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Is Four Months Enough? California Court makes clear that employers may need to provide extra pregnancy leave for some employees

After a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal, employers should beware that simply granting the traditional four months of pregnancy leave that employees are entitled to may not be enough because state law might require that employers grant additional leave if the employee has a pregnancy-related disability.

In Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., Ana Sanchez had a high risk pregnancy, requiring bed rest for her entire pregnancy.  Her employer, Swissport, granted her a temporary leave of absence, which consisted of vacation time as well as time from the California Family Rights Act and the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL).  Swissport then fired Sanchez after 19 weeks of leave, about 6 months into her pregnancy.

Sanchez sued Swissport, alleging that it had violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) when it failed to grant extra leave for her pregnancy disability.  Sanchez believed that under the FEHA her disability required Swissport to provide a reasonable accommodation (such as more time off) so that she could have remained employed.  Swissport argued that it fulfilled the FEHA by giving the amount of leave required under the PDLL.  Under Swissport’s reasoning, the PDLL caps pregnancy disability leave at four months and an employer can legally terminate the employee after that amount of leave if the employee is unable to return to work.

The California court rejected Swissport’s argument, finding that the PDLL adds to the leave rights granted by the FEHA.  So, an employer must grant four months leave under the PDLL and must also make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability if doing so does not create an undue hardship for the employer.  In the case of Swissport, the plaintiff required additional leave until the end of her pregnancy, and then she would have returned to work with no further accommodation.  The court viewed this extended leave as a reasonable accommodation that would not be unduly burdensome on Swissport.

How this affects your business:

This case makes clear that pregnancy leave is not necessarily capped at four months.  PDLL might only entitle an employee to that amount of leave but the FEHA could require more.  Specifically, if the employee has a pregnancy-related disability, the employer must engage in an interactive process with them to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is necessary.  The court made clear in Sanchez that additional time off can be a reasonable accommodation.  This case should prompt employers to review their pregnancy-disability leave policies and practices, and make any necessary updates to their employee handbooks.

If you have questions regarding creation and implementation of an effective pregnancy-disability leave policy, please contact us for a complimentary consultation at info@mitzelgroup.com