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An abstract illustration of a pregnant person standing on a platform of multicolored puzzle pieces that are slowly breaking off and floating around the frame. Behind them, floating sketches of calendar pages, question marks, and baby bottles.
(Alborz Kamalizad for LAist)
How To Take Family Leave in California (And What To Do When You Come Back To Work)
Sharpen your pencils and open your spreadsheets. We’re going to talk about pregnancy and work — from family leave to accommodations during pregnancy, and where you can pump when you return to work.
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When I was pregnant with my second kid in 2020, I thought taking leave would be easier. I had already done it once, right? But I was at a new workplace, with a completely different set of benefits — which meant I had to start from scratch and learn everything all over again.

Cue the cracking of knuckles, flexing of Google fingers, and opening of approximately 22 million tabs.

Navigating family leave is not easy. When we’ve talked to pregnant people, family leave is one of the top topics they ask us about. It’s no wonder why — there are so many things to keep track of.

So why is this impossibly complicated? Why do you need four degrees and a spreadsheet to figure it out? This is our attempt to answer your questions about pregnancy and work in California.

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We talked with several experts across the field; most of the answers around how California law intersects with work come from Katherine Wutchiett, staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, which runs a work and family helpline that provides free, confidential advice to parents and caregivers.

How The US Compares With The World

Because the laws vary so widely by region and by each person’s health conditions, figuring out your benefits takes a little bit of calculation.

About This Series

And worldwide, this is not the norm. The United States is one of just seven countries in the world without a comprehensive program for national paid maternity leave. The average length for those that do have leave is 29 weeks. Estonians get up to 86 weeks of paid family leave, over a year and a half — for any parent, foster, adoptive, or guardian.

Research shows that paid family leave has multiple benefits for families that are able to take advantage of it, including breastfeeding for longer periods of time, better health outcomes for children as they grow, increases in men taking family leave, and the ability for birthing parents to return to their jobs.

But in the U.S., nearly one in four employed mothers return to work just two weeks after giving birth. If you are wondering what that might be like (hint: not recommended), check out LAist’s guide to the postpartum phase.

California is one of the few states in the country that does offer a constellation of laws to provide for work accommodations and leave around pregnancy.

Wutchiett says that just knowing these rights can lead to more stability at work in the long-term. “A lot of the issues that we see that come up, are people quit their job or are fired because they don't get the changes that they need in their pregnancy, when they are entitled to pregnancy accommodations,” she says.

Do I Need To Tell My Employer I’m Pregnant?

First off, it’s important to know that you’ve got rights!

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Wutchiett says the first step is to start doing research to understand your basic rights in California.

“Employers don't always have it 100% right,” she says, adding that it’s important to know a bit about the basics before having a conversation with your employer.

Wutchiett says people often ask if they are required to tell their employer that they are pregnant. The answer is no, you are not — but certain legal protections and benefits are connected to being pregnant, like work accommodations and time off. So, she says, “Once you want to make use of those protections you need to tell your employer so that you can trigger their obligation to provide those to you.”

If you’re worried about your employer’s reaction, know that it’s illegal for your employer to discriminate against you or harass you due to pregnancy.

If you work at a place with five or more employees, your sick leave will protect your job if you need to take time off for prenatal medical care, morning sickness, or other pregnancy-related conditions. In the state of California, you have three guaranteed paid sick days to cover this time off (in addition to any benefits your employer provides). Other cities may have more time off — like Los Angeles (48 hours, or six days) and Santa Monica (depends on your employer). Look up what type of sick leave is available in the specific city or state where you live.

A graphic called "Pregnancy and My Job: A Roadmap." In the graphic are five steps. 1: You're Pregnant! Learn about your rights at legalaidatwork.org. You may have the right to paid sick days and time for parental care. 2: Changes at work. Talk to your doctor about your job. If you need changes at work, bring a doctor's note to your employer. 3: Leave from Work: Tell your employer at least 30 days before you plan to start your leave. Disability leave can begin 4 weeks before your due date and lasts for 6 weeks after delivery (8 weeks for a c-section). Ask your employer if you qualify for 12 more weeks to bond. 4: Pay During Leave. When your leave begins, apply for State Disability Insurance. After you recover, apply for 8 more weeks of Paid Family Leave. Contact EDD (edd.ca.gov) to apply for both. Your partner may also qualify for time off and pay. 5: Lactation. Before you leave, ask your employer about your right to break time and a private space to pump at work. Information from the graphic comes from Legal Aid at Work. Call 800-880-8047 for free confidential advice.
Information from Legal Aid at Work
(LAist Design Staff)

What Are Reasonable Work Accommodations?

Now that you’re pregnant, some aspects of the way you work may need to change.

