Sick Leave

Chris Ruddy
Chris Ruddy
You know how important paid sick leave is for yourself and your family. Everyone gets sick, so why not have a helpful sick leave policy for your employees? Read more to find out how you can implement a painless sick leave policy for your company.

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What Is Sick Leave?

Sick leave is an employee absence due to personal illness or for health-care appointments. Employees may also use sick leave to care for the health of close family members.

There is no federal requirement to offer paid sick leave; instead, it is left up to each state and local government to decide. For a comprehensive list of these states and laws, visit the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

The federal government does, however, require certain employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This is not the same as regular paid sick leave, but is for longer-term illnesses and maternity/paternity leave. Read more about it on the Department of Labor’s website to see if FMLA applies to your company.

Sick Leave vs Paid Time Off

While sick leave can be under the umbrella of paid time off, it isn’t always administered the same way. In fact, many states require that an entirely separate sick leave policy be provided by employers to offer greater protection to employee sick days.

Similar to paid time off, policies often accrue, or accumulate, sick leave according to a specific schedule and allow that sick leave to roll over year to year. Employers may also include a maximum balance of sick leave that employees can hold.

As opposed to paid time off, where requests for its use can be approved or denied, sick leave needs to be more flexible to accommodate for unplanned or unforeseen employee absences. For continued sick leave, employers may require documentation, like a doctor’s note, to verify the need to use sick leave.

Why Sick Leave Is Important

Sick leave is one of the oldest and most common benefits companies offer, and for good reason: you don’t want ill employees coming to work, spreading their illness, making mistakes, and bringing morale down. Providing paid sick leave encourages people to stay home when they’re ill and covers them when they must miss work to care for sick family members.

Another reason you want a healthy sick leave policy (so to speak) is that the absence of a generous policy will be noted by job candidates and may lose you some great hires. Similarly, a poor policy will not help retain top performers who may be thinking about leaving.

Common Sick Leave Policies

Here are some examples of different types of sick leave policies.

Policy 1: Sick Leave Accrual

In an effort to provide employees with an improved work-life balance, [Company] is implementing a sick leave accrual policy. This policy will allow all regular full-time employees to accrue one sick leave day every month.

For purposes of this policy, sick leave can be used for an employee’s own illness, or for the care of an immediate family member. Immediate family members are limited to the child, spouse, parent, or domestic partner of the employee.

Employees should notify their supervisor of their illness the day that they intend to use sick leave, if possible. In cases where this is not possible, notice may be provided to the company by a household or close family member. All sick leave must be reported to HR within three days of being used.

Employees may be required to present documentation from a health care professional to verify the need to use sick leave. All sick leave requests for more than three days will require a doctor’s note or equivalent documentation.

Unused sick leave may roll over from year to year up to a maximum of 20 days, which will not be paid out upon employee termination. If accrued sick leave is exhausted, then vacation leave may be used in its place, or the employee may be provided with unpaid sick leave.

Policy 2: Sick Leave Lump Sum

In an effort to provide employees with an improved work-life balance, [Company] is implementing a sick leave accrual policy. This policy will provide all regular full-time employees 10 sick days each year that they work at the company. These days will be available to the employee immediately upon hire.

For purposes of this policy, sick leave can be used for an employee’s own illness or for the care of an immediate family member. Immediate family members are limited to the child, spouse, parent, or domestic partner of the employee.

Employees should notify their supervisor of their illness the day that they intend to use sick leave, if possible. In cases where this is not possible, notice may be provided to the company by a household or close family member. All sick leave must be reported to HR within three days of being used.

Employees may be required to present documentation from a health care professional to verify the need to use sick leave. All sick leave requests for more than three days will require a doctor’s note or equivalent documentation.

Unused sick leave may roll over from year to year up to a maximum of 20 days, which will not be paid out upon employee termination. If accrued sick leave is exhausted, then vacation leave may be used in its place, or the employee may be provided with unpaid sick leave.

Policy 3: Unlimited Sick Leave

In an effort to provide employees with the flexibility they need, [company] is implementing a sick leave policy which provides all full-time employees with an unlimited balance of sick leave. There is no accrual of sick leave per month; employees have access to as much sick leave as they need, starting their first day of employment.

For purposes of this policy, sick leave can be used for an employee’s own illness or for the care of an immediate family member. Immediate family members are limited to the child, spouse, parent, or domestic partner of the employee.

Employees should notify their supervisor of their illness the day that they intend to use sick leave, if possible. In cases where this is not possible, notice may be provided to the company by a household or close family member. All sick leave must be reported to HR within three days of being used.

The company reserves the right to request health documentation to verify the need to use sick leave exceeding one full work week (five business days). If an employee uses excessive amounts of sick leave, HR will work with them and their manager to address the issues. Any abuse of sick leave may be cause for termination.

