My parents instilled in me a work ethic that says you have to be dying before you skip work or school. I’m not alone.

Add to that, the lack of paid sick days that many Americans have and you have a lot of sick people at work. (And let’s talk about schools that give attendance awards–talk about a dumb thing to praise. “Congrats you either didn’t get sick or you came in and got your students and teachers sick! Good job!”)

Covid-19 changed a lot of mindsets. Suddenly not only should you stay home, but many people were under government-mandated quarantines. The Family First Corona Response Act required businesses with fewer than 500 people to pay people for quarantine time, and you know what happened? People stayed home when they were sick and 400 people per day were spared infection due to this act.

Hopefully, we’ve all learned from this, and will continue to stay home when we are sick. (FFCRA expires on December 31, and I have heard nothing about extensions.)

So when should you stay home from work? I ask because I saw this tweet today that said this: “It’s 5 am and I’m drinking tea because I have a migraine, my entire body is aching, and I’ve gotten maybe 3 hours of sleep. Can someone please tell me it’s ok to call out of work?”

Migraines are hellis but not contagious, but she should absolutely stay home from work. There is no point in being at work and not being able to work. So, here’s a list of when you should stay home from work:

  1. You have a migraine that leaves you unable to work. (Exception: Chronic migraines for which you need ADA accommodations, then you work per the accommodation.)
  2. You have a fever. The CDC defines a fever of 100.4 Fahrenheit or 38 degrees celsius or feeling feverish and having a hot forehead. Got that? Your thermometer can say 99.8 and you can still be considered fevered. Stay home.
  3. You are vomiting or suffering from diarrhea. You may feel noble going into work, but no one wants you around when you are puking or suffering from other-end-ailment. Please, please, please stay home.
  4. You have other symptoms that indicate you are contagious–coughing, snot, etc. Or a contagious rash. Or any number of other things that your coworkers do not wish to get.
  5. You feel like crap, although not due to excessive alcohol consumption the night before.
  6. You’re overwhelmed emotionally and need a day to collect yourself. I truly think this is a legitimate use of sick time.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other reasons you should stay home. If you have a serious health condition, please ask about an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

If you’re a business owner, please, please, please, offer sick days. It’s much better for your business to have sick people at home.

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14 thoughts on “When Is It Okay to Call in Sick?

  1. Yes, we’ve all “worked sick,” although — hopefully — not when contagious. Certainly, a pandemic with inconsistent — sometimes, even no — symptoms, plus the inability to get a quick diagnostic test result, have totally changed the calculus. I suffer from allergies, that sometimes result in a runny nose and other upper respiratory symptoms. Previously, I always just accepted them as my “normal,” and did my best to control the symptoms. Now, I’m forced to consider that they might be something more serious, and to — proactively — be much more cautious. The issue used to be, am I capable of turning in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay? Now, we also have to consider whether we can do so without unnecessarily endangering others. Stay home if you’re sick, people. Wear your masks, socially distance, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, disinfect everything, and stay safe out there.

  2. When you find yourself thinking “should I stay home” is when you should stay home. Whether your boss understands that is another issue.

  3. I was always a big believer that the show must go on, sick or not.

    Oh how the times have changed my opinion on that though.

  4. Can you refuse to work in proximity to an obviously ill coworker? Everyone is wearing masks now. However, after the pandemic ends, can you insist a possibly contagious coworker wear one? I work in a small room with others. we share allot of common airspace. I have contracted “the crud” from other employees enough times.

    1. I don’t suppose you have legal grounds–it’s not protected. I do think, though, you may have a lot more leverage these days than you did previously.

      It’s a good question.

    2. Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic will be less of a problem in the next few months. However, pandemics will still occur — unfortunately — and the current one has raised everyone’s consciousness about community spread of highly-contagious respiratory illnesses. We will also be under a new Presidential Administration in the US, with a decidedly-different approach to the Government’s role in pandemics and Federal regulation in general. OSHA, the CDC, the EEOC, and other public agencies, are routinely issuing guidance regarding proactive safety measures, including on such issues as to whether or not employers can require employees to submit to diagnostic tests, wear masks, be vaccinated, etc. In addition, some localities provide additional protections. I expect that you have — and will have — more legal rights that you suspect, especially if you are, for any reason, at higher risk.

  5. I have to disagree with #4 being a hard and fast rule. I do suffer from allergies (hopefully the shots will kick in soon). I may be blowing my nose every 5 minutes and coughing so much that it sounds like I am dying but I am not contagious.

    The amount of time I would have to take off if I took off when I had those symptoms would likely exceed even the most generous sick leave policies.

  6. In these times, if you’re feeling feverish, stay home and keep your cooties to yourself! 🙂

    I will never forget when I worked for a pet store and the one manager that would flip out and get annoyed anytime someone called out sick or couldn’t make it in for whatever reason. She would harshly slam the phone to end the call and say “Great John called out”. I never understood why someone like her couldn’t handle that. Oh wait, it meant she would have to actually do work and help customers out. Such a shame….
    I remember I called in sick one time because I had the flu and when I called out, all she said was “Okay”. Nothing like “I hope you feel better” or “I’m sorry you’re sick”. A few days later I had heard from a co-worker that she was not happy I called out sick. Initially I wanted to confront her but then I told myself that I shouldn’t have to worry about this and to just let it go. Employees should never have to worry about calling in sick if they’re legitimately sick. I quit this place because of terrible management, among other issues, and eventually that location closed down.

  7. Read through the article and the comments before adding my own take on this. Yes, this article is mainly directed to employees who should be adult enough to know the difference between being actually sick or “feeling bad” because of non-sick activities (we have all have a morning after a good night). But we face a two-fold problem here, first employers don’t like to invest much for non-work pay (sick, personal, vacation) so unless your job gives you these “benefits”, most workers are working under that lovely “right to work” plan, which basically is you work you get paid period, nothing else. Many employers follow this rule because it is cheaper on labor costs. Theoretically having a means to call in sick (when actually sick) and know that you aren’t losing a paycheck is great on paper, but how much is it a reality. Granted there will be people who take advantage of paid time off without being actually sick but that’s a management problem to address. Hopefully going forth from here, employers will value their employees as more than dollars spent on paper.

    1. It’s an unfortunate problem that the easiest way for a manager to address sick time abuse is to hint to coworkers that whoever just called in sick is a wuss or lying or “must be that time of the month, heh heh!” In fear of workplace snark and retribution on their annual reviews, workers crawl in for anything less than hospitalization. That’s one thing we can thank covid for: it’s forcing managers to change their minds about the manly courage of sharing germs and to learn better management skills.

  8. I very much hope that soon we will all forget about this virus and will live in peace, this virus has exhausted us. It’s cool that such topics are raised, because now people’s health is in the first place, now you shouldn’t think about money, soon everything will get better with the virus, everything will fall into place and money will become easier. Therefore, now you need to focus on your health. And the main thing is also not to forget mental health. Because the statistics of panic attacks and depression have increased greatly and this is scary (((

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