California Maternity Leave: How to milk it

UPDATE: This post has been edited to reflect 2018 updates to CFRA eligibility requirements, as well as increased benefit amounts for SDI and PFL.

There are seven wonders of the world. Wrong! There are eight; the final one being the mysterious maternity leave. When I found out I was pregnant one of the things that made me jump for joy (next to loving the alien bump growing inside me, obvi) was the prospect of setting off into maternity leave bliss. I felt like I had paid my dues working in stressful PR jobs throughout my career, so I knew I wasn’t going to be shy about really maximizing my maternity leave benefits.

But this was all much easier said than done since figuring out how to milk the system was incredibly hard to find. Pinpointing concrete information on maternity leave was like setting out on a mission to discover El Dorado. No joke guys, I was seriously OBSESSED with figuring out all the details of maternity leave. Also, I was convinced that my employer was jipping me several weeks of precious leave, so off to scouring the internet I went.

First, as a disclaimer, I am not an HR professional nor an employment law expert. The following is how I understood and applied my maternity leave benefits in California. Further, my understanding was confirmed by an attorney at The Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center.

IMPORTANT: The following applies to employees who are eligible for Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) AND California Family Rights Act (CFRA). Eligibility requirements for both PDL and CFRA are discussed in the post.

Let’s get right to it. The bottom line is that for any healthy preggers (i.e. no need for extended bed rest during pregnancy or reasons to be out of work due to complications after birth), at minimum, you can get 22 or 24 weeks of maternity leave (22 weeks for vaginal delivery and 24 weeks for c-section). Now, not all of that time is paid (I’ll get to that later), but what this means is that you get 22 or 24 weeks of job protection.

There are many ways to explain maternity leave, but I think it’s easiest to explain it in chronological order. Here’s a chart I drew up (don’t mind the chicken scratch writing) and I’ll explain each step. I should mention that this chart is based on me having had a c-section on May 12.

My maternity leave timeline. I started my maternity leave on April 16, 4 weeks before my due date. I gave birth via c-section on May 12, which ended my PDL/FMLA on July 7 (8 weeks after 5/12). The end of the PDL/FMLA kicked in my 12-week CFRA, giving me a go-back-to-work date of September 29.

My 24 week maternity leave timeline. I started my maternity leave on April 16, approximately 4 weeks before my due date. I gave birth via c-section on May 12, which ended my PDL on July 7 (8 weeks after 5/12). At the end of PDL, my 12 weeks of CFRA kicked in, giving me a go-back-to-work date of September 29.

For a timeline for a typical, uncomplicated pregnancy and vaginal birth, check out this baby (pun intended) published by The California Work and Family Coalition. [full pamphlet here].

Uncomplicated vaginal birth. Courtesy of The California Work and Family Coalition

1) Starting your disability

First, decide when you want to start your maternity leave. Some take a week or two off before baby is expected to arrive, while others work literally right until the moment they are saddled up in the stirrups. (I once had a boss who actually sent me an email while in labor.) Whatever you decide, know that you can start your maternity leave 4 weeks before your estimated due date! Whaaat? No way!? Yep, this is true!

Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) starts the first day of your maternity leave, and provides up to 17.3 weeks of job protected leave for the purpose of pregnancy, childbirth, and other related conditions. Before y’all get excited over the 17.3 weeks, note that you don’t automatically get all 17.3 weeks of leave. The actual duration of your PDL must be certified by your doctor, but the “default” duration of PDL for a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy/childbirth is 4 weeks before birth and 6 weeks after for a vaginal delivery or 8 weeks after for a c-section (I’ll provide more detail on the post-birth portion later, as well as information on what happens if you have complications). The only eligibility requirement for PDL is that you work for an employer with 5+ employees. There is no additional eligibility requirement, such as minimum hours worked or length of service.

PRO TIP: The 4 weeks before delivery is a “use it or lose it” situation. You don’t get to tack it on later, so if your individual situation allows for it USE IT. Some of my colleagues balked at me taking 4 weeks off before my due date saying I’ll get bored. Psshhh. Only boring people get bored, but on the real tip, the extra rest is amazeballs and I (assume this is the norm for all preggos) got HUGE in the last 2 weeks. Also, taking off 4 weeks before your due date will NOT affect your “go back to work” date, since that date is calculated from your delivery date – not when you started maternity leave. I had a lot of people tell me that they would rather spend the extra 4 weeks with their newborn rather than take off early for maternity leave — not the case, mah friends!