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, your employer is required to provide accommodations to pregnant employees — as long as they are reasonable and advised by a health employer.

As Wutchiett explains, there’s no specific list of what these accommodations could be. “It completely depends on that person's job and what their healthcare provider recommends,” she says.

For example, if you work in a restaurant, it could be that a different server takes out the larger trays of food. Work accommodations can also include teleworking, switching from a position at the register to a position in the back of the stockroom, or if you have a job that usually requires standing, you can ask for a seat.

Accommodations are available to all employees, including part-time workers and those who are new to their job.

If you are looking for how to structure your email request to your employer or need a note from your doctor, you can download some sample letters.

How Do I Take Time Off To Care For My Baby?

First, the TL;DR version.

  • Usually, depending on your medical condition, you can receive benefits up to four weeks before your expected delivery date and then up to six weeks after your delivery (without complications) and up to eight weeks after your delivery (cesarean birth). 
  • Then, under California’s Paid Family Leave program, usually you can receive benefits for another eight weeks. After that, you may be entitled to another four weeks off unpaid. 
  • All this may vary depending on where you work, your work status, and your health conditions. 

OK. How does this all work?

Here’s what’s key to understanding leave from work: There are laws that give you the right to go on leave and protect your job while you’re out. And then, separately, there’s how you’ll get paid — in California there are programs that give you partial pay during this time.

Your leave depends on the size of your employer, your health conditions, and how you deliver (vaginal or cesarean), and what programs you qualify for.

A typical leave for a vaginal birth in California includes a total of 22 weeks off, with up to four weeks before the due date and 18 weeks afterwards, with 17 of those weeks paid at 60-70%. A typical leave for a cesarean birth is a total of 22 weeks off, with up to four weeks before the due date and 18 weeks afterwards, with 19 of those weeks paid at 60-70%.

See how this breaks down in the graphic below.

A graphic with two timelines that show how leave and pay work for a typical pregnancy and also for parents who don't give birth. The first part of the graphic is called "Parents Who Give Birth." It says, "This timeline shows leave and pay for a typical pregnancy, recovery and bonding period." There's a horizontal bar that shows the weeks from 1 to 22. The entirety of the 22 weeks are covered for leave from work under two laws: Pregnancy Disability Leave Law and California Family Rights Act. Weeks 2-10 are paid by State Disability Insurance, which allows 9 weeks of 60 percent or 70 percent of your wages. That's roughly 4 weeks before your pregnancy, with the first week unpaid for a 7-day unpaid waiting period, and 6 weeks after birth for a vaginal birth.  Weeks 11-18 are paid by California's Paid Family Leave Program. The second part of the graphic is called "Parents Who Don't Give Birth." It says, "This timeline shows leave and pay for a partner or parent who does not give birth (dads, spouses, domestic partners, adoptive and foster parents)." There's a horizontal bar that shows the weeks from 1 to 12. The entirety of the 12 weeks are covered for leave from work under California Family Rights Act if the parent is eligible. Weeks 1-8 are paid by California's Paid Family Leave Program. Below both graphics, it says "If you also qualify for the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), it will run at the same time as your leave under these state laws It does not provide you with more leave." Information from Legal Aid at Work.
Information from Legal Aid at Work
(LAist Design Staff)

If your employer has five or more employees, there are two laws that protect your job while you are out on leave — Pregnancy Disability Leave and the California Family Rights Act. Pregnancy Disability Leave is designed to provide leave before and after birth, depending on your particular health conditions. The California Family Rights Act provides time off for bonding with a new child if you’ve worked with your employer for a year or more. Both of these laws require you to give your employer at least 30 days' advance notice.

It’s important to note that as of 2021, the California Family Rights Act is available to workplaces with five or more employees. It previously only covered larger workplaces, so if you work for a smaller employer, they may not be aware of this change. Also, the federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) overlaps with state laws — it does not provide you with additional leave.

To get paid while you are out, California has two programs that can provide pay. First, there’s State Disability Insurance, which provides 60-70% of your pay before and after your due date. Usually, depending on your medical condition, you can receive benefits up to four weeks before your expected delivery date and then up to six weeks after your delivery (without complications) and up to eight weeks after your delivery (cesarean birth).

California’s Paid Family Leave program then provides 60-70% of your pay for eight weeks to bond with a new child. People who don’t give birth can also use this program — that includes spouses and foster parents.

Both of these programs are available regardless of citizenship and immigration status. They are 100% worker funded. You can look at your pay stub and if it says CASDI, this is the amount of your money that is going into this fund. If you are undocumented, you can see this guide on how to apply.

Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work and Family Coalition, says educating yourself on the basics of California laws is a helpful start. “You'd be surprised how many HR departments get this wrong and will tell a pregnant worker in California you have 12 weeks all together, which is not true,” she says.

