As an employee in California, it is important to be aware of labor laws and employee rights. At-will employment is the most common form of employment and should be clearly understood. Here’s what workers need to know about at-will employment in California.

Most employees in California work at-will, meaning that either the employee or employer may terminate the employment at any time for any lawful reason, or no reason at all. There are exceptions to at-will employment, where employees may take legal action against employers for unlawful termination.

What Is At-Will Employment?

In California, most employees work “at-will.” This means that the employee may leave their jobs at any time, and employers may fire their employees at any time for any lawful reason, or no reason at all.

The employer is fully within their legal right to fire an employee at any time for even arbitrary reasons, as long as the reason is lawful. Even if the employee is doing a good job, the employer is still free to fire the employee for a lawful reason or none at all.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

At-will employment means the employer can fire an employee for any lawful reason or none at all. However, there still are unlawful reasons for firing an employee, and employees may take legal action against the employer for unlawful termination.

Related: How to File a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit in California

Exceptions to at-will employment include public sector employees, protected classes, union membership, whistleblowers, and leaves of absence.

Public Sector

Public sector employees are protected by civil service practices, which prevent arbitrary termination practices. Employers must give a cause, or reason, when terminating employees in the public sector.

Protected Classes

Terminating an employee on the basis of the employee’s protected class in California is unlawful. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act protects certain characteristics that employers may not use to terminate employees. These include:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Nationality
  • Ancestry
  • Disability (physical, mental, medical conditions, genetic condition)
  • Marital status
  • Sex
  • Gender and gender identity
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation

An employer may not terminate an employee on the basis of any of the traits listed above.

Union Membership

Most union labor agreements require a cause for termination. By federal law, employers may not interfere with an employee’s union membership and must adhere to the terms of the labor agreements. Thus, employers may not fire employees for union membership and must provide cause for termination of union members.

Whistleblowers

Employers may not retaliate against employees for reporting unlawful conduct. Employees are granted whistleblower protection if they report unlawful conduct to a government or law enforcement agency.

Leaves of Absence

An employer may not terminate an employee for taking a protected leave of absence. Some examples of protected absences include:

  • Injury from the job
  • Maternity leave up to 4 months if disabled from childbirth or pregnancy
  • Accommodations for disabilities
  • Jury or court duty
  • Voting (no more than 2 hours at the beginning or end of shift)
  • Serious health issues of close family members
  • Military service

Related: Implied Employment Contracts & Wrongful Termination in California

FAQs

What is at-will employment?

At-will employment means that the employee or employer may terminate the employment at any time for any lawful reason, or no reason at all. The employer can fire the highest-performing employee for arbitrary reasons or no reason at all, so long as it is lawful.

What are the exceptions to at-will employment?

Exceptions to at-will employment include public sector employees, protected classes, union membership, whistleblowers, and leaves of absence. Employees may take legal action against their employers for unlawful termination.

Contact Us

If you or a loved one is an at-will employee and want to seek legal action against your employer, contact us. We’ll match you with the most qualified California Employment Attorney for your unique legal matter. We won’t charge you a dime unless you win your case!