The U.S. is among the minority of developed countries across the globe that does not actually mandate sick leave at the federal level. This is unlike France, Germany and so many other European countries. This means that, for millions of Americans, if you don’t show up for work when you or a family member is sick, you lose a day’s pay.
While about 72% of U.S. employees (excluding federal, military and agricultural workers) do indeed have access to paid sick leave, according to a March 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, up to three million U.S. employees work while sick each week, according to a 2016 Health Services Research study from Cornell University. Many more work while a family member for which they care is sick. Some workers go into the office because they don't have any paid sick day benefits, while others simply succumb to America's work culture that tends to reward those who "power through" and silently suffer at their desks.
That's right, even when paid sick leave is granted, many Americans don't take advantage of it. A 2016 survey released by Wakefield Research found that 69% of working Americans don’t take sick days, even when they or a family member is legitimately ill and they're offered paid time off to take care of it. And, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 40% of private-sector workers and 80% of low-wage workers don’t receive any paid sick leave at all. Because women still bare the bulk of caregiving, juggling both work and caring for children and elderly relatives more than their male counterparts, the climate is only exacerbated for them.
Studies do suggest that the American public is very much in favor of paid sick leave. According to a 2015 poll by the Huffington Post, 70% of those surveyed reported believing that companies should be required to pay employees for sick time. Still, progress towards getting paid sick leave at the federal level has been slow. In fact, progress towards getting sick leave even in some companies is slow. Nearly a quarter of adults have been fired or, at the very least, threatened with being fired for taking time off to recover from an illness or to care for a sick family member or loved one, according to Family Values at Work.
So the question remains: Can you use sick leave to care for a family member? The answer is a nuanced one.
In some states, you can take paid time off to care for a sick loved one. The following 10 states and the District of Columbia all require employers to provide sick leave to their employees:
- District of Columbia
- Rhode Island
- New Jersey
That said, some of the aforementioned states only require small employers to provide at least unpaid sick leave, and accrual rates for these days vary between the states. The good news is that the number one consistent requirement among each of these states' sick leave policies is that employers must legally allow employees like working parents to use their sick leave to care for family. Still, the definition of a family member can also vary from state to state.
There shouldn't be any confusion, however. Employers in all of the above states are also legally required to notify their employees of their right to take sick leave, as well as the terms under which that leave may be used. If the employer fails to do so, they can be severely penalized.
It's important to note that sick leave is different from medical leave.
Generally, sick leave refers to the paid or unpaid time an employee can take off from work in order to stay at home to address either their own health or the health of a close family member, such as a spouse, elder or child. This sick leave can even can be used for taking preventative measures like attending doctor appointments, as well as to tend to illnesses and/or injuries. But medical leave, on the other hand — as outlined by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — is a federal law that provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to attend to a serious illness or injury of their own or of a close family member.
So what qualifies as a serious health condition for FMLA? Section 101(11) of the FMLA defines a serious health condition as "an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves:
- inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or
- continuing treatment by a health care provider.”
Also important: What qualifies as FMLA for family member? A child, spouse or parent are considered family members. (The definition of son and daughter includes individuals for whom the employee stood or is standing "in loco parentis," and the definition of parent includes individuals who stood “in loco parentis” to the employee.
Understanding sick leave and to whom it applies is key before requesting paid sick leave to care for a family member.
How do you request paid sick leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition?
The reality is that if your family member has a serious health condition, deemed serious by the aforementioned definition from the FMLA, you may be eligible for medical leave. If, however, you still want or need to take sick leave, here are three steps you should take to require time off.
1. Know your rights.
First things first, know your legal rights. Figure out your state and company's policy before requesting time, so you know exactly what you're asking for.
2. Make a plan.
Make a plan for your absence. This may require blocking out your calendar in advance, getting some work done ahead of time if possible and delegating tasks while you plan to be out of the office. This way, when you go to ask for time off, you already have a plan to share with your manager that'll make the whole process a lot more seamless.
3. Ask for leave in advance.
Do your best to ask for leave in advance. The sooner you can ask for time off, the more time you and your team have to prepare for your absence.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.