The California Family Rights Act: Significant Changes to CFRA Leave in 2021

Wage and Hour

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) requires the state’s employers to allow employees to take leave from work — without risk of job loss — to take care of their own or a family member’s medical needs.  The CFRA is similar to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in many respects.  However, several changes affecting CFRA leave took effect January 1, 2021, that made it applicable to a large, new group of employers and employees going forward.  Read on to learn whether your business is in that group and, if so, what areas to watch.

Generous CFRA Leave Benefits Apply to a Wide Range of Employers

The CFRA describes unfair business practices based on an employer’s treatment of an employee taking leave to tend to the medical needs of the employee or certain employee family members.  Originally, the act applied only to employers with 50 or more full-time or part-time employees within 75 miles, but 2020 Senate Bill 1383 put in motion a CFRA expansion that significantly broadened the employers covered and the leave options to employees beginning in 2021.

Employers throughout the state need to be aware of whether they are obligated to provide CFRA leave not originally mandated — even if they were not previously subject to the CFRA.  Below we describe the fundamentals of the act and significant ways its mandates changed.

What Is CFRA Leave?

Both the employer and the employee must meet certain requirements for a business to be required to offer CFRA leave.  Historically, employers were subject to the act, which is part of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), only if they met certain size requirements within designated geographic areas. 

Even when an employer meets those terms, the leave requirements apply only to employees who satisfy the following:

  • Worked for the employer more than 12 months
  • Worked at least 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave

For covered employers, an employee who meets those eligibility requirements may take up to 12 work weeks of leave in a 12-month period for any of these reasons:

  • To bond with a natural, foster, or adoptive child within one year of the birth, foster placement, or adoption
  • To care for a spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, or grandchild with a serious medical condition as defined by the act
  • To tend to the employee’s own serious medical condition as defined by the act
  • To deal with matters arising when an employee’s parent, child, spouse, or domestic partner is on or is called to active duty in the US Armed Forces

The CFRA defines a serious medical condition as a physical or mental health condition that results in incapacity or requires treatment or in-patient care.

Employees who take leave under the CFRA enjoy certain job protections.  At the conclusion of the leave period, the employer must allow the employee to return to the same or a comparable job unless the employer can show that no comparable position exists.  Evaluating whether a job is comparable requires consideration of the terms of employment, such as the pay, benefits, shift, schedule, location, and working conditions.

An employer may, but is not required to, pay an employee during the term of leave.  Employees may also qualify for other types of leave benefits such as Paid Family Leave (PFL), when the leave is to care for a family member, or State Disability Insurance (SDI), when the leave is due to the employee’s incapacity or treatment.

Several Fundamentals of CFRA Leave Have Remained Unchanged

Despite these changes, many basic provisions in the CFRA remained unchanged following the amendment effective in 2021.  First, employers are not required to pay employees during their leave, although they may choose to do so.  Employers may also require employees to use accrued vacation or sick days or other paid time off. 

The notice provisions in the act also remain largely unchanged.  If the reason for leave can reasonably be anticipated and scheduling does not run contrary to medical advice, the act requires the employee to attempt to schedule leave to avoid disruption of employer operations.  However, if the need for leave could not be anticipated, such as emergency medical care, the employee must give the employer notice as soon as feasible or within 15 days of request from the employer.

Additionally, when leave is requested due to a medical condition, an employer may request certification from the appropriate medical care provider to validate the reason for the leave.

Significantly, pregnancy is not considered a serious medical condition under the CFRA, although an employee requiring leave for pregnancy-related matters may qualify for SDI.

What’s Different about the California Family Rights Act as of 2021?

Following the enactment of Senate Bill 1383 in 2020, the CFRA applies to a much broader range of California employers and situations.  Employers previously bound to provide CFRA leave must now do so in more situations, and smaller employers that were previously exempt must now do so as well. Following are some of the main changes to the California Family Rights Act in 2021 and going forward:

  • Employers with five or more employees are subject to the act’s leave requirements
  • The 75-mile geographic radius qualifier has been removed
  • The CFRA now covers active duty or calls to active duty in the military of a parent, child, spouse, or domestic partner
  • Leave may now be based on covered needs of additional family members: a sibling, a grandparent, a grandchild, an adult child, a child of a domestic partner
  • Parents working for the same employer no longer need to split 12 weeks of leave but, instead, are each entitled to 12 weeks of leave
  • An employer’s highest-paid employees now also enjoy reinstatement rights following leave

In addition, the CFRA has also created a mediation program for smaller employers — those with five to 19 employees — to resolve CFRA leave disputes before turning to litigation.

California Employer Lawyers Help Employers with CFRA Leave Compliance

California employers already wrestle with the differing requirements and applications of the CFRA and FMLA.  The changes to the California Family Rights Act in 2021 have required that they revisit how the state and federal law differ and what actions the employer must take to be compliant with both.

Whether you first became subject to the CFRA requirements in 2021 or were obligated to provide CFRA leave before then, need assistance reviewing how to navigate the federal and revised state leave laws, or need help with a particular leave matter, you need California employer lawyers focused on employer needs and experienced with CFRA and related matters.

The Law Offices of Susan A. Rodriguez, APC are your go-to source for employment law matters.  For more than 30 years, Susan A. Rodriguez and her team have provided sound guidance and keen litigation skills to help California’s employers remain viable.  For a consultation on CFRA leave or other employer matters, call (213) 943-1323 or complete the firm’s online contact form.

Posted by Susan A. Rodriguez, Esq.

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