As an at-will employee in California, you have important rights that are well worth protecting, and an experienced California worker rights attorney can help.
In California, most employment is what is called at will. Understanding what this term means for you as an employee is critical to your ability to protect your job termination rights in California, but the concept can be confusing. If you are facing a situation in which you believe your employee rights are affected, you need a California worker rights attorney in your corner.
The Presumption of At-Will Employment
Your California Worker Rights
Many California employees believe that, as long as they don’t engage in one of the following, they can’t be fired:
- Breaking the law
- Doing a bad job
- Engaging in some form of wrongdoing
In other words, employees believe that they cannot be fired on a whim, but this belief is not the case generally. Your employer does not need a good reason – or any reason – to fire you, but if your employer does have a reason, it cannot be one that is against the law, which can be confusing from your perspective as an employee. For example, even if you are really applying yourself on the job, doing your best work, and hitting all the tasks set forth in your job description, you can still be legally fired, and your employer really doesn’t need a reason for doing so. Conversely, you have the right to quit for any reason or for no reason. For many employees, this at-will arrangement can mean they have fewer job termination rights than they realized, but it does not mean that you don’t have any rights as an employee.
When Your Employer Has a Reason for Firing You
The idea that your employer does not need a reason for firing you is easy to understand. However, understanding that your employer cannot fire you for an illegal reason can be more of a challenge. While you can do nothing wrong and be fired legally, your employer cannot fire you for a reason that is unlawful at either the state or federal level. As a California employee, you have important rights, and some of these are job termination rights. There are important restrictions in place that prevent employers from firing employees for being part of a protected class, which include:
- A class that relates to race or skin color
- A class that relates to religion, including religious dress and religion-related grooming practices
- A class that relates to sex or gender, including medical conditions related to sex, pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding
- A class that relates to gender expression or gender identity
- A class that relates to sexual orientation
- A class that relates to age (if over 40)
- A class that relates to marital status
- A class that relates to national origin, including language
- A class that relates to disability, including both mental and physical disabilities and HIV or AIDS
- A class that relates to medical conditions, including cancer or a history of cancer and genetic characteristics
- A class that relates to ancestry or genetic information
- A class that relates to military or veteran status
- A class that relates to an employee’s request for family care leave, for leave related to a serious health condition, or for leave related to pregnancy disability
Additional employee protections include:
- You cannot be fired for your political beliefs or affiliations.
- You cannot be fired for requesting time off that you are legally entitled to take.
- You cannot be fired for reporting a legal violation on the part of your employer.
California job termination laws include the protections afforded by federal laws and, in some instances, exceed them. In other words, there is a solid framework of employee protections in place that can apply when an employer is motivated to fire an employee for a specific reason, but these protections do not extend to terminations that are based on no reason at all. And as long as an employer’s reason for firing an employee does not fall into an illegal classification, the employer has every right to proceed with terminating the employee in question.
Protections for Union Activity
Protections for Retaliation
Generally, employees have the right to report their employers for engaging in certain kinds of unlawful conduct without fear of reprisals, discipline, or any form of retaliation on the part of the employer. You cannot, in other words, be fired for reporting your employer’s misconduct, which acts as additional protection in the at-will employment equation. Whistleblowers in the workplace are protected against retaliation for disclosing information related to state or federal violations regarding any of the following:
- Workplace discrimination of any kind
- Unsafe work conditions
- The submission of false claims for payment to the government
As an employee, you do not have to be absolutely certain that your employer is engaging in illegal activity in order for these whistleblower protections to apply. Instead, you need to have a reasonably based suspicion that your employer is engaged in illegal activity. The standard you’ll need to meet goes beyond mere guessing but need not be ironclad.
Protections for Leave of Absence
There are certain kinds of leave that employees – even at-will employees – cannot be fired for taking. Consider the following protections:
- Employees cannot be terminated for taking leave related to injuries sustained on the job.
- Women cannot be terminated for taking up to four months of maternity leave for a pregnancy-related condition or a childbirth-related disability.
Additional forms of protected leave include:
- Serving on a jury
- Being a witness at a trial
- Voting in a statewide election – taking no more than two hours at the beginning or the end of your shift
- Tending to a close family member’s serious health condition
You are also protected when you are engaged in military service, and employees with physical or mental disabilities must be reasonably accommodated by their employers.
When an Employment Contract Is Involved
Employment contracts can affect an employer’s ability to fire an employee without cause, and such contracts come in two primary forms, including:
- Express contracts that make an explicit offer that is accepted by the employee in exchange for employment and that can be either written or oral
- Implied contracts that are assumed to be in existence based on the supporting circumstances – although no clear agreement was formed, both employer and employee conduct themselves as if a contract is in place
Some express employment contracts include a provision that specifically restricts an employer’s ability to fire the employee under contract. Such provisions are usually based on having good cause for firing the employee. Good cause, in this context, is typically defined as having a fair, honest, and reasonable reason for terminating the employee. Additionally, the employer must have reached the decision to fire the employee in good faith – rather than slapping together a half-baked reason after the fact. In other words, your employer cannot fire you today and come up with a reason for having done so tomorrow – such practices are considered in bad faith. None of the following qualify as good cause for firing an employee:
- Trivial reasons
- Capricious reasons
- Reasons that are not related to business goals or needs
- Reasons that are based on a pretext
In express contracts that are based on good cause, your employer needs to have a reason for firing you that is based on a legitimate business purpose. In determining whether an employer has good cause for firing an employee, California courts attempt to balance both of the following important interests:
- The employer’s interest in operating the business both profitably and efficiently
- The employee’s interest in continuing their employment
Every express contract case is considered in terms of the unique circumstances involved and is considered on a case-by-case basis to determine if the employer ultimately had good cause for firing the employee or not. It is important to note at this juncture that California courts afford employers considerable discretion when it comes to determining what is best for their own businesses. In other words, courts can be loath to presume that they know best in relation to an employer’s business, which can make your case as an employee who has allegedly been terminated for good cause more challenging. Having a seasoned Los Angeles wrongful termination lawyer is in your best interest.
Even if you have no contract in place that outlines your employer’s need to have good cause for termination of your employment, California job termination laws are such that this may be implied by the relevant circumstances. Without a contract, employment in California is at will, but there are instances when the court will interpret the employer and employee relationship as being contractual, which requires the employer to have good cause for moving forward with a termination. The court’s job in such situations is to consider all the evidence in relation to the conduct of both the employer and the employee and determine if there is an unspoken understanding between them. Toward this end, the court will consider factors such as the following:
- The employer’s personnel policies and practices
- The length of the employee’s service
- Any communication or actions on the part of the employer that are indicative of continued employment
- The standard employment practices of the industry in question
If an implied contract that requires good cause for firing an employee is deemed to be in play, the employer cannot fire you without a fair and honest reason for doing so, such as a legitimate business concern. Additionally, at-will employees can be protected from termination related to implied contractual duties when the firing is a pretext for cheating the employee out of a contractual benefit. Put simply, it’s complicated, and having professional legal counsel behind you is always to your advantage.