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Making the Most of Private Parental Leave

California has some of the country’s strongest laws regarding parental leave. However, the relative strength of these laws does not mean all workers are guaranteed the same amount of leave. Some employers choose to offer their workers additional time off as a benefit to attract more talent. 

This private, employer-based leave is invaluable for many new parents. The problem is that since it is not guaranteed under the law, it can be more difficult to hold employers accountable if they attempt to block workers from taking the promised time off. Here’s what you need to know about different types of parental leave in California and what to do if your employer attempts to block you from taking the time off you were promised in your employment contract.

The Difference Between FMLA Leave and Employer-Based Leave 

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) both guarantee workers up to twelve weeks of protected, unpaid leave in a twelve-month period. These laws specifically allow eligible employees to take time away from work after welcoming a new child into the family with a guarantee that their job will still be there when they get back. 

California also goes a step further. Under the state Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, people who need to take time off for a family reason, such as bonding with a new child, can request partial wage-replacement benefits for up to eight weeks. Eligible workers can receive 60-70% of their weekly wages for those eight weeks from the government. Generally, most employed people qualified for PFL is also eligible for CFRA or FMLA leave, allowing them to take publicly-funded paid parental time away from work.

Under the CFRA, only employers with five or more employees or state and local governments must provide workers with unpaid time away. Furthermore, you need to have been working for your employer for at least 12 months and 1250 hours before you specifically are eligible for this time. 

This is very different from the programs some employers offer. Private employers with parental time off programs can set significantly different terms for eligibility, length, and pay as long as they are equivalent to or better than those already guaranteed by the state. For example, some employers only require workers to be at the company for 90 days before they are eligible. Others, like Google, provide workers with up to 24 weeks of leave, an unprecedented amount in the U.S. 

When Can an Employer Deny Parental Leave?

The problem with employer-based paternity or maternity time is that it is not granted the same protections as state-mandated leave. Instead, it is treated like other benefits like vacation time or sick leave. While employers are required to live up to their contracts with their employees, it can be significantly more difficult to fight back if they do attempt to violate these agreements. Unless an employer fails to meet the requirements set by the state of California, failing to provide the contractually promised amount of time off is considered a contract violation, not a workers’ rights violation.

In addition, private new child policies often have stricter scheduling requirements than government alternatives. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer can deny requests for medical leave when it is not protected under federal or state law in many circumstances. 

This includes situations where finding someone to replace you for the duration of leave would be particularly difficult, or the length of your break will pose “significant difficulty or expense” to your employer. You must read your employment contract and your employer’s HR policies carefully to determine what amount of time off you are guaranteed under your agreement. 

This does not mean that you have no recourse, though. If your employer promised you paid parental time and refuses to grant it to you, they are breaching the employment contract. You can still take legal action to pursue the compensation and time away you’re owed.

What to Do If You’re Denied Parental Leave Under Your Company’s Policy

California courts take violations of employment contracts very seriously. You can fight back if your employer reneges on your contract or makes it unreasonably difficult to access the parental leave you were promised. Here’s how to get started:

  • Gather relevant documentation: Collect paperwork such as your employment contract and HR policies for your company. These should provide a clear idea of the type of compensation and time off you were offered. It would help if you also gathered any communications regarding your leave request and any updates to the policies that may have occurred after you were hired.
  • Submit a formal complaint with HR: If you have not already done so, submit a formal, written complaint to your HR department, and keep a copy of that complaint yourself. Request a written response rather than a verbal one to ensure there is a paper trail if your request for time away is denied again. 
  • Consult with an experienced attorney: Skilled legal counsel is vital any time you have a contract dispute with your employer. Your attorney will help you understand your rights and determine the best path forward, whether that is negotiating with your employer or filing a lawsuit.

At Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP, we specialize in helping parents and families who have been impacted by unfair and illegal employment practices. We are available to help you pursue the time off you were promised in your employment contract so you can spend time with your new child. Learn more about how we can help you stand up for your right to paid parental leave by scheduling your consultation with our skilled California employment law attorneys today.

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