What You Need to Know About California’s At-Will Law

at will employment california

Employers wield considerable authority in making workplace decisions. However, this doesn't mean you should accept any unfair treatment they might impose.

This also applies if your employer fires you.

Even if you were terminated from an employment-at-will job, you might have the option to recover damages from your employer for wrongful termination.

No matter your work situation in California, you have the right to be treated lawfully by your boss.

In this article, we can help you understand when an “at-will” employment termination in California is unlawful and how to protect yourself.

For more information contact Starpoint Attorneys at Law.

Is California an At-Will Employment State?

California at will employment lawyers

Yes, California is an at-will employment state. At-will employment, by definition, means you or your employer can end your job for almost any reason at any time. This is a pretty broad power, but the at-will law is not a valid excuse for every job termination in California. 

Even though California is an at-will employment state, not every employee is an at-will employee. Among employees who are not at-will are:

  • Many public sector employees and 
  • Employees with employment contracts. 

If you have an expressed or implied contract with your employer regarding how long your job is supposed to last, or what terms the employer can use to fire employees, you likely can’t be fired at will.

If you have a contract and your employer fires you without reason, you might be able to sue them for damages.

It’s not always easy to identify an employment contract that protects you from at-will termination, and you might have contract rights you didn’t know existed.

A skilled employment attorney can identify what paperwork or statements from your employer create valid contracts that can protect you from an arbitrary firing. 

Certain Reasons for Firing an At-Will Employee Are Illegal

At-will employees’ jobs might be less secure than contract or public sector employees, but at-will employees still have some job protections under California and federal laws.

In general, an employer (at-will or not) can’t fire you if their termination: 

  • Has a discriminatory motivation (e.g., based on your disability, religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, etc.);
  • Is retaliation for you claiming employee benefits/rights;
  • Is punishment for reporting unsafe or illegal circumstances at work;
  • Is punishment for refusing to engage in illegal acts; or
  • Is a reaction to you fulfilling certain court-attendance obligations.

As an at-will employee, you don’t always have to accept a termination as your employer’s 

“prerogative.” If you’re suspicious about the circumstances of your termination, speak to an attorney immediately to preserve your rights. 

Ready to work with an experienced California at-will employment lawyer? contact us

Seeking Remedies After an Unlawful Termination

If your employer unlawfully fired you, you can recover damages by filing a complaint with the California Department of Industrial Relations. In many cases, you have only a year from the time of your termination to file this kind of complaint.

In some cases, you might have only 90 days to file a complaint. It's important to speak to an attorney immediately after a job termination to make sure you hit your filing deadlines.

If your employer breached your employment contract by firing you, you might be able to sue them for damages in civil court. An attorney can help you determine the best strategy for protecting yourself and recovering what you are owed. 

Our California At-Will Employment Lawyer Can Help You Make It Right

When you’re struggling with a workplace dispute, it’s rarely just business, it’s normally also personal. At Starpoint Employment Lawyers, we are highly skilled employment attorneys with an impeccable track record. We also give our clients the one-on-one attention necessary to find the best solutions for their employment issues.

If you want a California at-will employment lawyer who listens to you and knows how to win, talk to us. You can contact us online or call us at 310-424-9971 for a free consultation.

At-Will Employment Law FAQs

Do Employees Have Any Protections Under California’s At-Will Employment Law? 

Yes, although California’s at-will employment law allows employers to terminate employees without cause, there are some limitations. Employees still have certain protections against wrongful termination where the termination is prohibited by law.

For example, employers cannot terminate employees based on protected characteristics, such as race, gender, religion, disability, or age. Employees also have protections against retaliation, meaning that an employer cannot terminate an employee for exercising their right to report certain kinds of misconduct of the employer. 

Are There Any Exceptions to At-Will Employment in California? 

Yes, there are several exceptions to at-will employment in California. One such exception is where an implied contract has been formed between the employer and employee, indicating that termination must be for cause or in accordance with specific agreed-upon procedures.

An implied contract may arise through verbal assurances, an employee handbook, or other communications or policies that suggest an employee may only be fired for certain reasons or through specific procedures. 

What Rights Do Employers Have Under California’s At-Will Employment Law? 

Under California’s at-will employment law, employers generally have the right to terminate employees at any time and for any lawful reason.

This law allows employers to adjust their workforce as necessary according to their business needs at any time. That said, it’s important to remember that this right has certain limitations and exceptions that may apply. 

Are Any Specific Industries or Professions Exempt from California’s At-Will Employment Law? 

Yes, although there is a presumption that employment is at-will under California law, a couple of notable industries or professions may be exempt.

One example is public sector employees, such as government workers, who are covered by specific regulations restricting at-will termination. Another example is unionized workforces, where collective bargaining agreements outline specific job security protections for employees in their union contracts. 

Are There Any Recent Legal Developments or Court Rulings That Have Affected At-Will Employment in California? 

Yes, in October 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Equal Pay and Anti-Retaliation Protection Act (SB 497) into law, which makes it easier for employees to establish a claim of retaliation by an employer.

This legislation creates a rebuttable presumption in favor of an employee’s claim of retaliation if they are disciplined or terminated within 90 days of engaging in certain protected activities. The new law also imposes a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per employee for violations by employers. This legislation went into effect on January 1, 2024. 

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Author Photo

Aidin Ghavimi

Aidin is a partner at Starpoint LC, Attorneys at Law, and focuses on personal injury and employment law cases in and around Southern California. He earned his Juris Doctorate from the Loyola School of Law and his Bachelor’s from USC. Aidin’s primary goal is to bring justice to his clients and to ensure they are able to move on with their lives after a serious injury.

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