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.
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.