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Can My Job Force Me To Work While Sick?

Ideally, if you are sick, you should stay at home until you are well. Unfortunately, some managers may tell employees they must return to work or discourage them from taking sick time. This is stressful for sick employees and their co-workers, customers, or patients who must be around them.

To answer 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?
  • Do you want 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, such as 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 pay for that day. This article addresses some frequently asked questions about sick leave and employment law.

When Can My Boss Ask Me To Work?

Legally, your boss can ask you to come in at any time. They can also write you up for not showing up. Even if you have paid sick leave, it is your responsibility to explain that you are sick and unable to come in.

If your employer offers paid time off (PTO) for sick leave, you should use it. Your company policy should require your manager to honor your sick time request.

No federal law requires employers to have a paid or unpaid time off policy. Some states, such as California, now mandate paid sick leave for most businesses. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave for serious medical conditions, which is ineffective for short-term illnesses.

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.

Sick Time Options

Hourly workers and at-will employees do not have many alternatives for sick time. If you do not have employee benefits, your employer does not have to pay you when you're not working. Salaried employees can take time off but may need to make up any work missed during their time away.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows qualified workers to take unpaid sick leave for up to 12 weeks. You can also take this time intermittently or in conjunction with vacation days or other PTO. FMLA may not help you with your own illness, but you can use it to care for an immediate family member's serious health condition. FMLA is helpful for employees with small children who always seem to have the flu at the same time.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may cover workers with chronic health conditions who know they are at risk during flu season (or during COVID-19 outbreaks). This law requires employers to provide disabled workers with reasonable accommodations.

For instance, if you are immune compromised because of chemotherapy or advanced HIV disease, it may be hazardous for you to be in the office when co-workers are ill. You should ask your employer in advance if you can work from home or have a separate office during flu season.

Company Sick Leave Policies Apply

Even without paid sick leave, businesses usually have sick leave policies so workers can call out sick. Employees should follow their company policies to avoid any negative consequences.

  • Provide notice that you cannot work. Most company policies require at least two hours' notice.
  • Contact your manager or human resources officer.
  • Cover your shift or notify your work partner.
  • Use vacation time if sick time runs out.

In case of a medical emergency, notify your employer as soon as feasible.

Culture Around Sick Time Off

Small businesses may not be able to afford paid time off. A few states have mandated paid sick leave laws, but most do not. Sick leave may only apply to full-time employees.

Even if your company does not offer sick days, most managers will not force employees to work when they are ill unless the worker habitually abuses the privilege. Sick workers are not conducive to a productive work environment.

If your boss says you must come in even if you're sick, it may be due to a lack of personnel or an upcoming deadline.

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

If your employer orders you to come in after you call in sick:

  • Let your co-workers know that you are sick. Give them the option of self-quarantining.
  • Wear a mask and wash your hands often. Be considerate of others.
  • Keep your distance from co-workers and customers.
  • Reaffirm to your boss that you are sick. Ask if you can use a back office or workstation.

Don't be afraid to have a face-to-face conversation with your boss about your condition. If your symptoms or medications put you, co-workers, or customers at risk, inform your manager immediately.

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

Many offices have hybrid work arrangements where employees can work from home rather than come to the office. This has been common since the 2020 pandemic. If your job description lets you work part-time from home, ask your employer for this option.

Sick Leave Trouble? Talk to an Employment Attorney

If you believe you have followed your company's sick leave policy but were disciplined or fired, your employer may have violated your employee rights. Contact an employment attorney about your situation.

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