Employee calling in sick to work? Here’s everything you need to know

You just got the dreaded call or text. An employee is calling in sick to work—they’re not coming in today and your meticulously planned shift schedule just went out the window. You need a plan B—and fast.

Employee sick days are inevitable, but how do you respond when an employee calls in sick? And more importantly, what can you do to minimize the impact on your business?

Having a clear plan in place, including sick day policies and understanding employee rights for calling in sick, can help turn sick day stress into business success.

What are sick days and when do employees take them?

Sick days are days when an employee takes a day off work in order to rest and recuperate.

In some cases, sick days are also known as personal days, where employees take time off to care for family members or handle medical appointments. For some employers, that’s an acceptable use of the day, but other employers may have stipulations—not always legal ones—around when and why an employee calling in sick to work can take an official sick day. Sick days are different from other types of employee absences, even unapproved absences. 

The true definition of a sick day can vary from employer to employer. But in most situations, a sick day refers to when an employee is personally too sick to come to work. An employee calling in sick is usually a spur of the moment decision when they’re hit with an unexpected illness.

Of course, getting sick is an unfortunate part of life. But when we get really sick, we’re usually not capable of being the best version of ourselves, much less going to work. At that point, it’s time to take a sick day. Particularly for people who come into contact with other humans and/or food, like restaurant workers, child care staff, or cooks, it’s important to have a strong sick day policy in place so they don’t spread illness. 

How often should you anticipate employees calling in sick to work?

Employees calling in sick to work can throw a wrench into your scheduling and planning. And the last-minute shift changes can be frustrating for you and your team.

Unfortunately, how often you can expect your employees to be calling in sick to work doesn’t have a straightforward answer. It can depend on your industry, work environment, and even your sick day policies. But we did dig up some sick day insights that can help you with your planning. 

Spoiler alert: On average, employees actually tend to take less days than you might think.

According to a Statista Survey from 2020, a quarter of respondents didn’t take any sick leave in the previous year. And of those who did, most only took 2-3 days. In industries like food service, where only 15% of employees get paid sick leave, sick days taken are often lower. 

That being said, sick days have become more normalized over the last few years. In fact, 2022 had the highest number of sickness-related absences since 1976, with more than 19 million absences for the year.

Paid sick leave

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role. The highly-contagious nature of the coronavirus highlighted the impact that even one sick employee can have on customers and other employees. At the height of the pandemic, one sick employee could shut down a business for days or even weeks at a time. 

Since the pandemic, more businesses have recognized the value of paid sick leave, making it easier for employees to take time off to recuperate. Even better, it reduces the likelihood of illness spreading between employees and customers, and helps employees perform better.

The number of sick days within your team will ultimately depend on your employees and their tolerance for taking a day off. So be mindful that some employees may need to take more or less time off than others.

When do you need to cover an employee’s sick day?

The short answer? Almost always.

The long answer? You should plan to cover their sick day anytime an employee’s absence can negatively impact your business and the customer experience. 

An employee calling in sick can also impact more than just your customers. It’s important to recognize that being short-staffed can affect morale and the productivity of team members who are working. If you don’t cover the shift, other employees may get overworked or burnt out trying to pick up the extra work.

But covering a sick day is sometimes easier said than done. 

First off, it’s almost impossible to plan ahead, since no one gets advanced warning that they’ll be under the weather. In fact, it almost always finds a way to sneak up on us when we least expect it. So of course, sick day calls tend to come in at the eleventh hour, meaning you need to find a new team member quickly.

With many 9-to-5 office jobs, teams can carry on with business as usual if a team member calls in sick. At the bare minimum, work can often be reprioritized or pushed.

On the other hand, with shift work and customer service industries like retail or restaurants, your customers are there whether your employees are sick or not. That’s why most employee schedules are created around meeting customer and business needs. Without proper coverage, customers can experience delays or a decrease in quality of service.

Sick days and employee rights 

In the United States there are no legal requirements to provide paid sick leave to your employees.

However, depending on where your business is located, there may be other employee rights when they call in sick to work. Wherever your business operates, it’s important to get to know the labor laws for shift workers and employee rights around sick days in your region.

