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California’s Paid Sick Leave Law: How It Works

By Roy Rasmussen Reviewed By Ann Cornell
By Roy Rasmussen
By Roy Rasmussen Reviewed By Ann Cornell

California paid sick leave law provides some of the most comprehensive benefits in the U.S. 

Here’s how California labor laws’ paid time off requirements work, how they differ from federal laws and how to calculate accrual rates for hourly, salaried and other types of workers.

How California Sick Leave Policy Works

In 2014, California enacted a new paid sick leave law, the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act. This law was amended in 2016, and an FAQ guide reflecting recent updates was issued in 2017.

The Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act entitles employees who work in California for at least 30 days to earn at least 1  hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. The law covers both full-time and part-time employees.

Accrued sick leave can carry over to the following year. However, employers can limit the number of sick leave hours employees use in a year to 24 hours — or 3 days — and cap how much carries over to the next year at 48 hours, or 6 days.

California’s paid sick leave law excludes certain exempt employees. These exceptions include workers covered by qualifying collective bargaining agreements, in-home supportive services providers and certain employees of air carriers.

Key Rules for Employees

The following sick leave rules in California govern employee usage:

  • Employees may use accrued paid sick days starting on the 90th day of employment.
  • Workers can request paid sick leave verbally or in writing.
  • Employees can’t be required to find replacements as a condition for taking paid sick leave.
  • Workers can take paid sick leave on their behalf or to care for a family member. Qualifying events include the diagnosis, care or treatment of an existing health condition as well as preventive care. Employees can also request paid sick leave for specified purposes. For instance, if an employee is a  victim of stalking, domestic violence or sexual assault, they qualify. 

Key Rules for Employers

Employers must abide by regulations when applying California sick leave policy:

  • Employers must display posters about paid sick leave where they can be easily read. Official posters are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.
  • At the time of hire, employers must provide written notice to employees with sick leave rights.
  • Owners must provide for the accrual of 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. In addition, they must allow for the use of at least 24 hours (or 3 days) of paid sick leave or provide at least 24 hours (or 3 days) of paid sick leave at the beginning of a 12-month period for eligible employees to use each year.
  • Owners must allow eligible employees to make use of paid sick leave upon reasonable request.
  • Employers can’t require employees to give advance notice before using paid sick leave time.
  • Owners can’t require employees to provide documentation to qualify for paid sick leave,  such as a doctor’s note. 
  • Employers can’t compel employees to take sick leave in increments of less than 2 hours (such as interpreting lunch breaks that exceed 1 hour as sick leave).
  • When paychecks are issued, owners must show how many hours of paid sick leave an employee has remaining on their pay stub.
  • Employers must maintain records documenting how much sick leave employees have earned and retain these records for 3 years

A woman holds her sick child as they sit together on a couch. California paid sick leave law allows employees to take paid sick leave to care for an ill child or another family member.

Noncompliance Penalties

California’s paid sick leave law text includes provisions for financial penalties against employers who illegally withhold paid sick leave. Employers can be fined administrative penalties the greater of triple the amount owed or $250, up to $4,000, plus additional penalties.

California employers can be subject to fines of up to $10,000 plus back wages for retaliating against employees who use paid sick leave. In addition, the employer could be ordered to pay back any lost wages had the employee been suspended, demoted or terminated.

  • As a General Rule

    To limit your potential liability, if you aren’t sure what laws apply, don’t discipline an employee for using paid sick leave without first speaking to a knowledgeable attorney. However, suppose an employee has already used all their paid sick leave time and fails to report to work without providing notice. In that case, you can discipline them if this is stipulated in your company policy.

    These guidelines represent the minimum requirements that California employers must comply with to meet state law. Employers may choose to offer better sick leave policies as an incentive to attract qualified workers. However, they must meet these minimum requirements in all cases.

 California Sick Leave Law and COVID-19

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. federal and state government responded to ensure employers provided paid sick leave to workers. California enacted a supplemental sick leave policy to address COVID-19-related absences. The rules, which are in effect through Sept. 30, 2021, apply to all California employers with 25 or more employees. 

Sick leave rules in California list the following reasons for employee absence from work or telework: 

  1. The employee is diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms and is waiting for a diagnosis. Also, if the employee needs to quarantine or isolate after exposure to the virus and/or a medical professional has recommended quarantining.
  2. An employee is caring for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 or who had to quarantine after exposure to the virus. The employee can also use paid leave if their child’s school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19 exposures or infections.
  3. An employee is getting the COVID-19 vaccine or experiencing vaccine-related reactions.

