Tag Archives: pregnancy leave

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.

FMLA and State Employers

Last week, the Supreme Court decided a case involving a state employee who sued for violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland. The arguments in the case were about federalism: how far one sovereign (the federal government, acting through Congress) can go in imposing liability on another (a state government). However, in reaching its decision — against the employee — the Court missed the entire point of the FMLA.

The facts are pretty basic: Daniel Coleman asked his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, for sick leave. His employer denied his request and told him he would be fired if he didn’t resign. Coleman sued for violation of the FMLA, charing that his employer failed to grant him time off for his own serious health condition as required by the law. His employer defended itself by saying that it was immune from suit because Congress didn’t have the right to subject it to money damages for violating the FMLA.

In our federal system of government, there are limits on the obligations Congress can impose on the states. At issue in this case was Congress’s right to enforce the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, which the federal government has used to remedy discrimination by the states (originally, race discrimination against the newly freed slaves). To subject a state to monetary damages under a federal law, that law must clearly indicate that intent; must be tailored to remedy or prevent Equal Protection violations; and must impose remedies that are proportional to that goal. In this case, what everyone disagreed about was whether or not the provisions allowing leave for an employee’s own serious health condition was intended to address sex discrimination, which violates the Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court decided years ago that the FMLA’s provision allowing leave to care for family members was intended to remedy sex discrimination, and so could properly be enforced against the states for money damages. Because women are still the primary care providers in our society, the Court had no trouble finding that the caregiver provision was aimed at sex discrimination. In the Coleman case, however, the Court found that the self-care provision — the allowance of time off for the employee’s own serious health care condition — addressed discrimination based on illness, not discrimination based on gender. Therefore, the Court found that Congress didn’t have the right to require states to pay money damages for violating this section of the law.

Unfortunately, in parsing the case so finely, the Court ignored the history and purpose of the FMLA. The FMLA was born of disputes over pregnancy leave. Women’s rights advocates were divided as to how to address this fundamental difference between the sexes in the workplace. Fighting for pregnancy leave and time off to recover from childbirth seemed necessary to safeguard women’s right to workplace equality; yet it also created a fundamental difference in the way employers were to treat men and women, with the possible outcome that employers would discriminate against women to avoid having to provide this benefit. The FMLA — and specifically, the right to time off for one’s own serious health condition, the category of leave that includes pregnancy and childbirth — was the eventual solution. By making the right to leave gender-neutral, advocates hoped to frame pregnancy as just one of the many reasons why an employee might need time off, and thereby diminish the likelihood of sex discrimination among employers while also protecting the right to leave. By allowing parental and caregiving leave for men and women equally, the FMLA also sought to break the sex-based stereotype of women as primary caregivers. The whole law as a package, and particularly the provision allowing leave for one’s own serious health condition, was intended precisely to combat sex discrimination. Justice Ginsberg’s dissent explains this history and intent clearly, as does the amicus brief of the National Partnership for Women & Families, the group that was instrumental in drafting and advocating for the law decades ago.