Everything you need to know about sick leave in the US

Susanna Kahr

It goes without saying, but we all need to take time away from work every now and again to deal with our own illness, look after a loved one, or to care for a new baby. But, did you know that unlike almost every other developed nation in the world, the US has no federal law that guarantees paid family or medical leave? Crazy, right?! However, some states and some companies are introducing their own sick leave policies, so read up on everything you need to know, here. 

Most Americans get an allowance of 10 days of 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.

“HR Department is caring and super helpful with establishing sick leave, accomodations, employee complaints, etc.” – anonymous employer review at NORC at the University of Chicago 

11 states have enacted their own laws for sick leave

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 fund paid 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. And, 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. 

But even when they are entitled to sick leave, many Americans don’t take it, in fact polls suggest unused vacation is at an all-time high. More than a quarter of workers surveyed in 2014 by public health agency NSF said they always go to work when they are ill. In fact, it’s widely accepted that sick employees showing up to work contributed to the outbreak of norovirus (stomach bug) in Chipotle restaurants in Virginia in 2017. (Chipotle has since reviewed its sick leave policy and now provides paid sick days for our employees (including hourly employees).

“Lionbridge is a great side job with some perks of a regular job: retirement benefits and sick/vacation leave.” – anonymous employer review at Lionbridge

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows you to take 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 take 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. 

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.

There are 2 laws which could come into effect this year to allow you to take 12 weeks of paid leave

The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which was passed in late 2019, grants 12 weeks of paid leave to federal employees for the birth or adoption of a child. This law should take full effect in October 2020, and as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, will apply to 2.1 million civilian workers employed by the federal government. So, if you’ve been employed in the federal service for at least a year, then you could have access to 12 weeks of paid leave from October this year! 

And, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which was introduced in December, 2019 in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. If passed, it will create a national insurance program to provide you, and other employees, with up to 12 weeks of your partial income for your own serious health condition or that of an immediate family member, and for the birth or adoption of a child. The program would be funded by employee and employer payroll contributions. So, look out for this in the news! 

“They do offer (minimal) sick leave and for full-time employees health insurance are offered as well.” – anonymous employer review at The Home Depot

Companies are also starting to introduce their own sick leave

As everyone knows, workplace benefits are really important for balancing work, family, and medical needs. Benefits such as paid family leave and sick leave can help us to meet our personal and family health care needs, while also fulfilling our work responsibilities too. They also make us feel happier and more supported at work. 

The good news is that US employers are starting to wake up to this and introduce their own sick leave policies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 71% of employers offer paid sick days, but there are huge variations in terms of who qualifies for leave and how many days they get. Large firms (94%) are more likely than small firms (3-199 workers) (67%) to provide paid sick leave to their full-time workers, which means that more than 60% of employees nationwide now have access to some kind of sick pay. 

Another approach to sick days that some companies are implementing is unlimited paid time off. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Employees have the freedom to take as much time off as they want, whenever they want. The idea is that by giving employees the freedom to make their own schedules, they will be more productive and innovative. Requiring employees to adhere to strict rules and enforcing prescriptive policies only stifles their talents and reveals a lack of trust.

However, many part-time workers are still missing out on paid leave benefits entirely. In fact, it’s only in the states that have laws regarding paid sick leave that employees are guaranteed paid time off when they are sick. Only around half of large firms (56%) and a quarter (26%) of small firms provide paid sick leave to their part-time workers. 

There are many reasons why implementing sick pay is a win-win for everyone. In fact, evidence suggests that not only does providing the average number of sick days have no measurable effect on the bottom line, it also benefits the business in terms of lower costs, employee morale and recruitment! Add to this the fact that paid sick days bring down the costs of healthcare, and the turnover of employees and increases productivity – it’s time that paid sick leave was implemented everywhere. However, that’s far from a given, so you can expect it to be a big topic for the 2020 presidential elections, so stay tuned! 



What’s the sick pay policy like in your company? Do you feel able to take time off to look after yourself or a loved one? Let us know in a review on kununu and help us to help jobseekers find the right employer for them! 


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