Q: What Is Sick Leave?

Sick leave is a benefit that allows employees to take time off to take care of health issues. It’s different than vacation time and PTO, so be sure to understand the nuances clearly.

In general, employees are supposed to use sick leave for purposes related to medical care for themselves. In many cases, laws on paid and unpaid sick leave also allow employees to use sick time to care for a child or family member.

Am I required to offer my employees paid sick leave?

There are no federal laws requiring you to offer paid sick leave.

But paid sick leave is required in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. On Oct. 29, 2018, New Jersey will also join the ranks of states requiring paid sick leave. In addition, your county or city may require you to offer paid sick leave.

The specifics of each paid sick leave law are different. Here are a few examples:

  • Massachusetts requires employers to give a minimum of one hour of sick leave for every thirty hours worked by an employee. This sick time must be paid if the employer has 11 or more employees.
  • In Oregon, employers are required to provide up to 40 hours of sick time each year. Employees accrue 1 hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. That sick leave must be paid if the employer has 10 or more employees (in Portland, that minimum is 6).
  • San Francisco workers earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. This applies to full-time, part-time, and temporary employees. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees can limit sick time balances to 40 hours (subject to restrictions), while larger employers can cap it at 72 hours.

Make sure to check both your state’s Department of Labor website and your county and city websites so you know the rules that apply to your business.

Can my employees take unpaid sick leave?

In addition to any paid sick leave offered, employees have the right to take unpaid sick leave as well.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or the FMLA, enables employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off, with health benefits and without losing their jobs.

Eligible reasons for FMLA leave include recovering from a health condition that makes the employee unable to perform their job and taking care of a spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition. This benefit can be used on a rolling 12-month basis and is available from public sector employers as well as private sector companies with 50 or more employees.

On top of FMLA’s federal-level protections, many states have their own laws on unpaid family and medical leave.

Can I require an employee to provide a doctor’s note as proof of illness?

The answer to this question can vary, so it’s best to ask an expert who knows the laws that apply to your location.

For example, in most situations, you can ask an employee taking FMLA leave for medical certification (using Form WH-380-E for themselves or Form WH-380-F for a family member).

But once that certification has been secured, you cannot ask for any more information. The exception is during a flu pandemic. In such situations, you can ask for a doctor’s note to prove that the employee is no longer contagious.

The rules around this can be tricky, as other federal and state laws can also come into play, depending on the exact situation. Be sure to consult an HR professional to help you stay compliant.

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