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Everything you need to know about sick leave in the US

Elizabeth Schlager

The topic of sick leave is already vast in the US, since getting paid sick leave is not guaranteed in every company. Ever since the coronavirus became a relevant and worrisome part of our everyday lives, even more employees are starting to ask themselves how they will be affected. Many companies have started to introduce new sick leave policies but may not be ready for something like a global pandemic and what that could mean. What if you have to isolate, but all of your sick leave days are used? Does a global pandemic like the novel coronavirus  brought, count as sick leave? Do the same rules apply? How do new bills react to the current situation? We are here to find out.

In General: Do you have a right to paid sick leave?

Right now, the US is one of only two wealthy, industrialized countries (along with South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid medical leave for serious illness. As it stands right now, there is no statutory minimum for paid holiday

However, many states and companies are introducing their own policies and most Americans now get about 10 days sick leave (on average), plus public holidays. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over half of employers provide five to nine days of paid sick leave after one year of working at a company. Around a quarter of employers offer fewer than five days of paid sick time, while another quarter now offer more than 10 days per year.

Sick leave is a state affair

As of January 2020, 12 states – Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – and D.C., have enacted their own laws for paid family leave, up from just five states (plus D.C.) in 2017. These states both administer and fundpaid leave through employer and/or employee payroll contributions and their policies allow workers to care for an ill family member or bond with a baby and provide partial wage replacement up to a designated amount. 

The rules and regulations do vary between states, though, as employees in Massachusetts, for example, receive one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work, whereas employees in New York are given 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. However, while the specific rules do vary by state, most allow employees to begin accruing sick time on the first day of employment, and to begin using that time after 90 calendar days. Sick pay is generally earned at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, equaling about one full sick day earned every six weeks. It’s worth checking out what kind of policy your state has in place. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act: Unpaid time off

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993 – requires companies with more than 50 employees to offer unpaid time off for medical leave, or to care for a family member. FMLA provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain medical situations for either you, as the employee, or a member of your immediate family. 

Yet, there are important requirements and limitations to be aware of when it comes to FMLA: 

  • The employer has to have had fifty employees on the payroll for twenty weeks in the past year
  • All fifty workers must be on site or work within a seventy-five-mile radius of the main worksite or at other worksites the company operates within a seventy-five-mile radius
  • To qualify for benefits, you must have worked at the company for at least twelve months and for at least 1,250 hours during the previous year–equivalent to twenty-five or more hours for fifty weeks
  • If you want to take medical or new-parent leave you have to provide documentation of the triggering event.
  • You also have to check the definitions of “serious illness” and “serious health condition,” as defined by the FMLA. 
  • The FMLA aligns with the existing statute–the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 which states that any employer that gives male employees leave for serious health conditions must also grant female employees twelve weeks of leave for pregnancy- or childbirth-related health conditions.

Especially now, with the coronavirus leaving employees and parents at home, it is incredibly important to figure out what your state can do for you in a time of crisis. What are your rights? Does self-isolating count as sick leave? Does your company have to provide paid sick leave because of (self-)isolation or quarantine? By the way, if you work in healthcare here’s a guide on how to keep yourself safe.

More on Coronavirus and work:

Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act

The bill states that private employers with fewer than 500 employees must provide paid sick leave to all full- and part-time employees. Such paid sick leave is available to employees who:

  • are in self-isolation because of a coronavirus diagnosis
  • are receiving a medical diagnosis or care should they be experiencing symptoms of coronavirus
  • are complying with the recommendation or order of a public official or doctor because the employee has been exposed to coronavirus or is exhibiting symptoms of it
  •  caring for a family member who is self-isolating because of a coronavirus diagnosis, or is experiencing symptoms, or has been exposed
  • are caring for a child if the child’s school or place of care has been closed, or the child care provider of the child is unavailable, due to coronavirus.

Full-time employees are entitled to two weeks (80 hours) of paid sick leave, and part-time employees are entitled to a number of hours equal to the number of hours they work, on average, over a two-week period.  If, however, the leave is to care for a family member who is sick or self-isolating or for a child whose school or childcare is closed or unavailable, the leave is to be paid at two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate.

Family First Coronavirus Response Act

Last Week a change to the Family and Medical Leave Act was made by President Trump. The new bill should respond to growing economical insecurity in families and includes:

  • free coronavirus screening
  • paid leave up to 80 hours (FT) 
  • as many hours of paid time off as they typically work over a two-week period for part time employees 
  • enhanced unemployment insurance.

You are eligible to this new bill if:

  • You work for an employer with fewer than 500 employees
  • You are a full time worker unable to work due to self- isolation, quarantine or to care for a sick family member
  • You have children in schools that have closed
  • You have children that are experiencing symptoms 

Are you still getting paid when on sick leave? 

Yes. The amount you are getting paid depends on the reason for your time off. Employees who are sick will experience full amount they are typically paid, up to $511 per day. Employees who take care of a sick family member will earn two-thirds of their usual income, up to $200 per day.

Who can you turn to for more information?

It’s always best to get your immediate and current information from reputable sources. Some of those include:


What’s the sick leave policy like in your company? Does your employer take care of you? Let us know in a review on kununu and help us to help jobseekers find the right employer for them!