the intern who shares my office keeps coming in sick

Speaking of interns, a reader writes:

I share my office with an intern. This is her first job out of college, and I mention this because I know that when I was her age I had to figure out sick leave stuff on my own too. Our organization is pretty small, only 30 people or so, and we don’t really have a strict management hierarchy so I am unsure who she directly reports to.

We’ve both worked here for 4 months and I think she’s coming down with a cold for the second time. The first time she had a cold, she came to work sick for a week (even though we have a sick leave policy and I know it wouldn’t have been a deal at all for her to call out). She eventually ended up contracting pneumonia and only went to a doctor because a family friend, who was a nurse, was very concerned about her constant excessive cough and basically forced her to go. The entire time she had a cold, which then morphed into pneumonia, and while she was recovering from pneumonia, she came in to work.

This situation is especially frustrating for me because I am a contractor, not a full-time employee, so if I take a sick day I’m out a day’s worth of pay. Not to mention just the general “Hey, part of being a professional is not coming to work sick if you don’t have to.” And the whole “Hey, pneumonia is contagious and can kill people so maybe not come into the office when you have pneumonia?”

What should I do? Is there anything I *should* do? I’m about a decade older than her and figured this stuff out a long time ago, but I’m scratching my head about whether I should say something to her casually (“Oh hey Elsa, are you getting sick again? Staying home a day always means I feel so much better so much sooner!”) or should I try and figure out who is her de facto manager? Another option would be to take it up with my manager, however my manager is the CEO of the company and I think something like “Hey the intern keeps coming in with a cold and doesn’t seem to understand how to manage her health in a professional environment” seems to be a bit beneath his notice or even something he’d want to deal with.

Well, it’s in your favor that she’s an intern — because part of the point of interning to learn how to operate in the work world, and that means that it’s going to be a lot easier to say “hey, stop doing this” than you might feel with a non-intern coworker. (Of course, I’d argue you should be willing to be straightforward about it with either, but in reality a lot of people find it harder with the latter. Plus, she’s presumably in a stage where she’s still forming work habits, rather than being set in her ways.)

In any case, say something! And don’t say something coded like “Staying home a day always means I feel so much better so much sooner!” — your real message there is totally shrouded and she might miss it entirely. Instead, be direct and explain the situation to her: “Elsa, when you’re sick, I would really appreciate it if you would take sick leave and stay home, because otherwise you risk infecting people here — particularly me, since we share an office.”

If she seems resistant, ask her why. Maybe she doesn’t realize that it’s really okay to use sick time, or she’s not totally clear on the protocol to do it. You might need to talk to her about when it’s reasonable to use sick time and that your workplace in particular encourages people to do so and it’s not frowned upon (assuming that’s true; it sounds like it is).

After this, if she shows up sick, it’s reasonable to say, “Hey, I’m concerned about getting sick. Is it possible for you to take a sick day or work from home?” If she won’t, I might even say, “If you’re committed to being at work sick, would you talk to your manager about whether there’s a private work space you can work from so that you’re not exposing me and others?” (This is a semi-aggressive thing to say, but it’s still reasonable and it might help drive home the point that what she’s doing isn’t okay.)

Of course, it’s also important to recognize that there’s a difference between coming to work with pneumonia (!) and coming in on day six of a cold. Some colds last a long time, and she’s not going to be able to stay out for weeks if it lingers. So you want to recognize that and make sure it’s reflected in what you say to her.

{ 133 comments… read them below }

  1. Kyrielle*

    I’d also do her the favor of cluing her in that this can vary by office culture, and is okay in *this* office. Calling out sick for just a cold (any day of a cold) was generally frowned on at my old job, even if you were barely able to get into the office at all. A trainer scheduled to deliver training at a client site was expected to do so despite a diagnosis of pneumonia, because otherwise the whole schedule would fall apart. (Not a hypothetical situation, an actual one that did occur.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      Agree! That’s why I suggested that the OP point to the unofficial signs that the intern can use to gauge the corporate culture.

      But I like (and underline) your point about coaching her around the idea that the corporate culture is something to assess (and giving her any tools YOU use to do this).

    2. Kathlynn*

      Yeah, I’ve been asked to stay at work (though not expected to actually work), when I was feeling so nauseous that moving made me think I would throw up.
      And my brother doesn’t think you are sick enough to stay home, or go home, if you haven’t actually thrown up. He’s trying to get into management.

      My work also has a “you must call in at least 4 hours before your shift” rule. So, if I work at 8 am, I have to call my boss at work, or wait until the first shifts arrive (which is 3 1/2 hours early). I’ve actually made an alarm to wake me up, so I could call in sick.

      1. Dutch Thunder*

        You make me so grateful for my job’s requirements, which are super relaxed.

        I wonder what your job hopes to achieve with their policy! I mean, understandably, a bit of notice is great, but most people go to bed feeling a bit iffy and wake up the next morning feeling like death. I don’t get up 4 hours before my working day begins normally…

        1. Kathlynn*

          They have that rule, so they have time to find coverage. But they don’t enforce it evenly. So, we have/had certain people who would constantly no show or phone last minute and not get into trouble. Then there are a couple of us who get in shit for calling in when following the rules, and told next time we will need doctor’s notes.
          On the flip side, last summer, the air conditioner at work was broken, and I got heat stroke in side a building. My boss didn’t demand I stay at work that day (was feeling very disoriented), and was quite willing to cover the last half of my shift. (after that though, I refused to wear the new parts of our uniform, since they were the only reasons I was over heating)

    3. MsChanandlerBong*

      Same here. I had to give five presentations in one day, all on a day when I had a temp of 103 F and could barely talk because I had such an inflamed throat.

  2. KJR*

    I would love to work for this company! We get 40 hours of sick/personal time combined, and with 2 kids it seems I am taking most of that time for things related to them. So when *I* get sick, I’m out of luck. I hate coming to work sick as much as the next person, but I don’t really have a choice. 40 hours is not much time at all. And I had to move heaven and earth to get the 40 hours bumped up from 24.

