What is Unpaid Leave?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Unpaid leave is time off from work which is provided without pay. When an employee takes or is given this type of leave, he or she retains a position in a company, and many retain benefits as well, but the employee receives no salary. There are a number of reasons to take or institute this type of leave, and it is an option which is available from many companies. Employees who are curious about leave policies should talk to their supervisors or human resources directors, or read their employee manuals.

A vacation might require taking time take off from work without pay.
A vacation might require taking time take off from work without pay.

Many companies offer unpaid leave as a supplement to paid leave. For example, a company might give employees one week of paid leave each year, and allow employees to take up to three weeks of additional time off without pay, creating a month of combined time off. The time could be used for a vacation, to care for an ailing family member, or to engage in professional enrichment. Unpaid leave may also be allocated for employees who need to take sick days.

Caring for an ailing family member is a common reason to request unpaid leave from work.
Caring for an ailing family member is a common reason to request unpaid leave from work.

In some cases, a company may require employees to take unpaid leave, or a furlough. This is done as a cost cutting measure, with the company preferring to force employees to take time off instead of eliminating positions at the company. This tactic is designed to retain employees during periods of economic hardship, and while it may be onerous to employees, many people prefer unpaid leave to uncertain layoffs.

Someone taking unpaid leave keeps her job but is not paid while away from work.
Someone taking unpaid leave keeps her job but is not paid while away from work.

When an employee wants to take leave without pay, he or she must usually apply ahead of time. In some companies, the company will pay into benefit plans such as health insurance during a period of leave, and in other instances, the employee may be required to pay into such plans to keep them current. This information should be readily provided upon request. The employer can choose to refuse to grant a request for unpaid leave, on any number of grounds. A common reason is worker shortages; retail companies, for example, are unlikely to allow time off around the holidays.

Unpaid leave might cover an employee's sick days.
Unpaid leave might cover an employee's sick days.

The advantage of this type of leave is that it allows people to take time off without losing their jobs. In academic settings, for example, professors might be nervous about their tenure, but also desirous of academic enrichment at special programs and conferences. Taking a semester of leave can allow a professor to grow professionally, while ensuring that he or she still has a job at the end of the period of leave.

Unpaid leave might include taking time off to take care of sick children.
Unpaid leave might include taking time off to take care of sick children.
An employee might use unpaid leave time to travel.
An employee might use unpaid leave time to travel.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I had asked for unpaid leave of absence to travel across the world to see my mother who suffered a massive stroke. I haven't seen her for eight years and haven' been home in 10 years.

I am going home to see my mother because I don't know how long she is going to live. My mother is paralyzed, and cannot eat on her own. She is on tube feeding, can't talk and possibly has lost her vision. I am not sure if she remembers anything.

I am worried about my job, I had been working there for less than a year, but the store manager said it was OK for me to go and that I needed to go and fill out some forms and return them back to him for approval and he did approved them.

I'm worried about not being given any copies of my paperwork that was already signed by store manager. Should I ask the HR people to make me a copy to cover my butt, or is there a policy of any company not to give out copies? I don't know how it works. I haven't done this before.


Paid leave in the US is a joke compared to some European countries. My friend works in France and he gets a month of paid leave and sometimes even more than that when you include holidays. I'm not even talking about sick leave. Here in the US, I get a week!

Americans have some of the least benefits with paid and unpaid leave among developed nations. Maybe the only exception is Japan where I heard they work even harder than we do.


@heath925-- Do you know how long an unpaid maternity leave can be?

I'm wondering about this because if I have a baby, I would like to be with my newborn more than six weeks. I don't feel like that's enough time for a new mother to adjust to her new responsibilities. Caring for a baby is not easy, especially if your partner is working as well.

If people can afford to take unpaid leave for longer after having a baby, I think they should be allowed to. I heard that in some countries, maternity leave can be as long as a year. I think that's really nice.


Our company offers paid bereavement leave for immediate family members as long as you have been there for 90 days. If it is less than that, you can still have the time off but it is considered unpaid leave.

I think this is something that should be paid for regardless of how long you have been there. This can be a financial hardship for some families and it makes it even harder when they are going through the grieving of losing a family member.

I know each company handles paid and unpaid leave differently, and I always look at their policy regarding this when I am looking for a new job. I have found that most companies who have a generous leave plan also treat their employees well.


I have taken unpaid leave before when I hadn't been at a job long enough to have any vacation or personal time. At my last job, I knew before I accepted the job that I would need some time off for my sister's wedding.

I got this time off approved before I even accepted the job. I knew up front that it would not be paid for, but there was no way I wanted to miss the family wedding.


My husband recently took an unpaid leave of absence from his job during the last few weeks his mother was alive. He didn't have any vacation time left and his company was very generous to allow him to have the time off.

Even though he didn't get paid for the time, he knew he would regret it if he didn't take this time off. He was very thankful his company understood and it gave him peace of mind knowing that his job was not in jeopardy when he was gone.

He also knew it would be a rather short-term thing and not something that would require months of being gone.


@Pharoah - The end result is the same, but I'm not sure if being suspended without pay is really the same as unpaid leave. People usually take unpaid leave voluntarily, but a police officer who is suspended is forced to take time off.

I think they usually do it when someone is accused of misconduct so they can investigate the matter further and figure out what to do with the person in question!


I've heard of unpaid leave being used almost as a punishment for people in certain jobs. For example, I recently read an article about a police officer who committed some kind of on the job misconduct. He was "suspended without pay, pending an investigation." That sounds like unpaid leave to me!


@heath925 - I've never had a baby, so I always assumed maternity leave was paid! Unpaid maternity leave sounds like a pretty ridiculous idea. I mean, yeah, you have your job to come back to when you're done with your leave. But I don't know that many people who can afford to take 6 weeks off of work without pay!

Plus, new babies are very expensive, so most new Moms don't have a lot of money just laying around! I guess most companies just assume the husband or boyfriend will pick up the slack during that time?


My husband had to use the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for unpaid leave from his job when dealing with some issues a few years back. I'm so happy this was available to us. I don't know what we would have done, if he had lost his job on top of everything else. And it was so helpful that we got to keep his insurance benefits even when he wasn't working.

Unpaid leave, in whatever form it takes, FMLA or a simple personal day off, really does help to protect people and their jobs.


In the US, we're lucky enough to have something called the Family Medical Leave Act that makes it possible for people with medical problems to be able to take unpaid leave from work, without the fear of losing their job. This is very important, because, when you are dealing with a medical issue, the last thing you need is stress over whether or not you are going to lose your job.

Do any other countries have something like this?


Maternity leave is a very common instance of unpaid leave. Expectant mothers can take time off, usually starting just before the baby is born, and usually lasting for at least six weeks after the baby is born.

And, now, this time off is even available to fathers, called paternity leave. This time off that's available to parents is a really great thing. As a mother of four, I can say that those first few weeks you get to spend with your baby are priceless.

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