It’s important to note that the 4 weeks before due date is just the “default” start time that a doctor could certify disability for pregnancy. Should you have any complications during your pregnancy (i.e. high-risk issues, preeclampsia, bed rest, etc), your doctor can write you out earlier than 36 weeks or at any point during your pregnancy your doctor feels medically necessary. Any time taken before birth simply gets deducted from your 17.3 weeks of PDL “bank.”

So, what happens if you have a high-risk pregnancy and your doctor certifies you “disabled” super early, like at 28 weeks? Let’s say you give birth at 40 weeks via c-section, that would mean that upon birth you would only have 5.3 weeks of PDL remaining (17.3 – 12), but you still need 8 weeks of PDL for post birth recovery. In this scenario – where you exhaust all of your PDL but still experiencing a disability – you may be eligible for additional leave under CFRA (if eligible) or through “reasonable accommodation” under ADA/FEHA, which can provide additional time off.

As you patiently wait the arrival of your precious offspring, your job will be protected under the PDL and you will be paid 60% or 70% of your weekly wages through State Disability Insurance (SDI).

SDI begins on the first day of your PDL; however, there’s a mandatory unpaid 7-day (calendar days) waiting period that you must serve before receiving your SDI benefits. You will not be paid during the waiting period, but you can use whatever form of paid leave (sick, PTO, vacation) to pay yourself before SDI kicks in. The first payable day is the 8th day of your claim. And, SDI will continue through the entire duration that you are “disabled” by pregnancy and childbirth. [Check out this post for the 411 on how to calculate your SDI benefit amount.]

As a side note, you’ll often see references of PDL and FMLA combined, which can make things super confusing. The reason why they often come as a pair is because they run concurrently – they both start the minute you begin your maternity leave. However, in the context of maternity leave in California – don’t even worry about FMLA. FMLA simply runs in the background of PDL since PDL (state law) supersedes FMLA (federal law). Plus, PDL is much more generous than FMLA, giving you up to 17.3 weeks of leave versus 12 weeks under FMLA. Further, the eligibility requirements for PDL are more lenient than FMLA. The only eligibility criteria for PDL is that you work for an employer with 5+ employees. With FMLA, you must work for an employer with over 50+ employees in a 75 mile radius, you must have worked at your employer for at least a year, and you must have clocked in 1,250 hours of service prior to the start of your leave. So, thanks California for looking out for pregnant mommas!

2) You had your baby!

Okay, so after 4 loooong weeks your beautiful baby has finally entered the world. Hooray!

Once your baby is born, your PDL will continue for an additional 6 weeks for a vaginal birth or 8 weeks if you had a c-section; and you’ll continue to get wage replacement through SDI (still at around either 60 or 70% of your normal wages).

3) Your baby is now 6 or 8 weeks: Now it’s time to bond

Once you’ve completed your 10 or 12 weeks of PDL (4 weeks before birth + 6/8 weeks after birth) – or more importantly, when your doctor has certified you no longer disabled by your pregnancy or childbirth – the clock gets reset with an additional 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) to bond with your baby. In order to be eligible for CFRA, you must meet ALL of these requirements:

  • Your employer employs at least 20 people within a 75-mile radius of your worksite
  • You have worked for your employer for at least 12 months (even on a part-time or temporary basis)
  • You have worked at least 1,250 hours (about 25 hours per week) during the 12 months before the leave

Your doctor will determine when you are cleared from disability. While this is typically 6 or 8 weeks after birth, should you have any complications – physical or mental (i.e. postpartum depression) – your doctor can certify an extension to your PDL, and your SDI benefits will be extended along with it.

