When I Want to Use a Sick Day as a Vacation Day

Should You Call In Sick to Take a Vacation Day?Wouldn’t it be lovely to call in sick and take a vacation day? Maybe you are running out of accrued vacation days and feel burned out from working so hard (we’ve all been there!). Or maybe you feel that it is unfair that you never get sick. What I mean is… why should your co-workers get to call in sick for the slightest ailment while you stay healthy and suck it up when not feeling 100%!?

Hold on before you even consider this because legitimate sick time usage is a controversial topic. Sick days are meant to be taken when you are sick. No surprises there! You don’t need to be sick enough to have to go to the hospital. The need to stay home, rest, and possibly take medication while avoiding the potential to infect your co-workers is essential.

But what if you rarely get sick all year and those sick days are collecting dust? Don’t you deserve to take at least one “sick” day to rejuvenate your mind and body, even if it may involve a bit of fun time off? If only it were that simple.

First let’s review the paid sick leave basics. Your employer will typically offer one of four sick day policies. Which camp do you fall into?

0. No paid sick time off (none at all!)

No Sick Day PolicyLet’s call this option ZERO since having zero paid sick days is the same as having no sick leave policy at all. It gives you no ability to call in sick without giving up your daily wages, even when you are seriously ill. This situation is common among part-time workers in the U.S., especially those people who work in the service industry. Fortunately some U.S. states (see references below) are enacting laws that require employers to offer paid sick time to all staff.

Where does this leave you? If there is a bright side, when you are feeling in need of a vacation day and can afford the time off (the big “If”), just ask for it! Your ability to take a day off without advance notice will depend on your exact job and work environment. We all need to take a vacation day from time to time even if it is unpaid. Put unpaid sick and vacation time into your overall budget so you can plan ahead for it.

If you are comfortable in your current job situation which offers no paid sick time, take the opportunity to lobby your boss about it. Bring evidence for the wellness benefits of sick leave and how it can help keep all staff happy, healthy, and productive. It is even more important if you work with the public. No smart company wants to put their customers at risk from an obviously ill (and infectious) staff member.

1. PTO (paid time off) benefits where sick, vacation, and personal days are combined

Now if your job offers PTO where sick days are combined in a pool of days off alongside vacation days and personal days, you are already in the best position. You can take a vacation or sick day whenever you wish without worrying about running out of one or the other.

PTO Vacation, Sick, Personal Days

Of course you have to save a few “vacation days” as a hedge against the risk of needing a sick day later in the year. You never know when illness will strike you or your family. Have you gotten caught short by running low on PTO in the latter part of the year? It can be tough to have to decide between taking a day off for illness versus saving it for a planned vacation. I’m sure most of us would rather have the vacation day, but at what risk to our health and that of our co-workers?

Another feature of PTO days is the ability to roll-over accrued but unused days off from one year to the next. Does your employer offer that option? With a flexible roll-over policy, you are never forced to use up all your PTO as the year comes to a close. One idea is to plan for a big (bigger) vacation in January or February if rolled over a few just-in-case sick days because you stayed healthy.

2. Unlimited sick days, if you don’t abuse the policy

Unlimited sick leave represents a work-life balance conundrum. Regardless of how often you fall ill during the year, you can day a sick day without worrying about running out. They are like unlimited but of course there are limits in place to avoid abuse. When your usage of sick days becomes extreme, your HR department may require a doctor’s note or further proof.

Unlimited Sick Days Off

Taking a sick day for vacation purposes is not likely to be tolerated when you have “unlimited” sick time. Your employer is showing their trust in their staff by not putting explicit limits on sick leave. However that doesn’t mean you can’t ask to take a sick day when you are feeling overstressed and psychologically (and in many cases physically too) worn out.

The key is to ask your colleagues and HR staff for advice. Also consult your HR handbook to better understand the formal definition of sick as it applies to sick leave policy. Maybe your company encourages people to take reasonable time off for stress reduction and to recuperate from overwork.

3. A set number of sick days per year with no roll-over

The most common situation is having x number of sick days available to take each year. It is up to you if and when to call in sick throughout the year. Taking a sick day is the recommended course of action when you feel sick and need to see a doctor and/or get some rest at home. Again the point of the paid sick leave policy is to get well more quickly while not infecting others at work.

Sick Leave Policy Set Number Days

You may worry about running out of sick time, but what if you are generally healthy and end up with leftover sick days in a given year? Unfortunately rolling over sick time is not common, nor is being able to cash them in. Getting through an entire year without taking a sick day may feel like a major accomplishment, so why do we feel like we missed out?

