For some of your employees, this time of the year means their children will be starting school. For you, it means those employees will probably request time off at certain points during the school year.

The leave may be related to a child’s school or child care activities; a child getting suspended (for some unlucky parents); or the need for time off to take care of a sick kid.

School and Child Care Activities Leave

Under California’s Labor Code, employers with 25 or more employees working at the same location must permit employees to take time off to participate in certain school or child care activities.

Employees who are the “parents” of a child of kindergarten age through grade 12 or with a licensed child care provider are eligible for this leave. The term “parent” doesn’t just mean the child’s mom or dad. Instead, “parent” is defined by the law to include guardians, grandparents, stepparents, foster parents or persons standing in loco parentis.

Covered employees can take time off to:

  • Find, enroll or re-enroll their child in a school or with a licensed child care provider;
  • Participate in activities of the school or licensed child care provider; or
  • Address a “child care provider or school emergency.”

It doesn’t matter if the school the child attends is public or private. The covered employee may take up to 40 hours of total time off each year. It’s not 40 hours for each type of activity, but 40 hours total.

The time off can be limited to eight hours in any calendar month unless the leave is for a school/child care emergency — there is no eight hour per calendar month limitation on this emergency usage.

The employee must give reasonable prior notice of the planned absence for school or child care activities or enrollment issues.

School Appearance Leave

Sometimes, an employee may need to appear at his/her child’s or ward’s school in connection with disciplinary action by the school. This is referred to as “school appearance leave.”

California’s Education Code allows school districts to require parents to attend class when the student returns to school after a suspension. The Labor Code requires employers to give time off to an employee who is the parent or guardian of a student to appear at the school in connection with his/her child’s suspension. This requirement applies to all employers, regardless of size.

Sick Kid in the House

It’s pretty much guaranteed that one of your employees will come to you at some point during the school year with a request to take time off to care for a sick child.

Under California’s mandatory paid sick leave (PSL) law, you must allow employees to use PSL to care for a family member, which includes a sick child, stepchild, foster child and other legal relationships as defined by the PSL law.

An employee can use the entire amount of accrued and available PSL for care of a defined family member. It is unlawful for employers to count days off taken for PSL as violations of an attendance policy that can result in discipline, demotion or termination. You can’t deny employees the right to use accrued paid sick days or take any action against an employee for using, or attempting to use, accrued sick days.

Besides the statewide mandatory PSL law, you will need to be aware of any local ordinances mandating PSL.

Applying Policies Fairly

When some employees get to take leave and others don’t, employees without children may feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick or may resent the apparent “perks” given to employees with parental responsibilities. But the fact is that certain leaves of absences are mandated by law.

Don’t forget, however, that employees without children still are entitled to take PSL to care for a parent, parent in-law, spouse, registered domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild or sibling.

Employees without children may also be covered by other laws, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or the California Family Rights Act, and would be eligible for these protected leaves. There are some employee leave requests that are not required by law, and in these situations it is truly up to the employer to decide.

It’s important for employers to consistently apply policies and treat all similarly situated employees equally. For example, employees with children may ask for flexible schedules or telecommuting arrangements, or they might ask to take part of a day off to shuttle their child to a doctor’s appointment.

Employers should be aware of the potential for friction and attempt to manage employee attitudes before tensions erupt.

Also, if you grant time off to parents for nonprotected activities, such as attending a child’s non-school activity, make sure you are consistent when you receive requests from employees who do not have children. Similarly, consider vacation requests equally and use a consistent policy. Simply because Jim wants to take winter break with his kids doesn’t mean Sally’s request to take the same time off to go skiing should be denied.

Use your standard policies to consider such requests (such as when the request was made, seniority, staffing issues, etc.), instead of judgment calls as to which use of vacation time is a better one. Make sure that your policies related to time off and other optional employer benefits are clearly communicated to employees and enforced equally.

Keep in mind that California law prohibits discrimination based upon marital or familial status. Do not play favorites with employees. If an employee brings a concern about workplace equity to your attention, address that concern promptly.

How you address the employee’s concern will vary depending on the nature of the complaint. Make sure the employee understands your policies and make sure you exercise good faith in responding to the employee’s concerns.

Finally, whenever you’re addressing concerns such as these, protect the privacy of all employees. If one of your employees needs to take time off related to his or her child’s serious illness, do not share those details with other employees.