Unpaid time off California

There is no legal requirement in California that an employer provide its employees with either paid or unpaid vacation time. However, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year.

By Brad Nakase, Attorney

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How does unpaid time off work?

California employment law does not require employers to offer unpaid time off to their employees. However, Under California’s leave of absence laws, employees are allowed to take time off for certain short or extended periods without losing their job. Under leave of absence law, an employee can take unpaid time off work up to 12 weeks or longer if needed, for a personal health condition, to care for newborn child, parent or other family member with a health condition.

Almost every employer provides some kind of time off policy for their employees. Certain employers permit employees to build up sick days, paid vacation days, personal days, and paid time off. In turn, workers are allowed to use their paid leave as they wish, as long as they follow their employer’s policies. For instance, let’s say an employer allows his or her employees to take a paid sick day as long as they visit a doctor and get a note that confirms the illness. That said, there are other scenarios that may necessitate time off that fall outside the scope of traditional leave programs.

Example: Julia wakes up feeling under the weather, with a sore throat and a headache. She emails her boss, Dave, saying that she is too unwell to come in to work that day. Dave responds with: “Sorry to hear that. Per company policy, I will need you to provide a doctor’s note.” Julia is shocked. She feels like her boss does not trust her word. However, Dave is in the right. Legally, he is allowed to have a company policy that demands a doctor’s note.

California is very generous when it comes to paid leave and time off for employees. Under California law, employees may take time off for sick days, vacation, pregnancy, attending children’s school functions, domestic violence leave, and a number of other reasons. That said, the state also needs to follow the federal laws regarding employee time off, especially when it concerns medical leave.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee is permitted to take as many as twelve weeks of unpaid leave every year to address medical emergencies, family emergencies, care for a newborn child, or to have necessary medical treatment. If an employee needs to provide care to a spouse or family member who suffered an injury or illness while in the military, this leave allowance increases to 26 weeks. California Employment defense attorney often defends employers from denial of unpaid time off that violates FMLA.

In California, there is also the California Family Rights Act, which requires employers with a minimum of 50 employees to offer up to twelve weeks off every year for dealing with health problems, caring for a newborn, or caring for an ill family member. Under California law, employers are also required to provide employees with paid sick leave. After an employee has worked for an employer for 30 days, they qualify to take sick leave if necessary. Sick leave is accrued at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours of on-the-clock work.

Can bosses deny time off?

Employers can deny unpaid time off because California law does not require employers to offer unpaid time away. However, if a worker asks for time off for a reason that is covered by either the CFRA or the FMLA, their employer is legally required to accept the request. All California employers must follow the CFRA and FMLA regulations. That said, an employer is permitted to deny an employee’s request to use paid time off or vacation time. However, the employer must have a legitimate reason for doing so.

Let’s say an employee asks for a week of vacation time in line with their company’s policy, but a few days before they depart, there is a work emergency. The employee’s supervisor, needing all hands on deck, denies the employee’s vacation request. While this is certainly frustrating for the employee, it is entirely legal.

Example: Corinne has just booked tickets to Italy for a weeklong vacation. Excited to take some time off from work, she lets her employer know she will be away from the office. Her boss, however, has just received a big order from a client, and he is worried about meeting the deadline. As Corinne is his team lead, he denies her vacation request, asking her to take her vacation a couple months down the road instead. Corinne is furious; she already spent hundreds of dollars on the plane tickets. However, her boss is allowed to deny her request, even if it inconveniences her.

An employee may want to use a sick day for a reason other than recovering from an illness, but this is not a good idea. If they are found out, it can lead to disciplinary action. Employees who wish to take time off should do so in accordance with employer policies. If the employee has a legitimate medical issue, an employer cannot reasonably deny a sick day request.

In the end, an employer should not interfere with an employee’s wish to seek medical treatment, or any other legitimate request for time off under the provisions of the CFRA or FMLA. If the employer tries to interfere, they may face penalties or fines. That said, an employer does maintain the right to deny a personal day off or vacation request. To do so, they must provide a reasonable explanation. If an employee feels that they were denied their rightful time off, they should contact a California employment attorney to see if the refusal was indeed unlawful.

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