When you have a set number of sick days per year without the ability to cash them in or roll them over, you may be incredibly tempted to turn one or two into vacation days. Should you even be thinking this?

This sick vs. vacation days question generates a lot of heated debate. Here are several examples of sick leave usage advice from around the web. How does this match up with what’s written in your employee manual?

Using Sick Days for Vacation Advice Around the Web

> LifeHackerHow Do You Actually Use Your Sick Days?

> Ask A ManagerIs it wrong to take a sick day when you’re not really sick?

> U.S. Department of LaborSick Leave Law

> Salary.comCalling in Sick: 7 Good Reasons, 7 Lame Reasons

> ForbesForget Vacations And Sick Leave: A New Way To Give Employees Time Off

Getting Sick While On Vacation

So what if you catch something like a cold while you are already on vacation? Or catching something even worse? Can you legitimately take a sick day during your vacation?

Getting Sick While On Vacation

I wish you could but my instinct tells me that once you have scheduled, approved, and left on vacation, you are on your own. You weren’t going to come into the office anyway so taking a sick day is just not done. You probably have an HR web portal where you input your vacation days in advance, so how would you change a “vacation day” into a “sick day” anyway?

On the bright side like all the advice we offer on VacationCounts, it never hurts to ask. Maybe your boss will feel sorry for you and offer a make-up vacation day for the weekdays when you were sick. Now of course you must have been really sick all day to justify asking. So consider asking nicely if you have lots of sick days left this year and manage to fall ill while on vacation.

So Will I Get Caught Calling in “Sick” to Take a Vacation Day?

Should I Call In Sick Today QuestionWhile some may feel entitled to take their sick days for when they need mental and physical rest from work, using sick days for vacation time off is ill-advised. Did you call in sick but are actually having fun outside your home? You’ll feel guilty telling your employer that you were sick when your mind and body act otherwise.

Remember the definition of being “on vacation” is getting away from work and life’s responsibilities. It does not need to involve travel. When you are taking a sick day to play golf, lie on the beach, go shopping, spend all day at the movies, or stroll in the park (for example), you are clearly on vacation. Staying at home and playing video games, watching sports, or gardening out back is no different.

With social media as a public part of all our lives, it won’t be difficult for your boss to find evidence of your fake sick day online. It is hard to avoid being on vacation without sharing tweets, Facebook updates, and Instagram pics.

The smart policy is to follow the sick time off rules which vary greatly based on your employer as well as in which state or country you live and work. You accepted a job and agreed to their offer of pay and benefits in exchange for your productive time and effort. If taking a sick day for vacation purposes is strictly disallowed (what does your employee handbook say or don’t say?) then doing so is against written policy. It’s not worth  losing your job over, but it never hurts to ask for permission first…

So what can you do with all those sick days when you really need a vacation day?

Can’t I Take an “I’m Not Sick” Vacation Day?

The VacationCounts advice is to use any technique imaginable to take more time off work. That means why not ask to convert one or two sick days into vacation days? If your company has zero written policy on that subject, there is a gray area to negotiate for creative use of paid time off.

As the year’s halfway point passes and you’ve used little or no sick time, why not talk to your manager to request sick time off flexibility? Do you still have most of your sick days in the bank, unlikely to be spent before they expire? Have you being working hard for months and even picking up the slack from your sick colleagues? This is the ideal situation where you can prove that you deserve a (not) sick vacation day.

Make the case for turning unused sick time into personal or vacation days. It is just like when you negotiated for more vacation days when you started your job. Speak to your preference for greater work-life balance and how time off leads to greater productivity and fewer actual sick days. Be willing to compromise by asking to convert only a portion of your sick days for vacation usage.

So there is no reason to be sneaky about using a sick day for vacation purposes. Plus if you get approval to take an “I’m Not Sick” vacation day, no one else even needs to know that you are not really sick except your direct manager.

Further Reading on Paid Leave Law and Employment Benefits

Of course this blog is for entertainment only and I cannot offer legal advice. However when I started this business and wanted to learn more about employment and business law, I turned to the established legal publisher Nolo many times in the past. I like their large, easy to read format and the price you pay for their legal guides is always worth the knowledge gained.

Here are a few books that may help you tackle this subject in more detail if your job requires it. Most are available in both paper and ebook formats, whichever you prefer. Click the images to check them out (disclaimer: promotional affiliate links which cost you nothing to support this site).

