During the summer of 1984, it was business as usual at Preservation News, except that 30-year-old editor Michael Leccese didn't attend any staff meetings, didn't write any stories and didn't make any decisions. He couldn't. Off on a three-month cycling tour of Europe, he was too busy deciding where he'd ride next, which local wines and cheeses to sample . . . and how to say "broken spoke" in yet another foreign language.
Meanwhile, over at the Washington, D.C., law offices of Morrison and Foerster, 29-year-old attorney Barbara Sih Klausner didn't report to work for more than a year. Pursuing a long-held dream to "see China up close," she and her husband lived in Peking from September 1984 to November 1985, studying the Chinese legal system, teaching at Peking University and visiting aunts, uncles and cousins who still live in China.
Leccese and Sih Klausner are among Washingtonians who have taken advantage of a little publicized option in the workplace: the leave of absence. They each agreed to give up their paychecks and some benefits for the period they'd be away from their jobs. But in exchange, they got the chance to do something they really wanted to do -- with the promise that their jobs would be waiting for them on their return.
The unpaid leave option may be more common -- and available for a wider variety of purposes -- than many people think. According to a 1983 nationwide survey by the Bureau of National Affairs, nine out of 10 of the companies responding had provisions for unpaid leaves of absence. Some 75 percent allowed leaves for the more traditional reasons -- to deal with extended health or personal problems.
In addition, approximately 50 percent of those surveyed said they would grant leaves for educational purposes, 40 percent for extended vacations and 20 percent or fewer for community service, political campaign work or other reasons.
Unpaid leaves of up to a year are also available to federal government employes with the approval of the employe's supervisor and agency. People applying for a leave generally need to have "a good reason," like going back to school or caring for a sick parent, according to a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, although federal employes have received time off for such things as extended travel abroad.
And, as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law takes effect, some agencies may be looking less critically at employes' requests for unpaid leaves. A memo on budget reduction strategies issued in February by the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, for example, states that "supervisors are encouraged to approve requests for leave without pay unless there are job-related reasons for not doing so."
In government, as in the private sector, it is almost always up to the employe to initiate the request for the leave and negotiate the terms. Leccese, for example, says he was facing "your basic burnout" after months of hard work revamping a publication. He was prepared to quit in order to get time off to relax; instead, his employer agreed to give him a three-month break for his European cycling tour.
Employers, of course, are more likely to bite at the leave proposal, Leccese points out, "if you can show why it's going to work from the company's point of view."
If the company doesn't have to hire a replacement, your absence can save them money. If they do need someone to handle your job, they could use the money freed up by your absence to hire an outside consultant. Or, they could shift your responsibilities to someone else in the organization -- allowing that person to get some additional experience at no extra cost to the company.
It's also important to be flexible, to be willing to take your leave at a time when it will create the least hardship for your employer. And, leave-takers also should be prepared for questions from their supervisors about whether they really intend to come back.
It takes money to make these fantasies come true, of course, and scrimping, saving and creative cost-cutting are usually a part of making any leave a reality. Leccese, who shares a house, rented out his room while he was gone and stayed at inexpensive bed and breakfasts, youth hostels and with friends to keep costs down during his cycling trip.
Sih Klausner and her husband decided to try to find grant funding to help underwrite their study abroad. They happened upon an exchange program that supports legal research in China -- and managed to get a stipend that covered a good portion of their expenses. Although they had to live frugally, "the knowledge that a job is waiting for you when you get back," says Sih Klausner, "does help ease your financial concerns."
Career worries can loom even larger than financial concerns for some. "Probably the reason that more people don't take a leave is that they're afraid it will set them back in their career," says Sih Klausner. "Overall, the institutional reaction to my leave was positive, but I could tell there were some lawyers in the firm who thought that this wasn't a wise move for me professionally."
Leccese also received some less than encouraging words when he told people he was planning to spend three months riding the back roads of Europe. "Some people told me all the terrible things that were going to happen -- that I'd get killed or lose my job or get a social disease. I think the thing is that most people are comfortable conforming, and they don't like to see their notions of what they're doing challenged."
And there's a chance that a leave of absence will not live up to the rosy picture you painted when you were daydreaming about it at your desk. After years of working, it can be difficult to adjust to a long period away from familiar job routines and friends.
"I went from a situation where I was working up to 60 hours a week to a period where I had unlimited time and no structure at all," says Geoffrey Grubbs, an Environmental Protection Agency manager who took six months off in 1979 for a backpacking trip through Asia and Alaska.
"I'd thought, 'Won't this be great!' but within two days I was missing my friends, sleeping a lot, reading a lot and writing lots of letters home. It takes a while to adjust."
The adjustment begins, Grubbs says, "when you screw up the courage to step out of your hotel room. As you begin to master new situations -- even seemingly simple ones -- your sense of confidence and adventure grows." One of Grubbs' first triumphs was learning how to bargain in a Thai market -- and buying his first pair of thongs for the equivalent of 50 cents.
Other adventures followed. Shortly after his arrival in Bangkok, he was invited to a Thai birthday -- by someone he met when he dialed a wrong number. "You start meeting people and all of a sudden these special moments start to happen," he says.
"It's like being a boy scout and going out into the world with three matches," he adds. "You find out that you not only meet the challenges, but you really begin to enjoy them and you become more self-reliant in the process."
Leccese also found that his 3,100-mile solo bike trip challenged him in ways his desk job could not. "There I was on my bike in a small village with three broken spokes . . . and I didn't know a single word of the language. Somehow I'd always find a way to get the problem fixed, though. In the process, I became more comfortable dealing with unexpected situations."
And as a somewhat dubious plus, "I can now say 'broken spoke' in German, French, Italian and Yugoslavian."
Interestingly, leaves can also lead to a greater appreciation of what's been left behind.
"Life was very difficult in China. A family of six of my relatives lived in a two-room apartment," recalls Sih Klausner. "My husband and I were required to live in a compound for foreigners, and often even our day-to-day activities were controlled by the university bureaucracy. It was a wonderful year, but I came back with a greater appreciation of the material comforts here, and of our personal freedoms."
Leave-takers may also find themselves rethinking their priorities. "A two-week vacation just isn't long enough to really relax or do any kind of hard thinking about your life. Just when you start to unwind, your vacation is over," says Leccese. While he was away he realized, "There were some things I liked about my job, but there were some things I decided that I could do without."
When he returned, he decided to cut back to a part-time schedule so he could devote more time to free-lance writing. He also thought "a lot about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life -- whether I wanted to stay single or settle down." He's getting married in June.
Those who do go back to the routines they left behind can expect some period of readjustment. When she came back to her job after a year's absence, "There were some new faces," says Sih Klausner, "and I had to figure out where I fit in again. Between adjusting to work and dealing with culture shock, it was a difficult time for a few weeks."
But if you can afford it, the drawbacks can be minimal. many people out there with lost dreams," says one leave-taker, "and that doesn't need to be the case. If you have a strong enough desire to do something and put some energy behind it, it can happen."