All about sick pay in America

by Adriana Stein
April 29, 2021
woman looking into sick pay in america

So you’re sick, and you need to take time off work. But what’s worse than being sick? Being sick and unprepared.

In this article, you’ll learn how you can qualify for sick pay in the US, the different sick pay policies by state, and what to do if you’re sick as a freelancer.

Everything you need to know about sick pay in America

I’ll begin with this blunt statement: America has no federal laws that require sick pay or sick leave for employees. 

I know what you’re thinking…

But don’t worry, most states do have their own regulations in place for this.

In fact, a policy called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has enabled companies with 50 or more employees to receive unpaid sick leave to care for themselves or a family member. So that’s a start at least.

Important US English vocab related to sick pay

Before I go into further detail, let’s go over some vocabulary words related to American sick pay, so you can easily understand what I’m about to discuss:

  • Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA): a federal law created by the Department of Labor that gives employees the requested unpaid time off they need to take care of children or other family members while maintaining their job position.
  • Accrued time off: time that is accumulated after a specific time period.
  • Sick pay: money given to an employee because they are ill but aren’t actively working

Sick pay policy by state

One thing that’s important to note is that city and state policies can differ heavily from federal policies in the US, meaning that cities and states have nearly complete freedom to craft their own laws without the federal government’s permission (within reason, it’s a bit of a grey area). To clarify: here are a two examples for city-specific and state-specific sick pay policies:

  • Austin, Texas: Here employees receive at most 64 hours of paid sick leave (referred to as earned sick time) per year when an employee does 80 hours of work within the city of Austin during a calendar year. Paid sick time off is an accrued 1 hour for every 30 hours worked. 
  • Colorado: Here employers who have at least 16 or more employees are obligated to offer 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. At most, you’re looking at a total of 48 hours of paid sick leave per year.

Fortunately, the majority of states offer a decent paid sick policy to start, plus accrued sick leave. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 78% of US employees had access to paid sick leave, with an average of 8 paid sick days per year. 

Furthermore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many US states, cities, and companies were forced to develop better paid sick pay policies. This is certainly a great step in the right direction. 

To find out more about the latest sick pay policies per state, take a look here

How can you qualify for sick pay and sick leave in the US?

The answer to this question is basically “it depends.” There is no one answer and it depends on your state, city, and specific employer. For example, if you know in a couple of months you’ll need to get back surgery, you’d certainly want to give notice to your employer well in advance and apply for paid sick leave. However, most states (and companies) won’t cover paid sick leave for longer than a week (if that). 

Ordinarily, your employer should explain their sick leave and sick pay policies to you during your onboarding phase, so that you know what to do. If not, be sure to ask about this. Also, make sure to submit doctor’s notes to your HR department so that they there is proof of your reason for taking sick leave (paid or unpaid). 

In the case of medical emergencies, you should call once you have time to explain what happened so that your company can proceed forward with the best plan of action.

How does sick pay work for full-time employees?

Unlike in some countries like Germany, taking sick days is often frowned upon in the U.S. Here are some tips to use when determining whether or not you should go to work:

  • Are you physically capable of doing the tasks at your job?
  • Can you sit up and walk around okay?
  • What is your state, city, and specific employer’s policy for paid and unpaid sick leave?

If you answered no to the first two questions, proceed with caution and contact your supervisor immediately, especially if you might be contagious. 

For example, back when my friend was teaching 3rd grade, she came down with food poisoning and waited until the last minute to inform the principal. The next morning her students were informed of her dilemma and had to be split up to fit into the rest of the classrooms for that day. 

If she had foreseen that illness sooner, she could have called in for a substitute, and her classrooms would have been a lot less hectic.

The lesson being, if you know you don’t feel well, don’t wait. Inform your boss and plan ahead.

Consider using vacation days for sick leave

Nonetheless, falling ill is not the only criteria for taking paid sick leave in the US. Alternatively, you can use your vacation days (maybe paid, maybe not) as a full-time employee for bereavement purposes, personal medical attention, adoption-related scenarios, and to care for family members. 

While the Family Medical Leave Act I mentioned above is a policy put in place to secure jobs to care for family members, it is unfortunately not a paid option. There simply are not federal laws in the US that provide support for paid sick leave.

Overall, the most important element to apply for and obtain sick leave and sick pay is to know your rights. While searching for a job, review the latest city and state policies, as well as “interview” your potential employer about how they handle sick leave. If there’s no policy for it, you can bet it’ll be quite the terrible place to work.

How to get sick pay when you are a freelancer in the US

Everyone gets sick. It’s a part of life and although some might not be sick as often as others, it’s always crucial for freelancers to have back up plans, too. 

Don’t prolong your illness with stress and use these tips instead to feel more financially stable before you get sick:

  1. Look into accounts that accrue interest rates so you can make money from your money
  2. Enforce retainer payments from clients that create a stable income each month
  3. Make sure you have a clear cancellation and rescheduling policy in place for your contracts 
  4. For pandemic relief, freelancers can apply for state government relief here
  5. Apply to loans from the Small Business Administration and get up to $1,000 per freelancer
  6. Grab freelancer optimised insurance like Freelancer’s Union 
  7. Build a professional network of other like-minded individuals who can help you with your workload during emergencies 
  8. Buffer your deadlines: if you think you can finish a project in a week, quote a week and a half. 

Regardless of whether you’re an employee or freelancer in the US, planning ahead and knowing your options before you get sick can save you an even bigger headache in the long run – literally! 

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