Can You Get Fired for Calling in Sick?

sick woman blowing nose on couch
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Many employees avoid taking time off from work even when they are sick, out of concern that they may lose their jobs. Unfortunately, that concern is often justified. But not taking sick days when needed can have a lot of harmful consequences, both for your own health and long-term productivity, as well as for the health of the employees you'll interact with at work.

To help you balance the risks involved when deciding to take the day off, here is an introductory overview of the policies surrounding who can and cannot get fired for calling in sick.

Individual employers will, of course, have their own policies about sick leave, since companies are free to offer more generous leave than the law requires. In most cases, and depending on company policy, employees are required to either call or email to let their employer know they won't be in to work. Details may vary from state to state, and of course laws can change over time.

Be aware that while some employers may indeed fire sick employees unjustly, in most cases you can improve your chances of having a job to come back to by only calling in sick when you actually are under the weather. For example, if you have a long history of calling in “sick” on Mondays, your boss may be less likely to believe you when you really are ill.

If you do have an unusual medical situation, consider discussing the matter with your supervisor proactively. You may be able to work something out. 

Can You Get Fired for Calling in Sick to Work?

In many states, employment is considered “at will,” unless a signed contract sets out other conditions. Employment at will means that you are legally free to quit without explanation at any time, and you can also be fired by your employer at any time without explanation.

One practical result of at-will employment is that your boss if free to fire you simply for being sick, unless you have an individual or union contract in place that says otherwise (at least in most cases). Fortunately, there are some important exceptions.

Americans with Disabilities Act

Employees with well-documented disabilities, as defined within the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, may be protected from firing due to an illness related to their disability.

The ADA also requires employers to make other reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. The principle is to ensure that qualified people can participate freely in the workplace regardless of disability status.

In general, it is your responsibility to disclose any disability you want accommodation for. Your employer will have its own policies for how to make that disclosure and how to document your needs. If you need expanded sick leave through ADA, you must discuss the issue with your employer before taking leave.

Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides certain employees working for organizations with over 50 employees with up to 12 weeks off of work within any 12-month period. Covered situations include pregnancy and care for a newborn, a serious medical condition, caring for an immediate family member with a serious health problem, and the arrangement of adoptions. 

Workplace Injuries

You may be protected from firing due to work-related injury or illness under workers compensation laws. If your job makes you sick, then your employer has to pay for your treatment and give you time to recover. The drawback is that, in some cases, it may be difficult to prove your injury or illness is work-related—and some employers will fire employees who seem likely to become ill or injured in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

Follow Up and Research

Check with your state's Department of Labor to determine if there are state laws that may give you additional rights. Research federal laws, too, since this list may not be complete, and understand the policies of your own employer. Be proactive; do not wait until you are sick to learn your rights. Remember that legal protections and company policies are no guarantee that your employer will not fire you for calling in sick (possibly under the guise of a layoff or other excuse). 

Review these frequently asked questions about getting fired, so you know what to expect if it happens to you.