Nolo Your Rights in the Workplace Book      Nolo Employee Handbook Legal Guide

Nolo Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Legal Book        Work Less, Live More (Book)

Surveys on Paid Sick Leave (References)

Sick Day Work CalendarAre you looking for real data to compare your employer-provided paid sick time policy with other companies in the U.S.? Here are a few studies conducted on this issue along with the push for a national mandate to provide paid sick days to all full-time and part-time workers.

According to their data, 81% of companies offered paid sick leave although they are looking at full-time employment only. Part-time and hourly workers are much less likely to be offered paid (as opposed to unpaid) sick time. For those having access to sick leave benefits, only 38% of new hires are eligible to call in sick before accruing the time off. As for unlimited sick time policy, 14% of employers offered a paid sick leave plan that featured no set number of sick days per year.

Comment below about your own sick days off policy at work so we can conduct an informal survey (but no legal questions please!). Share whether you are granted permission to take a sick day as a vacation day when you accrue excess sick days before the end of the year. We all occasionally need a day off to relax at home, get some fresh air, refuel our mind and body, or extend our weekend breaks, so it would be nice if all employers let sick days be approved for vacation use. Running out of actual vacation days is easy to do if you always take them throughout the year.

Leveraging sick days to your advantage, if you can make it happen at your job, is one more way to benefit from more vacation time off. Does this type of advice help you to maximize your time off? Join our growing list of newsletter subscribers who have committed to taking more vacation time off.


Disclaimer: VacationCounts is all about taking more vacation time off and work-life balance. As such this site never recommends doing anything that can get you in trouble at work or lose your job. This blog post, its author, and this website does NOT offer legal advice so be smart and consult a legal or employment expert if you need further assistance. Good luck!

  • michelle says:

    my employer “allows” us 3 sick days a year BUT in the employee handbook it reads “time absent from work for EXCUSED absence will be charged against available VACATION” is this legal in California?

    • It sounds like you need to clear this up with your employer. It can be frustrating reading these employee handbooks and trying to figure it all out. That’s why I always remind people to understand their time off policy and ask questions to be sure. I cannot offer legal advice of course. This post is only my opinion and wish about sick time versus vacation time. The advantage of PTO is that all time off comes out of one bucket, but some people prefer to have a set number of sick days per year. Good luck sorting this out.

  • Jacqueline says:

    I was off work for 3 days and each day i was out they gave me a point for rach days. I didn’t have any sick days left but have vacation days.

  • Gene says:

    I had a surgery and on my sick leave, for my last few more weeks before going back to work I traveled to my hometown. Am I going to be in trouble by doing that?

    • I’m sorry that I cannot provide specific advice on this blog post about vacation time. Every state and employer is different and follows different laws and employment practices. The purpose of this article was to discuss my own preferences and offer helpful links to online resources, books, and general statistics about sick leave policy that may help. Good luck in your situation.

  • Jane says:

    Is it legal to make an employee use your vacation days first for sick days, for instance surgery.

    • Thanks for posting your important question. I wish there was an easy answer that legally applied to all employees across all 50 states. Unfortunately the laws vary greatly (not just by state but sometimes even by city) and I truly wish there were strong standards in the US to protect workers and guarantee sick leave for such critical situations.

      I always recommend that you read your employee handbook or contract of employment to review the documented sick pay guidelines. Every state has a government agency that handles employment issues. Search Google for your own state department of labor and employment if you want to find out what resources they offer and what rights you have. Your home state or city labor department may accept formal complaints regarding sick pay or they may not if they lack laws which protect employees sick and other pay claims. Good luck.

  • Amelia says:

    Can my employer use the amount of vacation hours i’ve taken against me when my review comes up? Or callin sick day to care for my sick child? Or put me on a group of 80 people and rank me #57 based on how my lead feels about why I am not #10

    • You ask a lot of tough questions Amelia. This article was all about the difference between sick days and vacation days and only offers my own advice on how to take more vacations. Some companies combine both types of days off into a bank of paid time off or PTO. How your company offers benefits and their documented HR policies will affect how your own time off is earned, tracked, and used when you are away from work for a variety of reasons. I’m sorry that I can’t help any further with specific legal or HR advice as that is not what my site is about. Good luck!

  • Jim says:

    My company give us 5 sick days per year. We also receive vacation time, which is accrued by years of service. We have to bid (schedule) all of our vacation time, by seniority for the entire year. They have now told us if you exceed the 5 sick days, that for each sick day past the allotted 5, you will lose an accrued vacation day. This just does not seem fair that you will lose time off and pay that it has taken years to accrue for being sick!

