Ask The Lawyer

By Debra Roth

Managing employee sick leave

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Part of your job as a supervisor is to enforce sick leave policies and procedures. And sometimes, that means taking steps to ensure your employees don’t not to abuse this benefit. So here’s what you need to know.

Full-time federal employees accrue sick leave at the rate of four hours per pay period — or 13 days annually. Federal employees can carry over unused sick leave from year to year and there is no limit on how much an employee can accumulate.

An employee can take sick leave when he is ill or injured; to care for an injured or ill family member; to attend or arrange a family member’s funeral; to receive optical, dental or medical treatment; if he thinks he may have been exposed to a contagious disease; or if he’s adopting a child.

Use of sick leave is subject to management approval. The requirements for requesting and granting leave differ from agency to agency. For example, some agencies may require that employees request the use of sick leave for medical appointments in advance.

Supervisors have the right to require employees to produce evidence of illness, injury, treatment or examination to support a request for sick leave. A doctor’s certificate or note is generally acceptable for these instances. If a manager requests this, federal rules require the employee to provide documentation certifying illness within 15 calendar days — or up to 30 days under an extension, if warranted — of the request.

Documentation supporting a sick leave request must provide sufficient detail to determine whether and to what extent the employee was incapacitated. If the documents appear suspicious or vague, then request further information. Requests for additional documentation should be coordinated through the agency’s human resources department to ensure proper procedures are followed.

Unless an employee has shown a pattern of sick leave abuse, then require written evidence of illness only in cases where an absence totals three days or more. If the leave is less, then the employee’s word should suffice — requiring documentation in unwarranted circumstances can lead to allegations of discrimination or harassment.

If you suspect an employee is abusing sick leave, proceed with care. An employee may view harsh enforcement of sick leave regulations as harassment or discrimination.

A pattern of abuse can usually be identified through suspicious requests for sick leave, such as those that fall on a day for which the employee was denied annual leave, or a day when the employee was supposed to do an unpopular work assignment, or a day that extends a holiday or weekend. Such requests, if made repeatedly, warrant scrutiny.

If you note a pattern of leave that indicates abuse, counsel the employee on the legitimate purposes of sick leave and on disciplinary action that could result from abuse. Once reasonable suspicion has been established and documented, then it is appropriate to request documentation supporting sick leave for even a single day’s request.

Sick leave abuse sometimes stems from an employee’s personal problems, including substance abuse. If an employee says a personal problem is the underlying reason for taking sick leave, refer him to the Employee Assistance Program. Be sure to document the counseling and, in the event of future abuse, apply the next disciplinary steps.

Don’t allow employees to disregard request procedures. A lenient demeanor will inevitably lead to difficulty when a case of serious abuse occurs. And don’t ignore patterns of sick leave abuse. These issues don’t correct themselves and will affect the overall productivity of your department.

Greg Rinckey, a former military and federal attorney, is managing partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC, a law firm with offices in Albany, N.Y., and Washington. E-mail your legal questions to askthelawyer@federaltimes.com.