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In a comment to their answer to the question Faculty member brought sick (feverish) child to class - is this unethical?, the user Anonymous Physicist writes:

It's okay to cancel class for a sick child in US academia, but some US workplaces do not grant sick days for sick children. US academics don't have sick days at all.

I come from a European country where the concept of "Sick Days" is different than in the US (indeed, I understand the word "sick day" only because of Workplace SE and I am still not sure I understand it correctly) — as I understand, a sick day is day you can take when you are sick and still get paid. My question: Is the comment true, i.e. do US academics not get sick days? Is it really true universally in the US (i.e is there some "law" or regulations that universities are not allowed to give sick days to their employees)? Is there some other system in place or do US professors really just not get paid when they are sick? (If not, why haven't there been any strikes/demands/movements? Surely tenured profs don't need to worry about getting fired when they make demands?)

Please note that while those questions may sound silly for a US person, US and European employment laws differ a lot and the whole concept of "sick days" is really complicated to me.

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    I'lll wait to see if Anonymous Physicist provides their own refinement, but the implication isn't that US profs don't get paid. They do. But they don't have to count days or worry about it as long as they can meet their general obligations otherwise. For a long absence (recovery from an operation, say) the university will provide a replacement, but the pay would be very likely to continue uninterrupted. We aren't paid for time spent, but for results.
    – Buffy
    Apr 27, 2020 at 15:24
  • @Buffy: So how does this work out for obligations like teaching?
    – user111388
    Apr 27, 2020 at 15:26
  • The answer of user Jeff says it well. You find a way to assure a quality experience for students. Lots of possibilities beyond standing in front of them.
    – Buffy
    Apr 27, 2020 at 15:28
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    @RichardErickson: What does the article say? It is unavaible to me for legal reasons since I am in the EU.
    – user111388
    Apr 27, 2020 at 15:38
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    "Is it really true universally in the US (i.e there is some "law" or regulations that universities are not allowed to give sick days to their employees)?" That is definitely not what I meant. There are no universal practices at all. Apr 28, 2020 at 0:49

3 Answers 3

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At my US institution,

  1. Hourly employees (administrative assistants, groundskeepers, custodians, etc.) fill out (electronic) time cards showing all of the hours that they've worked and the hours that they've taken off as vacation or sick leave. They earn hours of sick leave and vacation for each pay biweekly period and can only take paid leave if they have enough time "saved up" (accrued) to cover their absence.

  2. Salaried professional staff (typically employees with college degrees such as computer systems administrators, accountants, etc.) and full-time academic administrators (deans and vice presidents and the like) also accrue leave but use a different set of forms to track their leave balances.

  3. Faculty on 9-month contracts do not accrue sick leave or vacation and do not generally have to account specifically for how (or where) they spend their time. However, they are required to teach their classes and be available for students to talk to for at least a few hours a week outside of class time. They can take vacation whenever they want when classes are not in session (summer, Christmas break, and spring break.) If they get sick, they stay home and try to make alternate arrangements for teaching their classes (e.g. a grad student TA or another faculty member might cover their teaching for a few days.)

For serious and long-lasting illnesses that would keep an employee out for many weeks or months, all three groups have disability insurance that pays an employee's salary while they can't work. There's also a separate type of insurance called "workman's compensation" that specifically covers situations in which an employee is injured in the course of their work.

The kind of freedom that faculty have to manage their time is very uncommon in corporate jobs in the US, although self-employed professionals often have much the same freedom.

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  • Thank you! Another question: The responsibility to find alternative arrangements for classes: is this a responsibility of faculty by contract or is it legally a responsibility of the university (and de facto done by the instructor)?
    – user111388
    May 4, 2020 at 9:20
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    There's nothing in my contract (a one page document) or the faculty handbook (legally considered part of the contract) that discusses this. Rather, I'm expected to fulfill my duties and a significant failure to do so could result in my losing my position. This is handled informally. At institutions where faculty are unionized there are often much more specific rules. May 4, 2020 at 14:34
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For full-time faculty, the question doesn't really apply well because faculty aren't paid hourly or daily. In the departments I've been involved with, the policy is that faculty handle their own classes and minor illnesses. That is, if I need to cancel class one day then what that means for the class is up to me. Maybe I have a TA teach it, or I offer a recorded lecture to fill in time, or even just cancel the class and adjust material accordingly.

