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Can My Job Force Me to Work While Sick?

Most people think that, if you are sick, you should stay at home until you are completely better. Unfortunately, some managers may tell employees they need to come back to work or discourage them from taking sick time. This is understandably stressful for the sick employee, as well as the coworkers, customers, or patients who have to be around them.

To understand the answer to this question, consider:

  • Does your company have a sick leave policy?
  • Does your company have a COVID-19 policy?
  • Is your boss ignoring your company's sick leave policy?
  • Are you hoping to take paid time off? Do you have sick time left?
  • Can you afford to take unpaid time off?
  • Does working require you to break the law, like during a quarantine or stay-at-home order?

Even with a doctor's note or a contagious illness, you must still follow your company's sick policy or risk losing your job or your pay for that day.

When Can My Boss Ask Me to Work?

Technically and legally, your boss can ask you to come in at any time. They can also be upset or write you up for not showing up — especially if you don't call to let them know. It is your responsibility to explain that you are sick and unable to come in.

Many employers provide paid time off (PTO) for sickness. This should be used if you have it. Bosses typically should not deny your request for sick time off, whether they're happy about it or not.

Interestingly, however, employers are generally not required to have a policy providing for paid or unpaid time off or sick leave, or to grant such time off or leave when it has been requested. Employers must comply with federal and state laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but these laws tend to have limited applicability in these situations.

For more information, visit FindLaw's article on Paid Family and Sick Leave Laws for a state-by-state summary and additional resources on existing laws in your state.

Job Status May Determine Your Sick Time

Depending on your employment status or contract, your manager can legally choose to not pay you for the time you did not work that day. An example of this is not getting paid for a restaurant cook shift you could not attend.

In some cases, that might be a fair trade for you to be able to stay home while sick. But other people may expect to receive paid sick time off with no questions asked. After all, that is why sick time is available, right?

Being asked to come in after saying you are sick is tricky. An at-will employee could be let go if they have no time off left and refuse to come in.

Company Sick Leave Policies Apply

Your company likely has policies that apply when you are sick, such as policies requiring you to:

  • Provide several hours' notice that you cannot work
  • Contact your manager or human resources representative
  • Move your work to a backup person
  • Find someone to cover your shift
  • Use vacation time if sick time runs out

You should do your best to comply with all requirements of your company's policy, to the extent possible.

Culture Around Sick Time Off

It may be easier to understand your boss's attitudes about sick time off if you put yourself in your boss's shoes. Your boss is responsible for meeting deadlines and getting things done, and it takes people to accomplish those goals. Moreover, your boss may have to find someone to take your place when you are absent, or even cover for you themselves.

In addition, some employees abuse the system by calling in "sick" when they simply want to take a day off. Any manager will tell you that certain employees always seem to be "sick" on a Friday or a Monday, especially on nice summer weekends. This behavior tends to make managers cynical about sick days in general.

The silver lining to this situation is that managers become skilled at distinguishing between employees who use sick days for their intended purpose and those who use them to go fishing. They tend to give the benefit of the doubt to employees who have demonstrated that they use sick days sparingly and responsibly. And they tend to write up or fire those employees who have a bad track record when it comes to unexcused absences.

Do yourself a big favor by calling in sick only when you are genuinely ill.

What Should I Do If I'm Told to Work?

If you must go to work or risk being fired, follow these steps:

  • Tell everyone around you that you are sick
  • Wear a mask and wash your hands often
  • Keep your distance from coworkers and customers
  • Reaffirm to your boss that you are sick — your visible symptoms may help convince them you should not be there
  • Report any complaints about you being at work to your boss

Don't be afraid to have a face-to-face conversation with your boss about your condition. Your symptoms may be sufficient to convince your boss that you belong at home in bed.

When Can/Should I Go Back to Work?

You can go back to work when you are feeling better. Your company may:

  • Accept your judgment that you are ready to return to work
  • Accept your word that your doctor has approved your return
  • Require a doctor's note stating that you can go back to work
  • Require a negative COVID-19 test before you return to work

Currently, many offices have hybrid work arrangements under which employees can work from home rather than come to the office in person. This may be a great option for employees who feel fine, but are still contagious, as appears to have occurred with COVID-19 infections.

Sick Leave Trouble? Talk to an Employment Attorney

If you believe that you have followed your company's sick leave policy, but you have been written up or terminated because you were out sick, consider talking to an employment attorney about your situation.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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