As of 2023, 14 states have created their own individual paid sick time laws:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington State

Washington, D.C. also has labor laws around paid sick days

These laws often stipulate how and when employees are entitled to pay when they need to take time off for personal or family matters. They’re designed to protect employees’ right to take time off for illness and specify how much time they are entitled to. 

In some states, sick, family leave, and parental leave laws vary for smaller businesses and employers.

Non-regulated ways to handle employee sick days

Beyond the legal requirements, it’s up to you how you want to handle sick days as an employer. While you may not be legally required to offer paid sick days or even grant your employees unpaid sick days, there’s a trickle-down effect to not doing so.

In a world where burnout is very real, sick days can be valuable for helping your employees perform at their best. Being flexible with scheduling and sick days can help increase productivity, job satisfaction, and overall employee health. Sick days might be inconvenient, but taking care of your team can help them thrive and even reduce future absenteeism.

And while they say that there’s no such thing as bad press, you probably don’t want to make headlines for enforcing extreme sick-leave policies.

No matter how you decide to handle sick days, make sure to be transparent with your team. Just because there are no legal requirements, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have clear policies and processes around sick days internally.

Make sure your employees know the rules about calling in sick to work. Do they message you through your scheduling platform? Or do they have to call in? Are they required to find someone to find their shift, or will a manager handle that? By what time do they have to let you know?

Then put a plan in place for management to find replacement coverage where necessary. Streamlining your sick day processes means nothing falls through the cracks and any absences—planned or otherwise—don’t end up impacting your customers. Plus, you’ll reduce the burden on management to come up with a last-minute solution.

How to respond when an employee is calling in sick to work

An employee calling in sick is bound to happen eventually. When it does, it’s easy to panic. But don’t worry, all is not lost—it’s possible to minimize disruption while giving your employee the time off they need.

By putting a plan in place for how to tackle sick days, you and your management will be better equipped to deal with a sick day curveball. To make it simple, here are some steps you can take to respond when an employee calls in sick.

Check in with your employee

First, take a moment to check in with your employee. Ask them how they’re feeling and wish them well in their recovery. This small, but impactful action can go a long way to making sure your team member feels valued and seen, instead of just being a cog in the machine.

Let’s be honest, being sick isn’t fun to begin with. The best thing you can do when an employee calls in sick is be empathetic and make it clear that taking a sick day is okay. It can also have the added benefit of the employee taking the rest they need so they’re ready to show up sooner vs. them trying to push through, which could result in them actually being sick longer.

For many employees, the thought of calling in sick is already an added layer of stress. Whether it’s because they worry about losing their job or simply can’t afford a day off, calling in sick isn’t something most employees want to do. In fact, they actively avoid it. According to pre-pandemic research by the CDC, 1 in 5 food workers had worked when sick at least once in the previous year. 

Make sure to in touch with the sick employee so you can get a sense of when they might return to work. This can help you make any schedule adjustment sooner rather than later.

That being said, make sure not to pester them. The last thing you want is to give the impression that your scheduling is more important than their well-being. 

How you approach a sick day request will affect your team members’ job satisfaction, and can ultimately impact their work when they return.

Coordinate shift coverage

When one employee is out, it usually means it’s time to tag another employee in.

After you get the news that an employee isn’t coming in, you’ll want to prioritize finding someone to cover their shift. How you do this will depend on your current policies and scheduling process.

Your business might keep an “on-call” schedule, where there are designated employees on-call to cover for unexpected absences. For example, you’ll have 1-2 employees scheduled on-call for every shift, who will only come in if needed. If someone calls in sick, these folks are your go-tos. This approach is common among larger teams and allows for quick and decisive action so your business doesn’t suffer.

However, for smaller employers, this may not always be possible. In this case, you can simply reach out to your team and see who might be willing to step in. 

Tip for team communication: Use a team communication app like Homebase to help simplify the communication process. Keep your entire team updated on available shifts and changes to the schedule in just a few clicks.

Document the sick day

Now that you’ve got the shift covered, you can breathe easy. But it’s not time to sit back and relax yet, because there’s still some work to do.

