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Dealing with the Complexity of Extended Leave

Whether it’s a personal sabbatical, a family medical issue, or an extended vacation, sometimes employees will vacate their usual job roles for an extended period under allowable circumstances.

Whatever the nature of the leave, when an employee is gone for weeks at a time, it creates complexity for the employer, who must figure out how to get the work done without the employee, while keeping the employee on the payroll and maintaining compliance. The employer often must (1) juggle staff members, while also (2) monitoring the employee – keeping up with their projected return date, for example – and further (3) ensuring that the employer’s leave practices remain in compliance with applicable federal and/or state laws.

Indeed, extended leave can be subject to an overlapping series of regulations. For example, Title VII and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance can apply to parental leave policies to ensure they’re being offered fairly to both mothers and fathers. And under the Family Medical Leave Act, employees can take extended leave for medical reasons and ensure that their jobs will be protected for a certain period of time.

How can companies navigate the complexity caused by extended leave?

Have a policy for extended absences. 

Written policies will ensure consistency throughout the organization, protect against unintentional but actionable discrimination claims, and give managers a framework for dealing with team members gone for an extended period. The policy should address issues like entitlement to time off (particularly for non-FMLA leave), allowable durations, compensation during that period, any requirements for returning to work, etc. It should also be established who will be responsible for that job role’s work during the absence.

Train your managers.

A written policy is the starting point, but HR should ensure the supervisors and managers understand what’s expected of them. It’s especially important that managers understand the legal requirements of leave that’s protected by law, like FMLA leave (e.g., managers cannot discourage employees from applying for FMLA leave). But you may also wish to train managers to watch for red flags, like suspicious patterns of absences.

Trust but verify.

It’s okay to investigate information that seems to contradict the employee’s basis for taking extended leave. Even the FMLA allows the employer to request additional information or documentation, or even a second opinion (at the employers’ own expense).

Have a re-entry process.

Reintegrating an employee who’s been long absent can sometimes be difficult, but you can ease the experience by having a clear process in place. For example, you might require a check-in meeting with the employee prior to their official return that serves as sort of a “welcome back orientation.”

Need more information on FMLA or how to handle extended leave? CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with compliance, regulatory information and how to quickly and efficiently manage payroll and benefits. To learn more about our integrated HR solutions, contact us today.