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What Is Employment At-Will?

Business woman handing over a contract for signature offering at the office

You may have heard that California is an “at-will” state, meaning workers are employed at-will. Many workers are not clear on the exact meaning of at-will, or where the boundaries of at-will employment lie. Read on for a discussion of at-will employment and how it works in California. If you have concerns about the terms of your employment, or if you suspect you’ve been unlawfully terminated, call our Orange County labor law attorney for seasoned advice and representation.

Employment at-Will: Termination for (Almost) Any Reason

California is an at-will employment state. Unless your employer chooses to set conditions of employment, or some other specific agreement or rule applies, there is a presumption that you are an at-will employee.

At-will employment means that you are employed at the will of your employer, and upon your own will. You and your employer each have the option to end your employment at any time, for almost any reason, or no reason at all. Your employer can fire you without proving that you were negligent, for example, or that your contributions were not profitable. Your employer is only prohibited from terminating you for unlawful reasons or in an unlawful manner, as discussed below.

Breach of Contract

Although California is an at-will employment state, you and your employer can agree to certain conditions of employment. If you sign an employment contract with your employer, or if your employer maintains a generally applicable policy of employment that applies to your position and to which you’ve agreed, then you and your employer are bound by that agreement.

Your employment agreement might, for example, set a durational term of employment, or provide that you can only be terminated for cause. If your employer (or you) violate the terms of that agreement, then the aggrieved party may have a legal claim for breach of contract.

Many workers are also protected by collective bargaining agreements (CBA) negotiated by a union. A CBA sets certain policies and procedures for all covered employees. If you are protected by an executed CBA, then you can only be terminated in accordance with the terms of that agreement.

Unlawful Termination

Even at-will employees have the legal right to be free from discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and other unlawful conduct. In an at-will state, even without the protection of an employment contract or other agreement, your employer still cannot fire you for an illegal reason. The prohibitions on unlawful termination are set by state and federal law.

Unlawful termination, also known as wrongful discharge, includes termination for any of the following reasons:

  • Discrimination based on a protected characteristic, such as race, gender, disability, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or advanced age
  • Retaliation for engaging in a protected activity, such as:

    • Filing (or intending to file) for workers’ compensation benefits
    • Reporting unlawful conduct in the workplace either internally or externally to a government agency
    • Obtaining disability benefits
    • Requesting disability accommodation
    • Participating in an investigation or lawsuit into unlawful conduct in the workplace
    • Attending jury duty
    • Reporting unsafe working conditions internally or externally
    • Taking protected leave (medical leave, family leave, etc.)

WARN Act Violations

California law also prohibits termination under certain circumstances. California’s WARN Act sets certain requirements for employers who plan to engage in mass layoffs (also called “reductions in force” and other euphemisms). Employers with at least 75 employees must provide at least 60 days’ notice to staff before engaging in mass layoffs or closing/relocating a facility. If workers are terminated en masse without notice, they might have the right to sue for wages and other benefits they would have earned for those 60 days.

If you are an employee facing wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination, or other labor law issues in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, or San Diego counties, or a California employer dealing with employee rights allegations, wage & hour issues, employee contract disputes, or other employment law issues, contact a seasoned and successful California employment law attorney at Coast Employment Law at 714-551-9930 for a free consultation.

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