It may seem unnecessary or an invasion of privacy, but employers typically can ask for documentation that you’ve been out sick if you are expecting to take paid sick time. Likewise, if you’ve been out sick, employers can typically ask for proof that you are healthy to return to work.
This question has come up most recently in light of the COVID pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control said a doctor’s note should be a prerequisite for a return to work, fearing it could place another burden on healthcare providers that may not be able to meet the demand.
However, employers may require a note depending on state laws and company policies. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows return-to-work notes if the illness qualifies as a serious health condition and the employee took leave as part of the FMLA.
Whether COVID-related or any other illness or injury-related situation, if an employer believes an employee’s condition poses a direct threat to other employees or creates an unsafe or unhealthy workplace environment, employers may also be able to refuse an employee’s request to return — even with a doctor’s note. Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
There are no federal laws that require employers to provide sick days or pay you for days you are unable to work, although 11 states (and some cities) have legislated paid sick days for companies within their borders.
Rules and regulations on requiring a note from a healthcare provider to prove a worker was ill will vary by employer and state-by-state. Typically, however, employers are generally allowed to request a doctors excuse for work absences as part of their sick leave policy. Employers need to be careful, however, to apply this policy uniformly.
The note should not include medical information but should indicate that the employee was seen by a healthcare provider. It should also list any restrictions that would impact an employee’s job performance or attendance.
Employers can’t legally request additional information and can run into trouble with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they do.
Many employers grant sick days as part of their policy without requiring a doctor’s note unless it is for an extended absence. For example, federal contractors are typically required to provide a note from a healthcare provider for employees that miss three or more work days due to illness.
If an employee has been out for an extended illness, employers may want a doctor’s note not to prove someone was ill, but rather to clear them to safely return to the workplace.
Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants employees extended leaves of absence in specific situations. To qualify, employees need to have a certification form from their healthcare provider demonstrating the need for leave.
Employers can also request a second note from your healthcare provider before allowing you to return to work after a medical leave.
Request for Accommodations
An employee needing special accommodation due to a medical issue or disability may be required to produce documentation to substantiate their needs.
If an employee is off the job due to a work-related illness or injury, employers can also require an employee to produce verification that they are medically cleared to return to work.
What About HIPPA?
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) contains rigorous conditions regarding the privacy of medical records and other personal health information. If an employer needs information about sick leave, worker’s compensation claims, or health insurance, they can normally ask for a doctor’s note.
Employers are required to safeguard any identifiable health information and keep it separate from an employee’s personnel file or any other records that can be seen by other employees without a legitimate reason to access it.
Different states and municipalities may have other laws that also govern data privacy when it comes to health and medical information.
Employers Need to Be Careful
Employers need to be careful when requesting employees to provide a doctor’s note. If they apply this indiscriminately, it can lead to legal action.
For example, requiring some employees to provide a doctor’s note after taking one day off for an illness while only requiring others to do the same after a three-day illness may cause problems. However, there may also be extenuating circumstances such as a situation where the employer believes an employee is abusing the sick leave policy or has repeated unexcused absences.
While employers can request a doctor’s note, they should not ask about the specific nature of the illness, which can violate privacy laws or lead employers open to legal exposure.