, and insourcing. Each method provides its own advantages. Employers that outsource leave management typically hire external teams to handle their employees’ leave of absence requests. Similarly, employers that co-source leave management hire an outside company and provide a person or two within their organization to field leave requests and serve as points of contact.

Outsourcing and co-sourcing can save HR teams significant time. It spares them from the administrative labor that accompanies leave management and allows them more time to work on strategic tasks. But these methods sometimes give way to issues with compliance, costs, and the employee experience, making the next option more ideal for many companies.

Insourcing is the third way to manage leaves of absence. Thanks to the arrival of modern leave technology, managing leave no longer subjects HR to manual processes littered with errors, headaches, and legal risks. With advances in technology, even large, complex organizations can successfully insource leave management.

Organizations that leverage modern technology spend far less time on leave management. Purpose-built tools provide a way to centralize case management, automate eligibility calculations and packet creation, accurately track leave time, and much more.


As requests for leave continue to pour in, it’s essential leave managers and HR leaders understand the various types of leaves of absence and how to process them correctly and compassionately. Platforms like AbsenceSoft can help you build a leave management process that’s efficient, comprehensive, and compliant. Schedule a demo today.