What are the Current Issues Regarding Employee Attendance?

April 15, 2024

What are the Current Issues Regarding Employee Attendance?

To ensure productivity and maintain employee morale, an effective attendance policy is a strong tool to control attendance issues. Attendance policies are best included in the employee handbook, with clarity about the rules regarding the use of sick days. However, life is unpredictable, and situations arise where employees need to use sick days when they are not sick. Many state laws have expanded the use of sick days to apply to situations where individuals are not physically ill. Modern approaches to absence policies have also grown popular among employers recently. This article will cover the ways employees are utilizing their sick days, how legislation has permitted this use, and how providing PTO (paid time off) continues to be a popular policy.

Employees Take Off When Not Physically Sick

Employees who are using their sick days are utilizing them for non-sick related issues. With Paid Sick Leave Acts passed in states such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut employees are using sick days for various reasons: they need to look after their child, to take care of a sick parent or spouse, or take personal days off.

Proof of Illness Documentation

Asking an employee to provide proof that they are sick when they take one sick day is an uncomfortable conversation, and in many states, not allowed. In New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas, Massachusetts, and Florida an employer may ask for a note from a medical provider if an employee uses three consecutive sick days. Arkansas is an outlier state; there an employer can only ask for a doctor’s note after five consecutive days off.

While employers can ask for a medical provider’s note after three consecutive days off in most states, that documentation does not have to specify the employee’s diagnosis. The note may contain the symptoms the employee is experiencing and any work restrictions they may have as a result of their condition. The note can also include the amount of leave required and when the employee is expected to return to work.

Being unable to request documentation after one or two sick days means employees do not always have to be truthful about why they are absent. However, employers may still be able to inquire with employees if the employer learns that a sick day was taken in violation of state law. Employers may be able to question employees who take unscheduled days off right before the weekend or holidays, take scheduled sick days when another type of time off was denied, or when the employer discovers that the employee has taken scheduled sick days to simply avoid doing work the employee deems unpleasant.

Time Off for Domestic Violence and Abuse

Twenty-five states have enacted legislation that requires employers to provide safe leave for employees who are either facing domestic abuse or have family members facing such abuse. Safe leave laws in these states allow employees to take time off to obtain a protective order, to seek medical attention for themselves or a family member, to file a police report, or to relocate to safer living conditions.

Depending on the state law where they work, this time off may be paid or unpaid depending on whether the employee chooses to utilize their accrued time off. Some states only allow a specific number of days off to be taken within a one-month period. Employers may request documentation, such as a police report, from an employee who gives reasonable notice of their absence. Employers may also reserve the right to ask for documentation in the future if reasonable notice is not possible.

Time Off for Mental Health and Well Being

Mental health and wellness are also increasingly common reasons employees take days off from work. According to a report by Resolution Foundations, Generation Z employees are more likely to call in sick due to a mental health crisis than Generation X. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with over 50 employees, to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid mental health leave. That leave may be continuous or intermittent.

There are steps employers can take to ensure a positive work culture. Phone “apps” for meditation and healthy sleep routines have increased in popularity and can be beneficial in one’s mental health. Yoga is a popular means of improving one’s focus, attention span, memory retention, and sleep patterns.

Practicing mindful meditation is also a widespread option. Mindfulness helps a person become better aware and conscious of the present moment and feel less overwhelmed by what is happening around them. The benefits of practicing mindful meditation are similar to the benefits of yoga.

Working While Sick

Now more than ever, employees are powering through illnesses and showing up to work sick, whether that be physically showing up, or staying at home to work remotely. This issue is called presenteeism. A CivicScience survey revealed that 35% of respondents physically came into work while sick. In 2020, 66% of employees surveyed by OnePoll asserted that taking sick days for anything less than Covid-19 appeared unprofessional.

Employees have reported feeling guilty about asking to stay home. They do not want to overburden their fellow colleagues or fall behind on their own work. Employees may think they are doing a service to themselves and their employer, but there is a downside to showing up to work sick. Physically coming to work sick raises the problem of being contagious and it may result in more absences both for themselves and for co-employees.

Covid-19 demonstrated that remote work is a feasible alternative and even a potential solution to prevent employees from coming to work ill. The risk of a contagious employee coming to work is no longer a problem. However, remote work obviously cannot cure the fact that an employee is still working while sick. In the CivicScience survey, 78% of respondents reported they worked remotely the last time they were sick. Employees are clearly less inclined to take sick days if they believe their symptoms are not severe enough to warrant time off.

While it is true that employees are not contagious when they work remotely, the negative effects it has on both the employee and employer are evident. The employee reduces their chance of making a full recovery because they are not giving themselves time to recuperate. Their work product is also affected because they are not fully engaged in their task while sick. Employees may take longer breaks to recuperate from the hours they worked. This could also lead to employees overworking to compensate for their longer breaks. These are all factors that contribute to burnout and low productivity.

Crafting the Perfect Paid Time Off Strategy

PTO is the most popular policy employers are using to control absenteeism. PTO is usually the combination of personal days, sick days, and vacations days into one “time bank.” Employers may choose to include any variation of the three types of time off in their PTO policy as long as they are in compliance with a state’s sick leave laws.

Employers can choose to implement a PTO bank, an accrued PTO, or an unlimited PTO. With a PTO bank, employees get their sick days, vacation days, and personal days all placed in one bank. All employees will receive the same amount of time off. With an accrual PTO, an employee accrues time off after having worked a certain number of hours.

With unlimited PTO, there is no cap on the amount of time an employee may take off. In some states, unlimited sick days may be included in this type of PTO, or the policy may only have unlimited vacation days. Many employers have implemented unlimited PTO policies that cover sick days in order to be compliant with paid sick leave laws in their state. Policies must be in compliance with provisions of the law that articulate the permitted uses of sick leave, when medical documentation is necessary, or whether the leave can be taken in increments. Abuse of leave remains a possibility. That is why employers often consider designating a certain number of sick days if they choose to implement an unlimited PTO policy.

Unlimited PTO policies that only include vacation days may also exempt employers from paying out unused vacation days. In states such as New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, accrued vacation days are required to be paid out upon separation from the job. Since employees are not technically accruing any days with unlimited vacation PTO, they may not have to be paid out when they leave. It is important to note that California courts have held poorly drafted unlimited PTO policies may result in vacation days being paid out.


Legislation has expanded to allow employees to use sick days to include family care, domestic abuse leave, and mental health days. PTO policies have been utilized by employers to address problems with absenteeism. There are different permutations for attendance policies and the answer to what should be implemented depends on the employer’s needs, while ensuring they are in compliance with state law.






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