Keep in mind all these things are a minimum. They are the floor and your employer may have extra benefits to add to this mix.

For example:

  • Some employers supplement the 60-70% of your pay that California disability and paid family leave offer, to take your pay up to 100%.
  • Your employer can allow you more time off than what is guaranteed by law. 
  • Some employers allow flexible work arrangements upon return.
  • And maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who work for Netflix and you can take as long as you need (averaging four to eight months, the company says)

Wutchiett recommends that if you make a special arrangement with your employer about benefits or time off, you confirm your conversation in writing, though email or a text. There’s no state agency that would step in for things above and beyond California law, but having documentation can help you make your case through other avenues.

If you live in San Francisco, the Paid Parental Leave Ordinance requires employers to supplement Paid Family Leave so that during your leave you receive 100% of your pay (up to a cap).

PS. Be prepared to be in contact with state agencies and/or insurance companies at the beginning of your leave. I remember one guy from the insurance company whose job was just to call people and ask if they had a vaginal or cesarean birth. In the crucial first days of birth, I was so exhausted I almost missed his call.

What Rights Do I Have To Pump Breastmilk At Work?

A new law went into effect in California in 2020 that requires employers to give employees the break time they need to pump at work. You can decide the amount of time you need, since it varies for each person. Your employer doesn’t need to pay for this time, except if you pump during your normal break times.

Your work must also provide an adequate space to express milk. It must:

  • Be shielded from view, and free from intrusion
  • Be safe, clean, and free from hazardous materials
  • Contain a surface to place a breast pump and personal items 
  • Contain a place to sit and have access to electricity or alternative devices including, but not limited to, extension cords or charging stations 
  • Have access to a sink with running water and a refrigerator suitable for storing milk
  • Not be a bathroom!

These are basic things, but Wutchiett says she has heard from people whose bosses told them to pump in, like, a chilled wine room or hallway or a supply closet. Not cool!
And also, as it turns out, not legal.

Your employer is also required to have a lactation policy and affirmatively distribute it to employees when they hire them.

How Do I Talk To My Boss About Pregnancy?

Like I previously wrote for LAist in a guide to sick leave, for starters, these things are key:

  • Get it in writing. It's fine to request leave over the phone or in person, but follow up in writing. That way you have a record of your conversation.
  • Include the details. Make sure you include the dates you anticipate needing leave, when you expect to be able to return to work, and the reason you are not able to work. 
  • Name drop the law. It can be helpful to include the name of the law or laws that provide the leave you’re requesting. That way, says Wutchiett, if the employer is unfamiliar with the law, they can look it up.

And to finesse the conversation …

  • Give as much notice as you can. For pregnancy leave, the laws require a 30-day notice if possible.
  • Rehearse. Run your email or text by a friend to double check it. It can make you feel more prepared.
  • Take a buddy. Cassidy has seen it work with people who are talking to their employer about lactation accommodations. Also, approach your supervisor in a friendly way to educate them. You know your boss, so you probably have a good idea about what approach would work best.

Most importantly, says Wutchiett, remember: “It’s against the law for people to treat people worse because they try to assert any of these rights.”

If your employer is telling you something that is incorrect or doing something against the law, see some tips.

New Laws and Making Change

California’s laws around pregnancy and work don’t cover everyone – if you work at a workplace with four or fewer employees or are an independent contractor, many of these laws may not apply to you. You may find that you have challenges submitting your application when many of the forms are available only in English. You may experience delays as EDD processes your claim.

Or maybe getting by on 60-70% of your income just isn’t feasible. Luckily, Governor Newsom just signed a bill in 2022 that allows workers making up to $57,000 a year to take home 90% of their paychecks. Those who make above will take home 70% of their paychecks. However, you still have to wait a bit to benefit from the new law — it takes effect in 2025.

And, of course, just because you have rights does not mean your employer will make it easy for you to enjoy them.

Cassidy suggests that if you are running into problems accessing paid leave and you don’t have a union, you should call your state representative. Yes, really! She says that representatives have successfully helped elevate cases that they have flagged for them, and it also lets elected representatives know the policies as they stand aren’t working. And don’t be intimidated. It’s literally their job to listen to you.

Also, as Cassidy said previously to LAist, “It can be very satisfying, when you're frustrated about something, to at least know that you're doing what you can.”

RESOURCES

Early childhood reporter Mariana Dale contributed to this guide. It was also informed by the Hey bb review committee: Maternal and Child Health Access parent coach and psychotherapist Denise Cervantes, California Black Women’s Health Project senior manager of maternal and reproductive health Raena Granberry, licensed clinical psychologist and birth doula Sayida Peprah, and Legal Aid at Work staff attorney Sela Steiger.