      1. Kathlynn*

        I’ve been at my job for 6 years, and I get no hours. So, when I almost got 3 paid days a year, I was over the moon. So. I look at 40 hrs/5 days as super nice. (then again, I don’t have kids)

  3. edj3*

    Just a heads up that the coughing from pneumonia lasts well past the contagious stage (if you even have the kind that’s contagious). Sure, it sounds gross but that’s not the same thing as contagious.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Two months sounds about right. Well past the end of the antibiotics. When I was finally able to laugh without coughing it sounded weird to me.

          1. the_scientist*

            I caught walking pneumonia when I was fairly young and remember being exhausted, but feeling otherwise okay. My best friend got pneumonia in university and legitimately thought she was on her deathbed; she had to stop to take a rest on her 7 minute walk to school and it took her months to recover.

            1. ActCasual*

              I was going thru chemo last summer and one of my coworkers came in with pneumonia for a week because she didn’t want to get her baby sick. Um, sure, but what about the rest of US? Particularly me, who was immunocompromised? I ended up in the hospital for a week with pneumonia a couple months later. I don’t think it was related, it was more pneumonitis probably from the chemo, but still. People can be incredibly short-sighted.

              1. Cough!*

                We have a transplant recipient where I work and people still come in sick with contagious bugs. If you want to tough out your sprained back, by all means… but people who spew germs should stay home!

              2. Becky*

                What? The best part about being a working parent with a reasonable number of sick days is that when you’re sick, you can STILL SEND THE BABY TO DAYCARE. I mean, was she staying at work 24/7?

                1. ActCasual*

                  Nope, and that was my thought too. It’s not like you’re completely quarantining yourself from her..

              3. amy*

                Pneumonia in itself is generally not contagious :) I had to visit my mum, who had it, after finding out I was pregnant so I triple checked!

        2. Jennifer*

          I coughed for a solid YEAR after. I coughed so hard I threw up about five times a day. At one point they gave up and diagnosed me with asthma, which I didn’t have, because they had no clue why. Turned out about five days worth of exercise cleared it up :P

          But seriously, I went to work with pneumonia when I was 22 because I got raised that I Had to have Perfect Attendance and never got to be out sick for anything growing up. I had to get sent home to get that it was okay to be out sick now. For once.

  4. TootsNYC*

    Even if she isn’t your intern, she’s an intern, and the point of an internship is that it speeds the process of “figuring this stuff out.”

    She’s not supposed to have to figure it out on her own–you’re supposed to help her. Even if she isn’t your intern.

    So, don’t just tell her what you need from her directly, as Alison says. But also walk her through the process of figuring out how to tell whether she’s “safe” to take a day off to be sick. Reinforce for her how to tell what will happen to the workload. That’s practice for her in assessing work flow, interacting with coworkers, prioritizing, and organizing and passing off urgent tasks.

    Point out evidence of how her boss reacts when people are sick (i.e., don’t just say, “it’s OK”; say stuff like, “When Jeff was sick, Wakeen just redistributed the urgent stuff and then told us all, ‘Project L can wait until Jeff gets back.’ That’s proof that Wakeen doesn’t think it’s big deal to stay home when you’re sick.” Because that teaches her how to assess a manager’s reactions.

    Internships are supposed to be learning opportunities. For everything, not just the specialty.

    And if she weren’t an intern but were a very junior staffer, I would say that all of the above are things a senior colleague can absolutely do for a junior colleague. And in fact, I think you could do it for an equal. You might choose a slightly different tone.

  5. JustKatie*

    Ugh. I work with a (otherwise lovely) young woman fresh out of undergrad, and she does the same thing. And always talks about how she’s never, NOT ONCE IN HER WHOLE LIFE!!!!, missed a single day of school or work (all while hacking up a lung and handling materials to give to our patrons). This is not a badge of honor! There is no Perfect Attendance Award waiting for you at the end of your life (and most schools don’t award that anymore so as not to reward this bad practice!).

    1. oldfashionedlovesong*

      There’s also a more charitable interpretation of this behaviour, in which she does this because she’s always had parents, teachers, and professors who have taught her that staying home sick is just laziness or malingering; and that showing up even if phlegming all over the place is the mark of a star performer. It’s hard to break those habits when you’re brand new to that part of life where you have no adults policing your behaviour, especially since the way sick leave is regarded in most American companies only reinforces this paradigm.

      1. MsM*

        Or if it’s just a summer internship, she may be thinking she’s only got a limited amount of time to be here and accomplish stuff, and she doesn’t want to “waste” it in bed sick.

        1. JustKatie*

          In the case of the letter above, I agree. But I’m talking about a staff member who gets eight paid sick days a year in my example above.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Yes, it is something that can easily be trained into you. Many schools give you awards purely for never missing a day sick–reinforcing the idea that either not coming in sick, or coming in despite being sick, is actively laudable. And when I was in college, one professor would fail–not just dock points from, but outright fail–anyone with more than three absences without a doctor’s note in a semester. (You’d take a hit to your participation grade after the first absence, but three and you were done.) I’m sure to him it felt like, who gets sick more than three times in four months?–but if you had food poisoning that lasted a couple of days and then a bad cold, you were screwed unless you managed to get an appointment at the student health center. Or, as was more likely, came in while sick with the cold so as not to deal with the added trouble and backlash.

        And then much entry-level service-oriented work (fast food, cashier, grocery bagger, waiter/waitress, etc.) makes you either drag yourself in or both lose a day’s pay and call around and beg your coworkers to take a shift for you (and come in anyway if nobody will take it, and even if you manage to get your shift covered, you may be reprimanded for malingering or not being a team player).

        So it’s can take an adjustment to realize that in a professional job, not only can you take a sick day, people are (generally) going to be happier if you don’t come in and give them your germs. It’s not easy to switch from ‘good people don’t get sick, or come in even if they do; staying home is for slackers’ to ‘it’s not only okay but a good idea to stay home and not spread the disease.’

        1. JustKatie*

          Thankfully, most districts have stopped giving attendance awards. When I taught high school, I let my students know that I much preferred that my students stay home if they were really sick. The nice thing is that now teachers can even email assignments home, so there’s less time lost (even though you can’t completely replicate the classroom experience). It’s not like they’d learn much on those days anyway.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            I’m really glad to hear that, actually. They were definitely a thing all through my childhood, and I was enough of an overachiever that I felt guilty taking time off sick even if I had something like flu or pinkeye where I really had no business giving it to fellow students.

