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Understanding Employee Leave Laws: When Are You Required to Grant Time Off?

Employer Paid Time Off Requirements

Janet, your receptionist, tells you that she’s adopting a child and would like to take 12 weeks of maternity leave.

Sales manager Bill reveals to you he’s been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and needs to take some time off.

You hire a new cashier, Jolene, who tells you she can’t work Saturdays for religious reasons.

Do you have to grant these requests? It depends.

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. Otherwise, you could inappropriately deny protected leave and find yourself in court.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA applies to private employers with 50 or more employees and to public agencies of all sizes. The FMLA requires covered employers to provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for:

  • Childbirth or adoption of a child
  • Care for a close family member (e.g., spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition
  • Care for an employee’s own serious health condition

In addition, the FMLA requires covered employers to allow up to 26 weeks off for the care of a covered family service member/veteran with a serious medical condition or in certain urgent military situations.

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) now and again for medical appointments.

Learn more about your rights and responsibilities from the Department of Labor’s Family and Medical Leave Act Employer Guide.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

This law, which applies to companies with at least 15 employees, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. Under the ADA, the definition of a disability is quite broad, covering everything from a sleep disorder to a chronic disease.

A reasonable accommodation may include a leave of absence. In some cases, this absence may be longer than the time mandated by federal or state family/medical leave laws.

Before granting leave under the ADA, you need to determine if this leave would create an “undue hardship” for your business. An undue hardship is any situation that would cause significant difficulty and expense. If such a hardship exists, you may not be obligated to approve the absence.

As you can see, this law leaves much to interpretation. Before denying any medical leave, it’s always best to consult with an HR professional or employment law attorney.

Learn more about your rights and responsibilities from the EEOC’s Facts About the ADA.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The PDA applies to employers with 15 or more employees. While it does not require you to provide maternity leave or other special benefits to pregnant women (as required by the FMLA and many state/local laws), it does prohibit discrimination against pregnant applicants and employees.

It also requires you to apply the same rules and benefits for pregnancy-related absences as other medical absences. For example, if your company policy allows employees to take up to 10 weeks of medical leave, the same leave must be provided for pregnancy-related absences.

Learn more about how the EEOC defines pregnancy discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII)

Title VII requires employers to accommodate the religious activities of employees, which may include allowing time off for certain holidays or religious practices. You are not required to make religious accommodations if these pose an undue hardship on the business, so all requests should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Again, before denying a request, it’s strongly recommended that you consult with an HR professional or attorney.

Learn more about how the EEOC defines religious discrimination.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA)

This law requires both private and public employers to provide employees with leave to serve in the military. USERRA also requires employers to reinstate employees returning from military leave as well as grant seniority and applicable benefits to returning members to train or otherwise qualify these employees returning from military duty.

Learn more about your rights and responsibilities from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR).

State and Local Laws

Many states, cities and local governments have laws granting employees more generous rights. For example, these laws may:

  • Apply to smaller employers
  • Provide longer leave periods
  • Require paid leave instead of unpaid leave
  • Provide leave for additional circumstances (attending school activities, bereavement leave, serving on a jury, time off to vote, etc.)

The best resource to find out the rules and regulations that apply to you is your local Small Business Administration.

It’s important to check all applicable federal, state and local regulations before you deny an employee time off from work. Give the same consideration before docking employee pay, taking disciplinary action or firing an employee for absenteeism. In addition, consistency is key. It’s always recommended that you treat similar employee situations the same way. Don’t allow one employee to take a certain amount of medical leave and deny another worker’s request for the same situation.

Keep Accurate Employee Records for Full Compliance

Whether you need to track medical leave or PTO, documenting the absence — and the reason for the absence — is essential. Easily monitor employee leave with TrackSmart Attendance where you can upload documents relevant to the leave request and log employee leave requests and dates. Plus, this convenient online tool helps you manage time-off requests, approve timesheets and run detailed reports.

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