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Does my facility have the right to reprimand or terminate me because I called in sick after a 15-hour shift?

Monday December 10, 2012
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Dear Nancy,

I had a very busy day at work, which resulted in me having back and stomach pain after a 12-hour shift that ended up being 15 hours long. I was unable to sleep and called my manager at 3 a.m. to tell her I was calling in sick. The hospital system does not have any staffing administration to take care of these types of situations, so the manager takes responsibility. She denied my sick leave because she said staffing was critical. Does she have the right to do this? She even told me to just take some medication and try to go back to sleep. I ended up not coming in because I did not feel well at all. Do they have the right to reprimand or terminate me because of this?

Denied Sick Girl

Nancy Brent replies:

Dear Denied Sick Girl,

It is hard to evaluate what action your employer may take against you for staying at home when you believed you could not return to work. Good for you for not returning when you were not feeling well — potentially causing harm to patients, making a mistake in medication administration or other risks to your patients due to your lack of sleep. Remember you are the one who is held accountable and responsible if you report to work and you are not in the best of health.

What will help you evaluate what might happen as a result of your not going to work is to review the sick call policy your employer has adopted. Some of the issues to evaluate include when you called in (e.g., is there a time deadline required for doing so?), how "sick" is defined in the policy and whether "critical staffing" has any part in determining whether you can call in sick or not.

Also important to analyze is the employer's grievance policy. If an adverse action is taken against you for not coming to work, whether it is a discipline of some sort or a termination, you can grieve that action with the grievance policy. Be certain to follow its mandates carefully.

You did not mention if you had a contract of employment, are a member of a union or are included in an administrative position. Any of these factors may change what options you might have to deal with an adverse action against you.

If you are unclear about what to do, a consultation with a nurse attorney or attorney in your state would be well worth your time.


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.