Sick Notes: When can an employer require one?

By Charles Thompson

Since we’re well into cold and flu season and Covid-19 continues to rear its head, lots of people are requiring time off work due to illness.

There have been concerns for years about employers routinely requiring their workers to provide a “sick note” from a doctor to verify their illness in order to qualify for sick leave from their place of employment.

Employees were often unhappy about having to make an appointment with their doctor to obtain a sick note, especially as this has become increasingly difficult as more people do not have a family doctor and there can be a long waiting period to see a physician. Doctors also complained about having to take time to see patients and write sick notes for often minor ailments that did not otherwise require medical attention.

Employers, on the other hand, want to be able to require sick notes in order to ensure their workers are legitimately entitled to the sick time they claim.

Earlier this year the Nova Scotia government passed the Medical Certificates for Employee Absences Act, which establishes rules about when employers may require sick notes and which health care professionals are able to provide those sick notes.

Under the new legislation, employers can still require employees provide sick notes in some circumstances, but there are restrictions. An employer cannot require a sick note unless:

  • The employee has been absent due to illness or injury for at least 5 consecutive working days, OR
  • The employee has already been absent due to illness or injury more than once in the last 12 months.

Under these rules, an employee who is out sick for less than 5 days and who has only been off sick once in the last 12 months cannot be required to provide a sick note. However, if the employee is off for 5 or more consecutive days, their employer can require a sick note. Also, an employer can require a worker to provide a sick note if they have been off sick more than once in the preceding 12-month period.

The other significant change in the Medical Certificates for Employee Absences Act is allowing health care professionals other than doctors to provide sick notes when they are required. Sick notes can come from any regulated health care provider who is providing care to the employee for their illness or injury, such as a nurse, pharmacist, or physiotherapist, in addition to a physician.

The extent to which these changes will affect employers and workers will vary. Many companies already have policies in place that do not require a sick note unless the absence is lengthy or the employee has recently taken sick time, so the new legislation will not have much of an impact on these companies and their employees.

However, employers who have routinely required sick notes for all sick time must adapt their policies to comply with the new law. Employees will also benefit from being able to obtain a sick note from their treating pharmacist, nurse, or other health care provider instead of having to make an appointment to see their physician.

This article is for information only and is not intended to be legal advice. If you have any questions or would like further information, you should consult a lawyer.