The Beginners Guide to Sick Leave Laws

Everyone gets sick. But what happens in the workplace when an employee misses work due to an illness or injury? Do employers need to compensate them for time missed?

There are specific laws that govern the answers to questions like those. Failure to abide by these sick leave regulations could land your business into some serious trouble with compliance issues and labor laws, so you must understand how these laws work.

This guide will help clarify common sick leave laws so you can determine whether or not the law applies to your business or unique situation.

What Are Sick Leave Laws?

Sick leave laws are the rules and regulations for employers that determine whether or not they need to pay employees who miss work due to being sick. Depending on the location, things like preventative care, diagnoses, an existing health condition, an injury, caring for a family member, and more could all fall under the scope of being “sick.”

According to the US Department of Labor, there are no federal laws that require paid sick leave. However, federal law does require certain employers to offer unpaid sick leave to employees who meet certain criteria.

Other sick leave laws vary by state, county, and city regulations.

The Basics of Sick Leave Laws

Sick leave laws can be a bit confusing, especially if you’re a beginner. But the following sections will cover the core components of sick leave laws to help you understand the topic with clarity.

FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act)

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993—better known as FMLA—is a US labor law that provides eligible employees with job protection and unpaid leave due to qualifying medical or family-related reasons.

FMLA does not require employers to pay employees who miss time for sick leave, but their jobs must be protected.

The law applies to all businesses, public agencies, and certain educational institutions with 50 or more employees. Employers meeting these criteria must provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave per year for qualifying reasons like:

  • Medical leave for a serious medical condition when the employee is unable to work
  • The birth and care of a child within one year of birth
  • Adoption or foster care of a child within one year of placement
  • To care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition
  • Qualifying urgent care for an immediate family member in the military who is on “covered active duty”

Furthermore, FMLA protection extends to 26 weeks of unpaid leave during a single year for employees who need to care for a covered military servicemember suffering from a serious illness or injury—known as military caregiver leave.

Employees are eligible for FMLA if they have been working for the employer for at least 12 months. They also must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months and work in a location where the business has 50+ employees within 75 miles.

Any pregnancy complications apply to FMLA as well. For example, if an employee misses three weeks due to a pregnancy-related illness, they would only have nine weeks remaining under FMLA to care for the child after the birth.

Sick Leave Laws by State

Some states have their own sick leave laws that require employers to offer paid or unpaid sick leave to qualifying employees. Here’s a brief overview of the states with sick leave laws:

  • Arizona — 40 hours of paid sick leave per year for employers with 15 or more employees and 24 hours of paid sick leave for businesses with fewer than 15 employees. The law applies to all businesses and employees in the state.
  • California — Employees who work for 30 or more days per year for the same employer are eligible for three days of paid sick leave.
  • Connecticut — Businesses with 50 or more employees must offer up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.
  • Washington, D.C. — Paid sick leave of three days for businesses with 24 or fewer employees, five days of paid sick leave for businesses with 24-99 employees, and seven days of paid sick leave for businesses with 100 or more employees. All employees are covered by this law.
  • Maine — Businesses with ten or more employees must provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year to all employees for any reason.
  • Maryland — Employers with 15 or more employees must provide up to 64 hours of paid sick leave per year for employees who work a minimum of 12 hours per week. For Maryland employers with fewer than 15 employees, the sick leave is unpaid.
  • Massachusetts — All employees working for businesses with 11 or more employees are eligible for up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. Local governments are exempt from these sick leave laws, and businesses with fewer than 11 employees may provide unpaid sick leave.

As you can see, the laws vary from state to state. Sick leave laws are typically based on factors like how many employees the business has and how many hours the employee works.

These laws are constantly changing. So if you don’t see your state listed above, don’t assume that you’re exempt from sick leave laws. Always check with your state’s labor department to confirm the rules.

Local Sick Leave Laws

In addition to state laws, some cities and counties within those states have their own laws pertaining to sick leave. Without getting into the specifics of each one, here’s a list of some local jurisdictions with different sick leave laws:

  • Berkeley, California
  • Emeryville, California
  • Long Beach, California
  • Los Angeles, California
  • Oakland, California
  • San Diego, California
  • San Francisco, California
  • Santa Monica, California
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Cook County, Illinois
  • Montgomery County, Maryland

Again, this list is subject to change. You need to consult with local labor departments to see if there are special labor laws in your city or county.

So what’s the difference between state and local sick leave laws? Let’s look at an example.

California state’s sick leave laws only apply to employees who work 30 or more days per year. But Berkeley’s local sick leave laws apply to any employee who works at least two hours per week in the city of Berkeley.

Long Beach and Los Angeles both have unique sick leave laws that apply to hotel employers and hotel employees.

Carryover and Accruals

The terms “carryover” and “accrual” are often used when referring to sick leave laws.

Carryover refers to the number of unused sick leave hours that an employee can use in the subsequent year. Accrual refers to how many hours of sick time that an employee can earn in a given year.

If you refer back to some of the state sick leave laws mentioned earlier in this guide, you’ll see a maximum amount of hours that employees are eligible for. But not every employee is eligible for the maximum based on their employment alone. In some instances, sick leave time is based on the amount of time an employee works.

