The vast majority of employers in the United States offer paid time off, including sick leave. So, the question is not necessarily whether you provide sick leave but rather how much. If you don’t offer enough sick days, it can hurt your employee attraction and retention rates. But if you provide too many sick days, it could erode your bottom line.
Various factors influence how many sick days an employer should provide, including applicable sick leave laws. That said, knowing the estimated average number of sick days others give or receive is a good place to start.
Civilian workers include all private-sector employees and individuals employed by state and local governments. To determine their average number of sick days, we examined the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
According to the BLS, in March 2023, 80 percent of U.S. civilian workers had access to paid sick leave. BLS found that in March 2021, per the latest published report we found on this information,:
Be clear about what constitutes "sick leave" to reduce misunderstandings and confusion among your employees.
In terms of average sick leave per year, the average number of paid sick days per year U.S.A. civilian workers could access broke down as follows:
Per the BLS, 78 percent of private sector workers had access to paid sick leave in March 2023. Among those, 87 percent of full-time and 51 percent of part-time workers had access to paid sick leave.
Of major occupation groups, paid sick leave was most common among the following:
The chart below shows how many workers have access to employer-sponsored benefits, including paid sick leave.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Notably, a large percentage of private-sector workers also have access to unpaid family leave, which often includes sick leave.
The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2023 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey drew responses from more than 4,200 participants from organizations nationwide ranging in size and industry. Accordingly, the survey concluded:
To determine this, we referred to rolling surveys conducted by Statista. Note that the Statista surveys date back to 2020 and cover sick days taken by adults from work or school/university over the past 12 months.
The surveys found:
This question is more complicated than it appears due to the many variables involved. Employers can’t depend on subjective opinions or trends that attempt to answer how many sick days a year is normal or how many sick days does the average person take in a year. And while the BLS’ analysis is a reliable benchmark, it would also be a mistake to rely solely on it. Beyond trying to determine how many sick days does the average American take, consider the factors below when deciding how many sick days to offer.
Be clear about what constitutes “sick leave” and “sick days” to reduce misunderstandings and confusion among your employees. Defining the purpose of sick leave overall also makes it easier to pinpoint how many days you should provide.
Generally, employees can take sick leave to recuperate from their own injury or illness or to care for a sick family member. In your sick leave policy, state who is an eligible family member. Typically, this includes children, spouses and registered domestic partners.
Depending on where your employees work, you may be legally required to offer paid sick leave.
Always consult a reliable source for jurisdictions with state and/or local paid sick leave laws. If your jurisdiction requires paid sick leave, you can offer more than the mandated amount, but not less.
Federal law does not require private-sector employers to offer paid sick leave. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires covered employers to grant qualified unpaid leave, which includes sick time.
Under the FMLA, employers with 50 or more employees must generally offer eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period. The FMLA covers eligible employees and their immediate family members.
Although these programs are conceptually similar to the FMLA, they are operated by the state government. Therefore, program details vary by jurisdiction. Depending on your location, you may need to offer paid or unpaid state family and medical leave, which includes sick time.
See “The Definitive List of State Family and Medical Leave Programs” for more information, including how much sick leave employers may need to offer.
The federal, state and/or local governments may issue sick leave mandates in response to public emergencies. A perfect example is the COVID-19 pandemic. These mandates typically state the minimum paid or unpaid sick leave employers should offer.
When deciding how many paid sick days to offer, aim for a "sweet spot" that allows you to provide a competitive number without harming your profit margins.
When deciding how many paid sick days to offer, aim for a “sweet spot” that allows you to provide a competitive number without harming your profit margins. Also, keep in mind applicable legal requirements.
While unpaid sick leave doesn’t directly cost you anything, you still need to cap the number of unpaid days employees can take. Otherwise, it can cost you in indirect ways, such as staffing shortages and disruptions in productivity.
In addition to the above factors, consider:
In short, to arrive at the most appropriate number of unpaid or paid sick days to offer, think past the average number of sick days per year others report. You will need to factor in your organization’s needs and total resources and any applicable federal, state and local laws.