Employees taking sick days impacts everything from payroll to taxes. Administrative tasks can be pesky but are critical to making sure your employee information is in order.

Here are some things you may want to take care of after an employee calls in sick:

  • Remove the sick employee from your shift schedule and add the covering employee so everyone is up to date with who’s working.
  • Update time off requests and sick day balances where applicable.
  • Make sure any paid or unpaid time off is updated on your timesheets ahead of payroll so you’re tracking hours accurately.
  • Document any communication for future reference. A record is helpful in case there are any miscommunications or concerns.

Ensure you document every employee sick day in a manager logbook. Even if there are only two or three managers, it’s important for everyone to have information to spot any repeating patterns and ensure no sick day goes untracked in case it needs to be addressed later.

Tip for managing sick days: An all-in-one scheduling and HR platform can help you minimize the headaches when it comes to managing sick days and payroll changes. From documenting policies to tracking sick days, Homebase can help you stay compliant with labor laws in your region.

What to do when an employee keeps calling in sick

Depending on the cause of their illness, an employee may need more than one day off. 

Sometimes our ailments disappear within a day, but they can occasionally linger for weeks. It happens to the best of us—one sick day turns into two, then two days suddenly turn into a week.

Every employee has unique health needs and has a different path to recovery. While the thought of being short-staffed can be stressful, it’s important to respect the wellness needs of your employees.

Take advantage of scheduling and team communication tools to help you adapt on the fly and mitigate the impact. It can make it easier for employees to swap shifts and for you to manage changing schedules. This way, you and your team aren’t scrambling to accommodate changes when employees end up calling in sick to work.

If you have concerns about the misuse of sick days, it might be worth having a direct conversation with your employee. Be empathetic and take the time to check in to make sure that there aren’t other underlying issues. 

It’s usually best not to make assumptions—if you haven’t heard the saying, just trust us on this one. Making accusatory statements can have a negative effect on employee performance, morale, and team culture. 

A gentle reminder to your entire team about your HR policies can also help mitigate any confusion around the proper use of sick days. Set a few annual reminders around cold and flu season to make sure your team’s all on the same page so you can avoid singling anyone out.

Make the stress of employees calling in sick to work a thing of the past

Last-minute sick days can be stressful for everyone involved, but they really don’t have to be.

Homebase helps small businesses manage everything from sick days to scheduling, so you can focus on what matters—your customers and employees. Homebase’s features help you put a plan in place, so managing sick days becomes a breeze: 

  • Share transparent sick day policies: With clear policies, your employees will know how to share the news they’re sick without having to ask. They’ll know if they’re still paid or not, how to get someone to cover their shift, and how to let people know if they need extra time.
  • Create flexible schedules: It’s easy to find alternate coverage and fill shifts when an employee calls in sick when you have your team’s availability and schedules in one place.
  • Streamline team communication: The easy-to-use employee messenger app helps you quickly communicate with your teams. You can monitor sick day requests and communicate changes to on-shift employees right from your phone.

Need help managing sick days? Get Homebase and take the stress out of employee sick days with easy  scheduling and team communication tools. Get started for free.

Employee sick day FAQS 

What’s the average number of sick days employees take in a year?

The average full-time worker in the US gets an average of 7 paid sick days per year. However, employees tend to not use all their sick time. In reality, most employees only take 2-3 sick days a year. However, this number can change depending on a few factors, including your industry, if sick days are paid, and the type of work environment.

When should you cover a sick employee’s shift?

If you have hourly or shift employees, you should almost always expect to cover a sick employee’s shift. Not covering that employee’s shift can have a significant impact on your customers and your bottom line. Being short-staffed can cause your team to fall behind, lower morale, and create stress for other employees.

How can you make sick days less impactful to your business and staff?

An employee calling in sick not only impacts your employees but your business as a whole. The good news? You don’t need to minimize the impact on your own. Implement the right policies and take advantage of tools to reduce the impact of sick days. Prioritizing processes around filling shifts and team communication can help you find coverage seamlessly—even when an employee calls in sick at the last minute.

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