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The New Pregnancy Disability Regulations – Clarity and Complexity

For years, California has been one of the few states with specific, independent pregnancy disability protections. The protections include freedom from discrimination and the right to take time off from work. Further protection was added last year with the mandate to continue employer-paid health care benefits during a pregnancy disability leave of absence.

California's new pregnancy disability regulations recently took effect. If you are responsible for human resources in your organization, you likely already knew. You may have already seen summaries of the new regulations, or even reviewed the entire 28 pages yourself. If not, a brief summary of the notable changes follows. After the summary, we use the complexity of new regulations to show the importance of careful planning and documentation when handling an employee's pregnancy.

Summary Of New Regulations

Expanded Definition Of “Disabled by Pregnancy”
California law has long stated that a woman is disabled by pregnancy if, in the opinion of her health care provider, she is unable because of pregnancy to perform any essential function of her job or to perform the essential functions without undue risk to herself. The new regulations add a host of specific conditions that could meet the definition of “disabled by pregnancy.” One such condition is “bed rest.” The regulations go on to state that the list of conditions is non-exclusive and illustrative only. The regulations do provide that lactation, without medical complications, is not a condition requiring pregnancy disability leave, but it may require transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position or other reasonable accommodation.

Amount Of Pregnancy Disability Leave Allowed
The law allows up to four months of unpaid leave for women who are disabled due to pregnancy. The new regulations change the definition of “four months.” The new regulations provide that it is the number of days the employee would normally work within four calendar months (one third of a year equaling 17 1/3 weeks), if the leave is taken continuously, following the date the pregnancy disability leave commences. If an employee's schedule varies from month to month, a monthly average of the hours worked over the four months prior to the beginning of the leave shall be used for calculating the employee's normal work month. Thus, the total amount of leave available will be based on a “one third” year measurement of an employee's normal work schedule. The regulations provide several examples of the calculation.

Intermittent And Reduced Schedule Leave
The law continues to allow an employee who is disabled due to her pregnancy to take her leave in less than four month increments. Under the revised regulations, an employer may account for increments of intermittent leave using an increment no greater than the shortest period of time the employer uses to account for use of other forms of leave, provided it is no greater than one hour.

More Guidance On Reasonable Accommodations And Transfers
The new regulations included detailed provisions on the employer's obligation to provide a pregnant employee with reasonable accommodations and/or transfers to alternative positions. While the regulations should be consulted to guide the handling of a specific situation, the new regulations closely track the employer's obligations under the state and federal disability law to engage in an “interactive process” and provide reasonable accommodations.

Reinstatement Rights And Rules Expanded
Under state and federal family/medical leave law, a returning employee must be reinstated to the same or an equivalent position. The new regulations provide that an employee returning from pregnancy disability leave must be reinstated to her “same” position. The alternative of a “comparable” position is only available if the employer is excused under the regulations from returning the employee to her same position.

The employer must “guarantee” the right of reinstatement in writing upon request of an employee. The guarantee must be honored, whether or not in writing, unless an exception applies.

The new regulations do not contain the previous language that permitted an employer to deny reinstatement if it would undermine the employer's business. Reinstatement must be made within two business days, or if that is not feasible, as soon as possible after the employee notifies the employer of her readiness to return. The new regulations specify that a position is considered “available” for the employee if the position is open on the day of the employee's scheduled return or within 60 calendar days thereafter. The employer has an affirmative duty to provide the employee with notice of available positions.

Perceived Pregnancy Protection Added
The new regulations specify that it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee or applicant because of “perceived pregnancy.” Perceived pregnancy is defined as being regarded or treated by an employer as being pregnant or having related medical conditions.

Employer-Paid Health Benefits
Beginning last year, California employers became obligated to continue paying for health care benefits for employees on pregnancy disability leave at the same level and under the same conditions as if the employee had continued working. The new regulations provide the details on this requirement and its relation to the similar requirement under family and medical leave law.

Notice Requirements Changed
The regulations continue to require employers to provide notice to employees of their pregnancy disability leave rights, but provide more detail on how employers must meet the requirement and the consequences for failing to do so. The standard form notices created by the government have been modified to reflect the changes in the law.

Example Of The Importance Of Careful Planning And Documentation

The regulations state that an employee who takes pregnancy disability leave is “guaranteed a right to return to the same position.” They state further that the employer must provide the “guarantee” in writing to the employee if it is requested. After reading or being told of these mandates, an employer with limited time and limited global understanding of the regulations might prepare the following letter and give it to an employee heading out on pregnancy disability leave:

Dear Debbi,

We have received your request to take pregnancy disability leave. We have also received your doctor's certification stating that you will need to be off work for four months. We guarantee that you will be reinstated following your leave.

Sincerely,
Well-Meaning Employer

Well-Meaning Employer has created multiple problems, but we will focus on just one. The new regulations provide that an employee is not entitled to reinstatement if the employee's job would have ended notwithstanding the pregnancy leave. For instance, if the employee's position is eliminated or the employee is included in a layoff for reasons that have nothing to do with the pregnancy or leave. Let's assume that Debbi's position is legitimately eliminated during her leave. She has no right to reinstatement under the regulations.

The regulations, however, also provide that a position is “available” and must be provided to the employee if the employee is entitled to the position by “company policy” or “contract.” The letter and the statement “We guarantee that you will be reinstated…” could certainly be interpreted as a contract entitling Debbi to reinstatement, even though her position was eliminated and she has no reinstatement rights under the pregnancy disability law.

The new regulations were designed to provide employers with clarity, and in many cases, they do. Because of the complexity, however, they also create traps for those employers who fail to carefully plan and document pregnancy leaves.