Federal workplaces are inconsistent on how and when they grant or deny sick leave. Some agencies grant any sick leave request, and some might deny or challenge a request when the employee has a clear right to it.
Paid time off is authorized:
• For medical incapacitation of the employee or a family member.
• To arrange or to attend a funeral of a family member.
• For the adoption of a child.
• For medical appointments for the employee or a family member.
• To care for a family member with a serious health condition.
• Because someone has a contagious illness.
Most questions about sick leave approval occur when the employee claims incapacitation as the basis for sick leave. It is often impractical for an employee to request sick leave in advance if he is incapacitated.
Most agencies allow an employee to self-certify the first three days of a sick leave absence because of a medical incapacitation. Self-certification is a serious matter, and if the employee is lying to justify sick leave, the employee can be prosecuted. The practical problem is proving the employee is lying.
Because managers sometimes doubt an employee is really sick, Office of Personnel Management regulations allow an agency to request medical evidence of an incapacitation for any unscheduled absence.
To implement this authority, the agency should issue a leave restriction letter telling the employee that the usual practice of self-certification for the first three days of absence no longer applies to that employee, and for a specified period any request for sick leave will be disapproved unless it is accompanied by medical evidence.
OPM regulations allow an employee 15 days to provide requested evidence. In the meantime, the sick leave should be disapproved and the employee placed in an absence without leave status (AWOL). If acceptable medical evidence is produced, the AWOL must be changed and sick leave approved.
Sometimes, an employee who is on leave restriction or who is out with an illness for more than three days produces vague and general doctor’s notes. The manager has a right to reject medical evidence that does not show that the employee was incapacitated. In such a case, the manager should advise the employee of why the note is insufficient and provide time for a more detailed explanation from the doctor or other health professional.
The employee may balk at providing private, sensitive information to the supervisor. While the supervisor has a right to information that establishes incapacitation, the better practice is to allow the employee to confidentially submit detailed documentation to a trusted neutral source such as a public health service doctor or employee relations official.
The manager could then accept the neutral source’s judgment about incapacitation without needing details of the employee’s private medical condition.
Another issue is timing on sick leave requests. A sick leave request for a medical appointment is required in advance. An employee who calls at 9 a.m. and says he has a dental appointment without having requested it in advance can hear a “sick leave denied” answer unless the appointment was for an emergency.
OPM regulations also require, to the extent possible, advance requests for sick leave to arrange or attend a family funeral, to adopt a child or to care for a sick family member.
When an employee requests sick leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition, a manager may require additional medical information concerning the family member’s need for psychological or physical care. That information is required to certify that the family member would benefit from the employee’s care or presence for a specified time.
Most often, an employee will easily be able to obtain sick leave by showing the request fits one of the categories for which sick leave may be taken. When a question arises, it is often because of a pattern of unscheduled absences. A leave restriction letter may remedy this and help a doubting supervisor.
The bottom line: If an employee requests sick leave in advance, if possible, and produces administratively acceptable evidence to show the request fits an authorized sick leave category, the sick leave must be granted.