California Maternity Leave Explainer | Working Mother

California Maternity Leave: Everything Expectant Parents Need to Know (Including Big Changes in 2018)

Here are the facts on the California Family Rights Act, Paid Family Leave, Pregnancy Disability Leave and the new Parental Leave Act.

Helpful facts for expecting parents working in California.

Under the new Parental Leave Act, more employees will be able to take up to 12 weeks of leave after the birth or adoption of a baby.

Photo: iStock

Work in California? Expecting a child? If so, we have great news: under the California Family Rights Act (sometimes called the “baby bonding law” or CFRA), most employees can take up to 12 weeks of parental leave after the birth or adoption of a baby. Even better, under a California program called Paid Family Leave (PFL), you may receive partial pay while you’re off work, bonding with your new addition. Before you bring the little one home, if you have a pregnancy-related disability, you’re also entitled to Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL), and that might be paid, too.

The best news of all: It’s only getting better in 2018, thanks to the new Parental Leave Act (PLA), with higher pay and more protections for California families.

So how do CFRA, PFL, PDL and PLA work? Here’s the scoop on California maternity leave:

How many weeks of paid maternity leave can I get?

Well, your employer may offer paid maternity leave as a part of your benefits package, so check your employee handbook first. Even if your employer doesn’t offer paid leave, California law guarantees most employees up to six weeks of leave per year at partial pay. You may also qualify for additional six weeks of unpaid leave, too.

How much will I be paid?

Your employer is certainly allowed (and, ahem, encouraged!) to cover your entire salary and benefits for some period of time, but that’s rare. Even if your employer doesn’t offer paid leave (or if it’s a pittance), you’ll still receive some income during your maternity leave. And you’ll get even more money starting in 2018, thanks to the new law. Individuals who earn less than one-third of the state’s average quarterly wage will now be paid 70 percent of their weekly wages for up to six weeks. Those who make more than one-third of the state’s average quarterly wage ($5,229.98, as of 2018) will be paid 60 percent of their weekly wages for up to six weeks.

This is up from the program’s previous weekly pay of 55 percent. According to Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, there is an important reason for the change: “The program usage data show that low wage workers do not make use of the PFL program when needed because 55 percent of the minimum wage is not enough to live on. [The increase] is intended to address that problem.”

In other words, a bigger paycheck should help more families take paid leave.

Note, however, that the maximum reimbursement amount is capped at $1,173 per week, so if you’re a high earner, you may receive a lower percentage of your salary.

Am I guaranteed to have a job when I return?

Here’s more good news: As of Jan. 1, 2018, the state's new Parental Leave Act (PLA) protects your job when you’re out on maternity leave if you 1) have worked for your employer for at least the past 12 months, 2) have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months and 3) work for an employer who has at least 20 employees in a 75-mile radius or an employer who has at least 50 employees anywhere. According to the Small Business Association, over 80 percent of California employees will be protected by either PLA or CFRA.

When can my leave start? When I'm still pregnant?

Unfortunately, you can’t take PFL during your pregnancy. But if you’re having complications that limit your ability to work, or if your health care provider certifies that you should not work due to your pregnancy, you can access paid disability leave benefits, or PDL. Typically, these kick in four weeks before your due date and last until six weeks after you give birth, but that’s for a normal pregnancy. If you’re having pregnancy-related health issues, you may be able to claim the benefit earlier in your pregnancy, and then still take the full PFL benefit after you deliver—they are totally separate programs.

Do I need to take my leave all at once?

Nope, not at all. Under California law, you can use PDL intermittently in hours, days, weeks or months. That comes in handy if you need to be treated several times for a complication during your pregnancy. PFL also allows you to break up your leave, but you may be required to do so in two-week increments. Or you and your spouse might just decide to take turns; maybe you’ll take four weeks, he’ll take four weeks, and then you’ll switch back. According to the CFRA, even though this kind of arrangement might be disruptive for your employer, you’re still entitled to do it.

Can I use only part of the benefit or is it all or nothing?

If you want to go back to work before the full leave is up, you can use part of the benefit. You might choose to do so if, for example, you can’t afford to receive only 60 or 70 percent of your pay for the six weeks covered by PFL. Note, though, that if you do decide to go back to work before you’ve used all of your leave time, you can still hold the rest in reserve until 12 months after your baby is born or your adoption takes place. That could come in handy for another purpose, such as if a close family member is seriously ill.

