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When most people seek to gain employment, they are probably not thinking about whether or not they are an “at-will” employee. However, it is important to understand that California is an “at-will” employment state. This means that either you or your employer may decide to end the employment arrangement at any time and for just about any reason. However, there are certain ways in which termination could violate various state or federal laws. Here, we want to discuss what it means to be an at-will employee in California, as well as some of the reasons why it may be illegal to end a person’s employment.
In general, most jobs in the state of California will be considered at-will. This type of employment has benefits, both for the employee and the employer. For the employee, this means that they can leave their job at any time and for any reason. They owe no obligation to let the employer know that they are leaving (though giving notice is customary), and an employee must be paid for any time they have worked already, even if they do quit their job.
Conversely, an employer generally owes no obligation to an employee. Employers can terminate workers anytime they wish and for almost any reason. While it may not seem fair, a person could lose their job for the simple reason that their employer does not like the T-shirt that an employee is wearing for their off-duty social media posts.
One of the major alternatives to at-will employment is if there is employment by contract. Employment contracts are recognized under California law, and both the employer and the employee must abide by the terms of that contract. Typically, employment contracts will include a certain length of time for the employment as well as an agreed-upon compensation amount. Employment contracts may even include severance agreements that the employer is required to abide by. If an employee in California signs a contract, then they are generally not an at-will employee.
Employers often make use of handbooks or other written policies that layout terms of disciplinary processes and termination procedures. These employee handbooks or policies will generally be construed to mean they are contracts between the employer and the employees. These handbooks and policies may state that an employer can terminate an employee for “any reason” or they may lay out a step-by-step process for termination.
Both state and federal laws prevent employers from terminating an employee based on certain discriminatory reasons. This includes discrimination based on a person’s color, race, national origin, age, disability, gender, pregnancy status, marital status, religion, and more. It is also illegal to fire an employee if that employee has raised concerns about workplace safety, illegal activities in the workplace, unfair wage practices, or discrimination/harassment in the workplace. An employer may not terminate an employee for requesting allowable leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or for filing a valid workers’ compensation claim.
If you believe you have been terminated from your employment for an illegal reason, you should seek assistance from a skilled Orange County work injury lawyer as soon as possible. These cases can become incredibly complex, but an attorney can conduct an investigation into your entire case. You may be entitled to significant compensation if you have been wrongfully terminated. Just because California is an at-will state, this does not give employers the right to act illegally.