            (Thankfully, my parents were clued-in to tell me that an award that relied on you being lucky enough to not be very sick at all for a whole year was not an award that was worth anything much.)

            1. Anyonymous*

              My parents very much expected me to get the Perfect Attendance Award and most of the time I did receive it. But there were a couple of days when I was sent to school very sick and then my grandfather (who should not have been driving at that point) would have to come get me halfway through the day because the school recognized how sick I was.

              1. Jessa*

                I hated that attendance thing. I am disabled and have a bunch of chronic things wrong with me. I was, however, despite some processing disorders and learning disabilities, never placed in the special ed group and was held to the same attendance requirements as kids who were never ill on a regular basis. It stank. It got me bullied. It screwed up my education. This was of course pre all the disability positive laws that came well after I was an adult.

                The conceit that people can go through life without ever being ill, is seriously stressing mostly healthy people out and hurting the disabled.

            2. TrainerGirl*

              When I was in middle school, my mother taught there, and didn’t want to believe I was sick, even when it was obvious. She patched me up one morning with aspirin and made me go to school. We were allowed to walk the halls before first bell, and just as I stepped into my mother’s classroom, I threw up all over. I think after that she decided that it was wise to believe me when I said I was sick rather than have to clean up the evidence and then take me home and miss her classes.

          2. NickelandDime*

            My son got one of these awards once! And I think his school discontinued it shortly after. He honestly NEVER got sick that entire year. I think all the bugs he caught at day care gave him an immune system of iron. Even now, he and his sister get sick maybe twice a year. While it was fun to tell family and friends about his “Best Attendance” award, it isn’t a good idea. I do not believe in going to school or work sick. I have a weak immune system and I know transplant recipients. It’s best to stay at home if you’re sick.

        2. blushingflower*

          I seem to recall that when I was in undergrad, there were professors who had a similar policy of requiring doctors’ notes, but that the Health Center wouldn’t actually give them. It seemed to be that the administration out to forbid professors from requiring them if the Health Center had a policy of not providing them.

          I’ve also had more than one job where if you called out more than 3 days in a row, you had to get a doctor’s note. IIRC, none of those jobs provided health insurance (this was pre ACA).

          (My current health care provider will actually ask you at the appointment if you need a note, which I think is incredible)

          I am fortunate now that I can work from home on occasion, so often if I’m not feeling well I will just work from home and I don’t have to use any leave (depends on how sick I am).

          But I think a big part of learning to be a professional adult is finding the balance of “too sick to go to work” and “well enough to go in”. And also sometimes once you realize that you CAN take sick days and the world won’t end, the temptation to take them when you don’t need them can be high.

          1. Lizzie*

            Yes to the beginning of that. Even in my graduate years (which was only about five years ago), we had to have a doctor’s note in order to have a day excused and were only allowed to miss one lecture, two at most before we were failed for non-attendance. The health center didn’t give doctor’s notes, just “walk-out slips.” They basically confirmed that you walked in at X time to go see someone, and weren’t signed by a doctor or nurse. Completely useless to us.

          2. Turtle Candle*

            Yep, our health center wouldn’t give a note for anything but the very dire. Meningitis, yes; cold or flu or food poisoning, definitely not. Which didn’t leave you much choice! And my service jobs wouldn’t even take a doctor’s note; you could get someone to cover for you (very difficult when most baggers were high school students working for fun money–they had no incentive to give up a Saturday to make my life easier) or you could come in sick or you could be fired. (Given that one of those jobs was a grocery bagger–handling food, often hot deli food meant to be eaten directly without further cooking or washing!–that policy was, in retrospect, utterly absurd, but not something I could fix on my end.)

            I totally agree that it’s something that you have to learn, and an internship seems like the perfect place to learn it; this is just why someone might need to actually be told, because while it might seem obvious after years of office work that you should stay home and not make everyone sick, it is incredibly non-obvious if you’ve come from school and service jobs. It’s a drastically changed expectation that probably needs to be taught.

            1. Alienor*

              I worked at a small grocery store when I was in college, and we were definitely expected to either come in or find someone to cover for us when we were sick. And we were all sick a lot, because there’s nothing like handling money and interacting with the public all day for catching every germ that’s going around. Years later, I’m grossed out when the person checking or bagging my groceries is clearly sick, but I don’t blame them – I know how it is.

        3. Mean Something*

          The last university I taught at before decamping for high school teaching explicitly forbade teachers from making attendance a part of grading, chiefly because it is very easy for this practice to become discriminatory (e.g., against students who have chronic illness). We could attach points to work done in class (discussion, etc.), so that there were real penalties for being absent, but you couldn’t fail someone just for missing a specific number of classes. In theory and in practice, it seemed like a good policy to me.

      3. DeskBird*

        I had a friend in high school who’s dad was like this. No matter how sick she was – if she stayed home she would have to clean the house all day. Scrubbing toilets, vacuuming, cleaning out the garage the entire school day. Just to make sure she wasn’t faking it to stay home. She would probably come into the office with pneumonia and think she was showing everyone how tough she was.

        1. JustKatie*

          I feel like for a student that really hated school, that would actually incentivize malingering and cause them to go to school when they actually were sick (because it’s easier to sit in a desk semi-comatose than to scrub toilets when you’re sick).

        2. OhNo*

          Ha! My father is still like that. “Oh, you’re home sick from work today? Maybe you can just do this pile of dishes… and these three loads of laundry… and take out the trash… and mop the floor… and I’ll be home late, so maybe you can cook dinner, too, since you’ll have time.”

          That kind of attitude is hell to unlearn, and I’m still struggling through the process.

          1. TootsNYC*

            Then again…I have a college-age kid home for the summer w/ very little to do, and she’s sick. So she’s online, but she’s too sick to sort out a 2-inch-deep stack of old school papers.
            That’s pretty frustrating.

