As an employee, it can be challenging to navigate the federal laws and employer policies that determine your access to paid or unpaid leave. In the U.S., the absence of mandated paid leave gives employers lots of freedom in determining their leave policies. However, in order to stay competitive and attract high-caliber employees, most companies offer some form of paid leave in their benefits package.
It’s important to know the different kinds of leave you’re entitled to by law, as well as your employee benefits. Whether you’re just entering the job market, starting a new job, or curious about your options, this post will answer your questions about employee leave.
Is there federal legislation regarding employee leave?
Many countries have government-regulated employment standards that guarantee leave for circumstances such as illness, child care, vacation, and bereavement.
In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted in 1993 to guarantee job-protected unpaid leave to employees who need time off for family or medical reasons. In most cases, you’re entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a twelve-month period.
To be eligible for FMLA leave, the following requirements must be met:
- Your company must have at least 50 employees who work within 75 miles of the location
- You must have been employed with the company for at least 12 months
- You must have worked at least 1,250 hours in those last 12 months
Am I entitled to parental leave?
Federal law guarantees unpaid parental leave to employees, but access to paid leave depends on your state’s legislation and employer’s policy.
New parents (including same-sex partners, as of February 2015) are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after a child’s birth, so long as the leave is completed within 12 months of the birthdate. Similarly, you’re eligible for unpaid leave after a child’s placement into foster care or adoption, within 12 months of the placement date.
The cities of New York and San Francisco recently mandated paid parental leave, but aside from that, employers are generally at liberty to decide whether to provide paid leave and for how long.
New mothers often have more access to a paid leave period than new fathers, but things are beginning to change. A few states have recognized the number of spouses using vacation or sick days to spend time with their newborn, and have enacted paid family (as opposed to maternity) leave. Likewise, some companies are beginning to offer paid paternity leave.
Am I entitled to sick leave?
Federal law permits eligible employees a leave of twelve weeks if they have a serious health condition that prevents them from working. With the exception of a few states and jurisdictions, employers in most localities aren’t required to provide paid sick leave or sick days.
Nevertheless, most businesses recognize that attracting the highest quality employees in a competitive market requires a comprehensive benefits package, including a certain number of paid sick days. Keep in mind that employers are legally permitted to verify whether you’re using a sick day for its intended purpose, such as requiring a doctor’s note.
Increasingly, however, companies are providing paid time off for employees to deal with personal matters. A “personal day” can be used at your discretion to care for a sick child or attend appointments.
Just as you’re guaranteed time off to deal with a serious health condition, the FMLA allows employees to take a twelve-week unpaid leave to care for a child, spouse, or parent with a critical illness. The exception to this rule is military caregiver leave, which gives you twenty-six weeks to care for a service member with a serious injury or illness.
In most cases, you won’t need extended leave to care for a sick family member. As mentioned above, many companies now give paid personal days, which can be used for things like caring for a sick child or a parent in the hospital.
How does workers’ compensation work?
Federal workers’ compensation laws guarantee paid health care and a portion of your income if you’re injured while on the job and cannot perform your usual duties. In addition, some states have provisions for job protection while you’re away.
If you’re on workers’ compensation leave, your company may take that time out of the 12 weeks of leave you’re guaranteed by the FMLA. If that’s the case, keep in mind that workers’ compensation laws don’t require employers to continue benefits, while the FMLA does. As a result, you can still access your benefits while you’re on leave.
How does holiday and vacation time work?
In the U.S., the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t require employers to offer paid federal or other holidays. Regardless, some businesses still choose to pay their employees on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When it comes to vacation, the employer decides how many days to offer, and whether they will pay staff. Generally, vacation time is accrued by eligible employees on a monthly basis or after a certain number of hours worked. If you’re a new employee, you may have to work a certain amount of time before you can begin accruing vacation time. Once you have, there may be an additional waiting period before you can take time off.
Vacation time may be capped at your company, meaning that there’s a limit to the number of days you can earn. Once you hit the limit, you must take time off before you can earn more. This policy aims to promote a healthy work-life balance by encouraging employees to regularly take time off work.
How does bereavement leave work?
Although the FMLA gives eligible employees time to care for family members with an illness, you’re not guaranteed funeral or bereavement leave.
That said, employers can recognize the emotional toll of losing a loved one, and generally offer a bereavement leave of three to five days. If you have additional responsibilities, such as making funeral arrangements or serving as executor of your family member’s estate, you may be granted an extended leave of absence to complete your duties.
Is jury duty paid time off?
If you’re called to jury duty, state laws require your employer to give you time off. Some states even require businesses to provide paid leave for jury duty, but many employers offer paid leave anyway.
Note that most states also have laws preventing employers from pressuring you to get out of jury duty, and from penalizing or firing you for taking leave to serve on a jury.
Can I take time off from work to vote?
Much like jury duty, nearly every state requires businesses to grant employees time off to vote. In some states, the time off must be paid, while in others it’s up to the individual employer to offer paid leave. You’ll typically be permitted two to three hours to visit the polls, but be sure to check with your employer to see whether you need to request time off in advance.
Knowing Your Benefits
The U.S. falls behind other industrialized countries in mandating paid leave, but many argue that a one-size-fits-all approach would limit company flexibility and innovation. In other words, state legislators and individual employers may be best suited to determine the policies that will most benefit the business and its employees.
In any case, it’s important to familiarize yourself with labor laws and, when you start a new job, acquaint yourself with your employee handbook.