During CFRA, you will be paid partial wage replacement through Paid Family Leave (PFL) at the same rate as your SDI, but here’s the kicker…only for 6 weeks. This means that while you have 12-weeks of job protection under CFRA, you’ll get partial pay for only 6 of those weeks. Bummer. The remaining 6 weeks are unpaid, but you can apply any unused vacation or PTO time to offset being unpaid for the remainder of your leave. Also, you don’t need to take your 6 weeks of PFL all at once. You can break it up and take it in hourly or daily increments if you want. However, do note that CFRA stipulates that the minimum duration of CFRA leave is 2 weeks, or unless otherwise approved by your employer.

4) Your maternity leave has ended and you’re back at work

Okay, what I’m about to say next is important! Your “return to work” (RTW) date is determined by when your CFRA ends.

Example 1: Anna starts her maternity leave at 36 weeks, has her baby vaginally on June 12, and has no complication after birth. Here’s what her timeline and return to work date would look like:

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 10.14.09 AM

Example 2: Oh no, Anna ended up getting an emergency c-section!

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 10.39.31 AM

I won’t sugar coat it; it’s not easy going back to work after being out for 22-24 weeks. But, you make do and just like all things that suck at the beginning, once you get into the swing of things, you will find joy balancing out work and family life.
Hope this all makes sense. If you have any questions or issues, leave a comment!

P.S. BTW, turned out that my employer WAS wrong about when I was supposed to go back to work. Muahahaha! Knowledge is power, friends; knowledge is power!

If you have questions regarding California maternity leave, or would like more information on how I can provide individualized support to help maximize your maternity leave, please email me at maternityleave411@gmail.com.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: As of January 1, 2018, there are significant updates to CFRA eligibility (expanding to employers with 20+ employees) and SDI/PFL benefit rates (increasing from 55% to either 60 or 70%). Read this to get the full scoop! 

If you’re NOT eligible for FMLA/CFRA, read this

120 thoughts on “California Maternity Leave: How to milk it

    • In order to be eligible for SDI, one of the requirements is that you must be employed or actively looking for work at the time you become disabled. You could try to apply anyway, but you may be denied since you aren’t employed. Sorry, I know this isn’t the best of answers…

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  1. LA says:

    Thank you for this post. It is the most detailed post I have come across on the web!

    I have one (complicated) question concerning SDI/PFL and the PDL 17.3 weeks. My understanding from reading this article is that PDL provides up to 17.3 weeks of job protection.

    However, if someone is disabled for longer, would they still get SDI even though they may not technically have job protection?

    Let’s say that I am disabled due to sciatica (ouch!) 10 weeks before birth (with doctor confirming – complicated pregnancy). After 10 weeks I have a C-section, post C-section I am disabled for 8 additional weeks. I then take 6 weeks of PFL for bonding. Even though PDL only provides up to 17.3 weeks of job protection, I want to confirm that I would be entitled to SDI for 9 weeks (subtracting one week for waiting period) pre-birth, 8 weeks of SDI post birth (SDI for c section), and then 6 weeks of PFL (no waiting period since it was taken prior to starting SDI)? This would be a total of 23 “paid” (as calculated by EDD) weeks.

    I guess technically, I may be able to be fired, but perhaps CFRA would help me keep my job?

    I understand that you are not an HR representative or an attorney, but you seem to know the most of anyone else on the web!

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    • Hi,

      Thanks for the feedback on the blog! So glad to hear the post was helpful.

      I’ll first address SDI…You can receive SDI for the entire duration you are certified disabled (although SDI maxes out at 52 weeks). While PDL provides job protection during the period(s) you are certified disabled by pregnancy, childbirth and other related conditions, exhausting PDL doesn’t preclude you from claiming SDI. PDL is not a requirement to be eligible for SDI, but it’s a necessary component because you need PDL to protect your job.

      Now, I’ll address the job protection component….If you’re still disabled after exhausting PDL, you would either need to be CFRA eligible for job protection or request an extended leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation:

      1) If you are CFRA eligible, once PDL exhausts, your employer can start the clock on CFRA for job protection – even though you are still disabled. You’ll utilize CFRA for your disability recovery (being paid SDI), and once recovered, you’ll utilize the remainder of your CFRA for baby bonding (being paid SDI).

      2) If you are not eligible for CFRA, then you would need to request a reasonable accommodation for your disability under ADA/FEHA, which can include additional time off, until you are recovered from disability. You would also be able to collect SDI when on a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation.