            1. Becky B*

              I can see why that’s frustrating. Though FWIW, as I’m sitting here online, it sure takes a lot less effort to stare at a screen and click or type versus sorting, thinking about what you’re sorting, putting what you’re sorting somewhere else…and depending on how sick or exhausted you are, sometimes you just want to sit & click. :)

            2. Old Mom*

              When I was a kid, my mother made us stay in bed, no activities, no tv, nothing, if we were home sick from school. If you’re well enough to get up and “have fun,” you’re well enough to go to school. (Pretty sure we were allowed books.) this translated well to discourage calling in sick unnecessarily, but sometimes I still feel guilty if I call in sick in the morning and then feel well enough to sit up and watch tv in the afternoon. This making kids do chores when they’re sick business seems abusive to me…how do they then tell that they are really sick, when they pass out?

        3. Yup, anonymous!*

          It sounds like we were friends in high school, because this is exactly what my parents did. I did chores if I stayed home. I once mowed the lawn with a high fever.

          1. TootsNYC*

            You’re lucky you didn’t lose a foot! Fevers mess with your coordination and your response time and your judgment!

            1. Yup, anonymous!*

              I didn’t lose a limb, but I definitely blacked out when I got back into the garage. And then got told off for it.

              It was just me and my dad growing up, and he was a marine and very “BOOTSTRAPS, ANON” about all of life.

              1. DeskBird*

                Are you my friend from High School? Her dad was a Marine too. Or maybe it’s a Marine thing…

        4. Collarbone High*

          Are we friends IRL? My dad firmly believes that illness is a sign of psychological weakness, and hard work will toughen you up. He once forced me to scrub the kitchen floor while I stayed home sick from church. With chicken pox. I was 5.

        5. HRChick*

          For some reason with my parents, it was food. Their mantra was “if you’re hungry, you’re not sick!” no matter what kind of sick it was.

          They’d give you some crackers to get you though the day. After two or three days of being sick and eating crackers and water, you just feel weaker and sicker. But if you expressed a desire for anything else, you were no longer sick no matter how you felt or how high the fever was.

      4. Mephyle*

        Yes, it may not be so much a matter of breaking a habit as letting her know that she is now in an environment that operates under a different standard. You don’t intuit these things automatically. How is she to know without explicit guidance?

        1. JustKatie*

          Well our boss has explicitly told her to please stay home when she’s feeling sick, and takes a reasonable number of sick days when needed as a model, so…

      5. Jennifer*

        Yeah, been there, done that. I got a lot of brainwashing about how I could never, ever, under any circumstances, miss a class. It would RUIN my education to miss a damn day. (And to be fair, I was in academic situations–block schedule and quarter college–where this was pretty true.)

    2. Observer*

      Plenty of schools still penalize absences, without regard to the reason. Earlier today, the comment thread on another post included some truly outrageous attendance policies (like the professor who said that attendance at the funeral of a close family member would not be considered a valid reason for absence.) And, there are, unfortunately plenty of workplaces like that.

    3. Hlyssande*

      I have a coworker who is ridiculously proud that he hasn’t had a single unscheduled absence in 14 years. They discontinued the attendance awards and plaques for my division but he keeps getting them. UGH.

    4. millybilly*

      Yeah, I had a similar thought – if she’s a young employee/intern then she’s entering the workforce in a culture that is publishing [what I’ll generously dub] thought pieces calling people of her generation entitled special-snowflake lazy egoists who are snobbing up the workforce and ruining the economy as we know it. It’s not unreasonable to guess a contentious worker focused on making the most of her internship is going to try to present herself as the opposite of that, ‘not like those other millennials (whatever that means), willing to ‘pay her dues’, etc.

  6. Ellen*

    Just something else to consider: if she’s paid, it may well be hourly and she may need the money. It’s still incumbent on her to not come to work sick, of course, but I think your conversation with her will probably go better if any undertone is “I know it’s important for you to be here, but [whatever about taking sick leave]” rather than “This is just an internship stop being a hero.”

    1. LK*

      As an intern fresh out of undergrad, she may also not get paid sick leave, or be covered by insurance. She might also be missing a full day’s pay any time she calls out sick, so she’s concerned about that.

      1. Mike C.*

        It’s likely she’s covered under her parent’s plan, but that assumes she has parents, parents with a plan, or parents with a plan who aren’t jerks.

      2. Sarah*

        That’s ok, but how far should an office-mate, who’s also only paid if she’s in, care about that? I mean, if it s me, bottom line I’d accept a little bit, but someone who’s spreading pneumonia/bird flu/norovirus that takes money away from me too, my sympathy levels would be lower, for sure

        1. BananaPants*

          Our interns are hourly non-exempt and do not get sick time. If they have to call out, they don’t get paid for that time. Virtually all of our full time employees are salaried exempt with ample sick time. I wouldn’t want a coughing intern with the flu to get me sick, but at the same time I’m sympathetic to the fact that not everyone in the same workplace has the same benefits package.

          Other considerations are that the intern may not have medical insurance or be able to afford an office visit if it’s one of the high deductible plans that are so common today. Someone right out of college working as an intern (not usually highly paid) may not have the $100+ that would have to be paid out to see the doctor if their deductible has not been met.

          1. Intrepid Intern*

            Not to mention that, depending on her pay, being out sick for a day could cost $100 for the doctor AND result in $100 less in pay. If a day being sick cost me $200, I’d be pretty hesitant to admit to myself that yeah, I was ill.

  7. Amber Rose*

    I was sent home when I tried to work with pneumonia once. In my defense, our sick leave policy was ridiculous and I did end up getting written up for the recovery time, but a lot of it was just that I’ve always had it enforced that you should work no matter what. A coworker I had at an early job even bragged about going to work with a concussion. I have also worked through a shift with a severely burned hand and a broken foot as a result of that kind of thing.

    The consequences to your body are terrible (my hand needed a hospital in the end), but some of us are exposed to that kind of culture early on. I’d probably talk to her gently about how a few days off are fine in exchange for not destroying her well being, and in fact it’s preferable that she take the time she needs. She may not realize it’s ok.

  8. Us, Too*

    I have a small child in daycare. I catch a cold from my kid every month or two. Literally. Daycares are petri dishes. There is simply no way that I could accomplish my job if I stayed home sick every time I got a cold. Plus, I have to stay home when my child is sick to care for him – which is often. See petri dish comment.

    So here’s what that would look like in my real world scenario:

    1. I take 2 days off to care for child with a cold. Eureka! He’s well again! I send him back to daycare.
    2. I go to work for a day. I spend that day catching up on the work I needed to do while I was out, but don’t quite catch up completely. Nonetheless, I make good progress and expect that I can catch up with the rest the next day.
    3. I wake up the next day sick.
    4. I stay home for a couple days.

