What is a Sick out?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A sick out or sickout is a form of organized labor action in which employees call in sick en masse as a form of protest. If enough employees participate, a sick out can interrupt the daily operations of the target company or agency, drawing attention to the issues the workers would like to see addressed. While sick out could be considered a form of strike, it is not quite the same thing as a strike, and labor unions may or may not be involved.

A sick out might result in some workers being fired if everyone is not united in calling in sick.
A sick out might result in some workers being fired if everyone is not united in calling in sick.

There are several reasons to choose to call a sick out, rather than actively striking. In a workplace where people are not protected by a union, a sick out can be used to lobby for better working conditions and benefits, and to indicate that the workers are united about the issue, even if they are not formally unionized. In unionized workplaces, sick outs can be used to get around laws which specifically prohibit sick outs by employees in key industries, or to indicate that employees are willing to strike, if necessary.

For employers, a sick out can be more problematic than a strike, in some ways, because a sick out classically occurs without any warning, and while it may only last a day or two, it can wreak havoc on business operations. When a strike occurs, it is only after prolonged negotiations and multiple warnings that a strike is imminent, giving employers every possible chance to avert the strike by addressing the concerns of the workers and their union.

You may also hear a sick out referred to as “blue flu” in the case of uniformed police officers who stage a sick out. For employees, a sick out can sometimes be a dangerous gamble. They must rely on each other to follow through on the plans to stage a sick out, because if everyone is not on board, employees who do call in sick may find themselves fired or otherwise penalized, especially if they cannot provide documentation which shows that they were sick. A company may also view a sick out as a manipulative tactic, and refuse to consider the demands of the workers as a result.

Sick outs often attract attention from the general public. Depending on how workers and companies handle the publicity, this can be both good and bad. Many employers are quick to say that sick outs are irresponsible and dangerous, especially when they involve employees who are critical for health and safety, such as firefighters or air traffic controllers. Employees, on the other hand, might argue that the issues involved were so critical that the interruption was justified.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - I find it so disgusting that that's true at the moment for so many jobs. Job security when you're sick should be a human right. But I guess that's one of the things that people go on strikes in order to achieve.


@Iluviaporos - I guess with the advent of email and the ease with which people can now communicate secretly about these kinds of things a sick out would be much easier to organize.

It would only really be effective in an industry where the workers need specialized training though. I've heard many stories about people who were genuinely sick and couldn't go into their retail job and were fired for it because there were so many people who could easily step into their place.

Even if the protest involved everyone in the store it would still be fairly easy to replace them and being sick wouldn't necessarily be a defense even if they could prove it.


Usually if the workers involved in a strike or sick-out are for critical jobs like firefighters or doctors or whatever, they will be very careful to plan the event so that services aren't disrupted. I mean, if you become a firefighter in the first place, you probably care deeply about people and don't want to be responsible for any disasters.

Not to mention that if something bad happened as a result of the strike that would be very negative publicity and strikes often rely on public pressure and approval to be successful.

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