Amid all the changing laws, ordinances, regulations, and executive orders related to COVID-19, it is easy to overlook some of the other important leave and benefit changes enacted by the California state legislature this year. One significant change that has not received much attention involves the expansion of California’s Paid Family Leave wage replacement program and the California Family Rights Act to cover military “qualifying exigencies.”

These changes will go into effect on January 1, 2021.

Paid Family Leave

Back in 2018, SB 1123 expanded California’s Paid Family Leave wage replacement benefits program administered by the California Employment Development Department. The expansion was to provide wage replacement benefits during an employee’s leave due to a “qualifying exigency” related to covered active duty or a call to covered active duty of the employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, or parent in the Armed Forces of the United States.

What many employers did not notice (or perhaps forgot) was that this PFL expansion, enacted in 2018, will take effect on January 1, only a few short weeks away.

In addition, AB 2399, which was enacted this year, makes several technical and clarifying amendments to the PFL law, including the addition of a list of “qualifying exigencies” and definitions of covered military members whose “qualifying exigencies” would allow an employee to receive PFL benefits.

The PFL expansion provides some assistance to employees whose family members are deployed overseas with the sudden changes that deployment can cause. Family members may need time off to handle financial, legal, and logistical issues. When the expansion takes effect on January 1, employees will be able to apply to the EDD and receive pay for all or part of that time.

The PFL is not a “leave law” but only provides for wage replacement during qualifying leave periods. However, the legislature has addressed the actual leave, as well. (Read on.)

Protected Time Off

SB 1383, which was signed this year, will also take effect on January 1, 2021. SB 1383 amends the Family Rights Act and will allow employees to take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid job-protected leave during a 12-month period for a “qualifying exigency” related to the covered active duty or call to covered active duty of an employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child or parent in the U.S. Armed Forces. A “qualifying exigency” leave is one of the leave of absence entitlements already made available to covered employees under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but the FMLA does not allow leave for domestic partners. “Qualifying exigency” leave for an employee’s spouse, child, or parent will be covered under both the FMLA and the CFRA.

Next steps for California employers

The above changes are technical, but significant. We recommend that California employers take the following steps:

  • Update employee handbooks to add the concept of “qualifying exigency” as a covered leave of absence and one that might make the employee eligible for Paid Family Leave.
  • Train Human Resources and leave benefit administrators to identify “qualifying exigency” leaves and the employees who may be able to take advantage of PFL wage replacement for this type of leave.
  • Recognize that changes to the CFRA will mean that “qualifying exigency” coverage will now be aligned with the federal FMLA for all purposes -- with the important addition of domestic partners who are not “spouses” under California law.

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