Parental Leave in California: What Happens If I Don't Return to Work?

Here are the legal issues to consider if you’re thinking of quitting your job when your parental leave is up.

There are as many reasons why employees might decide to quit after maternity or paternity leave as there are reasons why they might wish to return to work. In addition to all the personal factors that go into such a decision, employees who are considering quitting their job after parental leave are often concerned that they won't be within their legal rights, or will lose certain benefits.

Here's what to expect if you decide not to return to work when your parental leave is up.

Am I Legally Required to Return to Work?

You're not legally required to return to work after maternity or paternity leave. You can quit your job at any time, for any reason. Unless you are required by contract to stay in your job for a certain amount of time, you're an at-will employee and are legally entitled to quit.

In fact, the law does not even require that you give notice before quitting, although many employees choose to give at least two weeks' notice as a matter of courtesy. Under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), most employers are required to hold your job for you while you're on leave, so the sooner you let them know you're not coming back, the sooner they can begin looking for a replacement.

Does Quitting While on Parental Leave Affect My Benefits?

California has some of the most generous parental leave laws in the country. If you're eligible under these laws, you could receive everything from paid family leave to unpaid pregnancy disability leave to paid short-term disability benefits—or some combination of all three. In addition to the benefits provided by the state, most employers in California are required to continue your health care benefits during your time off.

If you decide not to return to work when your leave is over, you might lose some of these benefits, though others will not be affected.

Employer-Provided Health Insurance

If you were receiving health insurance benefits before your parental leave, employers that are covered by the CFRA must continue to provide you with those benefits during your leave (although you will be required to pay your portion of the premiums). However, if you decide not to return to work after your leave, your employer has the legal right to seek reimbursement of the health insurance costs it paid on your behalf. Not all employers will actually exercise this right, but it's important to be aware of this possibility. Under the FMLA, the right to reimbursement does not apply if you return to work for 30 days or more following your leave.

California Paid Family Leave and Disability Benefits

Pregnant women can receive up to four weeks of disability payments before their expected due date, and up to eight weeks of disability payments after delivery to recover from childbirth. In addition to disability insurance benefits, new moms are generally entitled to receive up to eight weeks of Paid Family Leave (PFL) benefits when their disability claim ends. New dads can also receive up to eight weeks of PFL benefits.

To be eligible for PFL and disability benefits, new parents need to be employed or actively looking for work at the time their leave begins (or, in the case of pregnancy disability, at the time the disability begins), and have earned $300 from which disability deductions were withheld during a 12-month "base period" ending the quarter before their claim begins.

Because eligibility for these benefits depends on whether you've previously paid into a state fund, as well as on your employment status at the time of leave or disability, you're unlikely to lose these benefits if you decide not to return to your job after parental leave.

Will I Still Get My Last Paycheck If I Don't Return to Work?

If you quit while on parental leave, your employer is still obligated to pay you all of your outstanding wages or salary. Your employer can't withhold your last paycheck, even if you owe your employer reimbursement of health insurance benefits.

Am I Eligible for Unemployment Benefits If I Quit My Job During Maternity Leave?

If you quit your job voluntarily, you generally aren't eligible for unemployment benefits, so in most cases quitting during parental leave will disqualify you from receiving unemployment.

However, California law provides that if you have "good cause" to quit, you might still be entitled to unemployment benefits. California courts have found good cause when an employee quits to care for a seriously ill family member (including a child), to relocate with a spouse, or to take another job that fails to materialize, among other things.

When to Consult an Employment Attorney

If you have questions about your company's parental leave policy, which might be more generous than state law, ask your human resources department or supervisor. For questions about your leave rights under state and federal law, you might wish to contact an experienced employment lawyer, especially if you're thinking about leaving your job when parental leave expires.

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