How Many Missed Days Are Too Many?

Lost time is a big expense for employers, with sick time accounting for millions in lost revenue. Balancing business needs with the health and welfare of employees should be every employer’s goal, but finding where to draw the line isn’t always easy.

Paid time off (PTO) is handled differently from one company to another. One employer may provide sick day allowances apart from vacation days while another allots a total amount of PTO to be used as all-purpose time off, so to speak. In either case, your employer will likely have a policy in place regarding time off, and an attendance policy.

Paid time off

The purpose of paid time off is to help employees balance work and home life. It is not necessarily for sick days only, except where otherwise specified, so how you use it is not likely to be an issue so much as how often and when.

For example, if you’re frequently calling in on Fridays or Mondays, it could be raising a red flag with your boss, particularly if those days tend to be busy at your job. Coming in the next day with a fresh tan isn’t likely to help, either.

Paid sick leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for eligible employees for serious illness and other covered events. To be eligible for FMLA, a worker must have worked 1,250 hours in the year prior to taking leave, and work at a company location where there are at least 50 other employees. FMLA is federally protected time off, although employers are still entitled to balance the legitimate needs of their business with employees’ time off needs.

Regardless of how your company designates the days off you’re taking, you’re earning them as you go. That is, you have X number of days per year, and/or earn additional time off incrementally. For example, some employers award days off to employees for each month or quarter in which they had perfect attendance.

If you stay within your allotted time off and aren’t abusing the benefit (e.g. leaving the office early every Friday afternoon), you aren’t likely to run afoul of your employer. In fact, employers generally prefer a worker to take a sick day rather than tough it out at the office and risk making other employees sick.

State laws

Several states have their own laws regarding paid sick leave, and employers in those states are required to abide by those statutes in awarding time off to workers. These laws establish how the time off may be used, when the time off is earned; who is covered and other considerations. Time off under some of these laws can be used for such purposes as domestic violence issues (safe days), and provide for carryover of unused sick time.


Although absenteeism is a very real problem for employers, defining it is often a subjective matter from one company to the next. It isn’t often spelled out in handbooks or contracts how many days off a worker may take within a given period. To further complicate matters, time off needs can vary greatly among a work staff. Single parents may need to take time off more often to attend meetings, drop kids off at school or schedule doctor appointments. Day-shift workers may need to use paid time off more often to schedule appointments than evening-shift workers.

Discuss with your employer their expectations of you regarding attendance and how to meet those requirements as well as your personal and family needs. Ask about the possibility of flex time, telecommuting, or changing your shift. Time off is a healthy part of life balance. Don’t let it be another source of stress.