Can my spouse get parental leave?

Yes, absolutely. The law applies to women and men, for both straight and same-sex households. Many families decide to have one parent take leave first, then have the other parent start leave when the first parent returns to work. Even if you both work for the same company, you’ll each get six weeks of paid leave.

What if I adopt, foster or use a surrogate?

California will pay you part of your salary if you add to your family through pregnancy, adoption, surrogacy or foster parenting. You just have to provide appropriate documentation (think birth certificate or adoption papers, for example).

Does it cover anything besides welcoming a new child?

CFRA covers bonding with a new child, but it also kicks in when you’re caring for a close family member who’s seriously ill. Close family members include parents, children and spouses or domestic partners. Parents-in-law, grandparents and grandchildren are not included in the benefit. (Keep in mind that the more expansive new PLA only covers caring for a child, so if you work at a smaller company, you may not have job protection when caring for another family member.)

If you’re ill yourself, you’re not covered under PFL, but you may well be able to file a claim under PDL. Personal disability leave is available for a longer period of time than PFL, but you receive the same amount of pay—60 or 70 percent of your weekly wage, up to a maximum of around $1,173 per week.

Can I combine this with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or any short-term disability benefits I may be entitled to?

If you are also eligible for FMLA (which offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave), you must take your FMLA and PFL leave concurrently. So let’s say you take six weeks of paid leave under California law; if you’re eligible for leave under the federal law, you can then take another six of unpaid weeks under FMLA.

If my company pays for some portion of leave, does the state law cover the rest up to 100 percent of my salary?

According to Lisa Pierson Weinberger, a California employment lawyer, you can’t get more than 100 percent of your pay. However, your employer can coordinate benefits with the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD); the EDD will pay you the partial salary provided for under California law, and your employer can pay the remaining difference between your full salary and the amount of the Paid Family Leave benefit. However, your employer is not required by law to do so. If they don’t cover the difference, then you’ll be paid according to whichever plan is more generous—your employer’s or PFL.

Note, though, that even though you’re receiving PFL, your job is not protected unless you work for an employer that is covered by other California laws or FMLA.

Is the leave pay taxed?

PFL benefits are reportable to the IRS (the federal government) but not to the state of California (the California State Franchise Tax Board).

What do I have to do to get the money and by when? How am I paid?

Beginning nine days after you welcome your new child, you can file a claim for PFL on the state’s dedicated website. You’ll need to provide proof that you’re eligible—usually you’ll upload a birth certificate or adoption papers—and a certification form from your health care provider. Your benefits will usually issue within two weeks of your filing.

Are there any monetary caps on the benefit annually or during one's lifetime?

Yes. The maximum amount you can receive under PFL is $1,173 for six weeks. However, after a year, you can start all over.

If you have a lot of kids, or if you need to take leave a few years in a row, the law provides for that. There’s no lifetime cap on how many times you can take PFL or how much you can be reimbursed. The only limitation is that once you use all of your leave for a given year, you have to wait 52 weeks from the date you started the leave to take another leave. So, for example, if you took six weeks of leave starting on January 3, you wouldn’t be eligible for another leave until the following January 3.

Do I still receive my benefits while I'm out?

For sure! Under PFL and CFRA, you are still able to accrue seniority or benefits if your employer allows for accrual for other forms of relief. You are also entitled to continue receiving health insurance benefits during leave. You will not be able to receive unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation benefits.

How is this paid for?

PFL is financed through a deduction from your paycheck. This deduction isn’t optional, so you’ll be paying for your lifetime; the good news for you is that your non-parent friends can’t say they don’t want to contribute, so when it’s your turn to receive the benefit, the money will be there. It’s kind of like property taxes; even though your kids might not go to public school or you might not have kids, you still have to pay to support the school system.

How much exactly will be deducted from each paycheck? Well, if you make $50,000 per year, your yearly contribution is about $450, or about $8.65 per week.

Where do I go if I have more questions?

The best place to start is always with your company’s Human Resources department. If you’re still not ready to tell your employer about your expected new addition, check the employee handbook. When you need information specifically about CFRA, PFL, PDL or PLA, California has a website dedicated to answering your questions.

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