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California Family Rights Act (CFRA): Complete guide for HR

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9 min read
California Family Rights Act (CFRA)

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) is a state leave law that enables eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected medical leave. Although it has been in effect since 1993, California has updated the act a number of times, most recently in 2022. As a result, many employers are unclear whether their business is covered by the CFRA, and if so, what their obligations are.

If your business is based in California, then read on to find out everything you need to know about CFRA leave. We will discuss CFRA eligibility and take a look at the differences between CFRA vs FMLA leave. We will also explain what you need to consider in order to ensure compliance with the California Family Rights Act.

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What is the California Family Rights Act (CFRA)?

A company’s HR department is responsible for handling a range of leave requests from employees. This includes requests for maternity leave, time off to care for a sick family member, personal paid sick leave, and stress leave from work. There are US federal employment laws that offer employees certain protections in these circumstances, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But many states also have their own regulations that govern medical and family leave. And the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) is one such example.

So, what is CFRA leave?

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) is an employment law in the state of California that guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave during a 12-month period. Administered by California’s Civil Rights Department (CRD) (formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing), this form of leave applies to eligible employees of covered employers who are experiencing certain family or medical situations.

These situations include:

  • The birth and care of a newborn child.
  • A newly placed foster or adopted child.
  • Caring for a family member who has a serious medical condition.
  • When an employee has a serious health condition that prevents them from working.

Covered employers 

There are two factors to consider in order to determine CFRA eligibility. This includes whether or not an employer is covered, and whether or not an employee is eligible.

Let’s start with covered employers.

California employment law defines covered employers as:

  • Private employers who are engaged in any business in California that employs five or more workers (this figure was 50 before the recent expansion).
  • Public employers, including state governmental agencies, regardless of size.

Employee eligibility requirements 

If you are a covered employer, then the next step before you can authorize an employee’s request for CFRA leave is to determine if they are eligible.

Eligible employees:

  • Must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months prior to requesting leave.
  • Must have worked for at least 1,250 hours within the same 12-month time frame.
  • Can be full-time or part-time workers, provided they meet the first two requirements.

Before accepting a request for CFRA leave, employers can ask employees to submit a medical certificate from a healthcare provider to verify a serious health condition. They can also request verification of when the condition started, the anticipated duration of the condition, and a medical statement that an employee is unable to perform essential job duties. However, employees are not required to disclose specific information relating to the nature of the condition itself

Although the law has been in effect since 1993, the state added certain extensions in 2021 and 2022. These include the obligation to provide employees disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition with unpaid, job-protected leave (PDL) and/or certain accommodations. The state also expanded the definition of a “designated person”. As a result, eligible employees can now request CFRA leave to care for any “designated person” with a serious illness, not just an immediate family member. The age restriction for the definition of a child has also been removed so children do not have to be 18 years or under for an employee to be eligible for parental leave.

Reasons for CFRA leave 

According to California employment law, the CFRA now guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees for the following reasons:

  • Birth of a child, including the child of the employee’s domestic partner.
  • Placement of a child for adoption or foster care.
  • Caring for a child, parent, parent-in-law, spouse, registered domestic partner, sibling, grandparent or grandchild with a serious health condition.
  • If an employee is suffering from a serious health condition.

The CFRA defines a serious health condition as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition. Serious health conditions include:

  • Any amount of time that an employee or their family member cannot work or receives treatment due to (or as a result of) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility.
  • Any period of incapacity that makes an employee unable to come to work for more than 3 consecutive days. This involves the time needed to receive treatment from a healthcare provider or to be under their supervision.
  • The continuance of treatment or supervision by a healthcare provider because of a chronic or long-term health condition that will become serious (result in incapacity of more than 3 consecutive days) if not treated, including prenatal care (excluding routine medical appointments).
  • Restorative dental or plastic surgery if it is related to an accident, injury, or for the removal of cancerous growths. Voluntary or cosmetic surgeries are not serious health conditions.

