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Sick leave requirements for California employers

Stephen Fishman
Tax expert and contributor MileIQ
A father on sick leave looking after small son indoors, blowing his nose

If your business has employees in California, you have to provide them with paid sick leave. A requirement even if you have only one employee, or hire only part-timers.  

If you’re a California employer, here’s what you need to know about sick leave.

What is paid sick leave?

It’s not appropriate to anyone when employees show up to work sick. So, California’s sick leave law requires employers to pay their employees for a certain amount of time off each year due for health reasons. Employers must pay their employees for sick leave at their regular rate of pay.  

Which employees are eligible for paid sick leave?

Almost all employees who work at least 30 days in a year in California are eligible for paid sick leave. There are just a few exceptions for:

  • Some unionized employees covered by collective bargaining agreements
  • Airline flight deck and cabin crew members employed by air carriers
  • Employees of the California In-Home Supportive Services Program

How much paid sick leave must employees receive?

There are two ways to calculate how much sick leave employees must receive each year. Ultimately, the employer determines which method to use. Note, these are the minimum state requirements. Employees are free to give employees more generous sick leave if they want.

Hourly calculation: Using this method, California employers must give their employees a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave to match every 30 hours they work during the year. But the employer can limit the total sick leave hours accrued each year to 48 hours or six days.

Set amount: If the hourly calculation seems like too much of a chore, employers can give their employees a set amount of sick leave each year, no matter how many hours they work. The minimum amount is 24 hours or three days.  

Employers may also limit the total amount of paid sick leave that employees may use each year to 24 hours or three days.

When can employees use their paid sick leave?

Employees must work for at least 90 days before they can use their paid sick leave.

Employees can take sick leave for a personal health condition or that of a family member, including preventative treatment. A “family member” constitutes a spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild or sibling.

Other valid reasons for taking sick leave include a need for medical aid, psychological counseling or other services because they are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

Employees can ask for sick leave in person or writing. Employers must allow their employees to use accrued sick leave so long the employee provides notice. Employees don’t need to provide a doctor’s note or other documentation to take sick leave.

Under California law, employers are prohibited against discrimination or retaliation against employees who use their sick leave. Employees who suspect retribution may file complaints with the California Labor Commissioner against employers who do so. Employers who violate these rules can get fined up to $10,000.

Additionally, employers can require employees to take their sick leave in at least two-hour increments.

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What happens to unused sick leave?

Employers have two options about how to deal with unused sick leave at the end of the year:

Option #1: Year-end lump sum payout

First, the employer can pay the employee a lump sum for the accrued sick leave time—up to a maximum of 24 hours. This way, employees who don’t use their sick leave get a year-end bonus. Accordingly, it gives employees an incentive not to use sick leave. But it can add to the employer’s year-end payroll.

Option #2: Rollover

Alternatively, the employer can rollover up to 24 hours of unused sick leave to the next calendar year. This format helps employees accrue more sick days—up to six days after two years. Also, employers don’t have to pay for unused sick leave at year-end. But the employer must track how much sick leave gets rolled over each year.

Employers do not need to provide a lump sum payment for unused sick leave when an employee leaves the company. However, if an employee leaves and gets rehired within one year, accrued sick leave must be reinstated.

Recordkeeping requirements

Each paystub must list the amount of available sick leave. Employers must keep records of sick leave accrual and use for three years.

Notice requirements

It is the responsibility o the employers to inform their employees about these sick leave rules. Hence, they must display at the workplace a sick leave poster available from the California Labor Commissioner. Employees must also get a written notice when they hired.

Watch out for more generous local rules

The discussion above covers the state-wide requirements for sick leave in California. These are the minimum requirements all California employers must follow. However, several California cities impose more generous sick leave requirements on businesses that have employees working in their city limits. In general, whichever rule is more generous to employees, the employer must comply.  

These cities include:

  • Berkeley
  • Emeryville
  • Long Beach
  • Los Angeles
  • Oakland
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco, and
  • Santa Monica.

For example, in San Francisco, employers with 10 or more employees must allow employees to build up 72 hours of paid sick leave per year, instead of 48 under state law. And there is no cap on how much sick leave an employee can use each year.  

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