Terminating an Employee in California

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 Is California a Right to Work State?

Under labor laws, a right to work state is one where the state has the authority to decide whether employees may be required to join labor unions as a condition of their employment. In most situations, this means that employees 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 prohibit contracts that require hiring only union workers. California does not have a right to work law.

Currently, California is not a right to work state, and employers cannot require union membership as a condition of employment. The State of California is an at-will employment state.

At-will employment means that employers are permitted to terminate employees for any reason or at any time. An employer does not have to have a justification or a reason for terminating an at-will employee.

The majority of employers will notify their employees that the employment arrangement is at-will. This arrangement is typically outlined in the employee handbook or included as part of an employment agreement that is signed and acknowledged by the employee.

Even an employee who is working on an at-will basis is protected from being terminated for reasons that would be considered wrongful termination in California under California employment laws. Examples of reasons that would be considered illegal for terminating an employee include:

  • Discrimination based on:
    • Race;
    • Sex;
    • Gender;
    • Religious beliefs; or
    • Sexual orientation;
  • Retaliation for complaining about unsafe working conditions or harassment; or
  • Taking leave that is guaranteed by federal laws or by state laws.

What Is At-Will Employment?

California, as noted above, is an at-will employment state. Unless there is an employment contract that states otherwise or a collective bargaining agreement that an employee benefits from as part of their membership in a labor union, an employee can quit or be fired for any legal reason and at any time.

One of the main concepts in at-will employment is the ability of employers to terminate employees regardless of their performance or productivity. It is important to note that at-will employment also provides employees with the right to leave their jobs at any time as well.

In the State of California, similar to other at-will states, there are several exceptions to true at-will employment that limit the ability of employers to terminate employees. Reasons for terminating employees that are considered unlawful include terminating an employee based on:

  • Discriminatory reasons, such as because of their:
    • Race;
    • Sex;
    • Gender;
    • Religion;
    • Sexual orientation; or
    • Disability;
  • Their political affiliations;
  • Taking time off that they were allowed based on state or federal law; and
  • Retaliation for reporting a violation of the law by the employer.

California employees have numerous laws that protect them from wrongful termination even though they are at-will employees. Examples of these laws include:

  • California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA): FEHA prohibits employers from firing 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 a collective bargaining agreement by prohibiting terminating or threatening to terminate them for trying to unionize or join a labor organization;
  • Whistleblower laws: These laws protect at-will employees from being terminated in retaliation for reporting a violation of the law or other misconduct by their employer or if they have a reasonable suspicion that there has been a violation of state law or federal law, such as:
    • Discrimination;
    • Safety violations;
    • Making a false statement to obtain money or property from the government, covered by the California or Federal False Claims Act; and
  • Laws protecting leaves of absence: California law protects an at-will employee who takes certain types of leave from being terminated, including:
    • Time off after being injured on the job;
    • Maternity leave;
    • Jury duty;
    • Appearing as a witness in a trial;
    • Voting, employees are provided two hours at the beginning or end of a shift; and
    • Military service.

Employers can use the following tips for terminating an employee in California to help limit their exposure to a lawsuit for wrongful termination:

  • Determine whether there was a reason for terminating the employee that was not illegal or discriminatory;
  • Determine whether there was an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that addressed when and why the employee could be terminated;
  • Review company policies as well as employee handbooks in order to determine whether or not the company has any rules in place that govern employee discipline or other multi-step approaches to terminating an employee that had to be followed;
  • Review whether there are any other state or federal laws that might protect the employee in the current situation;
  • 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; and
  • Provide the employee with any compensation that is currently due to them at the time of their termination.

What Are the Benefits of At-Will Employment Arrangements?

Employees and employers may benefit from an at-will employment arrangement. An employee can leave their job at any time without fear that they may be in violation of an employment contract or other agreement.

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

One of the main benefits for employers in at-will arrangements is the freedom to exercise broad discretion when making decisions about terminating employees. An employer can make changes to their own business without having to wait for the employee to violate specific terms of their employment contract.

Can I Be Fired Without Warning?

Under California laws, an employee may be terminated at any time and for any reason, as discussed above. It is important to note that an employer can terminate an employee without warning as long as the reason for the termination is not unlawful.

Can I Sue My Employer for Firing Me?

If an individual believes that they have been terminated in violation of California work laws, they might be able to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination. An employee must be able to show that their termination was in violation of state or federal law that protects workers from wrongful termination.

If an individual believes they have been unlawfully terminated, they should consult with a local California attorney. An individual should follow the steps listed below if they believe they have been wrongfully terminated:

  • Gather documentation and evidence that supports their position that they have been wrongfully terminated, which may include:
    • Communication from the employer;
    • Statements from witnesses or other employees;
    • Notes that the employee took;
  • Speak to a representative from human resources to determine if there is a way to resolve the dispute before initiating a lawsuit;
  • Consult with an attorney to discuss the specifics of the situation and circumstances surrounding their termination;
  • Depending on the reason an individual believes they were fired, they might need to file a claim with the appropriate government agency before filing a lawsuit;
  • If no agreement is reached with the employer, an individual can pursue a claim in court. If the individual first filed a claim with the EEOC or other agency, they will provide them with a Notice of Right to Sue following their investigation;
    • An individual must file the lawsuit within the time stated on the Notice of Right to Sue and within the applicable statute of limitations.

California State laws also protect workers rights to workers’ compensation when:

  • They are injured on the job;
  • They leave due to childbirth;
  • A child is placed with them for adoption or foster care; and
  • They are experiencing a pregnancy-related disability.

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

If you believe you may have been wrongfully terminated, it is important to consult with a California wrongful termination lawyer. Your attorney can evaluate your case, assist you with understanding your rights, and help you prepare your claim to submit to the proper government agency or court.

Your lawyer will help you gather the necessary evidence, negotiate a solution with your employer, and represent you in court. Having a lawyer handle your case provides you with a better chance of reaching a successful resolution.


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