Termination for Using Paid Time Off: Knowing Your Rights in California

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Termination for Using Paid Time Off: Knowing Your Rights in California

In April 2024, a jury awarded three Californian workers over $80 in a lawsuit over paid time off. The trio took time off with their supervisor’s approval, but the company fired them for doing so. Each worker received $25 million in punitive damages, as well as additional awards for economic and non-economic harm and damage to their reputations.

What do California’s labor laws say? Suppose you have paid time off and used it. Your boss threatened to fire you if you did, and that’s what happened. Is termination for using paid time off legal? Our guide will help you better understand your rights when it comes to paid time off (PTO) in California.

Understanding California Law on Paid Time Off Accrual and Getting Paid

California does have a Paid Sick Leave law in place that allows you time off to take care of yourself, a family member, or another designated person who you’re close to or responsible for. Effectively January 1, 2024, California employers are legally obligated to provide a minimum of 40 hours (5 days) of paid sick leave (PSL) to full-time, part-time, and temporary workers who meet the following qualifications.

  • They work for the employer for at least 30 days per year.
  • They work for a minimum of 90 days before qualifying for PSL.

Accrual plans are allowed as long as the accrual rate is one hour of PSL for every 30 hours worked.

Paid family leave (PFL) and job-protected leave with the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) are available if you’ve worked long enough to qualify. PFL is available if you must take care of a seriously ill family member. With PFL, you get up to 70% of your wages and cannot lose health benefits when you’re out of work. CFRA is required if a company has more than four employees and has worked 1,250 hours or more in the prior year. You get up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to take care of a family member.

Vacation pay is another way to get PTO. California does not require employers to provide vacation pay, but many do. For employers who provide vacation pay, California classifies vacation time as earned income, and it must be paid if you leave your job, are terminated, or don’t use your vacation time by the end of the year. If your employer says you forfeit any vacation hours at the end of the year if you don’t use them in time, that’s not legal.

Some companies opt for a PTO plan, which combines sick leave and paid vacation time. If your employer does this, they do not get to ignore the vacation pay laws. They cannot threaten to take your PTO time back if you don’t use it in time. So-called “Use It or Lose It” requirements are illegal.

If you’re injured on the job or develop an illness that’s tied to your work see a doctor and let your employer know. Workers’ compensation covers your medical treatment and coverage of some of your lost wages. For example, you’re working and a pile of pallets is toppled by a forklift driver. You lose your balance and break your wrist. Workers’ comp pays for your medical bills, physical therapy sessions, and time off work while you recover.

You also have short-term disability (SDI)insurance that pays up to 70% of your wages for as much as 52 weeks. You have to be unable to work or need fewer hours due to your disability.

How Do You Use PTO and Avoid Termination

Those are all of the ways you can have PTO. Those are the legal requirements. You do have to request the time off and have it approved. Your employer cannot refuse to allow you to have time off to care for someone who is sick. If your doctor has provided you with proof of the need for you to stop working for now, your employer needs to honor your request.

If you have vacation days, your employer has to allow you that time off, as long as you meet any requirements. Your company’s policy is you can take vacation time as long as someone else in your department hasn’t asked for that same day off. You cannot be denied the days you’re due.

In the case mentioned earlier, the workers’ time off was approved by their supervisor. If you have permission to take days off and those days are available, your company cannot fire you.

Should you be taking PTO to care for a family member, get a letter from the doctor as proof. The more evidence you have to back your claim, the better it is for your case. 

If you have an employee handbook, follow the rules laid out in that guide to ensure you’re taking PTO correctly. As long as you do that, you’re protected.

What Do You Do If You’ve Been Fired for Taking PTO?

You’ve followed policies, but you lost your job anyway. Ask why you’re fired. Ideally, do it in an email where you have written proof. Ask for the termination in writing, along with the reason for the termination.

What do you do when you lose your job for taking PTO? You have two options. First, you can reach out to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) and report the violation. It can be a difficult process for a novice, so the second option might be easier.

Seek legal counsel. An employer specializing in employment laws can help you understand your rights and determine if you have a valid complaint. You shouldn’t just accept your termination as a valid one. It could very well have been an illegal act that could land your employer in trouble with the state, and you could end up with a generous settlement. Plus, your employer won’t try that again, so you’ve protected future employers from the same mistreatment.

Gather as much evidence as you can before you make a call or schedule a meeting with an employment law attorney. The more proof there is, the easier it is to quickly win the case, get the money you’re due, and get your job back.

In some cases, your paid time off is a right, not a privilege. You can take it as needed and get paid without fear of job loss. If your employer is refusing your PTO, it’s time to talk to the attorneys at Shegerian Conniff. We will fight for your rights, and you don’t have to pay us anything upfront. Our fee comes from the reward we secure for you. Reach us online to learn more about PTO laws and what the next steps are in ensuring you don’t lose your job illegally.

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