California Bill Would Expand Family Leave for Seriously Ill

Legislation would allow leave to care for grandparents, siblings, in-laws and more

By June D. Bell Mar 2, 2017
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California workers who want unpaid time off to care for a seriously ill grandparent, sibling or in-law are at their employers' mercy because family leave is mandated only for the care of parents, children and spouses.

A bill, SB-62, seeks to broaden that coverage to include a web of relatives, reflecting the increasing number of Americans living in multigenerational households and the challenges of caring for kin with serious health conditions.

The bill is another effort by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, to move this legislation forward after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed her previous effort, SB-406, in 2015.

Leave Eligibility

Under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), businesses with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius must grant unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period to workers who have a baby or who adopt or foster a child.

The leave is also available for workers who need to care for a parent, spouse or child or who are themselves unable to work because of a serious health condition.

Employees are eligible for the leave if they have worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months and have been on the payroll for at least a year.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: How does the CFRA leave differ from FMLA leave?]

The proposed legislation would expand leave eligibility to include caring for grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, domestic partners and in-laws with serious health conditions.

It would also expand the definition of "child" to include the son or daughter of a domestic partner and would no longer define a child as either a person under 18 or a dependent adult son or daughter.

Additionally, the bill would remove the requirement that new parents who work for the same employer are capped at 12 weeks of combined leave.

Demographic Trends

The bill's efforts to broaden the number of relatives who can be cared for "is not unreasonable for the time in which we live," said Larry Drapkin, an attorney with Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles, citing staggering housing prices in the state's metropolitan areas, the expanded definition of what constitutes "family" and the rise in multigenerational households.

Indeed, an increasing number of Americans of multiple generations share a single roof. About 19 percent of Americans—roughly 60.4 million—live in a multigenerational household, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data. That number has been on the rise for decades due to economic downturns and the rising percentage of Asian and Latino families in the U.S. Both groups are more likely to have two or more generations sharing an address, according to the analysis.

Those demographic trends are especially pronounced in California, which has significantly higher percentages of Asians and Latinos than the rest of the country. Asians account for less than 6 percent of the U.S. population but nearly 15 percent of the Golden State's. Latinos make up 39 percent of California's population versus 27 percent of the U.S.'s.

Employer Perks

The CFRA largely jibes with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but there's nothing barring employers from being more generous in granting leave, said Jeff Tanenbaum, an attorney with Nixon Peabody's San Francisco office.

For example, although both laws provide for unpaid, job-protected leave, some businesses pay a worker's salary during all or part of the leave period. Others allow longer periods of leave than mandated by the law.

"I have found that my clients are typically quite flexible with these kinds of issues," he said, noting that businesses in the technology and professional-services sectors tend to be more liberal in granting leave.

Drapkin agreed, saying he has seen California companies offer more expansive unpaid and paid leave provisions than the state requires.

Jackson's 2015 bill initially applied to businesses with at least 25 workers and had strong support from women's groups and unions. Even after it was amended to cover businesses with a minimum of 50 workers, it continued to face opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, which dubbed it a "job killer."

When Jackson introduced SB-62 in December 2016, she simultaneously introduced the New Parent Leave Act, SB-63, which would provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental time off for workers at smaller businesses, defined as those with at least 20 employees.

Should the bill expanding medical leave become law, Drapkin said he isn't worried it will be abused. "I don't think there's going to be a rush out the door or a stampede" to obtain unpaid leave, he said.

June D. Bell, a regular contributor to SHRM, covers legal issues for a variety of publications. Contact her at june@junebell.com.

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