  • rick says:

    My company dosent pay for holidays, so can i use a sick day to get paid for holiday instead of using my vacation time off.. I never get sick so my sick time dosent get used up. I was told that i would need to use a vacation day instead of sick pay if i want to get paid for holiday. is this correct

    • It sounds like your company offers a fixed number of vacation and sick days that are kept separate. Every company is different, but from my own experience it is not common to be able to take a sick day for vacation purposes. Of course I think that’s often unfair for people who rarely uses their sick leave. If you wish, consider talking to your employer to see if there might be an exception to any documented HR benefit/policy rules.

      As you many know, many employers use a paid-time-off (PTO) policy which means that employees have a time-off pool. These days can be taken for vacation, sick, or personal purposes. It’s much different than a fixed vacation day accrual policy. Unfortunately there is no time-off policy that is perfect for every situation. For example, some companies offer unlimited sick days. Clearly those couldn’t be used for vacation purposes.

      Every employment situation, HR policy, labor law, and personal/job situation is different, so unfortunately I cannot offer any specific advice to answer your question. Good luck.

  • Bryan says:

    I live in california we get 24 hrs a year sick time and 40 hrs a year vacation, is it legal for my employer to take a vacation day from me when i use a sick day? They take 8hrs of my sick time plus 8 hrs of vacation if i call in sick

    • That’s an interesting question that I have yet to hear about personally. You might be aware that California has recently enacted a paid sick leave law which might offer some answers.
      http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/paid_sick_leave.htm
      Unfortunately I cannot offer legal advice on this site (disclaimer) so you’ll have to follow up with your employer and/or your city or county or state as appropriate. This Nolo article might also be useful to better understand the regulations in California regarding vacation and sick leave.
      http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-rules-vacation-paid-time-off.html
      When you do find out why sick and vacation time accrual and usage is calculated in this way at your place of employment, please do follow up with another comment. It will help other readers that are in a similar situation. Good luck and thanks for taking the time to share your paid time off situation.

  • Elaine says:

    I use most of my sick time to care for my sick children or for doctor/dental visits for them or for myself. I can’t imagine not having this benefit.

    • It’s fortunate that you can use your sick days flexibly for you and your family. It is difficult when sick-day usage rules vary from employer to employer so we all have to read the HR policy and ask. Thanks for sharing.

  • Stephanie White says:

    My employed decided to add the Sick pay to the vacation time. We already had 10 days vacation time per year so instead of adding 10 days vacation and 3 days sick she went ahead and kept the 10 days as is. So not we get 7 days vacation and 3 days sick. What a jip!!

  • nvatray says:

    What if vacation does not roll over, and you earn sick time of 1.54 hours every two weeks. Can a company take your vacation days away from you involuntarily if you call in sick for a day or two the first week of January?

    • Good issue raised! I’m sure you are not the only one who ran into this situation. Unfortunately I cannot provide a answer to your specific situation as we cannot provide legal advice. Employment laws vary by state and municipality plus there are national laws that relate to sick and paid time off benefits. I do wish there were standards so we can not worry about losing sick days or vacation days!
      In this type of situation, review your HR benefits manual or HR portal to read what is documented. Consider talking to HR and ask them to clarify how sick time works at your place of employment so there is no confusion. It always helps to understand the sick policy at your job before you run into a situation where you unexpectedly use up or lose sick days. Good luck!

  • Libby says:

    I guess I’m the chump because I do not call in sick every other Monday like a few co-workers do; and I don’t take a vacation day the second I accrue the eight hours, again, like the same co–workers do. I’m the chump that takes their frigg’n phone calls with “Where’s Tammy?” “Where is Cristen?”. I have so many deadlines; I guess they don’t. Word to the wise: You never know when an emergency will happen, i.e. your appendix decides to turn for the worse; you break a leg; need surgery, or a loved one has an emergency. Try not to take every second that you accrue off; have a little nest egg. And stop acting like you are so “over worked” when you are the one MIA every week.

    • Thanks for the helpful comment Libby. Yes you never know if you’ll need that sick day later in the year so it makes sense to save up just in case.
      My point is that if you are rarely sick but in need of some time away from the office (to refresh your body and de-stress your mind), ask for sick day usage flexibility. Everyone deserves a legitimate sick day off now and then – just be honest about it with yourself and your employer. Your manager knows who is putting in the extra hours and effort and truly deserves it!

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