On average, workers who receive a fixed number of paid sick days use only around half of the sick days they earn per year.
Here's what you need to know about the average number of sick days in the U.S.:
- Federal, state, and/or local governments may issue sick leave mandates in response to public emergencies.
- Your sick leave policy needs to state who is an eligible family member.
- To arrive at the most appropriate number of sick days, you will need to consider other factors, including applicable federal, state, and local laws.
The vast majority of employers in the United States offer paid time off, including sick leave. So, the question is not whether you provide sick leave but rather how much. If you don’t offer enough sick days, it can hurt your 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 is a good place to start.
What is the average number of sick days for civilian workers?
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 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
According to the BLS, in March 2021, 79% of U.S. civilian workers “had access to paid sick leave” — increasing slightly from 78% in March 2020.
- 69% received a fixed number of paid sick days
- 29% received paid sick leave as part of a consolidated leave plan (e.g., a PTO bank)
- 2% received paid sick days as needed
Be clear about what constitutes “sick leave” to reduce misunderstandings and confusion among your employees.
The average number of paid sick days is as follows:
- 8 days per year for full-time workers
- 6 days per year for part-time workers
- 8 days per year for workers who received a fixed number of paid sick days after 1 year of service
- 10 days per year for union workers, after 1 year of service
- 7 days per year for nonunion workers, after 1 year of service
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How many private-sector employees receive sick days?
Per the BLS, 77% of private sector workers had access to paid sick leave in March 2021. Among those, 87% of full-time and 48% of part-time workers had access to paid sick leave.
Of major occupation groups, paid sick leave was most common among the following:
- Management, business, and financial occupations (96%)
- Management, professional, and related occupations (93%)
- Professional and related occupations (91%)
- Office and administrative support occupations (86%)
- Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations (80%)
- Protective services occupations (79%)
- Sales and office occupations (78%)
The chart below shows how many workers have access to employer-sponsored benefits, including paid sick leave.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Notably, a large percentage of private-sector workers also have access to unpaid family leave, which often includes sick leave.
How many U.S. employers offer paid sick leave?
According to SHRM’s 2022 Employee Benefits Survey:
- 96% of employers offered paid sick leave.
- 67% offered a PTO bank system, which combines both vacation and sick leave.
- 20% offered paid mental health days, separate from regular sick leave.
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What is the average number of sick days taken?
To determine this, we referred to surveys conducted by Statista. Note that the Statista surveys cover sick days taken from work or school/university over the past 12 months, from 2020 – 2021.
The surveys found:
- Among approximately 80% of U.S. adults who worked or studied, one-third did not take any sick days over the last 12 months.
- Of those who took sick days, 2-3 days were most common.
Statista points out, “Whether sick days were taken or the number of sick days did not vary much in the recorded time period from pre-COVID 2020 to June 2021.” Interestingly, only a nominal percentage (2-3%) of adults took an excessive number of sick days (11-20 days).
Furthermore, BLS research found that, on average, workers who receive a fixed number of paid sick days use only around half of the sick days they earn per year. “This data dispels the myth that workers routinely abuse or over-utilize paid sick time,” says the National Partnership for Women & Families.
How many sick days should you provide?
This question is more complicated than it appears due to the many variables involved. While the BLS’ analysis is a reliable benchmark, it would be a mistake to solely rely on it. You should also consider the factors below when determining how many sick days to offer.
Definition of sick leave, including its purpose
Be clear about what constitutes “sick leave” to reduce misunderstandings and confusion among your employees. Defining the purpose of sick leave 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.
State and local paid sick leave laws
Depending on where your employees work, you may be legally required to offer paid sick leave. Below are jurisdictions with state and/or local paid sick leave laws.
Jurisdictions with Sick Leave Laws
|State/Jurisdiction||Type of Paid Sick Leave Laws|
|California||State and Local Laws|
|Maryland||State and Local Laws|
|New Jersey||State Law|
|New Mexico||State Law|
|New York||State and Local Laws|
|Rhode Island||State Law|
|Washington||State and Local Laws|
|Washington, D.C.||District Law|
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 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.
State family and medical leave programs
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.
Emergency sick leave mandates
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 amount 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 amount 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 other (indirect) ways, such as staffing shortages and disruptions in productivity.
In addition to the above factors, consider:
- How sick days are offered, such as separately or as part of a consolidated leave plan
- Your employees’ needs, including how much sick time they likely require based on their personal circumstances
Examine the full picture
As mentioned, on average, full-time employees get 8 paid sick days per year, and part-time employees receive 6 paid sick days. However, to arrive at the most appropriate number, you will need to consider other factors, including applicable federal, state, and local laws.