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Leaves of Absence and Accommodations: What Counts as Reasonable?

California has some of the best protections for workers in the United States. Among these protections are comprehensive laws that permit workers to take a leave of absence from their jobs under specific circumstances. In fact, state law treats time off of work as a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances. 

However, it’s not always clear what counts as accommodation or when you’re eligible to take leave. That can make it difficult to exercise your rights and take the protected time off that you need. Here’s what you need to know about how leaves of absence work and when such leave may be considered a reasonable accommodation for disability under California law.

What Is a Leave of Absence?

A leave of absence is a period that an employee is allowed to be away from their job. This time can be paid or unpaid, depending on the specific circumstances and the employer’s policies. Commonly recognized types of leave in California include:

  1. Medical: Often associated with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), medical time off allows employees to take time off for serious health conditions or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.
  2. Disability: This pertains to employees who are unable to work due to a disability. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) provides protections for such employees.
  3. Pregnancy Disability: Specifically for employees unable to work due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, offering up to four months of leave.
  4. Paid Sick: California law requires employers to provide paid sick leave to employees who have worked for at least 30 days. Employees can use paid sick days for diagnosis, treatment, or preventative care for themselves or a family member, as well as for certain purposes related to being a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
  5. Parental: This allows parents to take time off for the birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child without pay but with job protection and continuation of health insurance benefits.
  6. Jury Duty: California law requires employers to provide unpaid time off for employees summoned to serve jury duty. Employers are prohibited from penalizing employees for taking this time.
  7. Kin Care: Under California’s “Kin Care” law, employees are entitled to use up to half of their accrued sick days to take care of a family member.

In California, if you meet the appropriate criteria, you can likely take unpaid time off from your job without losing employment.

When Is Leave Considered a Reasonable Accommodation?

In California, a leave of absence is considered a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) when it enables an employee with a disability to manage their health condition and eventually return to work. This accommodation must be provided unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer’s operations. Criteria for reasonable accommodations include:

  • Disability or Medical Condition: The employee has a physical or mental disability that limits one or more major life activities, and the leave is necessary for them to seek treatment, recover, or otherwise manage their condition. Under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), this now includes temporary or permanent disabilities related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. 
  • Employer Notification: The employee, or someone on their behalf, must communicate the need for a leave of absence due to a disability, providing sufficient information for the employer to understand that the time is needed for disability-related reasons.

Employers are required to engage in a timely, good-faith interactive process with the employee to determine the feasibility of the accommodation. This process involves discussing the need for leave, its expected duration, and any possible alternatives that could equally meet the employee’s health needs without unduly disrupting the employer’s operations. If the leave is found to be reasonable and does not place an undue burden on the employer, it must be approved as an accommodation. 

But what constitutes reasonability? Four key factors must be present for leave to be considered a reasonable accommodation:

  1. Finite Duration: A leave with a defined duration, indicating when the employee expects to return to work, is more likely to be considered reasonable. Indefinite leaves, where no return date is specified, are less likely to be seen as reasonable accommodations.
  2. Does Not Cause Undue Hardship: The time off does not significantly strain the employer’s resources or operations. Factors include the size of the organization, the nature of the work, and the impact on the workforce and costs.
  3. Medical Documentation Support: The request for leave is supported by medical documentation that outlines the need for absence as a form of accommodation for the employee’s condition.
  4. Allows the Employee to Perform Essential Job Functions Upon Return: The purpose of the time off is to ensure that the employee can perform their essential job functions upon returning to work, with or without other reasonable accommodations.

In short, a leave of absence is considered a reasonable accommodation in California when it is necessary due to a disability (including those caused by pregnancy or labor), does not impose an undue hardship on the employer, and is part of an interactive process aimed at facilitating the employee’s eventual return to work.

Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP: Protecting Your Right to Reasonable Accommodations

Leaves of absence and accommodations for disabilities are integral parts of California employment law aimed at protecting workers while balancing the interests of employers. Determining what constitutes a reasonable accommodation, including leave of absence, requires a nuanced understanding of both the employee’s medical needs and the employer’s operational capabilities. If you believe you have been denied access to time off work as a reasonable accommodation, the skilled employment lawyers at Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP are available to help you. Our San Francisco attorneys have decades of experience assisting clients like you to pursue justice and fair treatment at work, including reasonable accommodations and compensation for rights violations. Schedule your consultation today to discuss your case and take the next step toward a more equitable work experience.

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