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11 min read

What do you do when you have an employee that calls in sick too frequently? This is a frustrating situation. You need to be able to operate without consistently running short staffed or trying to find a replacement at the last minute. However, if they truly are sick you don’t want them getting others sick as well, especially in a business where you serve food. Plus there are legal requirements when dealing with sick employees. So what can you do?

Don’t Let Emotions Get You

First, don’t let your emotions get to you. When the employee inevitably calls in sick again, don’t make any rash movements. Don’t get upset over the excuse. The excuse, in and of itself, really doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are not there for their scheduled shift and that is putting undue hardship on the staff. Their reliability is the issue not their illness. Focus on fixing the real issue, reliability, and avoid focusing on why they are missing.

Unique Differences In Restaurants

If you search other sites on this topic they’ll touch on limiting the amount of paid sick days the employee has. Or, they may suggest combining sick days and vacation days into personal days, as most employees don’t want to eliminate vacation in exchange for a fake sick day. The problem is that these don’t typically apply to most restaurant jobs. There is likely not allotted paid sick time for servers, bartenders, or kitchen staff, so you can’t eliminate or combine it.

One advantage that restaurants typically do have though is a selection of replacement staff. These other employees may not always be able to pick up replacement shifts, but you can typically find help on occasion, something office employees just don’t have.

Typically try to hold your total staff for your schedule at about a half an employee more than you need. You know you are hitting it right when write the schedule. Every week you should be struggling to try to find an extra shift for 2-3 employees (after accounting for ask offs). In this way, you protect yourself against unexpected resignations, and you don’t have to worry about severely affecting your staff if you need to fire someone. In this case, that extra half person, creates a situation where an employee or two is looking to pick up a shift in the week, should your problem employee call in again. You can use this factor to your advantage.

Make It Cumbersome

One way to lower the amount of call-ins from employees is to put the responsibility on the employee. Make it semi-cumbersome to call in.

When an employee is sick have them call and talk to (no texting, no email) their immediate supervisor on the restaurant phone line (no cellphones). Eliminating emails, texts, and personal cell phones makes this more of a professional action. Many managers may have a personal relationship with employees outside of work, eliminating the above factors helps to make calling in seem less like just texting a friend.

Ensure the employee calls in well in advance of their shift, at least two hours. This helps eliminate false call-ins from employees that would otherwise just be late, but don’t want the embarrassment of saying they overslept.

Put this entire process in your employee handbook and lay it our clearly. Have all employees sign that they received a copy of the handbook with the update.

Put The Responsibility On The Employee

When an employee calls in, they need to let you know who they found for a replacement for their shift. Putting the onus of finding a replacement on the employee, also helps to eliminate false call-ins. Not only do they potentially have to lie to numerous people, but they also have to worry about further damaging relationships with employees they work with. Plus again, it’s cumbersome to call several people meaning your less likely to do it if your not actually sick.

Requiring this step helps to have employees find replacements for shifts in advance using a shift change if they know they are going to be out rather than just falsely calling in sick.

This doesn’t always work as intended as they will say they called or texted numerous employees and no one responded or everyone said ‘no’. If they say they texted, suggest they call in the future as it’s easier to text ‘no’ then to tell someone ‘no’. Again don’t make it easy for them to call in.

You may end up having to work short staffed because they don’t find a replacement. However, if they do find a replacement even some of the time, it helps greatly.

Confronting The Employee

Don’t let an employee think that just because they find replacements they are okay calling in frequently. It is still putting hardship on the employees that have to continue to have to cover.

Confront the employee saying, “I have noticed you have been missing a lot of shifts lately. While I don’t want you to come in when you are legitimately sick, it has been putting a burden on the rest of the staff to pick up your shifts or work extra hard to cover your absence. Is there something that can be done to help you cover your shifts more reliably?”

Remember, there may be a legitimate concern. Perhaps there is a medical issue or treatment that recurs monthly that causes sickness for a couple of days. If you know that up front you may be able to schedule around that period and eliminate the issue.

If not, hopefully the meeting brings the issue to the forefront and lets the employee know you are on to them which then eliminates the issue. Hopefully, this is the case, but unfortunately you will likely have to move to the next step.

Note: Be sure to document this meeting and have the employee and manager sign a slip showing that you had a meeting addressing the lack of reliability.

Cutting Back On Shifts

If the employee still continues to call in frequently, you will need to start cutting back on his or her shifts. This will inevitably cut back on their income. Accordingly, the employee may come to you complaining about a lack of hours or shifts. You will then once again explain that you talked about reliability and you simply cannot trust them to show up for their shifts. It puts an undue hardship on the rest of the team and it is not fair to them. If the issue eliminates itself, you can look at increasing shifts again. Do not just cut their shifts for a week or two, make them earn the shifts back over a period of consistent reliability. Hopefully, the issue improves once it affects their income, but if the issue continues or worsens, continue to cut shifts.

Check Your Laws

Keep in mind the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. If the issue is legitimately related to a disability, you need to make a reasonable effort to accommodate the employee, this can be done by rearranging shift times, or even possibly moving the employee to a different more appropriate position, or giving more frequent breaks.

For the Family Medical Leave Act, an employee cannot be terminated for medical issues or for caring for a ill family member. You do not have to pay them for shifts missed, but you cannot fire them for missing them. If you are able to prove 100% that the issues are not medical-related and are in fact fraudulent, you don’t have to worry about it, but it can be very difficult to prove with 100% accuracy.

If at all in doubt, it’s always best to speak with a lawyer about your options.

Termination and Unemployment

Once the amount of continued call ins reaches a tipping point you will inevitably be faced with the decision to fire the employee. If you continue to cut the employee’s shifts back to near nothing, the employee may get the hint and just quit or need to find another job to help cover bills.

If you followed this process, when you do inevitably fire the employee, you will have a much easier time winning the unemployment case because you will be able to show that you talked about the reliability issues, cut back hours to help the situation, and shifts were still being missed. You made reasonable accommodations but in the end needed to ensure that shifts was covered.

Further, because you cut the shifts and hours down to near nothing, if you lose an unemployment case you will pay less as it’s based on previous weekly hours and wages. If they have only worked 3 shifts a month for the last 3 months, you won’t have to pay them much. Plus if they have another job they will claim less or not at all.

If this initially sounds heartless, keep in mind that you tried to accommodate the employee and eliminate the issue, but they continued to miss a high number of shifts. Numerous other employees had to then shoulder this burden hurting morale and overworking other employees. Additionally, running short staffed gives poorer service to guests. This employee’s behavior didn’t just affect you but also the business as a whole. It’s not just, ‘you were sick and missed a shift’, so you’re fired.

In the end, even if you have to pay a little in unemployment after a termination it’s best to cut your losses, lose a bit of money, but also lose the stress.

Transfer Them Out

One additional option, as mentioned in the last article on when an employee struggles to carry their weight you can try to find them an alternate position at a different company. The same could apply here. If the employee blames stress as a factor, you could suggest a slower-paced company that make work better for them. If you are able to help them find a new position somewhere else, you are able to eliminate your headache while also not having to worry about breaking any laws or paying unemployment.

It can be frustrating to have to fill in for a missing employee. When the absences become frequent it is even more frustrating. With a solid call-in process in your handbook, a consistent strategy, and thorough documentation you can help eliminate issues before they become chronic and eliminate problem employees without many repercussions.