Employer responsibilities and obligations 

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) establishes a number of responsibilities and obligations for covered employers. If you run a business with at least 5 employees, then you need to be aware of these obligations.

Firstly, California employment law requires you to determine whether a requesting employee is eligible for CFRA leave within 5 days. You must also inform the employee of their eligibility status within this time frame. 

If an employee meets the conditions required for CFRA eligibility, then leave must be designated retroactively to the first day of the employee’s absence for the CFRA-qualifying condition. You must provide the employee taking leave with an explanation of their rights and responsibilities while they are absent, together with a guarantee that they will be reinstated in the same or an equivalent position after the period of CFRA leave has ended. 

If you deny an employee’s request for CFRA leave, then you must provide them with a valid reason. However, if your status as an employer meets all of the CFRA criteria and an employee is considered eligible according to California employment law, then you cannot refuse a request for CFRA leave. You also cannot refuse to reinstate an employee upon return from CFRA leave. 

If you fail to meet your obligations as an employer, then a requesting employee can report you to California’s Civil Rights Department (CRD) for violation of the CFRA.

Do you have to pay an employee taking CFRA leave? 

According to the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), you are not obligated to pay an employee who is taking CFRA leave. However, you are required to continue providing benefits

For example, you need to provide CFRA-eligible employees on leave with continued access to:

  • Health and dental insurance
  • Pension and retirement benefits
  • Accident insurance
  • Short-term and long-term disability insurance
  • Supplemental unemployment benefits
  • Continued accrual of seniority

Moreover, you must provide an employee on leave with healthcare coverage for up to a maximum of 12 weeks in a 12-month period, starting from the first day that they take CFRA leave. You can only recover health insurance premiums during a period of CFRA leave if:

  • The employee fails to return from leave at its expiration (an employee is deemed to have failed to return from leave if he or she works less than 30 days after returning from leave). 
  • The employee’s failure to return from leave is for a reason other than the continuation, recurrence, or onset of a serious health condition that entitled the employee to CFRA leave, or other circumstances beyond the control of the employee.

Finally, if you do not offer pay to employees on CFRA leave, you can choose to allow employees to use accrued sick or vacation days whilst they are absent. However, this will depend on your internal policies and the terms of their employment contract.

How to request CFRA leave 

Now let’s take a look at how to apply for CFRA leave.

If one of your employees wishes to request CFRA leave, you should get them to follow certain guidelines. You should make sure you detail these guidelines in your employee handbook so that employees understand what’s expected of them.

Firstly, employees should use a CFRA leave request form to ask for time off. This will ensure you have all requests in writing. You can design this form yourself and there are no guidelines for what you should include. However, you should make sure you collect all the information you need to determine whether or not an employee is eligible for CFRA leave.

If an employee is requesting leave for a serious health condition, then you may require them to submit a medical certification within 15 days of their request for leave. The employee’s healthcare provider must sign this certificate. You should not use the U.S. Department of Labor medical certification form for this (WH-380). This is because this form asks the healthcare provider to list medical facts justifying the employee’s need for leave (you cannot request medical facts under California law). Instead, you can use the form appearing in Title 2, Section 11097 of the California Code of Regulations

You cannot challenge the validity of a medical certificate. However, if an employee refuses to provide one, then you can refuse their request for CFRA leave. You can also terminate their employment due to being absent without leave. Be mindful, though, that this should always be a last resort.  

