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Navigating California's Evolving Legal Landscape Governing Leaves of Absence

March 1, 2024 Articles

California’s employment laws are no stranger to change, and recent years have witnessed the introduction or modification of various protected leaves by employees. In this article, we will delve into three significant leave categories: bereavement leave, reproductive loss leave, and paid sick leave. These updates impact employers of virtually all sizes, requiring a nuanced understanding to ensure compliance and foster a supportive workplace environment.

Supporting Employees in Grief through Bereavement Leave

Effective January 1, 2023, California implemented a bereavement leave law mandating up to five days of unpaid leave for the death of a family member. This law applies to employers with at least five employees and encompasses a broad set of family members, including spouses, registered domestic partners, children, parents (including parents-in-law), grandchildren, and grandparents. Importantly, employees must be allowed to use any available paid time off (including paid sick leave) during this leave.

There is no exception for part-time or temporary employees, provided they have been with the company for at least 30 days. Bereavement leave must be taken within three months of the family member’s death, though employers can choose to extend this timeframe. With no annual cap, employees facing multiple bereavements within a year are entitled to repeated leaves. Employers can request documentation to confirm the death, with an obligation to maintain confidentiality.

Addressing a Sensitive Reality With Reproductive Loss Leave

Reproductive loss leave is a new mandated leave (effective January 1, 2024), and mirrors California’s bereavement leave law. Employers must provide up to five days of unpaid leave for a “reproductive loss event,” which is defined as a miscarriage, stillbirth, failed adoption, failed surrogacy, or unsuccessful assisted reproduction. Given the prevalence of such situations— up to 20% of known pregnancies may end in miscarriage—employers must approach these cases with heightened sensitivity.

This leave covers both birth parents and anyone who would have been a parent had the reproductive event been successful. Unlike bereavement leave, reproductive loss leave has a 20-day cap in a 12-month period. The law is silent on whether employers can request documentation and what documentation will be deemed sufficient.

Navigating the Regulatory Landscape of Paid Sick Leave

California’s paid sick leave covers virtually all employees, including temporary and part-time employees. Sick leave can be used for an employee’s own health needs or those of a family member (and even an employee’s “designated person.”).

Employers can opt between a lump sum or accrual method for granting sick leave. Employers who use the lump sum approach are now required to front-load five days or 40 hours of sick leave (increased from three days or 24 hours). Employers using the accrual method must offer no less than one hour of sick leave per 30 hours worked, and cannot impose an accrual cap of less than eighty hours or ten days (whichever is greater). Employers must allow employees to use at least 40 hours or five days (whichever is greater) per year.

Choosing between the lump sum and statutory accrual methods involves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each. The lump sum approach is often administratively simpler but, by front-loading all sick leave, employers may have a higher risk of misuse, particularly with new employees.

As California continues to expand and update its employment laws, employers must stay vigilant, ensuring their policies align with the latest regulations. Updating employee handbooks, providing training to HR personnel, and fostering open communication are crucial steps in navigating these changes successfully. By prioritizing sensitivity and compliance, employers can create an inclusive workplace that supports employees during significant life events, fostering a positive and resilient organizational culture.

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