Family and Medical Leave: What Employers Need to Know

Posted by Catherine Chukwueke | Mar 12, 2024

The Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") and California Family Rights Act ("CFRA") address various family and medical leave situations, including personal illness, caring for family members, childbirth, or adoption. Eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for reasons such as bonding with a new child or addressing a serious health condition. Understanding these laws is crucial due to potential legal implications and liabilities associated with non-compliance.

Family and Medical Leave Act 

FMLA is a federal law that offers eligible employees of covered employers job-protected leave for qualifying family and medical reasons. This includes ensuring the continuation of group health benefits under the same conditions as if they had not taken leave. FMLA leave can be unpaid or used concurrently with employer-provided paid leave, with the guarantee that employees will be restored to the same or virtually identical position upon their return to work.

To be eligible for FMLA, employees must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months, accumulated at least 1,250 hours of service in the preceding 12 months, and work at a location with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Covered employers include private-sector entities with 50 or more employees, public agencies, and local educational agencies.

FMLA protects leave for various reasons, such as the birth or placement of a child, caring for a family member with a serious health condition, the employee's own serious health condition, and reasons related to a family member's military service. This includes qualifying exigency leave and military caregiver leave.

Eligible employees can take up to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for most FMLA reasons, with an extension to 26 workweeks for military caregiver leave during a single 12-month period. The use of FMLA leave can be intermittent or on a reduced schedule when medically necessary, allowing flexibility for employees' unique situations.

While FMLA is generally unpaid, employees can use employer-provided paid leave concurrently if the reason aligns with the employer's paid leave policy. Employers may also require the use of paid leave during FMLA leave.

Requesting FMLA leave requires employees to provide enough information for the employer to be aware that the leave may be covered by FMLA. Notice should be provided as soon as possible and practical, and employers may request information from healthcare providers. 

Employers may be held liable for violating FMLA. Such actions include making threats, engaging in discrimination, administering punishment, implementing suspensions, or terminating employees due to their use of FMLA benefits.

Special rules apply to certain workers, such as teachers and flight crew employees, with distinct eligibility requirements and considerations. Returning service members under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act are entitled to FMLA benefits.

FMLA is a federal worker protection law, and employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for exercising their FMLA rights. The Wage and Hour Division administers and enforces FMLA for most employees, and violations can be reported through complaints or private lawsuits. State and federal employees may have specific limitations and jurisdictions for pursuing FMLA claims.

California Family Rights Act

CFRA, a California state law, requires that covered employers offer eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family or medical reasons. Effective January 1, 2021, covered employers include private entities operating in California with a direct employment of five or more individuals in any state, the District of Columbia, or any US territory. The law also extends to the state of California, political subdivisions, and cities, irrespective of their employee count.

To qualify for CFRA leave, an employee must have been employed for at least 12 months (52 weeks) with the employer and worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the 12-month period preceding the leave commencement. Employers are prohibited from denying leave requests based on the worksite having fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.

CFRA provides eligible employees with up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave within a 12-month period for various reasons. These reasons include the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child, caring for the serious health condition of specified family members, attending to the employee's own serious health condition, and addressing qualifying exigencies related to the covered active duty of family members in the US Armed Forces.

Notably, CFRA is not preempted by the federal FMLA, and both laws coexist with some differences. While both laws cover pregnancy and childbirth-related disabilities, California's Pregnancy Disability Leave Law addresses these separately from CFRA. Other distinctions include the reduced threshold of five employees for CFRA, the inclusion of additional family members under CFRA, and the absence of military caregiver leave under CFRA.

Pregnancy Disability Leave and Baby Bonding Leave

California's Pregnancy Disability Leave ("PDL") law applies to employers with five or more employees, offering four months of leave for pregnancy-related disabilities. If employees fall under FMLA/CFRA coverage, they can extend their leave to up to 12 weeks for unpaid, job-protected baby bonding. Notably, new hires are immediately eligible for PDL. The entitlement under PDL is per pregnancy, allowing eligibility for miscarriages and pregnancy terminations. It caters to disabilities related to pregnancy before and after childbirth, covering a spectrum of conditions such as severe morning sickness, bed rest, pregnancy-induced hypertension, post-partum depression, and more. Importantly, PDL offers flexibility, permitting intermittent leave or a reduced work schedule based on healthcare provider recommendations.

Employees eligible for FMLA and/or CFRA have an additional opportunity for up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected Baby/Child Bonding Leave. Both parents can take advantage of this benefit, but it must be used within one year of the child's birth, adoption, or foster care placement. While FMLA covers both pregnancy and Baby Bonding simultaneously with PDL during the employee's pregnancy-related disability, CFRA leave kicks in after PDL ends, specifically for Baby Bonding. However, FMLA/CFRA will run concurrently when it comes to Baby Bonding. It is important to understand that an employee may qualify for PDL and might not meet the criteria for FMLA or CFRA.

Reproductive Health Protections under Senate Bill 848

Effective January 1, 2024, SB 848 introduced provisions to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, emphasizing support for working mothers facing reproductive loss events. Employers are now prohibited from denying eligible employees up to five days of reproductive loss leave, covering scenarios like failed adoptions, surrogacies, miscarriages, stillbirths, or unsuccessful assisted reproduction. This leave, to be taken within three months of the event, underscores the importance of employer support during sensitive times.

Medical Certification and Notice Requirements

Employers may require medical certification for certain leaves, distinguishing between a "serious health condition" and a "common ailment." Both federal and state laws mandate specific notice requirements for transparency in leave-related communication.

Reinstatement and Interaction Between Laws

Granting family and medical leave includes the responsibility to guarantee reinstatement to the same or comparable positions. Understanding the interaction between federal and California laws, including PDL, FMLA, and CFRA, is essential for accurate compliance.

Penalties for Violations and Company Policies

Violating family, medical, parental, and pregnancy leave laws exposes employers to civil lawsuits or administrative proceedings, potentially leading to liability for supervisors. A comprehensive company policy aligning with federal and state regulations is crucial, especially when outlining family and medical leave policies in employee handbooks.

Lactation Accommodation for Nursing Mothers

Nursing mothers, upon returning from pregnancy leave, have the right to request time for expressing breast milk during work hours. Employers must provide reasonable break time and a suitable location, maintaining a clean and safe environment with necessary amenities.


Effectively navigating the complexities of family and medical leave laws demands a deep understanding of FMLA and CFRA. Employers play a crucial role in ensuring compliance, supporting employees during significant life events, and fostering a workplace culture that values work-life balance and employee well-being. Familiarizing yourself with specific provisions of FMLA and CFRA, such as eligibility criteria, leave benefits, and protections, is essential for comprehensive compliance.

If you have any questions regarding your company's policies or need guidance on California employment law, contact the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke and schedule a consultation. We are here to help you navigate the complexities of employment law with confidence.

Disclaimer: This article has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. 

About the Author

Catherine Chukwueke

Catherine (“Cathy”) Chukwueke is the Owner and Principal Attorney of the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke, a law firm focusing on labor and employment matters and workplace investigations. Ms. Chukwueke is passionate about helping people who have been mistreated in the workplace.

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