Can my employer deny me unpaid time off?

Stepping away from work is essential for recharging, managing personal matters or spending valuable time with loved ones. But what happens if you’ve exhausted your leave or your workplace does not offer any at all? Knowing when you might be entitled to an unpaid leave and under what circumstances your employer can say no can be confusing.

Understanding paid vs. unpaid time off

California does not obligate employers to provide either paid or unpaid time off. Should they choose to do so, employers must abide by specific state requirements to fulfill their obligations.

Paid time off (PTO) refers to a pre-determined number of days employees can take time off from work while receiving pay. It includes vacation days, holidays and sick leave, which are earned as labor is performed and cannot be taken away.

On the other hand, unpaid time off provides no pay at all. Regardless of not receiving pay, employees may need to take unpaid time off due to emergencies, to deal with a health condition or to oversee other crises.

However, it is crucial to remember that companies are under no obligation to grant requests for unpaid leave. There are very few exceptions where they have to.

When can I take an unpaid leave?

Employees covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to:

  • Receive treatment and recover from an illness, impairment or other health condition
  • Care for an immediate family member who is seriously ill or injured
  • Bond with a newborn child if a new parent
  • Perform military service or address a family member’s military service

If your employer denies your request for leave for any of the reasons listed above, they may face penalties. Outside of these situations, your employer may deny unpaid leave if they believe the reason is invalid or if the request is too short notice.

It is not unusual for employers to deny employees their benefits and rights. If your employer rejects your request for unpaid time off despite having a reason protected by state and federal law, you may have grounds for legal action. Consider speaking to an employment law attorney for guidance before taking any drastic measures.