California At-will Employment and Wrongful Termination

If you’re an employee in State of California you must be aware of that state is considered to be at-will employment state.  In California it is hard to find a good job these days, but it is harder to find a job that is secure, a job that won’t put you out on the street for no reason. That’s why many people work at-will, even if this is not the best option for them.

At-will employment means that an employer can fire you any time, for any reason or without reason at all, so long as it’s not an unlawful or discriminatory reason, such as because of your age, sex, national origin, or disability.  But, employment at-will also means that you can quit any time.

At-will also means that an employer can change the terms of the employment relationship with no notice and no consequences.  For example, an employer can alter wages, terminate benefits, or reduce paid time off.

Are You an At-Will Employee in California?

The law assumes that you are employed at-will unless you can prove otherwise, usually through written documents relating to your employment or oral statements your employer has made.

  • Employment documents. You should check on the documents you have signed, to see if there is mention of an at-will employment. If you have signed a document agreeing that you are an at-will employee, that’s probably the end of the story. But, if you have not signed any at will agreement, check your employee manual or polices at your workplace.

Even if your employer does not use the term “at-will,” statements that you can be fired without good cause or “for any reason” are indications that your employer follows an at will policy. But if you have signed an employment contract that states job security, you are not employed at will.

  • Statements from your employer. In some cases, employers made statements like “You’ll always have a home here as long as you do a good job” or something of that style. In these situations, especially if the comments have been made repeatedly, and were a big reason you took the job, your employer may not be able to fire you at will.

But, if, during the hiring process, your employer said that you will be an at-will employee, then you should know that you can be fired at any time.

Exceptions to the At-Will Doctrine

Even if the at will employment means that an employee can be fired at any time, there are some exceptions to this doctrine:

  • An employee cannot be fired for a discriminatory reason. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for example, protects employees from discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, or sex.
  • An employee cannot be fired out of retaliation for performing a legally protected action.
    • An employer cannot fire an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
    • Filing a discrimination or harassment suit
    • Being a Whistleblower.
    • Refusing to perform illegal activities.
    • Participating in a workplace investigation.
  • An employee with a contract that outlines the terms of employment cannot be fired outside of those terms. If you are covered under an employment contract, you can only be terminated as the contract terms and conditions permit. If the employer does not follow the contract in terminating or disciplining you, you may have a breach of contract claim and should consider speaking to an attorney.
  • If you are a federal employee, you are always protected from any termination that violates the United States Constitution or the constitution of the state in which you work.
  • You cannot be terminated for exercising your right to take family leave, medical leave, military leave, to take time off to vote, or to serve on a jury.

Reasons for Terminating At-Will

Lawful nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating an at-will employee include:

  • Merger with another company or business
  • Workforce reduction
  • Change in company direction and business focus
  • Poor company performance

So before you make a contract, first research and find out all the conditions and polices that the employer has stated. If you need some legal counseling about breaking some of your rights, be sure to contact Long beach wrongful termination attorneys and get the help and advice you need.