Benefits & Comp 6 min

How to Approach Sick Leave in the Workplace

December 9, 2020

ACHOO! Uh-oh…sounds like someone in the office is coming down with something. Whether it’s a miserable head cold or something more serious, when employees are ill, it’s nothing to sneeze at. They need time off to take care of themselves, and you need to keep them from spreading their illness to coworkers. That’s why a sound sick leave policy makes sense for everyone. Here’s what you need to know about how to approach sick leave in the workplace.

What Is Sick Leave?

Sick leave is permitted time off from work that many employers provide for employees who have an injury or illness. Some commonly accepted reasons for employees to use sick leave include:

  • Contagious illnesses
  • Injuries or illnesses that impair an employee’s ability to do their job
  • Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and stress
  • Medical appointments
  • Chronic medical conditions that require frequent professional care or time to rest
  • Hospitalizations
  • Pregnancy-related conditions and childbirth

Some employers also allow employees to use sick leave when they need time off to care for ailing family members.

Is Sick Leave Paid?

In the United States, most workers who get sick leave are paid for it. In fact, 76 percent of all U.S. workers get paid sick leave, although the U.S. has no permanent federal law requiring employers to provide it. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires covered employers to provide eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.

Also, a temporary COVID-19 law recently mandated paid coronavirus sick leave for certain U.S. employees who were affected by the pandemic.

A handful of states and localities have their own sick leave laws requiring paid sick leave for employees who qualify, so it’s important to check with local labor offices in each area where your organization does business.

What’s the Difference Between Sick Leave and Paid Time Off?

Some organizations give their employees separate amounts of various types of leave, such as sick leave, vacation leave, and personal days. Each type of leave can only be used for that purpose. Other employers bundle these forms of leave together as paid time off (PTO) and allow employees to choose how to use it. Under this system, sick leave is one of the permitted uses of an employee’s PTO.

One common employer concern about PTO is that employees who are sick may decide to come to work anyway, spreading their illness because they want to save their PTO for vacations.

"Employers are entitled to ask for the general reason why the employee needs to take sick leave but should be careful to avoid running afoul of privacy laws—or intimate details."

How Does Sick Leave Work?

Different organizations administer sick leave in different ways. Establishing a detailed sick leave policy—and posting it in your employee handbook—helps leaders, managers, and employees have the same expectations about how sick leave works in your organization.

Your policy should include:

Who qualifies for sick leave: Is it only for full-time employees, or are part-time and temporary employees covered too? How long must employees work in your organization before qualifying?

How much sick leave they are entitled to: This depends on how the sick leave accrues and whether they are allowed to carry unused leave over into the following year.

How sick leave is paid: Employers who provide paid sick leave usually pay the employee’s customary rate of pay not including tips, overtime, holiday pay, or other premium pay rates, unless a contract or collective bargaining agreement says otherwise.

Which reasons are acceptable for using sick leave: Consider the reasons we mentioned above, including whether caring for an ailing family member qualifies.

How an employee must notify the employer about the need to use sick leave: Do they contact their supervisor, HR, or both? Is a phone call required, or is a sick leave email acceptable? Is there a deadline?

What the absent employee should and shouldn’t be asked: Employers are entitled to ask for the general reason why the employee needs to take sick leave but should be careful to avoid running afoul of privacy laws—or intimate details. Your policy should let employees know they may be asked:

  • When they expect to return
  • Whether they are available to be contacted while they are out
  • What work needs to be covered in their absence

Whether a doctor’s note is required: Some employers require returning employees to have a healthcare provider certify that they were ill and are able to return to work, especially for longer absences. Be specific about how many days an employee can be absent before this requirement kicks in.

Whether an employee who leaves your company will be paid for unused sick leave: If not, also establish whether a rehired employee can have their previously unused sick leave reinstated.

Once you’ve created your organization’s sick leave policy, be sure to have it reviewed by a qualified attorney.

How Do You Calculate Sick Leave?

The first step in calculating sick leave is deciding how much you will give your employees. Unless bound by a contract or local law, that’s up to you. Most employers are free to decide how their employees accrue sick leave and in what amount—and there are a number of options. For example, employees might accrue one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, available for use only after it’s earned. Or they might be given their entire year’s allotment of sick leave in a lump sum on January 1, to use as soon as it’s needed. (Caution: this option can be costly to employers if employees use all their leave early in the year and then leave their job.)

You’ll also need to consider how to calculate sick leave for part-time employees if you’ve decided to provide them with this benefit. Typically, the amount of sick leave they earn is reduced in proportion to the fewer hours they work.

Calculating sick leave also requires deciding what increments your employees can take it in. Some organizations only allow sick leave to be used in full days or half days, while other organizations permit workers to take as little as one hour of sick leave at a time if that’s all they need.

If you have an HRIS that includes time-off management software, calculating sick leave is a piece of cake. Once the employee data is entered, your HRIS can keep track of requests and balances automatically. Some software can even calculate future balances, which could help an employee who’s planning surgery, for example. If you don’t have an HRIS, you’ll need to manually enter and track data on spreadsheets—which can be time consuming and prone to errors.

An HRIS worth its salt will also include employee self-service that enables your workers to check their sick leave balance in their employee profile. It’s easy and convenient for them and another time saver for HR.

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What Constitutes Abuse of Sick Leave?

Most employees stick to the rules and do the right thing, but occasionally a worker may be tempted to call in sick when they really aren’t. Maybe there’s fresh powder beckoning on the ski slopes, or maybe it’s a sign of disengagement or burnout—a red flag employers shouldn’t ignore. Regardless of the reason, pretending to be sick is misusing sick leave.

Paid sick leave is an expensive benefit to provide. What’s more, even companies with unpaid sick leave pay a price when employees are absent, with decreased productivity, lost sales, overtime for employees who fill in, and so forth. Make sure your employees understand the importance of only using sick leave for its intended purpose.

Here are some steps you can take to minimize sick leave abuse while protecting the needs and interests of both your workers and your organization:

  • In addition to posting your sick leave policy in the employee handbook, proactively educate all workers about it.
  • Monitor how much sick leave is being used. Your HRIS may provide reports that make this easy to track. Compare the figures to your industry’s averages.
  • Train managers to watch for signs of worker stress or unhappiness and provide help.
  • Consider giving workers a few personal days off each year on top of their sick leave that they can use for preventive healthcare and well-being.
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Show Your Employees That You Care

Here’s a final, important thought: Providing sick leave in the workplace is about more than giving employees time off. It’s also an opportunity to show compassion and support when your people need it most. Maintaining a safe and healthy workplace can be a cornerstone of a vibrant company culture, and helping employees in their hour of need with a well-crafted sick leave policy is an ideal way to show them that their company really cares.

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Kent Peterson

Kent Peterson is a writer at BambooHR. He has also created award-winning work in radio and television.