Essential Advice For Maximizing Your Leave Time

By Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job” and consulting trainer on career issues

If you’re like most feds, no one has ever explained to you all of your leave options and their relative advantages and limitations. Nevertheless, you need this information to maximize your leave time and avoid unnecessarily sacrificing leave and other benefits that should be rightfully yours.

So here is a summary of the main leave options followed by tips for making the most of them.

Accrued Annual Leave:  You may, in most cases, carry over 30 days of annual leave into the next year. So track and use your “use or lose” leave accordingly.

Accrued Sick Leave: You may use sick leave to take care of your own medical needs, including pregnancy-related care, and adoption-related activities. Also, you may use: 1) up to 13 days of sick leave annually for bereavement or to care for a close family member who is not necessarily seriously ill; and 2) up to 12 weeks of sick leave per year to provide psychological or physical comfort to a seriously ill close family member.

Advanced Leave:  You may request to be advanced up to as much annual leave as you would accrue during the rest of that leave year. You may also request to be advanced up to 240 hours of sick leave. Federal agencies have been specifically advised to approve requests for up to six weeks of advanced sick leave for the care for a new child or sick family member.

Leave Without Pay (LWOP):  You are entitled to use up to 24 hours of LWOP per leave year— which is an approved temporary work absence without pay—to tend to: 1) school and early childhood educational activities; 2) routine family medical purposes; and 3) the health care needs of elderly relatives. In addition, your boss may grant you LWOP for other reasons. But beware that extended LWOP may, under some circumstances, impact your pay and benefits.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Leave:  You’re entitled to use up to 12 weeks of FMLA during a 12 month period to address your own health needs; care for sick family members or a newborn; tend to the birth of a child; or address certain other defined purposes. FMLA guarantees various job protections.

You must inform your boss in writing of your intent to take FMLA leave or at least 30 days before starting FMLA leave—if possible, or as soon as possible for emergencies. Beware: you can’t retroactively substitute any form of paid leave for FMLA leave.

If you have exhausted your FMLA leave but still need additional time off to, for example, recover from an illness, your boss may grant you additional LWOP.

Credit Hours: You should earn credit hours whenever you work more than 80 hours per pay period (with approval), you’re on a flexible work schedule. Warning: Don’t deny yourself owed credit hours out of misplaced heroism. You’re not expected to donate your earned credit hours to your agency any more than you’re expected to donate your salary to your agency.

You can only carry over a maximum of 24 hours of credit hours into the next pay period. So, if possible, strategically time your accrual and use of credit hours accordingly.

Compensatory Hours: You should, in most cases, earn comp time for irregular or occasional overtime work—such as travel time that exceeds your usual work hours. In most cases, accrued comp time expires at the end of your 26th pay period.


Snow Days: If you are pre-approved to take leave on a day that ends up being a snow day, you will end being charged for that leave anyway. So if you’re planning to take leave on a day that may overlap with a snow day, consider delaying your leave or your leave request accordingly.

Holiday Pay: To receive holiday pay, you must be in pay status either the day before or the day after the holiday. So if you use LWOP together with a form of paid leave or telework, time your LWOP accordingly

Sick leave vs. FLMA leave: Sick leave covers care-taking for more types of family members than does FMLA leave.

Cashing in on Sick Leave at Retirement: When you retire, your unused sick leave may—under some circumstances—increase our retirement annuity. So research how your retirement system credits unused sick leave

Important FMLA Tips: You don’t have to exhaust all of your annual and sick leave before taking FMLA. So you may take FMLA as LWOP. Alternately, you may take FMLA as annual or sick leave—and keep getting paid and accruing leave at your usual rate while under FMLA.

Also, you may use FMLA leave intermittently, and you may “stack” FMLA leave by using it in combination with other forms of paid leave—including annual leave and sick leave. If you take FMLA leave, consider combining it with telework, if possible. Why? Because doing so would enable you to: 1) extend your total time out of the office; 2) conserve FMLA leave; and 3) generate income and some additional sick and vacation leave while you’re out of the office.  Your boss would probably be most likely to approve such an arrangement if you already have a telework agreement in place and have a reputation as a reliable teleworker.

When you’re on paid leave, you will accrue annual and sick leave, as usual. But you won’t accrue any vacation or sick leave during any pay period in which your cumulative number of LWOP or FMLA hours for a leave year totals 80 hours,160 hours, and so forth.

When choosing between taking any form of LWOP vs. annual or sick leave, balance the financial sacrifices of LWOP against the costs of using paid leave. For example, if you take two weeks of FLMA as LWOP, you will lose two weeks of pay and won’t accrue any leave during your absence—but you won’t drain any of your accrued leave.

But if you take two weeks of FLMA as sick leave, you will receive your full pay during your time off; but you will sacrifice two weeks of accrued sick leave—which you may need to cover future absences that wouldn’t qualify for FMLA leave and/or increase your retirement pay.

You can’t be denied sick or FMLA leave if you provide medical certification or other types of required documentation. However, you may be denied annual leave if you “are needed” at work during the requested leave period..

Staying Out of Trouble: Record your leave accurately. Lying about work/leave hours is among the easiest ways for feds to get into serious trouble. Also, if another staff member is registering your leave, check his/her accuracy.

For more information on federal leave; including using leave for pregnancy/ childbirth, adoption and foster care; and the federal voluntary leave bank, see OPM’s new Handbook on Leave.

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Christine Burke

Hi Lily – Thanks for the in-depth post on leave! It’s important to be knowledgable about all of the options, even if you don’t end up using them.