The Complete Guide to Sick Leave Laws

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If you’re wondering whether you need to offer your employees sick leave, the chances are that you do. You may even be mandated to offer paid sick leave under state or city laws. This guide covers everything you need to know about sick leave laws and how to stay compliant.

Why Sick Leave Is So Important

Firstly, offering sick leave ensures that you stay compliant with federal law. While there is no federal law mandating employers to provide paid sick leave, many employees are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under FMLA, employers must provide up to 12 weeks of job-secured sick time off for eligible health conditions. Therefore, if nothing else, you most likely have to provide your employees sick time off to stay compliant with federal law.

Paid time off, in particular, can help prevent presenteeism. Presenteeism refers to when employees feel obligated to come to work even when they are sick. In this case, an employee may have to choose between staying home to recuperate and earning a much-needed paycheck. Unfortunately, many choose the latter, resulting in reduced productivity and poor morale.

Additionally, sick employees can infect others at the workplace. Therefore, encouraging employees to stay home when sick helps to protect your workforce and your business. It may even be possible for employees to perform simple tasks like answering emails while recovering at home.

Finally, sick leave shows your employees that you care about their well-being. A culture of “toughing it out” or otherwise needing to work even while sick can easily create resentment within the workforce. In particular, your top performers are likely to look for greener pastures with better benefits. Therefore, an attractive paid time off policy can be a great recruiting tool for top talent. This is especially true if your competition already offers paid time off, including paid sick leave.

Quick Tips To Improve Your Understanding Of Sick Leave Laws Today

At the very least, understanding sick leave laws will help you remain compliant with all the applicable regulations. In addition, you can protect your business from lawsuits, fines, and penalties by adhering to employee laws. Similarly, understanding sick leave laws can help form the basis of your business’ sick-off policies.

But before that, it is worth getting help from HR software. Sick leave laws and policies can be complicated to implement and track. But, HR software can help you create policies, implement them consistently, and stay compliant with federal, state, and local regulations.

I highly recommend Zenefits for this purpose. The software has a series of time off features that can help you streamline your sick leave policy. Here, you’ll be able to create and manage paid time off policies, manage and approve time-off requests, and automatically calculate sick days and other time off.  

Zenefits also comes with scores of additional features covering HR, payroll, benefits, time tracking, advisory services, and compliance. Zenefits’ cheapest plan, Essentials, costs just $8 per month per employee if you choose to pay annually.

Here are a few quick tips to help you wrap your head around sick leave laws:

1. Understand the FMLA Regulations

As we mentioned earlier, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) stipulates that workers are entitled to up to 12 weeks of job-secured time off. This time off isn’t necessarily paid leave, but you will need to offer it nonetheless. You may need to check if the FMLA covers your business and its employees. Covered employees and companies in this case include:

  • A business with more than 50 full-time employees
  • An employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months
  • The employee must have worked at least 1250 hours in the 12 months preceding taking the leave. This is about 24 hours a week.
  • The business has 50 employees within 75 miles of the worksite

Please note that all these requirements work together. For example, if you have 50 employees but are spread out over more than 75 miles, your employees aren’t eligible to take FMLA leave.

Additionally, FMLA has criteria for when employees are eligible to take this leave. For example, employees will need to meet one of the following requirements to be eligible to take their 12-day job-secured leave at any time:

  • Health conditions requiring an overnight stay at a health facility
  • Chronic conditions that incapacitate an employee or a family member
  • Chronic conditions that cause an employee or a family member to require treatment at least twice a year
  • Conditions that make an employee or a family member unable to attend work or school for more than three consecutive days
  • Health conditions that require ongoing medical treatment
  • Pregnancy, including medically needed bed rest, incapacity due to morning sickness, and prenatal medical appointments
  • The birth of a child and to bond with a newborn child

Again, you don’t necessarily have to pay your employees during their sick leave. But, the FMLA mandates that you must continue to make employee health insurance payments as usual.

You can find out more about FMLA here.

2.  Check Your State’s Sick Leave Laws

Where federal law is often seen to have lax sick leave laws, the same cannot be said at the state level. At least 11 states have created sick leave laws that mandate employers to offer paid sick leave.  

Connecticut leads the pack with its state law mandating private sector employers to provide paid sick leave. This law went into effect in 2012. Other states where employers must offer paid sick leave include California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont.

It is vital that you check with your state’s Department of Labor for the particulars of the sick leave laws. These particulars can vary from one state to the next. Also, state regulations cover various aspects of sick leave, including payment, accrued time off rates, reporting requirements, and maximum accrual limits.

For example, in San Francisco, employees begin to earn their paid sick time 90 days after their employment. The employees earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. However, employers can cap sick leave at 40 hours for businesses with less than ten employees. Employers with more than ten employees on payroll can only restrict paid sick leave at 72 hours.

The law is slightly different in California. Employees are entitled to at least 30 days of paid sick leave per year. Here, employees earn one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. But employers can limit earned sick leave use to 24 hours per year. Additionally, employers can cap the accrual of paid sick leave at 48 hours.

In some states, unused paid sick leave days also carry over to the following year. Employers may also pay employees for unused sick days. Again, the laws and details vary from state to state. Check with the Department of Labor, especially if your state has sick leave laws.

