Bartz Law Group

Employee Rights Advocates

What “At-Will” Employment Means Under California Law

California Law

When you work in California, you may hear the term “at-will” employment. This means an employer can terminate an employee’s employment at any time without giving any notice or reason. As an at-will employee, you also have the right to leave your job anytime for any reason. However, there are certain limitations to at-will employment in California that both employers and employees should be aware of.

Employers Don’t Need a Good Reason to Fire At-Will Employees

As an at-will employee in California, your employer does not need a good reason to terminate your employment. For example, if your employer decides they no longer need your services, they can terminate your employment without giving you a specific reason. However, there are limitations to this rule. Employers cannot terminate an employee’s employment for an unlawful reason.

Employers Can’t Fire Employees for Unlawful Reasons

Under California employment law, the termination of at-will employment cannot be based on certain unlawful reasons. These reasons include discrimination, retaliation, and violations of public policy. Discrimination can occur based on race, gender, age, religion, national origin, and disability.

Retaliation is when an employer terminates an employee’s employment because the employee engaged in a protected activity, such as reporting discrimination or harassment. Termination of employment violates public policy if it is against the law or public policy.

Anti-Discrimination Laws

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on protected classes like race, gender, and disability. If an employer terminates an employee’s employment based on one of these protected classes, it violates California employment law. Employees who believe they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Laws Protecting Union Activity

The National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ rights to organize and join unions. Employers cannot terminate an employee’s employment because they engaged in union activities or attempted to form a union. Employers cannot threaten employees with termination or retaliation for engaging in union activities.

Laws Protecting Whistleblowers from Retaliation

California law also protects employees who report illegal activity, health and safety violations, or other illegal conduct by their employer. Employers cannot terminate an employee’s employment for whistleblowing or participating in an investigation or hearing related to whistleblowing.

Protected Leaves of Absence

Under California law, several types of leaves are protected, meaning an employer cannot terminate an employee’s employment for taking such leave. These leaves include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), and pregnancy disability leave. Employees who take one of these leaves must be allowed to return to their job when the leave is over.

Public Policy Limitations on At-Will Employment

In addition to contractual limitations on at-will employment, California law prohibits employers from terminating employees for reasons that violate public policy. For example, an employer cannot terminate an employee for:

  • Refusing to engage in illegal activity
  • Taking time off to serve on a jury
  • Reporting a workplace safety violation
  • Engaging in political activities outside of work

A somewhat complicated legal analysis is required to determine whether a reason for termination is prohibited by public policy. In general, several elements are considered, including:

  • The existence of a clear public policy: The policy must be well-established and well-defined.
  • The employee’s compliance with the public policy: The employee must have acted following the public policy.
  • The employer’s motivation: The employer must have terminated the employee because of the employee’s compliance with public policy.
  • The harm caused to the employee: The employee must have suffered harm due to the termination.

If you believe your employer has violated your rights or terminated you for an unlawful reason, take action to protect yourself. Review your employment contract, document any unlawful actions, file a complaint with the appropriate government agency and consult an employment lawyer. By taking proactive steps, you can protect your rights as an employee and ensure you are treated fairly and lawfully in the workplace.