The labor laws in California assume that all employees are employed at will. At-will employment means an employer can fire an employee at any time without any reason or notice. It is at their “will” to terminate any worker. However, an employee can leave at any time with or without reason if they are at-will. The reason for termination is defined by the word “cause” in labor laws. A cause is thought to be a good reason that is not regulated by any authority.
Employers are not often asked to go in front of a court and prove they had good cause for a termination every time they fire someone. At-will employment is beneficial to employers because it allows them the flexibility to get rid of employees who are not meeting their standards. It also protects employers from lawsuits that could be brought by employees who feel they were wrongfully terminated.
While the idea for these laws seems to be that both sides are protected, in truth, it is the employee who suffers. Losing livelihood without any warning or for any reason can be a devastating result of at-will employment. Despite this, most of the country, including California, is at-will when it comes to employment law. Regardless of at-will employment, it is still illegal to terminate any employee based on discriminatory practices.
At-Will Employment Exceptions
There are some exceptions to at-will employment in California. These include:
- Civic employees are often protected by special laws or employment contracts between them and their employers. They likely have an understanding of what would cause their employer to take disciplinary action or terminate them.
- Being a part of a union, especially a union that has a collective bargaining agreement, is often an exception because contracts will require a good cause for termination.
- C-suite employees generally have contracts to prevent their employers from terminating employment without cause. These contracts often call for there to be a reasonable cause of termination, making it much harder to terminate employment for these higher-up executives.
- If your employer has taken actions that disregard the assumption of at-will employment, you could also be an exception to at-will employment. This can come up if an employer has promised verbally even to only terminate an employee for a good cause. Disciplinary action plans can also contradict at-will employment.
- Your employer cannot fire you if it goes against public policy. If you were fired due to your employer breaking the law, you may be able to make a claim against your past employer.
- If your employment contract isn’t in writing, it may be an implied contract. This is another case where a wrongful termination claim could be made against the employer.
Whether you are exempt from California’s at-will law or not, employers don’t always treat their workers fairly and use the law to skirt responsibility. Consider reaching out for help from an experienced lawyer if you find yourself in such a position. To learn more, contact our firm. Our experienced lawyers can help you with a wrongful termination claim.
At-Will Employment Reinforcement
If you have signed a document or employment agreement that states you are an at-will employee, California judges will not look at other aspects of the situation that could indicate a poor cause of termination. Most employers will do everything they can to maintain at-will employment because it allows them to reserve the right to terminate employees without cause. The following are some of the ways your employer may reinforce the California employment law:
- They may be sure to include an at-will employee statement on your employment agreement and on other onboarding documents. This is so you will understand that no matter what your situation is, you are taking on the position of employment at will. They may even have you sign a document that purely just acknowledges that you are an at-will employee.
- Your employer may avoid disciplinary policies that lead to termination over time to avoid any misunderstandings of the at-will employment rule. Leaving this more open-ended shows that the employer can terminate you at any time. Watch for this before making your wrongful termination claim.
- In your interviews or talks with your future employer, they will likely not make any statements about your job being secure, and they may not even mention job security or avoid it.
Limits of At-Will Employment
At-will employment does mean that an employer may fire you and not have a claim taken out against them due to the good faith that there was cause for the employment termination. At-will employment doesn’t excuse other types of errors made by an employer. Employment discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, disability discrimination, and other types of employer errors can all be cause for a claim against the employer.
Your employer will likely do all they can to keep their at-will employment rights. It’s important to track any disciplinary action your employer may or may not have taken against you, along with any warnings they may have given you for termination. This can help prove that you were wrongfully terminated if that is the case.
At-will employment is the default rule in California, which means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason or for no reason at all. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if an employer has taken actions that contradict the assumption of at-will employment, or if an employee has signed a contract stating that they can only be terminated for good cause, the at-will rule may not apply. Additionally, if an employer has promised not to fire an employee without good cause, that promise could also be an exception to at-will employment.
This especially can come up if an employer has promised verbally even to only terminate an employee for a good reason. At-will employment also does not excuse other types of employer misconduct, such as discrimination, sexual harassment, or retaliation. If an employee is fired because of their race, gender, religion, or another protected characteristic, that would be illegal discrimination.
At-will employment is the default rule in California, but there are some exceptions. If you feel like you have been wrongfully terminated, still seek legal help to see if you may have a claim against your former employer. For more information on how you can make a claim against a past or current employer, contact California Employment Counsel today.