    Result: I’m out all but one day that week and spend the first half of the next week catching up.

    Repeat every 6 weeks or so.

    And then I’ll be out other times with my kid for things that aren’t colds: e.g. that time that hand foot and mouth went around the daycare. Or the time with Roseola. Or snow days when the roads close. etc.

    So, like many folks, I go to work unless I’m at death’s door. And I avoid others as much as possible, wash my hands like someone with OCD, and warn anyone who walks up to me to stay back. Not because my employer doesn’t have a generous sick leave policy (they do), but because I need to save those sick days for when my kid is sick because at some point no matter how generous the sick leave policy is, you still have to get your job done or kiss your career goodbye.

    The only things that have saved my professional bacon are:
    1. My husband can also take time off to care for the kid. However, he is more prone to illnesses lingering than I am so ends up getting sick for longer than me. We try to balance that.
    2. My mom lives in town and can come over in a pinch. Thank God.

    Anyhow, my only point here is that it’s not as simple as the sick leave policy. :/

    1. Us, Too*

      Incidentally, I suspect this type of situation is why some parents send their kids to daycare sick, thereby perpetuating the petri dish cycle. They can’t take off work (practically, economically, whatever), so when Toddler Johnny wakes up with a fever, they dose him up with advil or tylenol and hope they can get through most of the work day before the daycare notices the fever and calls them to come pick him up midafternoon. Meanwhile, he’s infected 40% of the rest of the “molecules” class. :/

      1. TL -*

        Kids are supposed to get sick all the time. It’s how their immune systems develop. (Minus, of course, very sick or immunocompromised kids.)

    2. LizM*

      Plus, if your daycare has the same rules as mine, your kiddo can’t go back until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours. So even if they’re fine by 3 pm on day 1, you’re still out the next day.

      1. Us, Too*

        Yep. Exactly. And he’s had a number of fevers that are accompanied by literally no other symptoms. Yet, he stays home. :/

      2. Us, Too*

        i.e. there is no such thing as a 1 day work absence for a baby fever unless hubby and I tag team on it.

      3. HusbandOfPreSchoolTeacher*

        My wife teaches preschool. She’s reported that some parents will give their kid Tylenol in the morning to bring their fever down for drop off time. The kid mentions that mommy gave them medicine when they woke up feeling crummy.

        1. BananaPants*

          We actually had this happen with our first kiddo because she takes Zyrtec for seasonal allergies as part of her asthma treatment plan. The kids’ liquid Zyrtec smells similarly on a child’s breath to Motrin (dye-free grape flavor for the win!) and being quite precocious in speech development as a toddler, she told her caregivers one morning that “Mommy gave me medicine so I would feel better!” I got a phone call from daycare asking if she’d had a fever and gotten Motrin and I explained that she was actually on Zyrtec per her pediatrician’s order.

          The director apologized (there was really no need!) and said that they often have parents dosing a kid with a low grade temp before coming in to daycare in hopes of getting through at least part of the work day before getting the call to pick them up. I have to say that never occurred to me until then, but it’s understandable why parents without flexible work schedules might feel that they have no alternative. :-(

    3. BananaPants*

      Yup, in the germ factory that is daycare, they get sick often. Right now my husband works 2nd shift and doesn’t need to leave for work until close to 2 PM. If one of the kids is sick, I’d get into work for 7 AM and then leave at 1:30 to take over for him when he needs to leave from work. I can work from home for a couple of hours once the kids are asleep to make up for it. Usually there’s a pediatrician visit slammed in there in the afternoon, because if antibiotics are needed we want them prescribed and started so that the kiddo is only out of daycare for one full additional day. I am incredibly glad that 1) my work can be done from home/by telecommuting if necessary, and 2) my managers have always been fine with me working from home with a sick kid, because they do the exact same thing with their kids. Mr. BP does not have that flexibility at his job so it falls to me to take the hit.

      I don’t use sick time for myself unless I’m very ill because usually if I’ve caught something from one of the children I’ve already worked from home for all or part of at least two days, and I feel really guilty about then taking sick time for myself. I worry that it will be held against me and make me seem unreliable. I don’t want to get a reputation as, “That BananaPants is always out, what a lack of committment!” from the senior managers and executives (whose wives are/were SAHMs, freeing them from having to ever stay home with a sick kid).

  9. Erin*

    If you haven’t been clear, maybe she doesn’t realize the policy and that it really is okay.
    I’ve worked at three organizations that treated sick leave as high treason. Two of my bosses actually stopped by the office while they were technically hospitalized, they simply left in between tests and procedures!
    If this is her first job, she might not have any direct experience, so her actions are formed by the experiences she hears, she is more likely to hear people complaining than saying how awesome their boss is.
    Tell her how it works where you work and maybe she’ll be more considerate in the future.

  10. Sunshine Brite*

    I had to be told as an intern as every job, class, group I’d had before hand it was expected to come in no matter what. I had bronchitis and caught it easily due to allergies. It just was a cough to me even though it was more of a bark. Then I got a job where I yet again got in trouble for trying to stay home with a fever and chills. The world is strange about this. Give the intern a heads up about your office.

    1. MaryMary*

      Or if she does have sick time, does she know it? She might assume that as an intern she doesn’t get any time off.

      1. Elysian*

        I assumed that, when I was an intern! I also had one internship where I was paid with a grant that required I log X hours of work, and when I had to take more than one sick day I started kind of freaking out because I wasn’t sure how I was going to make up the hours before the internship ended.

      2. SL*

        See, I appreciate that all of my internship supervisors have always explicitly laid out the interns’ leave policy for me and my fellow interns. Otherwise, I would also assume that I wasn’t allowed to have time off, especially because I was in the office for a limited amount of time.

    2. mee too*


      I recently had a very well paid graduate internship. But as a “temporary” employee I did not have PTO of any kind. My school also encouraged us not to take time off and loose time at the internship or risk looking unprofessional for not coming in when it is a short assignment anyway.

