You wake up in the morning, and you’re just not feeling right. Maybe your throat is sore and you can’t stop coughing. Maybe you’ve caught a stomach bug. Or maybe you’re just feeling generally under the weather. Whatever the case, you’re not feeling up to going to work.
Just about every employee has been in that situation before. If they’re truly sick, many employees will call in sick and take the day off to recover.
But some workplaces have less generous sick leave than others—and if that’s the case at your place of work, the thought of taking a sick day might actually make you feel a little sick. What if your boss is angry or upset? What if there isn’t anyone to cover your shift? What if your boss decides to fire you for taking sick time—and are they even allowed to do that?
Or, in other words, can you get fired for calling in sick?
How at-will employment plays into sick time
Before you can understand if you can get fired for calling in sick, you have to understand at-will employment.
If you have an at-will employment agreement with your employer (and you work in an at-will state), that means your employer can fire you at will, at any time, and without reason (and, conversely, you can quit your job at will, at any time, and without reason).
So, technically speaking:
If you’re an at-will employee and you’re calling in sick rubs your boss the wrong way, they could fire you for it—even if they never tell you that your unplanned sick day was the reason behind your termination.
That being said, there are certain situations where your employer can’t fire you for calling sick—and, as an employee, it’s important to understand your rights when it comes to calling in sick.
So, when is your employer not legally allowed to fire you for calling in sick?
When you’re entitled to sick leave
There are no permanent federal sick leave laws in place that require employers to provide paid sick leave to their teams—but there are many laws at the state and local level that do. If you live in an area where laws mandate your employer provide paid sick leave, your employer can’t fire you for using that sick leave.
When you’re recovering from a work-related illness or injury
If the reason you’re not feeling so hot is a direct result of a work-related illness or injury (for example, if you slipped on a wet floor, hit your head, and got a concussion), you’re protected under workers’ compensation laws. Not only can your employer not fire you for calling in sick, but they’re also on the hook for replacing your wages and covering any medical costs you incur during the recovery process.
Just keep in mind that the only way workers’ compensation laws apply is if you can prove that your illness or injury was directly related to your job or place of employment. If you can’t prove a direct correlation, you may not qualify for workers' compensation—and, if your calling in sick violated company policy in any way, you could be at risk for termination.
When you’re protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act
If the reason you’re calling in sick is more serious than a short-term flu or stomach ache, you may be protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Under FMLA, eligible employees have the right to take off up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period for a number of covered reasons—and that includes serious illness or a serious medical condition.
So, if you’re struggling with a serious health condition that’s causing you to miss work and you’re covered under FMLA, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to get well—and your employer can’t fire you because of it.
Keep in mind that not all employees are covered under FMLA. If you’re not sure if you’re entitled to FMLA leave or if it’s offered at your place of employment, talk to human resources.
When you’re protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act
If the reason you’re calling in sick has to do with a disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) could protect you from being fired—but only under certain circumstances.
Under the ADA, your employer is to make reasonable accommodations that allow employees with disabilities to successfully perform their job duties. And if your disability is making you sick and causing you to miss work, you could argue that sick time would fall under the “reasonable accommodation” umbrella.
But even if you’re protected under the ADA, your employer can still fire you if they have just cause. According to the Department of Labor, there are three scenarios in which an employer has the legal right to fire an employee with a disability:
- The termination is unrelated to the disability
- The employee does not meet legitimate requirements for the job, such as performance or production standards, with or without a reasonable accommodation
- Because of the employee's disability, he or she poses a direct threat to health or safety in the workplace.
So, if you’re calling in sick—but it has nothing to do with your disability? ADA protections don’t apply—and your risk of being fired would depend on your employer and their sick leave policies.
None of these situations apply to you? Here’s how to avoid getting fired for calling in sick
If none of these situations apply to you and you’re worried you could be fired for calling in sick, here are a few tips to ensure that your day off to recover doesn’t turn into a permanent day off:
- Understand your company’s sick leave policies. If your company has a sick leave policy (which is typically outlined in the employee handbook), it’s important you understand how much sick time you’re entitled to and the correct procedures for calling in sick. If you abide by the policies, calling in sick shouldn’t put your job at risk.
- Never no-call, no-show. If you’re going to call in sick, you have to actually make a phone call. Failing to show up at work without letting your supervisor know—even if you’re extremely sick—can be grounds for firing. One exception to that rule would be if you were hospitalized, unconscious, and/or under the care of a physician—in which case, you may be asked to provide a doctor’s note.
- Don’t abuse your company sick leave policy. If you have sick days available, use them when you’re sick. Don’t abuse the policy by taking sick days for fun or by calling in sick more than you’re entitled to (without a valid medical reason).
Know your rights when calling in sick
Bottom line If you’re an at-will employee, technically, your employer can fire you for calling in sick—but that doesn’t always apply. As an employee, it’s important to know your rights and when your employer does—and does not—have the legal right to fire you for calling in sick. When you know your rights, you can protect yourself and your job—and call in sick when you need to.