If you’re thinking of taking a leave of absence to start a family or deal with a serious medical issue, then California is a good place to be. Not only will you be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law, but you may be eligible for state-level job protections that are more robust than in many other states.

By requesting leave under FMLA in California, you’ll be entitled to maintain your health insurance while on leave and be guaranteed the same job when you return to work. You may also qualify for Paid Family Leave under California law.

But ensuring you meet the eligibility requirements can be tricky. Here’s everything you need to know about how FMLA works in California, and how it differs from state-level leave laws like the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

CFRA vs. FMLA in California

The Family and Medical Leave Act was passed by Congress in 1993. Since it’s a federal law, it applies to eligible employees in all 50 states.

FMLA guarantees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in order to welcome a new child into the family (either by birth, adoption, or foster care), to care for a seriously ill family member, or to address an employee’s own serious health condition.

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) is a state-level law that provides many of the same benefits to eligible employees in California. Just as with FMLA leave, the CFRA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period to care for a new child or immediate family member, or to receive medical care.

In fact, CFRA and FMLA are so similar that it’s easy to think they’re identical. But there are a few differences which mean you might be eligible for one and not the other.

Similarities Between CFRA and FMLA

First, how similar are FMLA and CFRA? For the most part, FMLA leave and CFRA leave have the same eligibility requirements. To be eligible, you’ll need to work for a “covered employer,” which includes many government agencies, public and private schools, and some public-sector employers.

You’ll need to work for the same employer for at least 12 months (not necessarily in the same calendar year) and at least 1,250 hours in the year prior to taking leave.

Both types of leave are unpaid, but offer two key entitlements: They allow you to keep your health benefits while on leave so you can continue to see the same health care provider, and they entitle you to reinstatement in the same or a similar position.

In addition to the qualifying reasons mentioned above, both laws cover “qualifying exigencies” related to a family member’s military service.

Differences Between CFRA and FMLA

If CFRA and FMLA are so similar, do employees need to know the differences when putting in a leave request? That depends on the situation.

In 2021, California made some major changes to CFRA, which means it may apply to more situations than FMLA. It’s important for the human resources department to look at both laws when considering an employee’s leave request.

First, CFRA has a much broader definition of a covered employer. In the private sector, FMLA applies to employers with at least 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius of the employer’s worksite.

In 2021, California reduced the threshold to 5 employees with no 75-mile requirement, meaning CFRA may apply to remote workers and employees of small businesses.

Second, CFRA has a broader definition of an immediate family member. According to the Department of Labor at DOL.gov, FMLA leave only applies to a “spouse, child, or parent,” not to a domestic partner, grandparent, or grandchild.

CFRA specifically includes these family members. It also applies to employees serving as a caregiver of a sibling or adult child with a serious medical condition.

Alternatives to FMLA in California

FMLA California: person in a wheelchair using a tablet

FMLA and CFRA apply to many situations, but not all. And since neither of these leave laws include paid leave, it may be worth exploring these other alternatives to FMLA in California. Some of these options can be taken concurrently with FMLA:

Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL)

In California, pregnancy disability leave is separate from parental leave. It guarantees up to four months of leave for the following reasons:

  • Prenatal care
  • Postnatal care
  • Bed rest ordered by a doctor
  • Severe morning sickness
  • Loss or end of pregnancy

An employee may be eligible to take pregnancy disability leave under FMLA, and still qualify for parental leave under CFRA.

Disability Insurance (DI)

Employees who need to take time off due to a short-term disability or chronic medical condition may qualify for California’s Disability Insurance (DI) program.

This program essentially provides paid time off, or “short-term wage replacement” of up to 70% of your usual wages for up to 52 weeks.

DI is also available to self-employed workers who aren’t eligible for FMLA or CFRA, although first you’ll have to opt-in to California’s Disability Insurance Elective Coverage to qualify.

Paid Family Leave (PFL)

California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) program is another benefits program that may be available to employees on FMLA leave in California. Like DI, it covers up to 70% of your wages, but is only available for up to 8 weeks.

The PFL program applies to biological parents, as well as those caring for adopted or foster children, within 12 months of birth or placement.

It also covers employees taking time off to care for a sick family member or an active duty service member, but not for an employee’s own serious health condition.

Can You Use CFRA and FMLA Back to Back?

Since employees in California are covered by both CFRA and FMLA, you might wonder if that entitles you to 24 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period.

Whether or not you can take CFRA and FMLA back-to-back depends on the situation. In most cases, if you’re eligible for both types of leave, then you’ll have to take them concurrently, for a maximum of 12 weeks.

However, if a situation qualifies you for one type of leave but not the other, then you may be able to take both back-to-back. For example, you may qualify for pregnancy disability leave under FMLA, followed by parental leave under CFRA.

Or, you may take leave to care for a domestic partner under CFRA (not covered under FMLA), then take leave to care for another sick family member under FMLA.

Other benefits programs like Disability Insurance and Paid Family Leave apply while you’re on CFRA or FMLA leave, but don’t increase the amount of leave time.

Finally, if these laws don’t offer enough time off for your needs, you can always talk to your employer about combining FMLA with sick leave or vacation leave. They may be willing to work with you or make an exception to their standard sick leave policy.

Navigate FMLA in California With Pulpstream

Pregnant woman at her office

Processing leave requests can be complicated, especially if multiple state and federal laws apply. By using Pulpstream for leave of absence management, employers can be sure that they’re honoring employee rights and meeting their legal obligations.

From requesting medical certifications to handling LOA requests for military family members, Pulstream’s no-code platform makes it easy to customize the process to meet your company’s needs. Your employees can expect faster responses to their FMLA requests and better understand their rights under FMLA in California.

You can also use Pulstream for claims management, incident management, return to work programs, and more. Contact us to request a demo and see for yourself!