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Unpaid leave: What Businesses need to know


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Unpaid leave: What Businesses need to know

When it comes to employees taking time off, there are multiple regulations and legal obligations that employers need to be aware of. In many cases, employees are entitled to a certain amount of paid time off. In other cases, they may be entitled to take time off in an unpaid capacity. It’s important that businesses are clear on their obligations, and that they lay everything out in the open to their employees.

Paid leave

First, we’ll cover the area that the law is quite clear on - paid leave. For full time employees, the entitlement for paid leave is 5.6 weeks (or 28 days) per year at a minimum. Employers must make sure that their employees take this leave each year.

Full time employees are also entitled to paid paternity leave for up to two weeks, maternity leave for up to 39 weeks, and sick leave. Unpaid leave covers most other occasions where employees request leave that they’re not necessarily entitled to under statutory requirements.

What is unpaid leave?

Employees can ask to take unpaid leave for a wide range of purposes. These could include family-related emergencies, caring for children, or medical emergencies. While employees are not legally obliged to pay employees in these circumstances, many of them will in certain cases.

It’s important from an HR point of view to have your organisation’s guidelines on these matters clearly defined in an employee handbook. This helps to avoid any misunderstandings when it comes to their rights, potentially also reducing the likelihood of disputes or discrimination tribunals.

When employees are entitled to unpaid leave

Employees are entitled to unpaid leaves of absence in a number of scenarios. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Dependent leave: employees must be granted time off to sort out any emergencies involving their dependants. Similarly, parents must be granted time off if they need to care for their child (in addition to maternity and paternity leave).
  • Medical appointments: while in normal circumstances, employers can ask that employees keep their medical appointments to non-working hours, there are two cases where leniency is required. These include if the employee is pregnant, or if the employee has a medical disability.
  • Jury duty: employees must be allowed to leave work if they’re ever called up for national jury service. Failure to grant employees leave in these circumstances can result in a fine for contempt of court.

What does the law say?

It can be difficult to interpret the legal provisions for unpaid leave. Mostly, it’s covered under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA). While there are clear stipulations in some cases, in others, it may be necessary to make an interpretation of the law based on specific scenarios.

As regulations change over time and from industry to industry, it’s important that you remain informed on unpaid leave entitlement. For expert advice on your specific situation, it may be necessary to reach out to an HR consultant, to help with avoiding any issues from popping up in the future.


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