Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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You’re achy, sniffly, stuffy, headachey and just plain malaise-y — and the odds of you making it through a day at work are slim to none. But there’s another hiccup: you’re not sure if you have the sick days to spare. How many sick days do you get a year? 

Fortunately, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about sick leave in the United States. Keep reading to find out how many sick days employees are entitled to legally, when you can use them, the difference between PTO and sick leave and if you can get fired for calling out ill.

What is a sick day?

A sick day is just what it sounds like: taking an absence from work because you’re ill. Many employers offer a certain number of days to be used specifically for illness. These are generally separate from vacation days, which are to be used for other time off. In some cases, employees may also offer a small number of personal days to be used however you wish. Employers may have different rules about when you can use each type. For example, they might not allow you to use vacation and sick days consecutively with one another to prevent employees from supplementing their vacation time with sick days when they’re not actually ill.

In other cases, an employer may have a single paid time off (PTO) policy in which all time off is grouped together. PTO generally includes sick days, vacation time and personal days — any time an employer can take off from work (holidays are usually separate because they apply to all employees and the company will likely be closed for business). If your employer has a blanket PTO policy entitling you to, say, 20 days off per year, you are usually to free to use these days however you wish, whether it’s to tend to your health or go to Hawaii. Whether or not you can carry your unused sick days or any PTO over to the next year varies from employer to employer.

Laws and requirements

There is no federal law mandating short-term sick leave in the U.S. That means, generally speaking, your employer is not required to offer sick days. However, many employers must abide by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which stipulates that employees who meet certain qualifications must be entitled to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave per year for reasons such as serious long-term illnesses or conditions, to care for sick family members or to bond with new children. (Read about the eligibility requirements.)

Some states and cities, including Washinton, D.C., do mandate a certain amount of sick leave per year. The states are:

Arizona

California

Connecticut

Maine*

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

New Jersey

Nevada*

Oregon

Rhode Island

Vermont

Washington

*Maine and Nevada’s laws will go into effect January 1, 2021, and January 1, 2020 respectively. 

State and city laws vary in terms of the size of the employer that is required to abide by the laws (number of employees), the minimum number of days granted and other factors.

Average amount of sick leave in the U.S.

Based on its National Compensation Survey - Benefits, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that as of March 2018, 71% of private-industry workers were offered paid sick leave, with six in 10 receiving a fixed number of sick days per year. Other findings include:

• 4% could use them as needed, while the rest were part of “consolidated leave plans” 

• Employers with 500 or more employees offered more sick days on average than smaller employers

• 46% of employees in private industry were allowed to carry over at least some sick days to the following year

Can you get fired if you call in sick?

Unfortunately, if you’re an at-will employee, as many employees in the U.S. are, you can be fired for any reason (except illegal ones, some of which are outlined below). That means your employer is free to dismiss you if you call in sick. 

However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if your illness is related to a disability that is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your employee may not fire you for taking a sick day. Examples of conditions protected by the ADA include HIV, visual and hearing impairments, heart disease, and some psychological illnesses and disorders. Disabilities are defined as conditions that substantially limit at least one life activity. If you have a condition that is protected by the ADA, you should document it with your employer, because you’re also entitled to reasonable accommodations — which may include time off. You also can’t be fired for taking leave if you are doing so under FMLA.

Is it OK to take a sick day when not sick?

If you’re really sick, you should absolutely take time off. But should you ever do so for reasons other than your health?

First, it’s important to clarify what your health means. Burnout, stress and psychological conditions are all part of your health. Not only are they related to your mental health, but they can all take a toll on you physically, too. If you’re feeling exhausted or burnt out, no one should fault you for taking a sick day. Going to work under these conditions often results in presenteeism, in which employees show up to work but aren’t productive or engaged. This phenomenon is very costly to employers and one of the main reasons why many do provide sick days.

If you’re dealing with a personal problem that will impede your ability to get anything done, such as a breakup or a family emergency, that may be a reason to use a sick day, too. You know yourself and your employer better than we do — some may be understanding if you’re honest and request time off, while others may insist you come in, so whether you use a sick day is your call. Taking care of a child or another family member who’s ill is another motivation for using your sick leave.

If you have PTO that includes all your time off, you probably won’t even need to give a reason. In other cases, ask yourself if you absolutely need to use sick time (for example, if you’ve maxed out your vacation time). As a general rule, if you’re not going to be productive at work because of whatever else you have going on, then use a sick day. But be careful — if you’re “sick” too frequently or take days off in patterns (every Monday, for instance), your boss is right to become suspicious.

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