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Pregnant Employees Entitled to Pregnancy Leave In Addition to General Disability Leave

California pregnancy leave laws are notoriously complex. Under the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (“PDLL”), which is part of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), employees are entitled to up to four months of leave for pregnancy-related disabilities. If an employee’s pregnancy-related disability persists beyond four months, however, the law was previously unclear regarding whether the employee was entitled to additional time off.

New regulations and a recent appellate court decision, however, shed light on pregnant employees’ rights under California’s pregnancy disability and general disability leave laws.

Under new regulations recently issued by the Fair Employment and Housing Commission, an employer’s duty to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee is separate from an employer’s duty to comply with PDLL requirements. Thus, pregnant employees are entitled to four months of leave for pregnancy-related disabilities in addition to the protections afforded employees under FEHA. Once a pregnant employee has exhausted her leave under PDLL, she still has rights under Government Code §12940 (FEHA).

Section 12940 of FEHA requires employers to accommodate any physical or mental disability of their employees, including engaging in a good faith interactive process with the employee to determine appropriate accommodations. If a pregnant employee continues to suffer from pregnancy-related disabilities after her PDLL leave has been exhausted, then the employer must engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine reasonable accommodations for the employee, unless the accommodations would cause the employer undue hardship.

Notably, although under FEHA, employers are not required to furnish any accommodation that would cause undue hardship to their businesses, the new regulations governing the PDLL do not include any such defense. This suggests that employers cannot refuse to provide PDLL leave to an employee based on the leave causing an undue hardship to the employer.

The recent California Court of Appeal decision Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc. is in accord with the new regulations. In the Swissport case, the plaintiff suffered a pregnancy-related disability which, once diagnosed, required her to remain on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. The plaintiff’s employer, Swissport, permitted the plaintiff to take four months of PDLL leave, as well as additional leave provided by the California Family Rights Act and accrued vacation time. However, once the leave was exhausted, the plaintiff’s due date was still three months away. Swissport then terminated her employment, believing it had no further duty to accommodate the plaintiff. The trial court agreed, finding that leave for pregnancy-related disabilities is capped at four months under FEHA.

The Court of Appeal, however, disagreed. The Court held that the PDLL supplements the protections workers are entitled to under FEHA. Therefore, under §12940, Swissport had a duty to engage in the interactive process and provide the plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation for her pregnancy-related disability.