      There were lots of things that I had to remind the other employees about how I had to work differently than the others on my team. I was the only non-exempt person in the department and I could not just stay endless hours because there was a cap on how much overtime could work. There may be things she does not realize like there are times when it is less professional to come to work sick than to miss some of a short assignment. And there may be things you don’t know about how she has been told to do her time there.

    3. MBA*

      Ditto to what everyone here just said – especially about career centers often encouraging interns not to take off because it’s such a short work assignment anyway (usually just 12 weeks.)

    4. AnonAnalyst*

      This was my question also. When I worked as an intern, I got paid hourly, and didn’t accrue any PTO, including sick leave. So…I wouldn’t be certain that paid sick leave extends to the intern just because she’s technically an employee.

    5. qkate*

      Yeah, I was wondering that too. If she is an intern, I doubt she has sick time, unfortunately. :/

  11. Anon the Great and Powerful*

    If the intern gets paid by the hour she might not be able to afford to stay home sick.

    1. TW*

      This! Additionally I wonder what kind of health insurance she has. As an intern she likely doesn’t receive any benefits. And if she’s still on her parents’ (or even her own) we don’t know what kind of insurance she has. With many people on high deductibles a trip to the doctor could be costing her hundreds a visit, she likely can’t afford that (I can’t and I’ve been in the workforce for years!), she’s likely to push off a visit until things get dire. Just some added thoughts!

  12. Yup, anonymous!*

    Okay, but … is she paid? Is she only paid for the time she’s there? You’re going on about how *you* can’t afford to miss a day, but what if she can’t either?

    You’re a decade older than her, so you may not remember this or may not have had this experience, but a lot of recent grads have been working in really crappy jobs through college. They’re usually environments where you get demonized for calling in sick for anything, and positions which pay so little that missing a day or two for being sick is the difference between having anything to eat for two weeks or living on bread and ice water. I’ve been there, and I don’t miss it. She may either be conditioned by her old work culture to believe that she will get in trouble for calling in sick and be resistant to doing so because even though the policy *says* she should be able, she knows that it’s possible to be unofficially “punished” in other ways, or if she’s paid only for the time she’s there she could be in a position where she truly can’t afford to miss days.

    1. the_scientist*

      This is what I was going to say. Should the intern be coming in sick and spreading her germs everywhere? No, probably not. But I would bet that somewhere along the way this intern had a job where calling out sick was strongly discouraged or outright forbidden. Students are also used to showing up to labs and tests no matter what, because they need a doctor’s note to miss those, and most doctors are hesitant to write notes in all but the most extreme circumstances. Plus, sick notes cost $$, so some students legitimately can’t afford the expense.

      Also, I need to know how this intern is paid. Is it an honoraria? Is it hourly? Is she getting paid at all? I would have to imagine that sick leave for interns is unpaid, and she may genuinely be unable to afford taking the time off. Hell, I am in my first job ever with paid sick leave. I’m lucky enough to not get sick often but I would have to be *really* sick to take a day fully off (as opposed to working from home) because even one day screwed up my budget.

  13. OP*

    Thanks for the responses, all! I appreciate the scripts about what to say to her.

    Also thanks for pointing out that she might be hourly as well. She lives with her parents but I don’t know her financial situation so a sick day might impact her as much as it does me.

    1. Us, Too*

      Her living situation may also be why she’s coming in to work. I know when certainly relatives are visiting us, I find myself with a LOT of critical work projects requiring my attention. ;)

      1. Beezus*

        This! When I was young and lived at home, work was a way to get out of the house. I have family issues…it was a needed escape, and the money I earned was my key to independence. I *never* missed work. I distinctly recall going once with bronchitis and a double ear infection.

    2. Stan*

      One other thing to consider:

      When I was an intern, my company was awesome. I was paid generously and basically treated like an employee in terms of accruing paid leave. However…

      I was also an intern for college credit. In order to take a day off from my internship, I had to get approval from the college internship supervisor. She required a doctor’s note. Therefore, I never took days off because even if I could get a same day appointment, I couldn’t afford it because I didn’t have insurance at the time. (Plus, no doctor’s office wants people with cold or flu coming in. They can’t really do anything for you and it exposes everyone in their office.)

    3. Observer*

      She’s living with her parents, but it it took a family friend to all but force her to see a doctor when she had pneumonia? It strikes me that that’s a huge clue right there. Even if the finances are not an issue (which is not, as you say, a given), clearly there are family issues.

  14. Sunflower*

    This one is really tough. I totally understand where OP is coming from but with getting sick, it’s just sooo much more complicated than stay home. I live paycheck to paycheck and for me, an ER visit is $300, urgent care $90 and doctor (if I can even get an appt) is $30. And most of the time, I know whatever I have is going to pass so it’s REALLY hard for me to reason spending that.

    Is it possible for the intern to work at home? I come down with a nasty cold once a winter and then a summer that persists for at least a week or two. It’s terrible because my boss hates it and wants me to work from home but our company president won’t let us work from home unless there is an emergency. We get 7 sick days a year and even though I’m grossly coughing, I am pretty okay in the sense that I can get all my work done. Working from home would be soo beneficial for me so maybe that’s something you can mention to your boss- even as a blanket policy for the office.

    1. fposte*

      And while I think it’s not great to come in with pneumonia, coming in with a cold is pretty common regardless of the money thing, and it’s the norm around my workplace. If I can work at home during the worst of it, I will, but I won’t expect to skip work.

      1. AnonAnalyst*

        Yes, this struck me too. Coming in with a cold (or sometimes worse) is common in my current office. People here don’t call out sick unless they really can’t function at all at work – like maybe with the worst of the flu. It’s great that this office promotes actually using sick time when you’re sick, even just with a cold, but it’s certainly not the case in all (or in my experience, even in most) workplaces.

      2. Artemesia*

        In 45 years in the workplace I never took sick time for a cold and never missed a critical responsibility for illness. Basically, if I wasn’t throwing up, I was there. My kids were luckily fairly healthy so I didn’t miss a lot of work with them either and my husband and I could spell each other if necessary as we both had somewhat flexible jobs. Colds last a week to 10 days — who can take time off for that? And pneumonia is not contagious although obviously for the individual’s health, they need medical care and to be home sleeping. Every cold I have ends up as bronchitis — also not contagious but lasts and lasts. Who can take time off from work for stuff like this?