Important California Family Rights Act (CFRA) conditions  

The are a few other conditions of the CFRA that you need to be aware of:

  • You have a right to hire a temporary employee to cover an employee’s duties while they are on CFRA leave. However, the employee is entitled to return to the same job or a similar one after their period of leave. The only exception is if the company closes down or you eliminate their role due to layoffs.
  • The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) establishes certain obligations for both employers and employees. For example, an employee requesting leave for a serious medical condition must provide you with notice where possible. You as the employer, in turn, must grant them leave in these situations.
  • In the event of CFRA leave for serious medical conditions, you can request a medical certificate from the employee to support their claim. This certificate must confirm in writing that they are suffering from a serious medical condition. It should also provide the date when the condition started, and the estimated length of the condition. However, you cannot request specific medical information without an employee’s written consent
  • According to California employment law, employees must provide a minimum of 30 days’ notice before taking a leave of absence. However, the law does permit shorter notice periods for emergency situations

Is CFRA independent from FMLA? 

California Family Rights Act (CFRA) is, in many ways, similar to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, although California modelled the CFRA on the FMLA, they are separate laws.

Essentially, the differences between CFRA vs FMLA leave are that:

  • The FMLA is a federal program, whereas the CFRA is a state law that is only applicable in California.
  • Both laws protect employees who need time off from work for medical or family-related reasons. However, the FMLA requires much more documentation and proof of eligibility than the CFRA.
  • The FMLA covers pregnancy, whereas the CFRA only covers time off for pregnancy complications.
  • The FMLA applies to employers with 50 or more employees. The CFRA applies to employers with 5 or more employees. 
  • With the FMLA, you can ask for a diagnosis of an employee’s serious health condition when necessary. However, you cannot request that employees disclose the specific nature of their condition under the terms of the CFRA.

Staying compliant under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) 

There are a number of steps you can take to ensure compliance with the California Family Rights Act (CFRA):

  • Review your formal leave policies to ensure CFRA compliance requirements are clearly detailed. Make sure all employees are aware of their rights and obligations. The best way to do this is to include all information in your employee handbook. You can also post a notice at your place of work. 
  • If you hire employees from a range of states including California, you should create a California-specific employee handbook.
  • When an employee in California requests leave, make sure you inform them of their eligibility status within 5 days of their request
  • Remember that you cannot lawfully deny an eligible employee CFRA leave. An eligible employee is one who meets the requirements of the CFRA, as detailed above. 
  • Although you are not obliged to pay an employee who has taken CFRA leave, you must continue to pay their benefits for the duration of their leave of absence

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California Family Rights Act (CFRA): How Factorial can help 

Using the right tools and software is another highly effective way to ensure CFRA compliance in your business.

With Factorial’s all-in-one HR software solution, you get access to a range of features that can help you manage your CFRA leave requests

For example, you can use our document management system to create and share your leave management policy so that all your employees understand their rights and responsibilities when requesting CFRA leave. That way, all information is clear and the process for requesting time off runs smoothly and efficiently. What’s more, you can use our document management system to create and share your CFRA leave request forms.

You can also use our leave management software to process requests for leave digitally. This makes the procedure far easier to manage compared to traditional paper request forms. Plus, you can synchronize all absences with your shift schedules. That way, your managers will know who will be off in advance and they can plan workloads accordingly.

Finally, our software includes the ability to sign documents with an electronic signature, which helps you create a much more streamlined approval process. This enables you to review and approve requests for CFRA leave within the established legal time frames. You also get increased data security with our encrypted system, which is vital when you are handling sensitive medical information. 

All this makes it much easier to design and implement a system for requesting and approving CFRA leave that ensures your business is compliant with the obligations and requirements of the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

Cat Symonds is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Originally from Wales, she studied Spanish and French at the University of Swansea before moving to Barcelona where she lived and worked for 12 years. She has since relocated back to Wales where she continues to build her business, working with clients in Spain and the UK.  Cat is the founder of The Content CAT: Content And Translation, providing content development and translation services to her clients. She specializes in corporate blogs, articles of interest, ghostwriting, and translation (SP/FR/CA into EN), collaborating with a range of companies from a variety of business sectors. She also offers services to a number of NGOs including Oxfam Intermón, UNICEF, and Corporate Excellence - Centre for Reputation Leadership.  For more information or to contact Cat visit her website (thecontentcat.com) or send her a message through LinkedIn.

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