California is an at-will employment state. At-will employment means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason or at any time. They do not need to have a reason or justification for terminating an at-will employee. 

Some examples of getting fired for seemingly no reason include:

  • The employer does not like your personality.
  • The employer is in a bad mood.
  • The employer does not have enough work for you to do.
  • The employer does not want to have as many employees as it has anymore.

Most employers will make it clear to their employees that their employment is at-will. It is often included in an employee handbook or included as part of an employment agreement signed and acknowledged by the employee. 

Even employees working on an at-will basis are protected from being terminated for reasons that would be considered wrongful termination under California Employment Law. Examples of illegal reasons for firing someone include discrimination based on race, sex, gender, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, retaliation for complaining about harassment or unsafe working conditions, or taking leave guaranteed by state or federal law.

What is At-Will Employment in California?

As stated above, California is an at-will employment state. In the absence of an employment contract stating otherwise, or a collective bargaining agreement an employee benefits from as part of their membership in a labor union, employees can quit or be fired for any legal reason at any time. 

The crux of at-will employment is the ability of an employer to file an employee regardless of their performance or productivity. If an employee is hired on an at-will basis, they can be fired for any reason, or no reason, as long as the reason is not illegal. It is important to note that at-will employment gives employees the right to leave their job at any time as well.

In California, as well as in many at-will states, there are several exceptions to true at-will employment that serve to limit an employer’s ability to terminate an employee. 

Some of the reasons for firing an employee that are considered unlawful include:

  • Firing an employee based on discriminatory reasons, such as because of their race, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
  • Firing an employee based on their political affiliations.
  • Firing an employee who took time off that they were allowed based on state or federal law.
  • Firing an employee in retaliation for them reporting a violation of the law.

Employees in California have a number of laws that protect them from wrongful termination even though they are employed on an at-will basis. Some of those laws include:

California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA): FEHA makes it illegal for employers to fire at-will employees for discriminatory reasons such as race, religion, color, age, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, or marital status. 

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA): The NLRA protects employees who unionize or exercise their rights under collective bargaining agreements. Essentially, this is firing an employee or threatening to fire an employee for trying to unionize or join a labor organization is illegal and would be considered wrongful termination.

Whistleblower Laws: These laws protect at-will employees from being fired in retaliation for reporting violations of the law or other misconduct by the employer. Employees who have a reasonable suspicion that there has been a violation of state or federal law, such as discrimination, safety violations, or making a false statement to get money or property from the government (California or Federal False Claims Act).

Laws Protecting Leaves of Absence: California law protects at-will employees who take certain types of leave from being terminated. Protected leave includes time off after being injured on the job, maternity leave, jury duty or appearing as a witness in a trial, voting (two hours are the beginning or end of a shift), and military service.

Employers who follow the following steps for terminating an employee in California can limit their exposure to a lawsuit for wrongful termination: 

  1. Make a determination whether there is a reason for firing the employee and that the reason is not illegal or discriminatory.
  2. Check if there is an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement involved that addresses when and why an employee can be terminated.
  3. Review company policies and employee handbooks to determine whether the company has any specific rules in place that govern employee discipline or other multi-step approaches to terminating employees that must be followed.
  4. Are there any other state or federal laws that might protect the employee in the current situation?
  5. Review the employee’s file to determine whether it includes the documentation that might be necessary to back up or defend the decision to fire the employee.
  6. Pay the employee any compensation that is currently due to them at the time of the firing.

If the employer did not follow these steps and take care when terminating an at-will employee, there might be room to allege that the employee was wrongfully terminated.

What are the Benefits of At-Will Employment Arrangements in California?

Employers and employees might benefit from an at-will employment arrangement. Employees are free to leave their job at any time. They can quit without fearing they might be in violation of an employment contract or other agreement. 

This makes it easier for employees to take advantage of new employment opportunities and to make decisions about changing jobs in a shorter amount of time. Employees have freedom to move between jobs and  laws protect California employee rights even in at-will employment situations.

The main benefit to employers is the freedom to exercise broad discretion when it comes to making decisions about firing or terminating employees. Employers are able to make changes to their business and terminate employees that do not fit for a variety of reasons without needing to wait for the employee to violate specific terms of an employment contract.

What Does Right to Work State Mean?

A “right to work state” is one in which the state has the authority to decide whether employees can be required to join a labor union as a condition of their employment. In most cases this means the employee cannot be forced to join a union or pay dues to a union in order to get or keep a job. Right to work laws also disallow contracts that require hiring union workers only. 

Right to work laws do not prohibit unions. They just protect employees from being forced to join them as a condition of employment. Right to work laws are controversial and often seen as being anti-union. Federal law has long prohibited employers from hiring only union members, while still allowing businesses to require union membership when a majority of the employees approve it.

Is California Becoming a Right to Work State?

California does not have a right to work law. Recent attempts to pass laws similar to right to work initiatives have failed. For example, in 2012 Californians voted against a “Paycheck Protection” initiative that would have banned automatic paycheck deductions for union dues. It would have also banned using union dues for specific political purposes. 

Currently California is not a right to work state and employers can require union membership as a condition of employment.

What Can You Do If You Get Fired for No Reason?

If you have been fired as an at-will employee and think it might be in violation of California work laws, you might be able to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination. You must be able to show that your termination was in violation of state or federal law that protects workers from wrongful termination. An example of this is if you were fired for discriminatory reasons in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. 

You should follow the following steps if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated:

  1. Gather documentation and evidence that supports your position that you have been wrongfully terminated. This might include communication from your employer, statements from witnesses or other employees, and notes that you took.
  2. Speak to a human resources representative to determine if there is a way of dealing with the dispute before initiating a lawsuit.
  3. Consult with an attorney to discuss the specifics of your situation and circumstances surrounding your termination.
  4. Depending on the reason you believe you were fired, you might need to file a claim with the appropriate government agency before filing a lawsuit. For example, it might be necessary to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and attempt to come to a resolution through them first.
  5. If no agreement is reached with the employer you can pursue a claim in court. If you first filed a claim with the EEOC or other agency they will provide you with a Notice of Right to Sue following their investigation. You must file the lawsuit within the time stated on the Notice of Right to Sue and within the applicable statute of limitations.

In addition to protecting employees from wrongful terminations, state law protects California workers rights to workers compensation when they are injured on the job, leave when experiencing the birth of a child, placement of a child for adoption or foster care, and pregnancy related disability.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Termination Laws in California?

If you think you have been wrongfully terminated you should contact a California wrongful termination lawyer. An experienced employment law attorney can evaluate your case, help you understand your rights, and prepare your claim for the relevant government agency or court. Your lawyer will help you gather evidence, negotiate with your employer, and can represent you in court.