3. Refer to Local Sick Leave Laws

Aside from state laws, some cities also have their sick leave laws. There are at least 30 locales with their own sick leave laws. The most notable include Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Diego, and San Francisco (all in California). In some cases, these laws may be stricter than the state laws, so it pays to familiarize yourself with both.

In San Diego, for example, employers can only cap the total accrual of sick leave at 80 hours. This is different from the state sick leave law. Additionally, employers may limit the use of earned sick leave to 40 hours in a year. Again, this is different from state law.

4. Find Out About Eligibility Requirements

Even in states and cities with sick leave laws, not all employees are covered. Therefore, you may need to check the specific employees covered under the federal, state, and local laws.

In Washington D.C., for example, construction industry employees, students, and independent contractors covered by a union contract or a collective bargaining agreement aren’t protected by the city’s sick leave laws. 

Conversely, some jurisdictions may have laws covering specific workforce segments, such as temporary workers, undocumented workers, and airline employees.

5. Figure Out When Employees Can Take Sick Leave

Most states with sick leave laws also outline specific instances when employees can take their sick leave. These situations aren’t always obvious and may vary from state to state. Aside from the general cases outlined by the FMLA, there might be special circumstances when employees may take their leave.

In Tacoma, WA, for example, employees can use their sick leave to:

  • Seek law enforcement help for sexual assault or domestic violence
  • Seek legal help for sexual assault or domestic violence
  • Seek safety from stalking, sexual assault, or domestic violence
  • Care for a child whose school is closed by order of a public official

Employees in other states or cities may not be eligible for paid sick leave under these same circumstances. It is worth investigating the specifics of when employees are eligible to take their paid time off. 

Long-Term Strategies for Adhering To Sick Leave Laws

Ideally, adhering to sick leave laws should be the minimum requirement for your organization. A robust sick leave policy can help to enhance productivity, build loyalty with employees, and attract top talent. These tips will take some time to implement but are worth it.

Create a Sick Leave Policy

If you haven’t already, creating a sick leave policy is the first step towards compliance. At the very least, you will need to include the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under this act, you’ll need to offer your employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave. For example, employees can take leave to take care of their health or a spouse, newborn, or parent.

Additionally, you’ll need to refer to your state and city laws to determine if you’ll be offering your employees paid sick leave. Next, decide how to structure the leave. For example, some companies give employees an allotment of sick days at the beginning of the year. Other businesses let employees accrue sick days over the year.

Where possible, ensure that your sick leave policy is consistent for all employees. For example, all employees should accrue and use sick leave in the same way. Failure to do this may breed resentment among employees and cause problems with morale.

Specify When Employees Can Take Sick Leave

Some states offer comprehensive details about when employees can take sick time off. For example, Connecticut allows employees to take paid leave to recover from domestic abuse. Oakland, on the other hand, offers no such protection. So first, think through all the scenarios when employees may need to take sick leave. Then, detail these scenarios in your sick leave policy.

You can be more generous than your state or city’s provisions. In this case, you can show your employees that you care about their well-being. A flexible sick leave policy can also be a critical recruiting tool.

Be sure to specify who employees should call if they’re taking a sick day. In many cases, this will be their direct supervisor or HR. Also, set the means of communication including text, phone, or email. Finally, some medical absences, such as a doctor’s appointment, are foreseeable. Be sure to specify if employees need to give advance notice in this case.

Use HR Software To Keep Track of Sick Leave

Keeping track of sick leave for each employee can be difficult, especially for large companies with many employees. Once you’ve created your sick leave policy based on federal, city, and state requirements, HR software can help keep track of the hours.

For example, Zenefits lets you create custom time-off policies, including separate banks for personal leave and sick leave.

Requests for sick leave will be automatically deducted from the appropriate bank. Additionally, you’ll be able to track available and used sick leave from a simple dashboard.

Using HR software to track employee sick leave reduces the instances of human error. This way, you don’t unwittingly infringe on worker’s rights and break sick leave laws.

Keep Employees Informed

Many states mandate that you must make your employees aware of your sick leave policy. Additionally, you may also need to update your employees on their leave usage.

In Tacoma, for example, employers are required to notify their workers of their right to paid sick leave. Additionally, they need to keep records regarding sick leave. Employers are also required to verify compliance annually as part of the business license renewal.

Seattle is another example in this case. You’ll need to notify employees of their hours accrued and used every time you pay wages. Whatever the case, be sure to give employees written documents of your sick leave policy. Additionally, make sure your employees can easily keep track of their accrued and unused sick days.

With Zenefits, employees can easily view and calculate their time off from the employee portal.

Next Steps

You may want to consider a paid time off (PTO) program. Under a PTO policy, all employee time off is grouped. This means vacation days, sick days, personal time off, and other time off are collected in a single bank. Thus, employees can take time off as they please without specifying their reasons for the absence.

A PTO policy gives employees more flexibility, helps to build trust with the employer, and can boost morale. As a result, more and more companies are looking into this option. However, you will still need to meet the federal, state, and city minimum requirements. These requirements include normal hourly compensation, minimum accrual rate, notification, and carryover.

You can learn more about PTO policies in this Beginner’s Guide to PTO Policies.  

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