This blog often notes that workers have protections under state and federal laws. The distinction between state and federal is important because the protections they offer are somewhat different. In general, California law provides more protection than the federal government, and more than many other states. This can be seen easily in the number of protected classes covered by state and federal civil rights laws.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the main federal law protecting workers from certain forms of discrimination. Specifically, it prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of five categories: sex, race, skin color, national origin and religion. Lawyers refer to these categories as "protected classes." Other federal laws provide protections for some other classes, such as military veterans and older workers.
California has its own civil rights laws, including the Fair Employment and Housing Act. FEHA lists 12 protected classes: Race or color; ancestry or national origin; religion or creed; age (40 and up); disability; sex or gender; sexual orientation; gender identity or gender expression; medical condition; genetic information; marital status; and military and veteran status.
In other words, an employer may legally discriminate against bad workers, deciding to give promotions to the good ones and not to the bad ones. However, providing that the company and the jobs are covered by the Civil Rights Act, it is against the law for that same employer to discriminate against workers on the basis of their sex, race, skin color, national origin or religion. In California, the employer is further prohibited from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation, gender expression and several other categories under FEHA.
As usual in employment discrimination cases, the hard part for the worker is proving that the discrimination was because of the worker's membership in a protected class, and not because of some legitimate reason. For this and other reasons, it is crucial for workers to keep documentation to use as evidence. An employment law attorney can help workers understand their rights and their legal options.