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What is the California Family Rights Act?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 17, 2024
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The California Family Rights Act is a state law enacted in 1993 that provides for a period of job-protected unpaid leave for California employees for their own serious illness, to care for a dependent or to bond with a new child. It was debated and passed by the California legislature at the same time that similar legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act, was being acted upon by the US Congress. Controversy surrounded both bills for the same two provisions: first, that any health, dental or vision insurance coverage the employee might have must be continued in force while the employee is on leave, and second, the requirement that upon return from the leave, employees must be restored to the same or a similar position. With a few exceptions, the California Family Rights Act applies only to employers with at least 50 employees.

The main feature of the California Family Rights Act is the provision that covered employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period for the purpose of bonding with a new child, taking care of their own serious illness, or caring for a seriously ill family member, whether spouse, child or parent. It’s not necessary that those 12 weeks be consecutive. Eligibility is primarily based on the employee’s length of service with the employer — at least 12 months of service with the employer is required. In addition, the employee must actually have worked 1,250 hours in the 12 months immediately preceding the leave. Advance notification of the leave must be provided when practical, and in most cases, the employee must, upon request, provide the employer with medical certification of the illness, or other appropriate certification of the birth or adoption of a new child, although it’s not necessary to provide medical records. Employers have the right to challenge any medical certification and require a second or even third opinion, at the employer’s cost.

Upon returning to work from the leave, the employee is entitled to return to the same job she left, or one that’s similar, with no loss of pay or benefits. In most cases, employees with accumulated periods of leave with the employer, whether paid or unpaid, must use that leave in conjunction with the terms of the California Family Rights Act and the federal law; that is, an employee may not take 12 weeks of leave under the federal law, and then an additional 12 weeks under the state law, and then two weeks of sick leave under the employer’s sick leave policy. In addition, an employee has no right to return to a job that no longer exists — if a job would have been eliminated due to layoff or bankruptcy while the employee was on leave, for example, there is no job to which she can lay claim.

There is some difference between the two laws in terms of their administration and details of their coverage. For example, the federal law permits time to be taken in increments of a single day or less, but the California Family Rights Act requires that the time be taken in increments of a minimum of two weeks, with only two instances permitted per year of allowing time to be taken in shorter increments. A major difference between the two is that the FMLA can be used for pregnancy-related disability, while California has a separate program to cover such instances; this is a benefit for California employees because it potentially gives them more leave time.

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