21 Nov 23

California Sick Leave Law – What Are Workers Entitled To?

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California Sick Leave Law – What Are Workers Entitled To?

California has some of the most, worker-friendly labor laws in the country. And their sick leave policy is no exception. The state passed a law in 2014 requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to most employees. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about California’s sick leave rules.

The Basics

The California Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 (AB 1522) requires employers to provide paid sick leave to employees who work 30+ days within a year. This includes full-time, part-time, temporary, and even some gig economy workers.The amount of paid sick leave depends on the size of the employer:

  • Employers with 25 or fewer employees: At least 24 hours or 3 days of paid sick leave per year.
  • Employers with 26+ employees: At least 24 hours or 3 days of paid sick leave per year. After an employee passes 90 days of employment, this jumps to at least 48 hours or 6 days per year.

This time accrues (adds up) at a rate of at least 1 hour for every 30 hours worked. Alternative accrual methods are okay, as long as employees get 24 hours of sick leave within 9 months of starting, and subsequent years.Unused sick time carries over year to year, but is capped at 48 hours or 6 days. Once employees hit the cap, they stop accruing more time until they use some up.

What Can Sick Leave Be Used For?

California’s sick leave law is pretty broad. Employees can use their paid sick days for:

  • Their own medical needs – Whether it’s the flu, a dentist appointment, therapy session, etc.
  • Preventative care – Such as annual physicals, screenings, vaccines, etc.
  • Care of a family member – Sick leave can be used to care for a child, parent, spouse/domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild, or sibling.
  • Issues related to domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault – Such as obtaining services, treatment, counseling, relocation, etc.
  • Closures due to public health emergencies – If a school or business shuts down due to a public health crisis, employees can use sick time to care for their family.

So in a nutshell – anything health-related for an employee or their family is fair game.

Employee Eligibility

Most employees are entitled to paid sick leave under California law. This includes full-time, part-time, temporary, and seasonal workers.The only exceptions are:

  • Independent contractors
  • Most gig economy workers (Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, etc.)
  • Employees covered by a qualifying collective bargaining agreement
  • Airline flight deck or cabin crew members

For airline crews, different rules apply under the federal Railway Labor Act.Outside of these narrow exceptions, all employees who work over 30 days in California within a year are eligible for paid sick leave. It doesn’t matter if they work an inconsistent schedule or in multiple locations.

Accrual, Caps, and Carryover

Sick leave accrues (adds up) over time for employees. Here are some key details on how the accrual, caps, and carryover work:

  • Accrual rate – Employees earn at least 1 hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Alternative accrual methods are okay, as long as employees can earn 24 hours within 9 months.
  • 90 day waiting period – Employers aren’t required to let employees use sick leave until after 90 calendar days of employment. But paid time still starts accruing immediately upon hire.
  • Annual caps – Sick leave is capped at 24 hours or 3 days per year for smaller employers, or 48 hours / 6 days for larger employers. Once employees hit the cap, they stop accruing more time until they use some up.
  • Carryover – Unused paid sick days carry over year to year, but are still subject to the annual caps.
  • Payout – Employers aren’t required to pay out unused sick time when an employee leaves a job. It’s essentially “use it or lose it.”
  • Reinstatement – If an employee leaves and is re-hired within a year, their prior sick leave balance is reinstated.

Use of Sick Leave

Employees must be allowed to use accrued sick time upon reasonable request. An employer can require advance notice if the need is foreseeable. But no documentation can be required for leave under 3 days.Sick time can be taken in hourly increments if the employer uses an incremental payroll system. For example, an employee who earns 1 hour of sick leave per 30 hours worked could take 2 hours off for a doctor’s appointment.Employers also can’t make employees search for or find replacement workers to cover their sick leave. The company is responsible for covering absences due to sick time.

Protections Against Retaliation

California law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who exercise their right to paid sick leave.Examples of illegal retaliation include:

  • Demoting an employee who uses sick leave
  • Threatening to fire someone for taking sick time off
  • Cutting an employee’s hours because they were out sick
  • Counting sick leave absences against attendance points or bonuses

Any adverse action taken against an employee within 90 days of them using sick leave is presumed to be illegal retaliation. Employees can file claims over retaliation with California’s Labor Commissioner’s Office.

Recordkeeping Requirements

Employers must provide written notice to employees of their sick leave rights when they are hired. This notice must include:

  • Accrual amounts and caps
  • Authorized uses
  • Prohibition against retaliation

Companies also must keep records documenting hours worked and sick leave accrued/used for 3 years. Employees have a right to view this documentation.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

If an employer fails to provide paid sick leave under the law, penalties can add up quick. For each violation, the company faces:

  • $250 penalty per employee
  • Back pay for the amount of sick leave denied
  • Fines up to $4,000 from California’s Labor Commissioner

These penalties stack on top of each other. So denying just 1 employee 3 days of sick leave could result in over $2,000 in fines and back pay.Willful and repeated violations can face additional civil penalties and be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. So compliance is critical.

Local Sick Leave Laws

On top of the statewide law, many California cities have their own paid sick leave ordinances. These local laws may provide more generous benefits than the state rules.For example, San Francisco requires all employers to provide up to 72 hours of paid sick leave per year. Many local laws also cover independent contractors that are excluded from the state policy.When local and state laws both apply, employers must follow whichever standard is more generous to employees. So make sure to check any city and county laws that may cover your workforce.

The Bottom Line

California’s healthy workplace law provides substantial sick leave protections to employees. Make sure you understand what you’re entitled to. And don’t hesitate to speak up if your employer violates the law.The state labor commissioner’s office has resources in multiple languages to help employees understand their rights. They also investigate complaints and enforce the law – including levying penalties against non-compliant companies.At the end of the day, paid sick leave provides a critical safety net for California workers. Taking some time to learn the rules can help ensure you get the time off you need, without having to choose between your health and a paycheck.



Person in bed looking sickDoctor with patient


California’s Paid Sick Leave Law, Explained


California Paid Sick Leave: What You Need to KnowGuide to California Paid Sick Leave LawsCalifornia Employer’s Guide to Paid Sick Leave

California Paid Sick Leave Laws

Text of AB-1522 California Healthy Workplaces ActCalifornia Labor Commissioner’s Office Paid Sick Leave ResourcesCalifornia Department of Industrial Relations FAQ on Paid Sick Leave