California Employers Must Comply with Leave Laws During Wildfires

By Patrick J. Wingfield and Kavin A. Williams September 5, 2018
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​California wildfires frequently force employers to tackle the arduous task of navigating both business operations and employment law issues during a disaster. To aid employers, we will discuss leaves of absence and other time-off considerations frequently involved when there are wildfires. 

Key Leave Considerations

Depending on the circumstances, employees may be entitled to take time off to care for and treat their own health condition or that of a family member because of the wildfires. Private employers should be aware of the following:

Family and medical leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) each provide eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave to care for their own or a family member's serious health condition. The FMLA and CFRA contain similar provisions and generally run concurrently. However, there are some situations in which leave will count only toward one or the other. Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period. Covered employers include those that employ 50 or more employees for each working day during each of 20 or more calendar workweeks in the current or preceding year.

Paid sick leave. Employees may use California mandatory sick leave to diagnose or care for an existing health condition or to seek preventive care for the employee or family member. The term "family member" is defined in the California Labor Code as a:

  • Biological, adopted or foster child; stepchild; legal ward; or child to whom the employee stands in loco parentis. The definition of a child is applicable regardless of age or dependency status.
  • Biological, adoptive or foster parent; stepparent; legal guardian of an employee or the employee's spouse or registered domestic partner; or person who stood in loco parentis when the employee was a minor child.
  • Spouse.
  • Registered domestic partner.
  • Grandparent.
  • Grandchild.
  • Sibling.

California's Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act (HWHFA) requires most employers to provide eligible workers with at least 24 paid hours or three paid sick days per year, whichever is greater. There is no federal counterpart.

Eligible employees include those who have worked in California for the same employer for 30 or more days within a year. Employers should note that some municipalities in the state have separate sick-leave requirements for employees within their jurisdiction. These local laws are sometimes more expansive than the California law. As such, employers must review each applicable law to stay informed of their obligations.

Company policy. Employees may also seek leave under a company's paid-time-off policy. However, employers are not required to provide additional sick days if their policies cover the state and local requirements. Thus, employers should review their paid-time-off policies and make sure supervisors are aware of the time that is available to employees.

Nonmedical leave. California law provides a number of leave options to workers beyond medical leave. For example, businesses are required to grant employees time off to perform emergency duty as a volunteer firefighter, reserve police officer or emergency rescue personnel. This leave is unpaid, and employers may not discharge, demote, suspend or otherwise discriminate against employees for exercising this right. Additionally, employers with 50 or more employees must provide up to 14 days off each year for fire or law enforcement training. Employers with 25 or more employees working at the same location must also allow eligible employees to take unpaid leave—up to 40 hours per year, but not more than eight hours per calendar month—to address school-related issues, including school closures because of a wildfire.

Conclusion

Although wildfires create serious challenges that no business can fully prepare for, understanding some of the key leave laws can help employers prepare for employee leave requests during any natural disaster.

Patrick J. Wingfield and Kavin A. Williams are attorneys with Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney in San Francisco.

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