Sick Leave and Disability Leave

Although few employers are required to offer paid sick time, many do.

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According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, many employers offer employees some paid sick leave: 75% of full-time employees and 27% of part-time employees have access to this benefit. These numbers look even better when you consider that sick time is almost entirely a voluntary benefit. Employers in most places aren’t required to offer paid sick or disability leave. 

If you need time off for an illness or temporary disability, your options will depend on your employer’s policies and your state and local laws.

Unpaid Leave

If your situation qualifies as a serious health condition, you may qualify for time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. The FMLA gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of leave per year for their own serious health condition (including pregnancy) or to care for a family member with a serious health condition, among other reasons. Your employer must continue your health insurance while you are on leave and reinstate you when you are ready to return. However, FMLA leave is unpaid -- and companies with fewer than 50 employees aren't covered. (See all of our articles on the FMLA on our Taking Family and Medical Leave page.)

If you have a disability, you may be entitled to time off as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, conditions that are temporary, such as a broken leg or a case of the flu, generally aren't covered by the ADA.

Some employers offer unpaid leave. However, unless your time off is legally protected, your employer is free to decide whether or not to offer this benefit – and, if so, which employees are eligible and in what circumstances.

Employer Sick and Disability Leave Programs

Although most employers aren’t legally required to offer paid sick leave, there are some exceptions. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to require employers to offer traditional paid sick leave. Employers with at least 50 employees must provide service employees with at least an hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked, up to a maximum of 40 hours per year. A few cities and local governments, such as San Francisco and Washington, DC, also require certain employers to provide paid sick leave. 

Other than the few places that mandate employer-provided sick leave, however, employers are free to make their own rules about use of sick leave. Your employer can also require you to follow the rules of its program, such as providing a doctor's note or giving notice to a certain person or by a certain time.

Some employers provide disability leave, often through an insurance program that compensates employees for this time off. Whether or not you can use your employer's disability program will depend on the terms of the policy. Your company's HR department or benefits specialist should be able to help you navigate the details and paperwork. 

State Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) Programs

Currently, five states -- California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island -- have temporary disability insurance programs that pay employees who are temporarily unable to do their jobs. These programs pay a percentage of your usual salary. Generally, these programs are available to employees who suffer an injury or temporary disability (including pregnancy) unrelated to work; on-the-job injuries are handled through workers' compensation insurance. 

The way these programs work depends on state law. For example, the program might be a government insurance fund, to which employees, or employers and employees both, must contribute. Or, state law may require employers to provide this type of insurance for employees, without involving a state fund.

If you are temporarily unable to work in one of these states, and you meet the program's requirements, you must apply for benefits. To find out how to apply, ask your HR department. Your state labor department should also have information available for applicants.

To learn more about how employment law affects you, see Nolo's book Your Rights in the Workplace.

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