      Third, I’ll address PFL…PFL is only wage replacement and does NOT provide job protection. That’s what CFRA is for. It’s the same as SDI/PDL — While your job is being protected under PDL, you’re being paid SDI. Similarly, while you have 12 weeks of job protection under CFRA, you can be paid PFL for 6 of those weeks (that means, you’ll have some weeks of CFRA that goes unpaid, unless you use PTO or vacation). So, if you are CFRA eligible, you’ll be able to claim your 6 weeks of PFL without issue (so long as you have CFRA time remaining). If you are not CFRA eligible, you would need to request an additional leave of absence (LOA) from your employer in order to get the time off to collect PFL. This request for an LOA would NOT be a reasonable accommodation since you wouldn’t be disabled at this point; as such, approval is subject to your employer’s policy (i.e. they can deny).

      Hope that helps!

      Akiko

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  2. Alyssa says:

    Thank you so much for all this information. This is the only clear explanation I have found! I have a question I wanted to confirm. I have been with my employer for 2 years and went from full time to part time with benefits about 2 months ago. Does this change the max wages I will make when I am off? Will only my part time income be considered or does it not matter and still most earned quarter takes effect?

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  3. Angelica Zarate says:

    Hello! I have a few questions about my own leave was wondering if you could help answer! My employer is telling me FMLA and CRFA are running together. Do you know what this means for my return date/paid benefits through the state? I am so confused!

    Thanks!!

    Angie

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    • FMLA and CFRA, for the most part, don’t run concurrently in the context of maternity leave, since pregnancy and childbirth aren’t considered as serious health condition under CFRA. PDL and FMLA run concurrently, however.

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  4. Tanya says:

    My understanding is that I can take up to 4 months PDL but can only receive SDI for 3 months and would take that 4th month unpaid or use my company earned PTO. Is this correct? I had planned on working till my due date and then taking 4 months off. Would I have to provide my employer a doctors note to get that 4th month off? My company only wants to pay their portion of insurance premiums for 3 months, but under PDL it should be covered for 4 months. It is not clear to me whether or not it is required that I show proof that I need the 4th month off. Can you please advise here? Thank you!

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    • The maximum amount of leave under PDL is 4 months. However, you don’t automatically get all 4 months of PDL. The actual length of your PDL is limited to the duration that you’re certified disabled by pregnancy and childbirth. The standard duration a doctor will certify PDL for a healthy pregnancy/childbirth is 10-12 weeks: 4 weeks before estimated date and 6 or 8 weeks after (depending on vaginal or CS birth).

      As for SDI…you can receive SDI for the entire duration you are certified disabled (i.e. 4 weeks pre-birth + 6-8 weeks postbirth). SDI benefits max out at 52 weeks.

      In order to have job protection under PDL past the “standard” 10-12 weeks, you’ll need a medical reason for your doctor to certify an extension on your PDL. So long as you have a medical certification to be out on PDL for the full 4 months or at any length past the “standard” duration, under the law, your employer must continue and maintain your healthcare benefits.

      Hope that helps!

      Like

  5. Lindsey Stone says:

    By far the most simple explanation I have found! I am pregnant with twins, can I apply for PFL for each baby? I understand that PDL is per pregnancy, but can I haven’t been able to find anything on milking the system for two!

    Like

  6. Melisa says:

    Thank you so much for this! I was so confused between what I was reading on the gov sites and the bs my employer was feeding me. I’ve got the powah of knowledge now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to hear the post is helpful!

      How a private disability plan works in conjunction with SDI depends on the policy terms. Each plan is different so you’ll need to confirm with the insurance provider or your employer.

      Typically, a disability plan will supplement on top of your SDI benefits, paying out less any SDI benefits you are receiving. For example: if your plan pays 70% of your normal wages, but your SDI benefit amount is at 60% of your normal wages, then your disability plan may reduce it’s pay out to 40% from 70%.

      However, there are some plans that pay out the normal rate (ex: 70%) regardless of receiving SDI benefits. In this instance, the EDD may reduce your SDI benefit amount, so you don’t go over 100% of your normal wages.

      Definitely confirm with your insurance provider for details!

      Like

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