Your employees have lives outside of work, and sometimes things happen in life. Maybe it’s a personal health challenge or they’re dealing with something in their immediate or extended family. In some cases, an employee who needs to take off work for an extended period of time is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA.
But FMLA has some fairly stringent restrictions. First, the business has to have 50 or more employees before they’re required to comply with FMLA. Then you have to have worked for the company for a year and worked at least 1250 hours to be eligible. If an employee has a FMLA-qualifying event, they have to jump through all these hoops to take leave, but it’s at least there as a protection for those employees.
But what happens if an employee needs to take an extended leave and doesn’t qualify for FMLA?
Sometimes PTO isn’t enough
There are plenty of business owners or managers who would simply say, “They can just use their PTO.” But most employees have a maximum of two to three weeks of paid time off per year. If they’ve already taken a vacation that year or taken PTO for a health issue, they may not have enough PTO left to cover the current need.
If they qualify for FMLA, the employee is entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and the protection of having a job to come back to. But if they are dealing with an event that isn’t FMLA qualified or working at a company with less than 50 employees, they don’t have the same protections.
A family emergency may fall under FMLA, but it may not. Personal issues probably won’t be covered under FMLA. One of the biggest things we’ve seen lately is people needing time away from work for anxiety. When there’s a lot going on in the world, it affects us as human beings. We can’t ignore that. Employee assistance programs are great, but a few sessions with a counselor doesn’t alleviate the need to step away and take care of yourself.
There are certainly situations where employees have taken unpaid leave because it was the only option. But if they’re already facing stress or anxiety, worrying about whether they’ll still have a job when they’re ready to come back only adds to the problem.
Most employers don’t know how to handle this. If they say “No, you can’t take the time off, even if it’s unpaid,” they potentially lose an employee. If they say “Yes, you can take a leave of absence,” what does it look like? How long does it last? And how do they deal with the other employees?
Creating a personal leave of absence policy
You need a functional personal leave of absence policy in place. If you don’t have one, you need one. Even if you’re subject to FMLA, you need a policy in place for when an issue falls outside the boundaries of FMLA. Having a policy helps make sure you and your employees are protected, and it forces you to wrestle with some of the important questions about what a leave of absence looks like before an employee comes to you with a request.
Work has to get done, and it might not be feasible to grant a leave of absence if you’re not prepared for it. But if you’ve already thought through it and written a policy, you will also have some ideas around coverage of duties.
A good starting point is to allow up to 30 days of personal leave. Outline the process for how an employee can request leave and when during their leave period they need to notify you of their return date (or separation date from the company if they choose not to return for some reason).
If you can handle it, you could make your personal leave policy match the FMLA at 12 weeks, but that can be hard on small companies that don’t have much duplication between positions and ability to cover duties.
Personal leave policies are one component of talent retention. If you don’t have one and an employee is facing a crisis, they may choose to leave, and then you’re spending time and money to hire and train someone new. But if you evaluate the options up front and create a personal leave policy that works for your business model, you’re prepared to support your employees when they need it most.
We know that businesses exist for profit and not for charity, but there are certain things you can build in to take care of your team and help retain your employees. A personal leave policy is one of those things.
If you need help creating a personal leave policy to bridge the gap, reach out to us at WhyHR. We can help create a policy that works for your business.