Employee Leaves Of Absence: A Guide To Laws That Allow Time Off And Guarantee Job Security

If someone requests a leave of absence because of pregnancy or serious illness, you probably know the federal and state laws that apply. But you may not be aware that there are a host of other rules allowing employees to take leave in other situations-such as going into drug rehab, taking an adult literacy class or dealing with a child’s suspension from school. Many of these little-known laws also guarantee the worker’s job security on their return. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know to stay in compliance.

Our HR Management & Compliance Report: How To Comply with California and Federal Leave Laws, covers everything you need to know to stay in compliance with both state and federal law in one of the trickiest areas of compliance for even the most experienced HR professional. Learn the rules for pregnancy and parental leaves, medical exams and certifications, intermittent leaves, required notices, and more.

Employee Leave And Job Security Laws

  • Pregnancy disability leave. If you have five or more employees, California law requires you to provide up to four months of unpaid pregnancy leave to an employee disabled by pregnancy or childbirth. The basic rule is you must return the employee to her old job when the leave ends.


  • Family and medical leave. If you have 50 or more workers, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period. The leave may be used to care for the employee’s newborn (which can be in addition to the time off under California’s pregnancy disability leave law), to care for a newly placed foster or adopted child, to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or for the employee’s own serious health condition. You’re usually required to give the employee back their old job or an equivalent one with equal pay and benefits. 


  • Leave to accommodate a disability. Under the disability discrimination laws, you must find a reasonable accommodation for a qualified employee with a disability. Depending on the circumstances, unpaid time off could be a reasonable accommodation, but the law doesn’t specify how long it must be. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act applies if you have 15 or more employees. You’re covered by similar state rules if you have five or more workers (15 if a mental disability is involved).


  • Leave for work-related injuries. Employees injured on the job may be entitled to a leave of absence, and you generally must keep their job open unless there is a substantial business reason for filling it with a permanent replacement. This is a complicated area, however, so it’s best to get advice from your workers’ comp carrier or other expert before terminating someone who is out on workers’ comp. 


  • Time off for substance abuse treatment. California requires private employers with 25 or more employees to allow a worker, on request, to enter an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program unless it would be an undue hardship for you. The leave can be unpaid, although employees may choose to use accrued sick time. Also, you’re not responsible for the cost of the treatment. The law doesn’t specify a length for the leave, so the standard is that it be for a ‘reasonable’ period. What’s reasonable depends on factors such as the type of rehabilitation program, the size and type of your organization and the cost of accommodating the employee. 


  • Leave for literacy education. Private employers with 25 or more employees must reasonably accommodate workers who want to enroll in adult literacy education programs. An accommodation may include unpaid time off.


  • School activities leave. All employers must grant time off to the parent or guardian of a child suspended from school if the employee is asked to appear at the school when the suspension ends. Plus, if you have 25 or more employees working at the same location, an employee may take off up to 40 hours each year to participate in the school activities of their children who are in kindergarten through grade 12 or in licensed day care facilities.


  • Jury and witness leave. An employee may take unpaid time off to serve as a juror or witness if they give you reasonable notice. It’s illegal to fire or discriminate against an employee for taking jury or witness leave, and you can be charged with a misdemeanor if you refuse to restore an employee who took such leave to their prior position.


  • Election and voting leave. Employees may take up to two hours of paid leave to vote on election day provided they give you at least two days notice of the need for time off, and they don’t have time to vote during nonworking hours. Also, you must grant unpaid time off to an employee who serves as an election officer on election day. You can’t suspend or fire someone who misses work to do so.


  • Time off due to workplace safety hazards. You can’t terminate, lay off or withhold the pay of an employee who refuses to work under conditions that violate occupational health and safety standards and pose a real or apparent health or safety hazard to the employee or co-workers.


  • Volunteer firefighter leave. It’s illegal to discharge or discriminate against an employee who takes time off to perform emergency volunteer firefighter services. This doesn’t apply to employees of public safety agencies or emergency medical services providers if the employee’s absence would impair the availability of emergency medical services or threaten public safety.


  • Military leave. You cannot discriminate against an employee who takes time off to perform any ordered military duty or training. An employee who is off work for this reason has the right to be restored to their former job without loss of seniority and with the same benefits provided to other employees on leave of absence.


Finally, note that except as provided by these laws or union agreements, employees don’t have the right to take ‘personal,’ ‘bereavement’ or other leave unless permitted by your policies.