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Knowing the Laws, Managing the Intricacies of Employee Time Off
May 23, 2022
Male manager speaking with young employee in office

In addition to vacation and sick days, does your business offer other kinds of paid or unpaid leave to your employees? Did you know that your employees can take time off from work under various conditions covered by federal, state, and local laws?

As an employer, you’re responsible for understanding and upholding these legally allowed absences. Which ones do you know about? And is your business in compliance?

While it may seem difficult or intimidating to know all the relevant laws, there are ways you can quickly and easily manage the intricacies of employee time off.

Here is an outline of relevant federal laws and state/local laws as well as helpful resources that will help you navigate the complexities related to managing leaves of absence.

The Family and Medical Leave Act

If you own a private business with 50 or more employees, or you operate a public agency with any number of employees, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to you.

This law requires that covered employers provide eligible workers up to 12 or 26 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the following circumstances:

  • Childbirth or adoption
  • Medical care for an employee’s serious health condition
  • Care for a close family member with a serious illness
  • Care for a covered family service member/veteran with a serious injury/illness or military exigency

The FMLA defines a “serious health condition” as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical/ mental condition that requires an overnight stay in a hospital or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider.

It’s important to note that FMLA leave may be taken all at once or intermittently. For example, your employee can take 12 weeks of leave — or just a few days or even hours for medical appointments.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, requires employers to consider making reasonable accommodations for a qualified employee with a disability.

If a reasonable accommodation clearly imposes “undue hardship” (significant difficulty and expense), then you’re not required to provide it. The definition of what is reasonable is open to interpretation, so always err on the side of caution.

Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is defined as someone who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

This condition could cover anything from a sleep disorder to chronic disease. In some cases, an extended leave of absence, even longer than the time mandated by federal or state family/medical leave laws, may be required as an ADA accommodation.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Companies with at least 15 employees must comply with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which protects pregnant applicants and employees from discrimination.

While you’re not required to provide maternity leave or other special benefits to pregnant women (like with the FMLA and many state/local laws), you must apply the same rules and benefits for pregnancy-related absences as you would for other medical absences.

For example, if it is standard practice for your company to allow employees to take up to 10 weeks of medical leave, the same must be provided for pregnancy-related absences.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

All employers in the private and public sectors must allow employees to take leave to serve in the military under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). This law also requires employers to:

  • Allow these covered employees to give birth or adopt
  • Reinstate employees returning from military leave
  • Grant seniority and applicable benefits to returning members
  • Train or otherwise qualify employees returning from military duty

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Under Title VII, employers with at least 15 employees have a duty to provide workers with reasonable accommodations, so employees may observe their religious beliefs unless the request would create an “undue hardship” for their business. Accommodations may include allowing time off for certain holidays or practices. When considering this kind of request, again it is strongly recommended to err on the side of caution.

State and Local Laws

Many states, cities, and local governments have passed their own laws giving employees greater leave rights than federal laws. These laws address issues not covered at the federal level, and these laws vary by location.

State and local laws typically provide more generous employee benefits than the FMLA. For example, these laws may:

  • Apply to smaller employers with fewer than 50 workers
  • Have less stringent employee eligibility requirements
  • Offer longer leave periods
  • Broaden the definition of serious health condition
  • Include individuals other than immediate family members as defined by the FMLA
  • Require paid leave instead of unpaid leave
  • Provide leave for circumstances beyond the scope of the FMLA (such as parental leave for school activities, leave for organ donations, etc.)
  • Require paid time off for employees serving on juries
  • Require bereavement leave for an employee who has lost a parent, spouse, partner, or child

Before you deny an employee’s time off from work, it’s important to check all applicable federal, state, and local regulations. And consistency is key. It’s always recommended that you treat similar employee situations the same way. Give the same consideration before docking employee pay, taking disciplinary action, or firing an employee for absenteeism.

Easy-to-Use, Online Services

An online time-tracking system gives you the ability to track employee leave and then distinguish between legally mandated time off and paid time off. Having automatic, easy-to-use tools streamlines and simplifies your processes, reduces the potential for errors, and ensures legal compliance.

The Time Off Request app from HRdirect Smart Apps helps you handle these time-off requests in a more organized way and manage employee requests electronically. With this automated process for requests, approvals, and documentation, you’ll always be current and on track with your employees’ requests for time off — whether the request is for vacations, sick days or legally required leave.

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Funded, in part, through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, and/or recommendations expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.

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