Being sick is the worst — except for having to work while you’d rather be huddling under some blankets all day watching mindless TV, eating soup and drinking tea. Naturally, many employees opt to take sick days when they’re feeling under the weather — assuming they can. But if you do call out, you may not want to share the details of your illness with your manager. Can an employer ask why you are sick? And what rights do you have with regard to sick days in general? Let’s take a look.
There is no federal law mandating that employers provide their employees with paid sick days. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), certain employers (businesses with at least 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius of the organization) must give employees who have worked with them for at least 1,250 hours over a 12-month period unpaid leave for serious medical conditions, the birth or adoption of a child or to care for an immediate family member (child, parent or spouse) who is ill. Short-term illnesses, such as the common cold, generally do not qualify for FMLA leave.
Some states and cities do have laws requiring that employers offer paid or unpaid sick leave to certain employees. In Rhode Island, for example, employers with 18 or more employees must offer paid sick leave under the Health and Safe Families and Workplaces Act. In 2019, employees accrue one hour of sick leave for every 35 hours worked, for up to 32 hours. In the future, they will be able to accrue up to 40 hours per year. There is a 90-day waiting period in place before employees are eligible to take sick leave, regardless of how many hours they've worked.
No federal law prohibits employers from asking employees why they are out sick. They are free to ask questions such as when you expect to return to work. They may also require you to furnish proof of your illness, such as a note from a physician.
However, if you have a condition that is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then your employer may only ask questions related to your ability to do your job. For example, they may still ask how long you expect to be away from work, but they can’t ask what treatment you’re undergoing or what symptoms you're experiencing.
There is no federal law mandating paid time off (PTO), so employers are generally within their legal right to ask you how you’re using your time unless the circumstances described above apply to your case. But if an employer grants PTO, you’re generally free to use it however you wish, so your response shouldn’t matter.
Unless you live in an area that requires paid sick leave or your leave is protected by FMLA or the ADA, you can be disciplined — even fired — for taking off from work, even if you have a doctor’s note in most cases.
Many employers offer sick leave regardless of the laws, and for short-term illnesses, they typically don’t require a doctor’s note. Still, many may ask for one if you’ve missed work for several days.
Keep in mind that if FMLA does apply to you, meaning you have a serious medical condition (among other circumstances), your job must be protected during your absence and when you return, meaning you can’t be disciplined or fired. (Learn more about FMLA requirements and eligibility here.)
Meanwhile, if missing work relates to a condition covered by the ADA, you must be entitled to time off as well. Firing you or disciplining you under this circumstance would qualify as disability discrimination. Under the ADA, your employer must provide you with reasonable accommodations if you qualify — including time off, should that be necessary for your condition. (However, if your time off doesn’t relate to your disability, that’s another story.)
If you tell your boss that you’re using sick leave or PTO, in many cases, they’ll behave professionally and not pry. However, some managers may not be so tactful.
If your manager asks if everything is okay, it’s probably just out of concern, and you can simply say, “I’d rather not discuss it.” If they continue down this road, you may want to add, “It’s personal.”
While it’s generally not illegal for your manager to ask about your illness, as we’ve discussed above, it can make you very uncomfortable. Check your employee handbook to review the procedures about using sick days and make sure you and your manager are following them. If you feel that your boss is being inappropriate by asking questions that go against the company policy, it may warrant a trip to HR.
If you have an impairment or disability, you’re entitled to certain legal protections and accommodations, and it’s usually helpful for your employer to know so they can provide you with the accommodations you need. This will also be useful to you — you may need these accommodations to do your job, and if you ever need to take legal action against your employer because of discrimination or failure to accommodate your condition, it’s important to have it on file in writing.
However, if you’re not comfortable discussing this with your boss, you can always go to your human resources representative instead. In fact, in either case, HR will probably need to know. You don’t have to share details, but in order for you to be protected at work, the business must be aware that you have the condition and what they need to do. (It may be helpful for your boss to know, too, but it’s up to you to decide whether that’s necessary or useful.)
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