For example, Arizona employees can accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. These employees are entitled to carry over all unused sick leave hours (up to the maximum) to the next year. Otherwise, employers can pay out the unused sick time.

Using the same example, let’s say an employee accrues 40 hours of paid sick time in a given year (the maximum allowed by Arizona state law). If that employee only uses eight hours, they can carry over the following 32 into the next calendar year.

Some accrual methods can be tricky. In California, there are three different methods for calculating sick leave accruals.


For starters, eligibility is determined by the business itself. In many cases, the number of people employed by that company and the location of those employees can narrow down whether or not those employees are eligible for sick leave.

Assuming a business is eligible to offer paid or unpaid sick leave, the next step involves the employee’s eligibility.

If an employee gets sick after their first day on the job, they aren’t necessarily protected by sick leave benefits. In addition to the accrual hours mentioned above, some employees must work a minimum amount of hours or days in a given year to qualify for sick leave.

As we already discussed with FMLA, employees need to work for at least one year for the same employer before they’re eligible for sick leave.

There is a wide range of circumstances that could fall under the umbrella of sick leave. Some of these instances are unrelated to an actual illness. Scenarios that could qualify for sick leave under state or local law could include things like:

  • Diagnosis of a health condition
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Stalking
  • Preventative care
  • Treatment for an immediate family member
  • Illness of an employee or an immediate family member
  • Treatment or care of a mental illness

The list goes on and varies by state and local law.

For example, some jurisdictions would consider getting a flu shot as preventative care and eligible employees may be entitled to paid sick leave for this type of appointment.

3 Tools to Improve Sick Leave Law Compliance

Here are some of the best solutions to help you manage sick leave laws for your specific business:

#1 — Gusto

Gusto is an online solution for payroll and HR made for small businesses. The software comes with built-in tools for time tracking, PTO policies, time-off requests, and more. It’s easy for employees to submit sick day requests, and everything will automatically sync to payroll.

What makes Gusto unique is its plan offering expert HR advice. A certified HR expert can help you with things like labor law policy templates and advice to ensure your business is compliant with sick leave laws. Pricing starts at $45 per month for the basic plan and $161 per month if you want to consult with certified HR professionals.

#2 — BambooHR

As the name implies, BambooHR is a solution for human resources. It covers all aspects of HR, from onboarding to payroll and even offboarding.

I like BambooHR because it comes with built-in time off management tools. You can use it to set up a custom PTO policy, including sick leave rules that are compliant with local laws. Contact the BambooHR sales team to request a free price quote and demo to get started.

#3 — UpCounsel

UpCounsel is an online legal service designed to fit the needs of all business sizes and budgets. It’s been used by 10,000+ companies for simple questions and outsourced legal departments alike. With UpCounsel, you’ll have access to high-quality business attorneys on-demand.

Labor and employment laws are both popular legal areas where UpCounsel shines. These attorneys can assist you with Department of Labor rules and be there to help you navigate through FMLA disputes. To get started, post your legal needs on the UpCounsel website to get a free quote from a qualified attorney.

3 Tips For Sick Leave Laws

As you’re navigating the waters of sick leave laws, keep the following quick tips and best practices in mind. This will make your life easier, reduce headaches, and limit your liability.

Tip #1: Err on the Side of Caution

Some labor laws are complicated. It’s always in your best interest to err on the side of caution instead of starting a conflict with an employee in regards to sick leave.

Best case scenario, you’re right and won’t have to pay an employee for an unqualified missed day of work. Worst case scenario, you’re sued for a labor law violation.

In this instance, the downside far outweighs the upside.

Most employees aren’t looking to take advantage of the system. So if they’re entitled to sick leave, don’t hassle them about it. Be cautious and always assume the employee is being truthful.

Tip #2: Respect Employee Privacy

Sick leave can be an uncomfortable subject for an employee to discuss. Their medical conditions or family circumstances aren’t your business.

In some cases, they may need to disclose a certain reason to confirm the scenario qualifies for sick leave. But beyond that, don’t ask questions.

Use your best judgment based on your relationship with the employee. For example, if you know that their spouse is sick, you could be compassionate and ask how they’re doing. But don’t pry for information.

Tip #3: Consult With Your Lawyer

As you’ve already seen from the state and local sick leave laws mentioned earlier in this guide, this is a complicated subject. Those brief overviews barely scratch the surface of what different sick leave laws entail.

The FMLA Guidebook alone is 76 pages long.

Rather than trying to decipher legal statutes and terminology on your own, speak to a labor lawyer to ensure compliance. It’s better to pay these legal fees now, as they’ll be much less compared to the legal fees and penalties associated with a lawsuit.

What to Do Next

Now that you have a firm grasp of sick leave laws, it’s time to take your business to the next level.

If you haven’t done so already, sign up for HR software. The best HR software on the market today will help you manage PTO policies, track employee hours, and manage sick leave. All documentation can easily be stored in your digital employee database as well, making things much simpler for your HR staff.

As previously mentioned, you should also speak to a lawyer regarding sick leave laws to ensure compliance. Check out our guide of the best online legal services for a fast and easy way to seek legal counsel for your business.

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