        1. Observer*

          Well, maybe if you took some time for the colds, they wouldn’t turn into bronchitis.

          And pneumonia most definitely can be contagious – depending on what causing it.

          My point is that what you say sounds logical, but it may not really be a complete picture, although you obviously think it is. And even if it really is the complete picture for you, it doesn’t come close for a lot of people.

  15. Sarah*

    My boss has 2 young kids. She says if there is a possibility she will take it home and they will get sick, that we should not come in. That is how I gauge it, otherwise I’d probably have to be incapacitated to not make it in.

  16. Hush42*

    There’s also a difference between being allowed to take sick leave and wanting to use your sick time. My company is extremely relaxed as to when we can use our sick/personal time (it’s all the same). I could text my boss in the morning before work and tell him that I just didn’t feel like working that day and he’d be totally fine with that. However I only get a weeks worth of sick/personal time. If I didn’t come in when I had a cold I would use up all my time and then some because whenever I get colds they tend to linger for a while. Pneumonia is different but I would probably be back in as soon as my doctor told me I was no longer contagious. But I don’t think I would ever use my sick time on a cold I work in a room with 6 other cubicles spread out in sets of 2 and I just try to keep to myself when I’m sick so I don’t spread my germs to anyone else.
    Since my Sick days and my personal days are all the same I tend to avoid using them as sick days as much as I can because I would rather use them to take long weekends. For example I am taking the day after labor day off to make it a four day weekend so that I can make the 12 hour trek to go see my best friend who just had a baby. If I had stayed home every time I was sick this year I wouldn’t have the time I need to go see my new godson.

  17. Dan*

    “This situation is especially frustrating for me because I am a contractor, not a full-time employee”

    AAM, if your question was coming from an employee, I’d agree with your advice. But in this case, it’s coming from a contractor. As a full time employee at my own org, I don’t even know what benefits our interns get. Our contractors are even further removed from that, even though sometimes our interns and contractors occupy the same office space!

    I hate to say this, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for a contractor to be giving office advice to the intern. For one thing, the contractor gets more leniency in the terms and conditions of their work (definition of being a contractor after all), and isn’t bound/obligated to the employee handbook, let alone even having read it. And at many places I’ve worked, the “rules” for interns were much different than those for full time employees. For instance, at one large defense contractor I worked at, employees could work from home without too much trouble. But if an intern were billing time, they were required to be in the office.

    And if the contractor gives flat out wrong advice to the intern, as the intern’s supervisor, I’d be telling the intern to 1) Come to me about these things, and 2) Tell the contractor not to be giving interns advice on certain topics.

    In this case, the safe advice is for the OP to find the intern’s manager and have a chat with the manager.

  18. Ad Astra*

    I wonder if this intern has been conditioned to think coming into work when you’re sick is a sign of superior work ethic. If she has parents or other influential people in her life who make a big deal out of not taking a sick day, she may think this is how it’s supposed to be.

    I had a college roommate who was sick so often that she really had no choice but to work through ear infections, sinus infections, and all kinds of nasty bugs that would have had me in bed for days at a time. One of her courses required observations at a local elementary school and she had to take an incomplete because every time she showed up the school would tell her she was too sick to enter the building and wouldn’t let her do her observations.

  19. Cameron Frye*

    A class issue.

    For middle-class folks who aren’t familiar with working-class jobs, sick days are sort of the working-class equivalent of an “unlimited vacation” policy — just because you can technically take a day off doesn’t mean it looks good for you if you are trying to advance your career. In a lot of working-class jobs, every sick day is seen as basically a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” type situation by their employer, whether you are sick or not.

    Being confused by this sort of thing is common, though. I worked at a job once that swapped payday to Monday because if people got their checks on Friday, they wouldn’t show up to their weekend shifts. People who have always had middle-class jobs seem baffled by both the employer and employee actions when I talk about this, because their work environment is so different than the one I describe.

    1. Us, Too*

      Separate from advancing your career are sick/late “occurrence” policies. Each time you are late or call in sick you get an “occurrence”. You get written up or fired after, say, 3 in a year. Whether you have accrued sick time or not is irrelevant in terms of that and only indicates whether you will be paid or not, not whether you have a “right” to take the time off without being reprimanded or fired.

    2. S*

      But, this counts for the people you infect too, right? I mean, a working class person comes in and infects 4 other working class people who all need the money/reputation too… that’s not a good thing. And maybe the working class person you infect has kids at home who then are infected and need care too? That hits the working class person even harder that it would someone with more resources

      1. Dan*

        I kinda feel like “infecting everybody else” is a straw man argument. I’ve had some sort of regular job for the last 21 years, and never once have I felt like a co-worker or class mate coming into work/class sick has caused me to get sick when I otherwise wouldn’t have. And I come from a lower middle class background, and worked my share of jobs that would write you up for being sick, even if you had paid sick time.

        1. TrainerGirl*

          Perhaps you have a great immune system, but that’s not always the case. I got bronchitis twice in the same year from coworkers coming in sick and passing their germs to several employees. One person managed to spread two different illnesses in the same week! It depends on the amount of contact and proximity of coworkers.

          1. R2D2*

            If you have a job in the back, this is actually where those surgical masks Asians popularized are really nice. They leave both your hands free for work but help prevent germs. (Sadly it’s no good if you’re job is in the front, as most customers still get weirded out by surgical masks).

        2. Jessa*

          It’s not though. My husband is somewhat immunocompromised, he sits next to a woman undergoing treatment for cancer. I am more immunocompromised than he is. Some idiot at his office comes in ill, gets him sick, gets the woman next to him sick, then he comes home and brings it to me.

          I get it longer and harder and highly likely since I’m contagious longer, give it BACK to him, which goes back to her, etc. Hideously vicious circle of him, me and his friend being ill. Constantly. Usually by the fellow employee (either they’re sick or their kids or partner/spouse are) who literally cannot afford not coming in on an hourly job where they have no sick days (contractors via temp agency all.)

          But I’m living proof that it happens, and happens regularly (he works in a call centre, they’re as notorious as daycares for perpetuating constantly sick people.)

