How to Call in Sick

SCRATCHY THROAT, dripping nose, hacking cough, upset stomach, exhaustion: These are clear signs that you're too sick to work. Yet what seems obvious to you might not persuade your boss that you ought to call in sick.

Sick leave is a tricky business in the American workplace. Up to 3 million U.S. employees work while sick each week, according to a 2016 Health Services Research study out of Cornell University. Some do so because they lack paid sick day benefits. Others succumb to office cultures that reward people who push through the pain of illness.

Deciding whether to stay home or suffer at your desk? Get the facts about sick leave here.

Here’s how to call in sick:

  • Figure out whether your company offers paid sick leave.
  • If not, determine whether your illness is covered by federal or state laws.
  • Discern whether you’re contagious or too sick to perform your duties.
  • Figure out how your boss prefers you to call in sick: call, email or text.
  • Stick to a script when you tell your boss or human resources.
  • Get a doctor’s note in case you need one.

What are the laws about calling in sick?

Sick leave laws are "rapidly evolving," says Michael J. Soltis, an attorney based in Connecticut who specializes in the topic. Decades ago, employers had ample leeway in setting company policy. Now, local, state and federal regulations have given employees more rights.

The primary federal law governing sick leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles employees to take an unpaid, job-protected leave of absence for specific situations, like childbirth or a "serious health condition."

The definition of "serious" is a bit murky, however. In general, "your typical cold is not covered by the FMLA," Soltis says. But it might be, he explains, if your cold evolves into pneumonia and you find yourself in the hospital, or if it's a symptom of a chronic condition that requires treatment by a health care provider at least twice a year, such as diabetes, epilepsy or asthma.

Paid sick leave is not mandated by any federal law. But by mid-2018, eight states will require employers to provide it: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Washington, D.C. and a few other cities also require paid sick leave.

Who gets sick leave?

About 72 percent of U.S. employees (excluding federal, military and agricultural workers) have access to paid sick leave, according to a March 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. It's more commonly available to people who work at large companies or for the government, have higher salaries or are members of unions.

Because some companies wrap sick leave and vacation together under the umbrella of "paid time off," you may consider negotiating for more PTO, and therefore more sick leave, at the same time you're negotiating your salary.

What are good excuses for missing work?

Feeling ill is a good excuse, of course. But there's more to it than that. Economic studies have found that "presenteeism" – the phenomenon of coming into the office while sick – ultimately costs employers money because it reduces employee productivity, increases the chances of workers getting injured on the job and drives up health care costs.

Experts at the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that sick leave is important for public health. They recommend sick people stay home from work to prevent them from spreading germs to their co-workers. This can help stop the proliferation of deadly diseases: During the 2009-2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, the CDC estimates that contagious employees who showed up to work infected an additional 7 million people, which led to 1,500 additional deaths.

Sick leave is also important for personal health. Neglecting to take time off to recuperate from illness can "delay needed medical care, which can lead to prolonged illness and worsen otherwise minor health issues," says Dr. Barbara L. McAneny, president-elect of the American Medical Association. Hopefully, your office culture recognizes that sick leave helps employees maintain work-life balance. If not, talk to someone in the human resources department to get help broaching the topic with your boss, recommends Julie Gallion, senior HR business partner and benefits practice lead for consulting firm Nonprofit HR.

So if you've caught a bug that can spread to other people, or you're not feeling well enough to perform your job duties at a high level or you need some rest in order to heal thoroughly, those qualify as good excuses for missing work.

How should you call in sick? Can you text in sick?

It's wise to ask your boss in advance how he or she prefers to hear from you when you need to take a sick day, Gallion says. Some supervisors like the efficiency of an email, text or a Slack message, while others prefer the formality of a phone call. Plus, a phone call offers your boss the opportunity to converse with you about your condition and what work needs to get done in your absence.

"For some managers, it drives them nuts when an employee texts or emails instead of calls," Gallion says. "For some people, that's their preferred method."

What to say when calling in sick

Keep it simple. If you're feeling too sick to go to the office, communicate clearly to your manager, in his or her preferred style, that you will be working from home or taking a sick day.

Be ready to briefly explain what your absence will mean for the company and how your duties will be covered, Gallion says. If you don't have any pressing deadlines, tell your boss. If you do, ask a colleague to fill in or request an extension.

"The more responsible the employee is, the better," Gallion says.

She recommends sticking with a script similar to these:

"I'm so sorry, I'm really sick, so I will be staying home from work. I don't have any deadlines today, but I have XYZ going on, and will work on that on Monday."

Or, "I have a project due today; is there any way we can push the deadline back a day?"

Can an employer ask why you are sick? Do you need doctors' notes for work?

If you take FMLA leave, your company may ask for medical certification and you have 15 calendar days to provide it. This certification should include contact information for your health care provider and a description of your condition.

If you've been out sick for an extended period, your company may ask for a doctor's note to prove you're healthy enough to return to the office, Gallion says: "We don't want you to come back to work and then say, 'It made my illness worse and it's my employer's fault.'"

You don't have to talk directly with your boss about your illness, though. If you prefer, you may discuss your health with a human resources representative, who can approve your leave and keep the details of your condition confidential, Gallion says.

Can you get fired for calling in sick?

In a word, yes. Employees can be punished for absences not protected by FMLA, the Americans With Disabilities Act or a paid sick leave law, Soltis says.

Some companies have point systems to track absences, assigning different levels of discipline depending on points earned. At five points, an employee may receive a warning; at six, a suspension; and at seven, job termination.

If you miss work due to disability, your job may be protected by the law, says Paula Brantner, senior advisor at Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that provides legal advice about workers' rights.

Can your boss force you to go home if you're sick?

You may be tempted to come into work while sick for fear of irritating your manager. But if your boss thinks you've got an infectious disease that can pose a threat to other employees, he or she can require you to go home, according to ADA regulations.

"If you're actually sick, it's relatively disruptive" to have you in the office, Gallion says.

Keep that in mind if you went to work despite feeling sick and by lunchtime your symptoms have worsened. There's no need to be a martyr by staying at your desk; in fact, your colleagues might prefer that you head home if your coughing and sneezing worsens throughout the day.

Can you fake sick to skip work? Can you use sick days to take a vacation?

You can try … but experts recommend against it. Employers can and often do place conditions on sick leave, Brantner says, and they monitor how employees use sick leave to ensure they don't abuse it. Companies may look for patterns, like whether an employee frequently calls in sick on a Monday or Friday, possibly to extend the weekend. Or they may check personal social media sites for evidence that an employee is out having fun instead of resting in bed.

If your company doesn't explicitly offer sick leave, but does provide "paid time off," there's no need to fake sick – just take a day off when you want to.