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How to Respond to Leave of Absence Requests

How to Respond to Leave of Absence Requests

Now that we're on the other side of the pandemic, how should companies respond to leave-of-absence requests? There's no easy answer, but there are legal and practical reasons for being generous. Read more for some information to help you create a policy.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a more flexible workplace was established that included new boundaries for paid and unpaid leave. Temporary federal legislation delivered financial protections for workers who needed to quarantine or care for others during the health crisis. Those stopgap provisions have now been rolled back as organizations return to more normal routines.

In truth, employees have always enthusiastically embraced generous leave policies. Surveys have found that many respondents even prefer additional leave to a direct pay raise. Companies have long been aware that more liberal leave standards generate positive feelings. They boost productivity, morale and engagement among the ranks within the firm while at the same time enhancing the employer's reputation. Paid leave policies in particular aid in recruiting sought-after talent.

Why would companies hesitate to take advantage of a seeming cost benefit? Although larger businesses increasingly offer more leave, smaller operations are likely to find it more burdensome to juggle workloads among limited staff. When it's "all hands on deck," they may not have the luxury of additional slack to compete against larger organizations with more "available warm bodies."

Legal requirements for unpaid leave

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, dominates the landscape. That legislation is complemented by a wide patchwork of state and local laws. The crux is that the FMLA addresses only unpaid leave; the U.S. is a laggard on the global stage in its lack of paid support for health or family events. Other countries, by contrast, require many weeks of paid leave. Citizens in the Czech Republic (28 weeks), Estonia (82 weeks), Hungary (24 weeks), Japan (52 weeks) or Canada (17 weeks), to cite a few, would be aghast and sorry for American mothers-to-be if they compare parenting leave time periods.

That said, many U.S. employers do often offer sick leave even when it is not strictly required. (Sick leave refers to an accommodation for short illnesses and minor ailments versus medical leave, which covers longer downtimes.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, 79% of U.S. workers had some access to paid sick leave. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that larger firms tend to be more generous with it, as do companies with more union workers as well as not-for-profit organizations.

FMLA coverage consists of 12 weeks' leave relating to:

  • Health of the employee or certain family members — parents, a spouse or children — but not siblings.
  • Certain military deployments.
  • Birth or adoption of a child.

The FMLA provisions only kick in after an employee has worked one year, putting in at least 1,250 hours.

Company policies

After complying with the strict legal guidelines, you can address firm-specific rules and principles in your own office.

A vacation policy should outline

  • How many days are permitted.
  • Whether they must all be taken together, to facilitate workload planning.
  • Whom to notify of plans, and how far in advance.

Holidays matter greatly to your workforce, many of whom plan the rhythm of their year around those festive gatherings. Some might be surprised to learn that no law protects their rights to take off federal holidays such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, when some businesses such as restaurants might even expect some extra customers. Leave for religious holidays can prove especially sensitive, as rejecting it might lead to claims of discrimination. Some options are for employees to use vacation or floating days or possibly make up the time later.

Be sure to plan proactively for handoffs, lining up coverage for necessary functions. Although paid parental policies may appear to target women, fathers also need support. Be consistent across the board. For example, both new and current employees should probably be entitled to equivalent leave. Personal time off is usually a standard small number of days for everyone and does not accrue or carry over. Employees use it to deal with events such as doctor visits, car breakdowns, moving from one house to another, painting a house, attending a wedding or funeral, or any similar occasions.

The bottom line? Generosity with leave policies can give you an edge in recruiting new employees and retaining current ones.

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