What is California's Sick Leave Law

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Ten states, plus the District of Columbia, require employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers. California is one of those states, and, in fact, it was the second state to do so after Connecticut. In 2014, the California legislature enacted the bulk of the California statutes that govern sick leave as the Healthy Workplaces Healthy Families (HWHF) Act. Those measures were signed into law by the governor, and lawmakers subsequently enacted amendments to that law in 2015. Among the provisions of California sick leave laws are methods for calculating both the accrual of sick leave and the pay rate that should apply when employees take sick leave.

Basic Requirements of the California Sick Leave Law

California sick leave laws entitle most employees to paid time off for medical purposes. The law applies to full-time and part-time workers, as well as temporary employees. There are some restrictions in the statutes that apply to specific types of employees, such as those who are covered under a collective bargaining agreement and certain airline employees.

Employees can take sick leave to care for their own medical needs or those of a family member. The specific needs qualifying for time off range from seeking a diagnosis to undergoing treatment, and recovering from any illness that prevents an employee from carrying out assigned job duties.

Read More: Paid Sick Leave in California

California Sick Leave Law for Part-Time Employees

Under California's sick leave law, both part-time and full-time workers are entitled to paid sick leave. Eligible workers also include those holding seasonal or temporary positions. Eligible employees, whether full- or part-time, earn sick leave at the same rate, unless the employer wishes to set a faster accrual schedule. For every 30 hours worked, employees earn one hour of sick leave. Entitlement to sick leave for any employee, part- or full-time, is contingent upon the employee meeting other statutory requirements for eligibility.

Eligibility for Sick Leave in California

The right to paid sick leave in California is enjoyed by most employees. However, to become eligible for paid sick leave, employees must meet an additional requirement of working at least 30 days within the prior twelve-month period.

Originally, it was not clearly understood whether those 30 days of work had to be performed for a single employer or whether the worker could claim eligibility after working for multiple employers. For example, under the second scenario, a worker could put in one week of work at each of four employers over the course of a year and still claim entitlement to paid sick leave at the fourth workplace.

An amendment to the HWHF Act was introduced the following year, in part to clarify this provision. AB 304 specified that eligibility for paid sick leave applied only when the worker performed at least 30 days of work for a single employer from whom the employee was seeking to take paid sick leave. In other words, that hypothetical employee with a week of work at four different employers would not accrue any paid sick leave from any of those employers.

Restrictions for Certain Workers in California

Some workers in California are subject to a few restrictions under the terms of the HWHF Act:

Union members who work under a collective bargaining agreement. Under the HWHF Act, this exception applies to workers whose bargaining agreement addresses wages, work hours, overtime pay, and office or workplace conditions, as well as a binding arbitration clause. It must also contain a provision for sick leave days and include binding arbitration and overtime wages.

Construction employees are also exempt from the California sick leave law if they are covered by a binding agreement and are paid at least 30 percent above the then-current minimum wage, as well as all the other provisions required for union employees. However, the construction worker’s binding agreement may waive many provisions, including sick leave, work hours and workplace conditions, as long as the language regarding these waivers is clear and unmistakable.

Air carrier employees are exempt from the sick leave laws in California, whether or not they’re covered under a union’s collective bargaining agreement. However, they must be given the equivalent of the required sick leave amount through other paid time off policies from their employers. As long as the total paid time off meets the law’s minimum requirements, the employer may consider these workers exempt from the Act’s other requirements.

In-home health care services providers were previously exempt from the California sick leave laws. That exclusion was reversed, effective December 1, 2017. After that date, in-home health care workers became eligible for sick leave accrual after 30 days of employment and began to accrue sick leave at the rate of one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked.

Employer Rights to Offer More Sick Leave

The provisions of the HWHF Act are intended to provide a floor, or minimum requirement, for paid sick leave benefits for California workers. Employers are free to adopt different rules and practices, as long as they meet or exceed those minimum requirements set forth in the state's sick leave statutes.