What it comes down to is whether I can meet the obligations for the class while handling my illness. For major illnesses where that isn't true, the department would schedule someone else to teach and I would look at my short-term disability benefits, which are commonly available in large US universities. The unfortunate exception is an adjunct faculty member, who simply teaches contract-to-contract, and may not even have benefits through the university.

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  • Do you know if "not paid hourly or daily" is a common thing for US employees in say, office jobs, or is this really special to Academia?
    – user111388
    Apr 27, 2020 at 16:06
  • @user111388 I'm a software developer in Germany and am not paid per hour or day, but per month. And I don't think I know anybody who doesn't get paid the same each month.
    – Christian
    Apr 27, 2020 at 18:17
  • When I was a researcher in a think thank, I was paid hourly because my time was billed to projects, and those projects had discrete funding sources. My allotted "sick days" where when my salary was paid out of the general company's coffers.
    – Jeff
    Apr 27, 2020 at 18:20
  • @Christian: Sure, as Germany doesn't have the concept of "sick days" (as I understand, you are only allowed to be sick certain days, afterwards it means reduced pay). I would hope the same is true in all civilized countries (but am not entirely sure about the US).
    – user111388
    Apr 27, 2020 at 19:04
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    @user111388: "Not [being] paid hourly or daily" is called being salaried. How common it is depends on the exact profession, but there are plenty of salaried office jobs in the US, and plenty where the workers are paid a wage instead.
    – jwodder
    Apr 28, 2020 at 1:59
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The idea that faculty in the United States uniformly do not receive sick leave/family leave is not entirely accurate. Some universities grant 12-month regularized faculty and 9-month restricted (academic year faculty) sick leave and family leave as part of our benefits package.

At my institution, 12-month regularized faculty have 26 weeks (1040 hours) of protected sick leave immediately upon hire for each year. If they use it up they can then begin accruing it back at the rate of 5 hours per week. We immediately have 80 hours of family sick leave (for family illness or death).

9-month restricted faculty (academic year) begin accruing sick leave at the rate of 5 hours per pay period, and immediately have access to 80 hours of family sick leave.

We enter our sick leave and family leave just like regular employees on the university's leave system.

Now, the more procedurally focused and organized departments on campus establish policies guiding a limit for sick leave (ex: no more than 1 full week or 2 full weeks of class total) after which they will ask you (if you are experiencing a sustained or continued need to take sick leave, to either arrange for any future classes to be covered (at which point you will not have to be charged sick leave days) or to take the remainder of your leave as you wait for your short term disability benefits to kick in and they are then required to get your classes reliably covered for the remainder of the semester and ensure your students receive sufficient and adequate instruction.

However, less organized departments can remain fairly lapse about even reminding faculty they can record or take sick leave. Most operate on very old-school understandings of what it means to labor in academia-- a sense that they are not "traditional employees" that might need to report or take sick leave and barely have anything resembling a "boss." This outdated culture can frequently mean departments fail to provide clear and consistent guidance to their faculty and, in some cases, accidentally violate university policies by trying to penalize faculty who take any sick leave. There can be instances where faculty are essentially told that there is no need or reason to ever talk to the university's HR, and this is more common in departments that do not have their own leave representative (which is not required, but many wise departments take advantage of this option).

My institution is not unionized, but we do have the above policies for sick leave/family leave for faculty.

However, universities are extremely varied, and many may not have any sick leave/family leave as part of faculty benefits packages. This may go back to the idea that academia can tend to struggle with how it views teaching labor.

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