Can My Job Force Me to Work While Sick?
Most people think if you are sick, you should stay at home until you are completely better. Unfortunately, some managers may tell employees they need to come back to work or discourage them from taking sick time. This is understandably stressful for the sick employee as well as coworkers, customers, or patients who have to be around them.
This is technically legal, but you might be able to ignore their request. To understand the answer to this question, consider:
- Are you following your work's sick leave policy?
- Is your boss ignoring your work's sick leave policy?
- Are you hoping 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, like during a quarantine or stay-at-home order?
Even with a doctor's note or contagious illness, you still must follow your company's sick policy or you risk losing your job or your pay for that day.
When Can My Boss Ask Me to Work?
Technically, your boss can ask you to come in at any time. They can also be upset or write you up for not showing up — especially if you don't call to let them know.
It is your responsibility to explain that you are sick and unable to come in.
Many employers provide paid time off (PTO) for sickness. This should be used if you have it. Bosses typically should not deny your request for sick time off, whether they're happy about it or not.
But you may not need to listen to your boss's demands that you work. That depends on the company sick policy and your job status.
Job Status May Determine Your Sick Time
Depending on your employment status or contract, your manager can legally choose to not pay you for the time you did not work that day. An example of this is not getting paid for a restaurant cook shift you could not attend.
In some cases, that might be a fair trade for you to be able to stay home while sick. But other people may expect to get their paid sick time off with no questions asked. After all, that is why sick time is available, right?
Being asked to come in after saying you are sick is tricky. An at-will employee could be let go if they have no time off left and refuse to come in.
Company Sick Leave Policies Apply
Your company likely has policies in place when you are sick such as requiring you to:
- Provide several hours' notice that you cannot work
- Contact your manager or human resources representative
- Move your work to a backup person
- Find someone to cover your shift
- Use vacation time if sick time runs out
Short term FMLA leave may apply if your sick time and vacation time both run out.
You Always Have Options for Unpaid Sick Leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can provide you with sick time for longer illnesses — but this is unpaid.
If your work does not let you come back after taking FMLA leave, or fires you when you return, you may have a wrongful termination claim.
Doctors' Notes Don't Always Fix the Problem
A boss may ask you for a doctor's note or proof of your need for time away. You do not need to show them anything until you are coming back to work.
Note: You do not need to go into details about your sickness. This is private information. Any boss that pushes for more information is out of line. Your HR department, however, may be able to ask for more details.
To protect your general privacy, you can ask the doctor to give you a note that just says:
- You were seen on a specific date
- The date you can return to work
Culture Around Sick Time Off
There are stereotypes that employees use sick time just to take a day off, or that people work from home while "sick" but really are just slacking off.
This culture around sick time may be the reason some managers do not believe their employees or force them to come into work.
What Should I Do If I'm Forced to Work?
If you must go into work or risk being fired, follow these steps:
- Tell everyone around you that you are sick
- Wear a mask or wash your hands often
- Keep your distance from coworkers and customers
- Reaffirm to your boss that you are sick — your visible symptoms may help convince them you should not be there
- Report any complaints about you being at work to your boss
It often helps to communicate with your coworkers and boss, such as "I came in today, but I do not think I should be back in tomorrow" or "I would like two days from home, and then I will try to be back in the office."
When You Can/Should Go Back to Work
You can go back to work when you are feeling better. Companies may:
- Require a doctor's letter saying you can go back to work
- Need your word that a doctor has approved your return to work
- Accept you saying, "I am contagious for two weeks" and gladly let you stay home and return when you are ready.
Other companies, such as jobs that do not offer work from home or service-industry jobs, may try to force you back before you are ready because they need people on-site to keep the business running.
Do not return to work out of guilt or pressure. Your job is to keep yourself and the people around you healthy.
Arm Yourself for Sick Leave Trouble
If you suspect your boss will frown on taking sick time, knowing your company's sick policies is your best chance. Labor boards in your state are a good ally to back you up if your boss abuses the sick leave policies.
Firing someone who had a documented illness and followed the sick leave company policies would be a bad mark on any company.
An attorney can review your situation, the labor boards might take up your case, and you can let unemployment know why you were fired when you apply for it.
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.