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Can My Boss Force Me to Take Unpaid Time Off Work?

Yes, your boss can force you to take time off unpaid if you are an at-will employee. This can go by many names, including:

  • Temporary layoff
  • Unpaid time off
  • Forced time off
  • Standby
  • Partial employment
  • Furlough

Not all of these statuses have legal meaning. Some affect getting unemployment while others may mean you have a job to come back to.

This list has some common job statuses you may hear, but various states may use similar terms or have different rules for each situation.

Check your state labor agency's unemployment page as a starting point for getting informed.

Temporary Layoff/Unpaid Time Off/Forced Time Off

This generally applies when the employer lays off one person or a group of people. You can get unemployment for temporary layoffs.

If the employer plans to hire you back, then your state may regard this as “standby" or “furlough."

Standby

Having the job status of “standby" waives your need to job hunt during unemployment. You must have been a full-time employee who will return to full-time work. Your boss needs to give you a return-to-work date.

You cannot be on standby status for more than eight weeks. After that eight weeks, your state's unemployment laws may require you to job hunt.

Note: In light of unknown events during a pandemic or natural disaster, it is generally accepted that the return-to-work date can shift. It cannot exceed more than eight weeks, however.

Furlough

Furlough is a temporary layoff. Unfortunately, you will not be paid by your company while on furlough. It can apply to jobs that completely stop for a time period, or to reduced work hours.

For example, if your workweek is only reduced by one to two days, there is a chance you won't be able to get unemployment. You may still make too much money to qualify for unemployment in your state.

If you make less than your state's minimum for unemployment, and you are on furlough, you should apply for unemployment benefits right away.

Partial Employment

If you are still working at least 16 hours, you can have partial status. If you have unemployment while on a “partial" status, you do not need to job hunt. You must have been a full-time employee and return to full-time work within four months.

Unemployment During Forced Unpaid Leave

You may qualify for regular unemployment. It often takes one week of not working to be eligible. Unemployment generally applies if you:

  • Worked at the job for six months straight
  • Are job hunting

Most unemployment filing is on a week-by-week basis. When the job comes back, you can stop unemployment filing right away. Or, the unpaid leave might go longer than the initially planned time.

Deductions After Unemployment

Once you stop filing, your deductions will need to catch up. This means that credits and deductions for lower-income taxpayers are now available to you. You could also need to pay additional taxes for using unemployment for part of the year.

You might be able to deduct job hunt expenses like resume prep or interview travel. Talk to a tax professional to understand how unemployment may affect your taxes this year.

Forced Leave During Emergencies and Pandemics

Many states have employment security programs to help you during uncertain times.

Part of these emergency actions can include:

  • Receiving 100% pay until you are back at work
  • No need to job hunt
  • Using “company temporarily closed" as your unemployment reason
  • Using “standby" status for up to 12 weeks (typically eight weeks is the maximum)
  • Not needing to wait one week to be eligible for unemployment
  • Extended unemployment benefits kicking in immediately

Forced Leave Because You Are Contagious, Sick or Injured

Your boss can tell you to stay home if you are sick. Unfortunately, this means your paid sick time off may need to be used. If that is gone, you may qualify for paid family and medical leave.

Some companies will ask you to use your paid time off, personal days, or vacation time to cover the rest of your sick time. If none of this is available, then you may be able to stay home and qualify for unemployment.

I Used All My Sick Time Up — Now Everyone Gets 100% Paid Time Off

It can be frustrating if you took paid time off for a contagious illness and used up all your PTO. Then, everyone was laid off and received 100% pay unemployment — and they have all their sick time for the rest of the year.

In most states, unemployment only applies when you are healthy and able to do your job. It might feel unfair that you had to waste your PTO when everyone else now gets the time off. Those people didn't have to burn through their sick time, but you had to.

If you are facing this situation, you can:

  • Speak to your manager about the case. Some companies may reinstate your PTO during emergency situations.
  • Speak to the company or HR or look for new company pandemic policies. Many businesses are adding extra sick time or general PTO to cover sick days and parents without childcare.
  • Speak to an employment law attorney about pandemic rules and your contractual PTO at your company. You have rights to fair treatment, and companies may be willing to work with you and your attorney during uncertain times.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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