Additionally, AB 304 authorized the “grandfathering” of policies that were already in place under certain conditions. Companies can keep in place those policies adopting different methods of accrual, as long as the method doesn’t result in a lesser amount of leave for the employee. The policies must meet these criteria:

  • Employees must earn eight hours of paid time off within three months of work, and 24 hours within nine months.
  • Accrual of sick leave must follow a regular calendar schedule.
  • The policy must meet other statutory provisions, including the definition of family member, as well as record keeping and notice requirements. 

Cashing Out Unused Sick Time

The HWHF Act is silent as to so-called cash-out policies, which allow employees to exchange accumulated paid time off for the equivalent wages they’d otherwise be paid during that time. In other words, the employee gives up the right to take time away from work, and in return, the employer gives the employee a cash payment equal to the employee’s rate of pay for the surrendered time. Because the statutes do not make any provision as to cashing out, employers are free to create their own rules for cashing out. However, there is no obligation for employers to allow this practice.

If employment is terminated, but the employee is rehired within twelve months, then the employer must reinstate any accumulated sick leave to the employee’s credit. However, this is not required if the employer allows the departing employee to cash out accrued time upon his earlier departure.

Permissible Reasons for Taking Sick Leave

The California sick leave law allows eligible employees to take paid sick leave for a number of reasons related to medical and health care. For example, employees may take leave to recuperate from injury or illness, whether acute or chronic. Employees may also take leave to care for a family member, defined by the law to include parents; spouses and registered domestic partners; siblings; children, including foster and adopted children; grandchildren; and grandparents.

Employees may also take leave to engage in a number of medical care activities. A worker can take leave to seek a diagnosis, to participate in preventive treatment modalities or to receive or recuperate from medical procedures.

Employee Actions to Enforce Sick Leave Rights

When California employers refuse to grant an employee’s rights to take paid time off, the typical avenue of redress involves filing a civil lawsuit in the appropriate California court against the employer on the worker’s behalf. Any violation of the employee’s rights to paid sick leave may be the basis of such a suit, whether it involves a refusal to grant sick leave at all, a miscalculation of the accrued time or a failure to pay the employee at the proper rate.

The law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees both for taking paid sick leave to which they’re entitled and for seeking to protect their rights by filing suit or making a formal complaint. Prohibited retaliatory acts include termination, but also include inappropriate employee discipline, pay reductions and threats to terminate the worker’s employment or to report the employee to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

If an employer is found by the court to have violated the employee’s rights as set forth in the state laws on paid sick leave, the court may order the employer to pay the employee’s attorney's fees and court costs, in addition to any specific damages that may be assessed against the employer. Class action lawsuits may be brought on behalf of a group of workers where the employer routinely violates paid sick leave laws.

Relief Available in California Sick Leave Lawsuits

If an employee files suit against the employer for a violation of paid sick leave rights, the employee may ask the court to grant both monetary damages and equitable relief, where appropriate. Equitable relief includes such actions as ordering the employer to honor future sick leave requests or to readjust the rate of pay.

Monetary damages for California paid sick leave law violations take several different forms, depending on the facts of the specific case. Damages can include: back pay, sick leave pay, attorney’s fees and court costs, and interest on any pay that has been wrongfully withheld. Moreover, when the employer wrongfully withholds payment for sick leave days, a worker who successfully challenges that action is entitled to treble damages in an amount not to exceed $4,000.

Employer Obligations Under California Sick Leave Laws

In addition to the obligation to provide paid sick leave according to the prescribed accrual calculation methods, the California statutes obligate employers to create and keep complete records that show accrual and rates of pay for sick leave taken by employees. These records should include how paid sick time accrues to employees, how those employees are compensated and at what rate. Records must also show the hours employees actually worked in order to verify the accrual calculations.

California employers are required to keep these records for at least three years in order to comply with any investigation as to alleged violations of the paid sick leave laws.

Local Regulation of Sick Leave by Ordinance

California towns, cities and counties may adopt additional regulations covering paid sick leave by ordinance. This type of local supplemental regulation is permissible and legal as long as the local regulation doesn’t attempt to lessen or weaken the employee’s rights granted under state law.

Any issue that is not covered by state law may be regulated by local ordinances. For instance, some municipal ordinances permit employers to ask employees for medical documentation of work absences exceeding three consecutive workdays. Most of these ordinances also provide additional accrual calculation methods.

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