California At-will Employment & Wrongful Termination: Common Questions

California At-will Employment & Wrongful Termination: Common Questions
May 26, 2016

As an employee in the state of California, you likely know that California is considered an “at-will” employment state. But what does that term mean, exactly? You may be wondering if your boss can simply fire you without a good reason. Technically, this can be true. But you could also be the victim of wrongful termination or workplace discrimination due to certain exceptions to the at-will rule.

There are many different types of employment in California and many different employers. Most employers require that their employees perform the tasks of the job adequately, but beyond that each employer has their own rules about conduct, expectations, benefits and other aspects of the employment. However, most employees in California are also known as at-will employees. This is true in most circumstances even if the employee signs an employee agreement and agrees to abide by a number of different covenants.

What is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment means that the employer can fire the employee at pretty much any time for almost any reason. There are exceptions to this rule though which will be discussed below. Many times employees sign employment contracts, but most cover things like benefits, non-compete clauses, non-solicitation clauses, salary, hours and other aspects of the job. However, the employee is still an at-will employee unless the contract states that the employee is going to be employed for a set period of time, like a one-year contract.

While it may seem like at-will employees have no guarantees, there are some protections that even at-will employees have in regards to being terminated. Employers cannot discriminate against employees based on a number of protected aspects like their sex, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religion and others. Employers also cannot terminate an employee in retaliation for the employee reporting illegal activity within the company to the proper authorities. If an at-will employee is fired for one of these reasons, then the employee may have a wrongful termination claim. If an employee is fired because of discrimination or retaliation, the employee may be able to receive compensation for back-pay, future-pay and/or be reinstated to their position. All employees in California have certain rights.

This article will help you understand the definition of at-will employment in California, plus inform you of the ways in which California labor and employment laws can help protect your at-will employee rights.


Understanding California At-Will Employment

What is an at-will state?

The term, “at-will” is used in U.S. labor law to define contractual working relationships where an employee may be terminated or demoted by an employer, without warning and for any reason (without having to establish “just cause.”). Under the at-will employment rule, an employee is also free to strike, cease work, or quit his or her job at any time without reason or warning.

What is the definition of just cause in employment?

The legal definition of “just cause” is when misconduct of an employee or event relevant to an employee justifies an immediate termination of his or her employment contract by an employer.

An employer who fires an employee for just cause must also be able to prove that the employee in question exhibited behavior that was so serious in nature or extent that it broke an employment agreement.

Is California an at-will state?

The majority of California workers are considered to be “at-will” employees. Public or government workers, individuals with a written, verbal, or implied contract, and employees belonging to unions may all claim to be exempt to the general “at-will” employment status under the California Labor Code.

Does a California employer need a reason to fire me?

In the state of California, an employment relationship with no specified duration is considered to be employment “at-will.” This means that under California at-will employment laws both California employers and employees can terminate an employment relationship at any time, for any reason.

However, while your employer may not need a “good” reason to fire you, there are exceptions to the at-will rule, including employment contracts that say an employee can only be fired “for cause,” or union agreements that lay out circumstances in which you can be fired. Because of these exceptions and others, California employees should always examine employment contracts, employee handbooks, and policies closely to find out what their employee rights actually entail under their contractual agreements.

When is termination of an at-will employee in California unlawful?

At-will employees are protected from wrongful termination by both the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and federal employment law. If you are an at-will employee who is fired or demoted due to a protected characteristic (age, race, sexual orientation, gender, disability, religion, national origin etc.) your employer could be subjecting you to illegal workplace discrimination or wrongful termination.

Additionally, if your California employer breaks their own termination policy or contractual agreement, this may also indicate that the reasons for your termination were illegal under state and federal law.

For more information on California at-will employment laws, the following websites may be helpful:

Contact Our California Wrongful Termination Lawyers

If you are an at-will employee but feel your employer is subjecting you to wrongful termination in California, it’s best to contact an experienced employment lawyer. The Los Angeles wrongful termination attorneys of Hennig Ruiz can help you determine possible wrongful termination. Contact us today for your free consultation.

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