Under sick pay in Califonia rules, COVID-19, employees are entitled to the following amounts of paid leave:

  • Full-time employees: 80 hours (full-time firefighters might be eligible for more than 80 hours, but pay caps might apply)
  • Sick leave for part-time employees in California (with regular weekly schedules): The number of hours the employee works typically during a 2-week period
  • Sick leave for part-time employees in California (with variable schedules): 14 times the average amount of hours the employee worked per day throughout the past 6 months

How California Sick Leave Laws Differ From Federal and Local Laws

Federal paid sick leave requirements differ from California regulations. In general, federal law doesn’t have requirements in most of the areas stipulated by California law, including:

  • Paid leave requirements
  • Eligibility requirements
  • Pay rate requirements
  • Accrual calculations
  • Carryover rules
  • A waiting period required before taking paid sick leave
  • Exclusions for collective bargaining agreements

However, there are some exceptions where federal law does make stipulations equivalent to or in addition to those required by the state of California:

  • Both federal and California laws require employers to retain paid sick leave records for 3  years.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) requires employers with at least 50 employees to post paid sick leave requirements, whereas California requires it of all employers.
  • Federal regulations recommend that employers not require exempt staff to take sick leave in less than 1/2-day increments, where California reduces this to 2-hour increments.
  • U.S. law only requires that sick paid leave policy be included in employee handbooks, whereas California sick time law requires it to be provided when an employee is hired.
  • Federal law doesn’t require accrued sick leave balances to be reinstated if an employee is rehired, while California requires it if an employee is rehired within a year.
  • U.S. law doesn’t require employers to pay out unpaid sick leave balance if an employee is terminated unless the employer offers it in their employee contract. In contrast, California law does not have a requirement in this area (although it does require paid time off to be paid upon termination).

Other federal labor laws may also impact employers doing business in California. For instance, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Americans with Disabilities Act may apply.

The complexity of paid sick leave laws makes it prudent to consult with a qualified expert when creating your company’s paid sick leave policy. To assure compliance, employers should have their legal team check applicable California state and city paid sick leave laws as well as federal regulations. Some counties and cities have even stricter requirements than the state of California. For example, San Francisco employers with at least 10 employees must allow workers to accrue up to 72 hours of sick leave per year.

A woman lies in bed with a thermometer in her mouth while she uses her cellphone to call her workplace and call out sick.

How to Calculate California Sick Leave Accrual 

When calculating paid sick leave time, employers must use different methods for hourly versus salaried employees. For instance, California’s paid sick leave law for part-time employees is calculated differently than for full-time employees who are hourly, non-salaried workers.

Additionally, workers who get paid piecework (for instance, for the number of units produced) or by commission have different rules.

Hourly Sick Leave Accrual

The simplest way to calculate sick leave for hourly workers is to provide 1 hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, for both regular and overtime hours. This applies to part-time as well as full-time employees. For instance, a part-time employee who worked 60 hours for a 2-week pay period would accrue 2 hours of paid sick leave.

Salaried Sick Leave Accrual

The best way to ensure salaried employees receive California’s required sick days (24 hours) per year is to provide 1.33 hours of paid sick leave per week worked (equivalent to 2.66 hours every 2 weeks). So, for example, after 20 weeks, a salaried employee would accrue 26.6 hours of paid sick leave.

Piecework Sick Leave Accrual Rate

The easiest method employers can use for workers paid by the piece is to calculate an average daily rate of paid sick leave accrual. You can do this by determining how many pieces the employee produced during the previous 90 days and at what rate.

For example, if an employee produced 900 units over 90 days at $50 a unit, averaging 10 units a day, their 3 days of paid sick leave should be paid at $500 a day.

Commission Sick Leave Accrual Rate

Employers can calculate an hourly rate for paid sick leave. You can do this by dividing the total commissions received over 90 days by the number of work-hours that salaried employees worked during that time frame.

If a sales representative earned $20,000 in commissions during the past 90 days and salaried employees worked 520 hours over that time period, they should receive sick leave pay at $38.46 an hour.

Invest in Paid Sick Leave Compliance to Save Time and Avoid Hassles

The easiest way to ensure compliance with California’s complex paid sick leave laws is to enlist the help of qualified professionals. Consulting a legal expert can help make sure your company complies with California state and local policies as well as federal policy.

A payroll outsourcing service can ensure that your paid sick leave gets calculated at the correct rate.

Roy Rasmussen Contributing Writer for Fast Capital 360
Roy is a respected, published author on topics including business coaching, small business management and business automation as well as an expert business plan writer and strategist.
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