Piecing Together California’s Local Sick-Leave Requirements

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Employers in California not only must comply with the statewide paid-sick-leave law, but they also must navigate through complex local laws that may provide even more time off to employees.

"California employers face an ever-changing patchwork of local ordinances that go beyond the statewide requirements for sick-leave benefits that were enacted with the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014," according to Chris Scheithauer, an attorney with McDermott Will & Emery in Los Angeles.

San Francisco became the first California city to offer paid sick leave in 2007, although updates to its law will go into effect in January 2017. Ordinances in Oakland and Emeryville took effect in 2015, followed by a Los Angeles ordinance in 2016.

Santa Monica's local law is slated to take effect on Jan. 1, 2017, and San Diego voters recently approved additional paid-sick-leave benefits for employees in the city.

The details of the various city laws aren't necessarily clear, and employers shouldn't assume that each city has the same requirements, said Anthony Zaller, an attorney with Van Vleck Turner & Zaller in Los Angeles.

Sick-Leave Benefits Vary

Under the statewide law, employees who work in California for 30 or more days in a 12-month period must accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 24 hours (or three days) per year. Employers may limit the use of paid sick leave to 24 hours per year. However, under the accrual method, employees must be able to accrue up to 48 hours that can be carried over to the next year.

Alternatively, under the state law, employers may provide 24 hours of sick leave upfront at the beginning of each year, with no carryover requirement to the next year.

Many of the local ordinances offer more generous benefits than the state law, but the accrual rates, caps and carryover provisions aren't all the same.

"The city of Los Angeles passed a law in June 2016 requiring employers to provide double the state requirement of paid sick leave," Zaller said. "Employers in Los Angeles will need to now provide employees with 48 hours of paid sick leave per year, compared with 24 hours or three days under state law."

Zaller noted that the Los Angeles law went into effect on July 1, 2016, which didn't give employers much time "to update their policies and develop new processes to comply with the law."

In Santa Monica, Zaller explained, "businesses with 26 or more employees must provide 40 hours of paid sick leave, and businesses with 25 or fewer employees must provide 32 hours as of Jan. 1, 2017. Then on Jan. 1, 2018, employers with 26 or more employees must provide 72 hours of paid sick leave, and employers with 25 or fewer employees must provide 40 hours."

Differences in Protected Sick Leave

The local ordinances also vary in the covered uses of paid sick leave. Most ordinances provide leave to care for an employee's own illness or to care for a family member. However, the local laws may have different definitions of "family member."

The San Francisco, Oakland and Emeryville ordinances, for example, expand the meaning of "family member" to include a "designated individual." The amendments to San Francisco's law will also broaden the definition of "parent" to include an adoptive, foster or stepparent, as well as an individual who was an employee's guardian when the employee was a minor.

To further complicate matters, the Los Angeles ordinance includes as family members "any individual related by blood or affinity" who has the "equivalent of a family relationship."

Emeryville's law additionally provides for the care of an employee's service dog.

When it comes to workers taking sick leave, employers should have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, said Laura Worsinger, an attorney with Dykema in Los Angeles. "There are so many reasons an employee can take sick leave, and in California you're not really allowed to ask what the illness is anyway."

Worsinger said it's best to err on the side of caution and treat paid sick leave like any other kind of paid leave.

Including Sick Leave in PTO Policies

Scheithauer said that many employers are choosing to go beyond merely offering the bare minimum of leave required under the state law or local ordinances.

"Instead, savvy employers are taking advantage of the ability to merge vacation time and sick leave into a paid time off (PTO) policy that provides employees a bank of paid time off that can be used for whatever purposes the employee wants," he said.

Employers that offer PTO banks have less of an administrative burden in tracking the different leave types, Scheithauer said.

Merging vacation and sick time into a PTO bank also may help to assure that the amount of leave provided is sufficient under all the state and local requirements, and it may eliminate the need to have different leave policies in different jurisdictions, which can impact employee morale, he said.

"If drafted correctly, these PTO policies generally satisfy the sick leave requirements in the state and local ordinances," Scheithauer noted.

Worsinger cautioned that employers that offer PTO banks need to pay employees for any unused accrued time upon separation from the company, whereas employers generally don't need to pay out any accrued sick leave that is tracked separately.

Employers Need an Organized Plan

"Employers must create an organized and thought-out plan to satisfy all of these local and statewide legal requirements," according to Scheithauer.

Worsinger said it's very important to think about any upcoming changes in the law before they go into effect and to plan accordingly. If certain employees are on the border in terms of hours worked in a particular jurisdiction, employers should make sure they are providing enough PTO to comply with the ordinance, in case these employees do end up falling under the statute.

"Continually reading and keeping up with developments is difficult, but it is a necessity given how quickly these types of laws have been written and passed by local cities," Zaller said. "Each city law must be carefully examined to ensure that any differences between cities or with the state law are complied with." 

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