There is no pay-out for unused sick leave.

How to Create Your Own Sick Leave Policy

Here are some guidelines to help you create your own sick leave policy for your company.

Step 1: Identify Your Context

Identify the legal and business contexts of creating your sick leave policy. Your policy details and administration may be shaped by your industry, employee trust, and even budget, so make sure you think about your objectives and reasons for implementing this sick leave policy. Think about the potential positive and negative impacts that various types of sick leave accruals would have on your workforce.

Also, consider the legal requirements of the state(s) in which your business and employees are located. Each state will have different sick leave requirements, so make sure you do your research. Generally, you’ll find state rules in each state’s Department of Labor or the equivalent employer relations agency, while city regulations will be on the city’s website.

Step 2: Determine the Details

Decide how many sick days you want your employees to have and how often they will accrue. Will they accrue their sick leave on a monthly or per hour basis, or will you provide them with a lump sum of sick leave hours on their first day?

Are you considering providing your employees with unlimited sick leave? Consider your industry and the impact that such a policy would have on your employees. What structures could you put in place that would prevent sick leave abuse?

Finally, determine the maximum number of sick leave days that employees can accrue from year to year. On average, companies allow their employees to accrue up to 30 days of unused sick leave.

Step 3: Write and Communicate the Policy

The next step is to create your sick leave policy and communicate it to your employees. Before you officially publish your policy, make sure to get a second pair of eyes to review it and offer suggestions. This can be an HR mentor, attorney, or someone else who can give feedback on this policy.

To issue the policy, you’ll want to update your employee handbook and send it to all of your employees. You may want to consider sending it in an email or Slack message so that everyone has a chance to see it.

Step 4: Use the Right Tools and Use Data

To cut down on administrative tasks and gather useful data, many employers use a system to track sick leave—a Human Resource Information System (HRIS) such as Eddy. These software programs track accrual and use of sick leave so you don’t have to. They also generate data you can use to spot company-wide patterns or trends in sick leave use, and to bring your attention to employees who use a lot of sick days. Early supportive intervention in these cases can avoid future problems.

Tips for Going the Extra Mile for Sick Employees

Want to go the extra mile for your employees? Here are some tips for you to make using sick leave less painful.

Tip 1: Make It a Painless Process

Don’t make it hard or uncomfortable for employees to use sick leave. If the processes surrounding using sick leave are difficult or people feel as though taking sick days is discouraged or judged, employees will be less likely to use sick leave. This leads to several problems, but mostly unhappy, unhealthy employees. Make your policy to be easy and your organization’s attitude for taking sick time supportive.

Tip 2: Offer More Leave than Is Required

Although at this writing there is no federal requirement for sick leave, some states do legislate it. Consider offering more than is required, like an unlimited sick leave balance. While offering unlimited sick leave makes compliance with state laws a little easier (because you’re offering more than is required), it is also a major win with employees. They will be relieved to know that they will never run out of sick days or have to dip into personal leave time. Life is pretty hard sometimes, and it’s always nice when your company has your back. (It’s also appropriate to request documentation for sick leave if you suspect abuse. Just make sure that you do this consistently for all potential sick leave abuse cases as they arise).

Tip 3: Be Flexible

Illness is inconvenient for everyone, but it’s especially inconvenient for the employee who is actually sick. Consider being flexible when an employee is late to call in sick or have someone else do so. If someone is sick for longer than anticipated, consider offering accommodations for them, like working remotely or on a flexible schedule. Each situation is different and should merit a different response. Your employees will be grateful for the flexibility.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Sick Leave

Do I have to pay out unused sick leave?
Not unless it is required by the state. Currently, it is uncommon for sick leave to be paid out upon employee termination.
Can I require an employee to provide a doctor’s note as proof of illness?
Yes, but it needs to be uniformly applied and not require that any medical or diagnosis information be disclosed. The requested documentation should simply note that the employee has met with a health care provider and identify the period of time needed for sick leave. Do not ask the employee the details of their sick leave, especially if they are not willing to provide it. Medical information is confidential, and approaching these topics cautiously helps to avoid unnecessary lawsuits.
What is abuse of sick leave?
Abuse of sick leave occurs when an employee consistently uses sick leave for purposes other than illness, such as using sick leave for personal or vacation days. To combat sick leave abuse, employers may require a doctor’s note to verify the need to use sick leave. This type of policy should be equally applied to all employees.
Chris Ruddy
Chris Ruddy

Chris is an HR entrepreneur. Having worked with small businesses and start-ups throughout his career, Chris is passionate about pioneering HR departments in companies where they don’t currently exist. He currently works at Skill Struck, a local Utah tech company and is striving to be an expert in all things related to small business HR departments.

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