Can Your Boss Force You to Work When You Are Sick?


Most employees have ventured into the workplace when sick. From a minor cold to an allergy flare-up, it’s not uncommon to continue working while feeling under the weather. However, employees should never feel obligated to work when ill.

With COVID-19 still a major concern in nearly every state across the U.S., it is more important than ever for employees to understand their rights when it comes to sick leave and time off.

While some managers may discourage workers from taking sick time due to employee shortages, consider all aspects of the situation before making a decision to stay home or go to work. Going to work sick with a highly-contagious condition like the coronavirus puts coworkers, customers, and others at risk.

Can a boss ask you to work when you’re sick? Technically, yes. However, you do have the right to ignore their request under certain circumstances.

Sick Leave Policies

As of March 2019, 76 percent of companies have sick leave policies in place allowing employees to take time off to recover from an illness without threat to their job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sick leave can take many forms, such as half-days off and more long-term periods of leave extending weeks or even months. A standard sick leave policy will outline whether the time is paid or unpaid, the amount of time available to employees, and whether staff members will need to obtain approval or provide documentation to take sick leave.

Sick leave, including both paid and unpaid sick leave, is not required by federal law, unless the employee is eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

However, paid sick leave is mandated by law in certain states, such as here in Arizona. If the company that you work for does have a sick leave policy in place and you meet all requirements outlined in the policy, then you are legally entitled to time off.

Company sick leave policies may require an employee to:

  • Provide notice of specified timeframe that you cannot work
  • Find someone to cover your shift
  • Notify your manager or a human resources representative
  • Use vacation time if your sick leave runs out

Paid or Unpaid Time Off

Unlike sick leave which is designated for illnesses, paid time off (PTO) and unpaid time off (UTO) can be taken for all types of life events. This common employer-provided benefit grants employees personal time off, federal holidays, vacation days, maternity and paternity leave, and similar periods of time off.

While paid time off policies are not required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an estimated 69 percent of employees receive PTO, according to a TSheets survey of U.S. employees. Unpaid time off is a period of leave that an employee can take without pay.

As there is no law that requires employers to provide employees with paid or unpaid time off, so it is typically up to employers themselves to determine how much time off to give their employees.

This is often based on industry standards, how long an employee has been with the company, and the employee expectations in the field. If the business that you work for offers paid or unpaid time off and you have met all requirements, you are entitled to time off.

Paid or unpaid time off policies may require employees to:

  • Surpass a waiting period before accruing time off if you are a new employee
  • Accumulate more time off as you gain more tenure at the company
  • Not go over a specified cap per year
  • Give advance notice of vacations and similar reasons for time off

Federal and State Laws

Even if your employer does not offer sick leave or paid or unpaid time off, you may still be entitled to certain leave benefits under the FMLA. The Family and Medical Leave Act permits eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually.

When taking time off under the FMLA, there is no threat to your job and your employer is required to maintain your group health benefits during the leave period. FMLA applies to all private and public elementary and secondary schools, all public agencies, and all companies with 50 or more employees.

Employees may be eligible for leave under the FMLA for the birth or care of a newborn child, for placement of a child for adoption or foster care, to take medical leave if unable to work due to a serious health condition, or to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition.

There are certain requirements an employee must meet before becoming eligible for unpaid leave under the FMLA. An employee must have worked for their employer for a minimum of 12 months, or at least 1,250 service hours. You also do not have to go to work if working would require you to break the law, such as during a quarantine or stay-at-home order (depending on the specifics of the order).

Returning to Work

Employees are able to return to work when they feel better or when any state or federal stay-at-home order is lifted. When you return to work, your employer may require a letter from your doctor stating that you can safely return to work. Some companies will take your word that you are approved to return to work.

Know Your Rights

If you suspect that your boss will frown upon you taking sick leave or time off, or if your boss is trying to force you to work when sick, consider your legal and employment rights. If you are fired even though you had a documented illness and followed the sick leave company policy, your employment rights may have been broken. Contact the experienced employment attorneys at JacksonWhite Law to learn what steps you should take next.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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