Pregnancy Leave in California

California has what are probably the most generous pregnancy and parental leave laws in the country. Employees are entitled to take a “reasonable period” of leave — up to four months — during the time when they are disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions. This time off might run concurrently with an employee’s 12 weeks of allowed leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, it does not run concurrently with an employee’s right to take parental leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). Leave for pregnancy-related disability is not covered by CFRA. Although this might at first glance sound ungenerous, the effect is the opposite: An employee who uses all four months of pregnancy disability leave is still entitled to 12 weeks of CFRA leave for parenting after the child is born.

And, California is one of only a handful of states that pay employees for this time off. California’s temporary disability insurance program, which covers pregnancy-related disability, pays employees up to 55% of their usual wages while they are unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth. Once the employee has her child and recovers from giving birth, California’s paid family leave  (part of the temporary disability insurance program) kicks in, to pay benefits for six weeks of parental leave.

Last week, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District issued an opinion that might stretch these rights even further. The Court found that an employee who has used up her four months of pregnancy disability leave may be entitled to yet more time off, as a reasonable accommodation for a disability related to pregnancy. In this case (Sanchez v. Swissport), the employee had a very high risk pregnancy. She was put on bed rest almost eight months before her due date. Therefore, when she used up her four months of pregnancy disability leave, she was still months away from giving birth and finally getting out of bed. Her employer fired her after she exhausted her pregnancy disability leave and used up all of her accrued time off.

Sanchez sued, claiming that her employer fired her because of her pregnancy and should have given her additional time off as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. Although the trial court threw her case out, the Court of Appeal reinstated it. Even though the employer gave Sanchez the full four months of pregnancy disability leave required by law, the Court found that this fact didn’t conclusively defeat her claims. The right to pregnancy disability leave and the right to a reasonable accommodation are distinct: Fulfilling one doesn’t necessarily satisfy the other. As the Court pointed out, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Commission recently amended its pregnancy discrimination regulations to address this issue. (The regulation states that an employee who has used up her four months of pregnancy disability leave may yet be entitled to leave as a reasonable accommodation for a disability, whether or not that disability is related to her pregnancy.)

The Court of Appeal didn’t determine that Sanchez was entitled to additional leave: It decided only that she might be, and that she should have the opportunity to present facts supporting her claims. Her employer will also have this opportunity: It can argue, for example, that allowing Sanchez to take additional time off would pose an undue hardship, or that such an accommodation wouldn’t be “reasonable” under the circumstances. However, at least in the Second District of California (which includes Los Angeles), employers can no longer assume that a pregnant employee’s time off can be capped at four months of pregnancy disability leave plus three months of CFRA leave following childbirth for parenting.