      2. Jack K*

        The “sick days = slacking” thing propagates from above. I can only speak from the service industry, but there, having somebody take a sick day is a much bigger hassle for management than in office jobs, because the nature of the work requires a certain number of people present at a certain time. So employers who don’t respect their staff penalize them for sick days because they’d rather have staff work sick than deal with covering shifts, employees come to work sick because they don’t want to (or can’t afford to) face the consequences of taking a sick day, and never taking sick days becomes a sign that you’re committed to your job.

        It’s a nasty system, but one a lot of people are accustomed to.

        1. Jessa*

          Yep, because gods forbid they should hire enough people to properly cover in case some call off. That, they decided a long time ago, costs too much. Which is stupid, but that’s how they view it. And they figure if someone quits over it, they can replace them easily. It stinks.

  20. Cough!*

    I work with people who come in sick and we may be scheduled to be in close quarters when they could easily find someone to fill in for them. I don’t have as much flexibility so I may be stuck with the sick person’s germs for hours. The last time I got stuck working with one of them, I got very sick and was still hoarse when I had my performance review… in which my boss made a point of telling me I should take less sick time. I am still really angry about that. If certain people would take one or two days a couple of times a year I could be spared a long drawn out illness with multiple visits to a doctor. Some of us are more susceptible to complications and I think my boss & coworkers should respect that.

    1. Us, Too*

      In a work environment in which people are counseled during their performance reviews to take less sick time (when they are clearly sick), it’s no wonder that your colleagues come to work sick.

    2. JoJo*

      Why should the employees schedule their own coverage? It should be management’s responsibility.

  21. Episkey*

    She’s an intern, she’s probably scared to call in sick, thinking it will reflect a poor work ethic. I’d cut her some slack.

  22. voyager1*

    OP I had a coworker who always came in sick and never went to the doctor. She had the leave just didn’t want to pay the copay and take the occurrence.

    Does this intern even have sick days?

    I would start there first but I do feel you pain. I hate sick folks at work.

    1. Just Visiting*

      Aside from the valid “I don’t want to use my sick days as vacation” thing which others have posted about, what can a doctor really do for you? If it’s just a cold, not much at all. Why should I pay a copay and drag myself to a clinic for “drink fluids, stay in bed”? I’m just taking time away from people who need real help. (This is also why requiring a doctor’s note for absences is idiotic. I’ve never had a job that required them but my high school technically did, like hell my mom was gonna take a half-day off work to drive me to a doctor for something that’s going to be gone in two days. Luckily there didn’t seem to be any repercussions for missing a day of HS without a note other than a letter sent home to one’s parents.)

  23. Verde*

    I had a person that would come in sick all the time, and I have never been sicker then when she shared my office with me. As we had some attendance issues already, she would often come in when she should have stayed home, and one thing that our HR attorney suggested was to have medical masks and gloves on hand and require her to cover up while working. That seemed a little extreme to me, and an awkward thing to discuss and manage, but it is something that could be considered for people who feel okay enough to sit at their desk, but might be contagious.

  24. NewDoc*

    My first day of rotations as a medical student, we were informed we were expected to come to work in the hospital unless we were “actively vomiting” or had a temperature >100.4F (38C). With residency, it’s more of an implicit understanding, but there’s still both internal and externally-imposed guilt for taking a sick dat. It’s kind of ridiculous because of course we’re around immunocompromised patients all the time, but without more residents, I don’t see that changing any time soon.

  25. Susan*

    Man, I had pneumonia once, and this isn’t a 1 week and you’re done kind of thing. I had a cough for 3-4 months afterwards. I got a new job in the meantime and my coworkers admitted long after that they thought I was a smoker.

    But I’ve also been an intern who has gotten sicker than your average cold (I had a UTI). I feel like, in most normal circumstances anything more than 2 days off, feels extreme, and I, like your intern, came in way earlier than I should have. Granted, my situation wasn’t contagious, but I was definitely too weak to be working. It reminds me of the letter writer recently who felt like her coworkers were unfairly judging her for her migraines. When people say they are “sick,” there is a certain stigma attached that you can’t possibly be that sick, and as someone new to the role, she is probably wary of that. But pneumonia can seriously have you down for the count, and I think having someone approach her and tell her it’s not just OK that she takes time off, but it’s for the best that she does, might be just what she needs for her to do so.

  26. Lisa Petrenko*

    I’m curious if the intern gets paid sick time? If not, then she probably doesn’t want to stay home and miss a day of pay. Another reason everyone deserves paid sick days!

  27. stellanor*

    My very favorite coworker today became incensed because she heard someone in our office blow their nose and ranted at me about how if you’re sick you should stay home and how all nose-blowing should occur in the bathroom.

    Which is funny because a few weeks ago she came into work with a gross snotty cold, which she gave to me. I had to use two sick days to get over the cold I got because she didn’t want to take a sick day.

  28. Newbie in Canada*

    Please, please encourage others to stay home when they have pneumonia.
    My coworker, beloved by many in our office, passed away in May because of it. This was after others had come to work with pneumonia and no one seems to take it as seriously as they should.

  29. Sheepla*

    I confess I’m one of those people who comes in all the time when I am sick. If I’m not at the office, my work is just piling up and not getting done. I sit in my corner and try not to interact with too many people. While I understand where OP is coming from, I sympathize with the intern here. No way would I call in sick as an intern.

  30. Shan*

    I’m a recent college grad and I was shocked when I came to my current job and my boss actually encouraged me to go home when I was sick with a cold. I came to work sick because the job I had in college, also an office job, really didn’t consider a cold a valid excuse, and required a doctor’s note if you missed consecutive days. Same thing with classes. Just let this intern know it’s okay in this culture.

    Maybe it’s because I’m not in college anymore, or maybe my new job’s sick policy helps us keep germs at home, but it’s worth noting that I have only had one cold in the 2+ years I’ve been at my current job with great sick leave, compared to being sick every 6 months to a year (usually with stuff worse than a cold) at my old job with the terrible sick days policy. So it seemed like their policy actually worked against them.

  31. Justin*

    I used to come in sick all the time when I didn’t have sick days, or when my sick days came out of my vacation days.

  32. Janine Hernandez*

    It is a careless disregard for the next persons health when a coworker is in the workplace spewing their sick germs around. A workplace is not a hospital.

Comments are closed.