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Unless you are working under a contract that says otherwise, your boss probably has the right to require you to come to work or remain at work even if you are sick. That may be one reason why studies show most Americans say they have gone to work even when they knew they were sick and contagious. In a 2019 pre-pandemic survey by Robert Half, 90 percent said they work while sick.
Sick Leave Laws
There is no federal law requiring employers to offer sick leave or giving employees the right to leave when they feel ill, although a few states and cities have passed their own sick leave laws, including Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. Regardless of legal requirements, many employers do offer some form of sick time.
In 2015, 61 percent of workers in the private sector had access to some kind of paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, in 2021, roughly 75 percent have access to paid sick leave.
Your Boss's Reaction
Most workers in the U.S. are "at-will" employees, meaning they don't have a contract spelling out the terms of their employment and therefore can be let go for almost any reason, save for specific exceptions in federal law. That means their boss can decide that going home when sick, or refusing to come to work, is insubordination, and they can be fired for it.
Family and Medical Leave
Depending on the severity of your illness, your boss might have to let you take time off. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act lets employees who meet certain requirements take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave over a 12-month period.
To qualify, you must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months and must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months.
Your illness needs to be a long-term condition, require medical attention and leave you incapacitated for at least three days, or require a string of treatments. You can't invoke the Family and Medical Leave Act, in other words, to go home with a cold.
Go Home for Your Health
If your boss is reasonable, he or she should let you head home if you are sick – and you should go. Staying at work when you are ill not only puts your co-workers at risk for catching whatever you have, but also could delay your recovery.
The stresses on your body could make you sicker, for a longer period of time. If you attempt to keep working when sick, your productivity will suffer. And the side effects of medicine you take to reduce symptoms can make it even more difficult to be productive.
Can You Be Fired If You Do Not Qualify for FMLA?→
How to Qualify for FMLA→
Can My Employer Require Me to Use My FMLA When I Am Injured for Workman's Compensation?→
FMLA: How to Ask Your Doctor to Put You on a Leave of Absence→
How to Cancel Your Disability→
I Got Hurt on My Job & Need to Know My Rights→
- Wakefield Research/GOJO Industries via PR Newswire: Survey Shows Workers Often Go to Work Sick
- CNN: Why You Should Go Home When Sick
- San Jose Mercury News: Should You Go to Work When You're Sick
- Nolo: Losing or Leaving a Job FAQ
- US Department of Labor: Sick Leave
- BLS: Paid Sick Leave
- Stateline: Cities, States Face Off on Mandatory Paid Sick Leave
- US Department of Labor: Fact Sheet: Family and Medical Leave Act
- Nolo: What is a Serious Health Condition Under the FMLA?
Based in Pennsylvania, Emily Weller has been writing professionally since 2007, when she began writing theater reviews Off-Off Broadway productions. Since then, she has written for TheNest, ModernMom and Rhode Island Home and Design magazine, among others. Weller attended CUNY/Brooklyn college and Temple University.