California's Working Parents Can Take School-Related Leave

Eligibility may vary based on employer size and location

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP September 11, 2018
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It's September, which means that the children are back to school. It also means that parents might need to take time away from work for school-related activities. California workers have a legal right to take time off in certain situations, but which laws apply will depend on employer size, geographic location and the reason for the leave.

It's a good idea for employers to develop and refer to a checklist of the various applicable laws for each leave request, said Tamara Devitt, an attorney with Haynes and Boone in Los Angeles. It is also important to train front-line supervisors to recognize that different requests may trigger different obligations, she said.

In addition to statewide laws, there are numerous local laws throughout California that give employees job-protected time off, including leave for children in school, noted Craig O'Loughlin, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Orange County.

Employers should create, maintain and distribute leave policies to employees at each worksite and should ensure that managers know how to identify issues that should be brought to HR's attention, said Tae Kim, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Los Angeles.

Here are some key child-related leave laws that California employers should note.

School-Activities Leave

Workers at locations with at least 25 employees must be allowed to take up to 40 hours off each year—up to eight hours per month—for school- or daycare-related activities. This type of leave can be used for a broad range of activities, including to:

  • Find or enroll a child in a school or licensed daycare program.
  • Attend a child's a play, awards ceremony, sporting event, graduation or other activity.
  • Address emergencies during which a child can't stay in school or daycare—such as a fire, natural disaster or problem at school. The eight-hour monthly cap doesn't apply to emergencies.

"If the employer asks, an employee who takes time off for school purposes must provide proof of participation from the school," O'Loughlin said.

Employees can generally be required to use accrued paid time off for planned leave under this section of the state labor code. 

Leave to Attend Disciplinary Meetings

Under California the law, a teacher can require a parent or guardian to attend disciplinary meetings related to a child's suspension from school. All employers must provide related leave to parents if certain conditions are met. "Before taking the time off, the employee must provide the employer with reasonable notice of the need to take time off for this reason," noted Michelle Barrett Falconer, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco. Employees may be able to recover lost wages and benefits if an employer violates the statute.

Paid Sick Leave and Kin Care

The school year may bring colds, viruses, sports injuries and a host of other issues. So employers should understand that workers can use a certain amount of accrued sick leave to care for a family member's illness or injury.

Under California's Healthy Workplaces Healthy Families Act, eligible workers must be allowed to take up to three paid sick days per year to care for themselves or a family member.

Additionally, many municipalities have their own paid-sick-leave laws that may provide more generous benefits. Local laws might list specific reasons for use that apply to child-related leave, Devitt said. For example, San Diego's paid-sick-leave law allows employees to take time off when a child's school is closed because of a public-health emergency.

"The circumstances where this would occur are fairly narrow," Falconer said.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Comply with California's Paid Sick Leave Requirements]

Employers aren't obligated to provide additional accruals beyond mandated paid sick leave under state and local laws. However, if they do provide additional sick leave, employees must be allowed to use that time for certain reasons. Under California's kin-care law, which predates the statewide paid-sick-leave law, employees can use at least half of their accrued sick leave to care for a family member's injury or illness. The kin-care law was revised in 2016 to reflect that such leave must be available to employees to use for any purposes permitted under the statewide paid-sick-leave law.

Family and Medical Leave

Workers may be entitled to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a child with a serious health condition. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act, covered employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period. Employees are eligible to take leave if they work at a location where there are 50 or more employees within 75 miles, have worked for their employer for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months.

Tips for Employers

"It goes without saying that employers should make sure that they are complying with all applicable laws," Devitt said. "But because of the nuances and different—and sometimes changing—statutory requirements, employers need to be particularly conscientious about applicability." 

Employers should also make sure to comply with the posting and notice requirements under many leave laws and keep up to date on any changes in the law, she added.

Falconer suggested that employers:

  • Conduct an annual review of leave or other time-off policies.
  • Train managers to spot situations where time off may be required by law and to bring those issues to HR's attention.
  • Ensure that HR professionals are up to date on all of the laws that may be triggered when an employee wishes to take child-related leave.

Employers should also note that the definition of "child," "parent" and "guardian" vary, and that some laws don't limit child-related leave to minors.

Given the complexity of these laws, employers should consult legal counsel to determine which California child-related leave laws apply, O'Loughlin said. 

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