The ABCs of Maternity Leave in California

Deciphering the options for maternity leave can be a headache. Unfortunately, there is no de facto coherent program that makes maternity leave affordable for all women, so it’s up to the individual to piece together the options available and develop a plan that works for their unique situation. This post provides a basic snapshot of the different types of maternity leave available in California. It’s always advisable to consult with your human resources department on this topic, and helpful to consider these maternity leave benefits in advance of any discussion.

Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The FMLA is a federal law that entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.

To be eligible for FMLA, an employee must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of FMLA leave, and the company must have at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for the birth of a child and to care for the baby within one year of birth.

The 12 weeks of FMLA leave don’t have to be taken all at once. FMLA can be taken during pregnancy to obtain prenatal care or for any period of incapacity, or for the birth and care of a baby. Employers can require employees to use sick or vacation time while on FMLA leave, and employees can also elect to use vacation or sick time towards their FMLA leave.

California Family Rights Act (CFRA)
The CFRA is a state law that is similar to the federal FMLA law in terms of eligibility and coverage, and that provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave with continuation of health insurance coverage. The primary difference between CFRA and FMLA is that CFRA does not include pregnancy leave. CFRA starts when the mother’s medical disability ends, which is generally 6-8 weeks postpartum, and does not have to be taken all at once. CFRA and FMLA can overlap, which means that most likely you would not get 24 total weeks of leave.

Notably, CFRA law compliments FMLA law by allowing women to take off time prior to delivery (with FMLA) but still maximize their time off with baby once it arrives (with CFRA), instead of having to work as close as possible to their due date to end up with more baby bonding time.

California Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL)
This law applies to employers with 5 or more employees and allows a pregnant employee up to 16 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave with continuation of health care coverage during the period in which she is unable to continue working due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. The 16 weeks of PDL don’t have to be taken all at once. Employers can require employees to use sick time during this benefit, and employees can elect to use sick time, but only the employee can choose to use vacation time.

California State Disability Insurance (SDI)
California law allows women to begin maternity leave 4 weeks before their due date (or earlier if a medical condition or pregnancy complication requires it). From the date of delivery, the law allows for an additional 6 weeks of leave, or 8 weeks for a C-section. This results in approximately 10-12 weeks total maternity leave for most women.

If you have paid into the California State Disability Insurance (SDI) system, you may receive SDI payments while taking your PDL as described above. This is paid out at about 55% of gross income up to the weekly maximum benefit amount, with a 7 calendar day waiting period before the benefit starts on day 8. Many women choose to take a week of sick or vacation time to cover this waiting period. However, employers cannot require employees to use sick or vacation time prior to receiving SDI.

California Paid Family Leave (PFL)
When PDL and SDI benefits end after 6-8 weeks, depending on the type of birth, you may be eligible for Paid Family Leave (PFL), which entitles mothers to up to 6 weeks of additional paid leave. Mothers will automatically receive a PFL form with their last SDI check. This benefit is paid out like SDI, at about 55% of gross income up to the weekly maximum benefit amount, and the 6 weeks don’t have to be taken all at once – they can be taken anytime in the 12-month period after the birth. Employers can require employees to use vacation time prior to receiving PFL but not sick time. PFL has no job protections, and so if you are eligible, you need to take this leave in conjunction with FMLA or CFRA leave.

The Bottom Line
Most women want to know how long can you be out on maternity leave and still get paid for it. In a nutshell, you can take off 4 weeks before your due date and 6-8 weeks after the baby is born under PDL, then take 6 weeks under PFL. That’s approximately 16-18 weeks of paid, job-protected leave, if you coordinate your PFL with FMLA and CFRA.