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At-Will Employment in California Explained

Emanuel Shirazi

California employees are subject to at-will employment. This means that both employers and employees can end the employee’s employment at any time, without needing a reason. That doesn’t mean that an employer can fire an employee for illegal reasons, such as discriminatory biases. As a California employee, it’s essential to understand your rights.

What Is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment, or at-will termination, allows an employee to leave or be fired from their job at any time. Neither an employee nor an employer has to provide a reason for this end of employment, and it can be for almost any reason. Ideally, this provides equal freedom and protection for employees and employers. However, this frequently puts employees at a disadvantage and enhances their job insecurity.

There are certain situations where at-will employment does not apply to a termination. This includes:
  • A contract, written or implied, stating that a good cause is needed for termination
  • Public policy that protects an employee, such as being fired for refusing to do something illegal, taking protected leave, or other forms of termination by retaliation
  • Termination caused by discriminatory biases
  • Termination caused by an employee’s political beliefs or activities
  • Employees protected under certain labor unions

These would be considered wrongful termination. An employer can fire an employee for any or no reason, as long as that reason isn’t illegal. An employee can file a claim against their employers if they are wrongfully terminated and obtain financial compensation for those damages.

Retaliation Wrongful Termination

Employees are protected from retaliatory termination. Retaliation may be in response to an employee taking protected leave, whistleblowing, or refusing to engage in illegal actions. Retaliation can take many forms, one of which is wrongful termination.

  • Whistleblower RetaliationThere are legal protections for employees who report:
    • Safety violations
    • Illegal activity
    • False financial document claims
    • Age and hour violations
    • Workplace discrimination

    Employees are allowed to report this behavior without being subject to termination or other retaliation. However, an employee’s whistleblowing must be based on a reasonable suspicion.

  • Leave of Absence RetaliationAn employee can’t be terminated for taking a leave of absence that is protected under state or federal law. Certain medical leave is protected under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). These acts give employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected and unpaid leave to take care of their own medical health, a family member’s health, or bond with a newborn, newly adopted, or fostered child.Other protected leaves of absence include:
    • Workplace injury recovery
    • Pregnancy and maternity leave
    • Military service
    • Leave to vote in a statewide election
    • Serving on a jury

Discrimination Wrongful Termination

It is also illegal to fire an employee on the basis of discrimination against a protected characteristic. Under state and federal laws, protected characteristics include:

  • Race or skin color
  • Age
  • National origin and ancestry
  • Religion or religious creed
  • Gender or gender identity
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Genetic information and medical history
  • Mental or physical disability
  • Medical conditions
  • Pregnancy and childbirth
  • Marital status
  • Veteran or military status

If an employer fires an employee fully or in part because of a discriminatory bias, the employee can file a claim for wrongful termination.

Contracts and At-Will Employment

Both implied and express contracts can limit the abilities of at-will employment and termination by requiring a good cause for termination.

  • Express ContractsThis means that there is an explicit agreement, written or verbal, between an employer and an employee that requires good cause for termination. Good cause means that there is a clear business reason for the decision. Terminations made on a whim, because the employer dislikes the employee, or otherwise in bad faith would be unlawful under an express contract.If a claim is filed for wrongful termination, the court will determine if there was good cause for the termination by weighing the employer’s interests in the business with the employee’s interests in remaining employed. These factors are subjective, so it can be useful to work with a wrongful termination attorney to protect your interests.
  • Implied ContractsImplied contracts are trickier to define, as no outright agreement has been made. Instead, a contract is assumed based on the conduct of each party. In a wrongful termination claim, the court will determine the existence of an implied contract based on employer policies, the length of an employee’s employment, and the industry standard.


Q: What Are the New Employment Laws for 2023 in California?

A: Starting in January 2023, California labor law changes include:

  • An increased minimum wage to $15.50 for all employers, regardless of size
  • A reflective increase in the minimum salary
  • Protections for bereavement leave
  • Extended COVID-19 protections
  • Increased transparency for pay reporting by employers
  • New requirements for agricultural workers’ overtime pay
  • Retaliation protection in certain emergency conditions
  • The Contraceptive Equity Act of 2022

Q: What Is the New CFRA Law in 2023?

A: There are two new laws to the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). The CFRA provides employees with job-protected and unpaid leave for certain medical and family reasons, including caring for family members. One of the new laws expands the definition of parent to include parent-in-law, so employees have protected leave to take care of parents-in-law. It also includes protected care for a designated person who has the equivalent of a familial relationship. The second law provides bereavement leave to qualifying employees.

Q: Is California a Right-to-Work State in 2023?

A: No, California is not a right-to-work state. A right-to-work state has laws that make it illegal to require employees to pay union dues or join a union. In California, those employed by private, corporate, and non-governmental employers can be required to pay for or be a part of a union to keep their job.

Q: What Is the Non-Compete Law in California in 2023?

A: Non-compete clauses are not legally enforceable in California. A non-compete clause prevents an employee from working for a competing business, or starting a competing business, after they have stopped working at a job. The California courts will not enforce these agreements and consider them void. There are proposed federal laws to bar employers from including non-compete clauses in employee contracts, but this has not been passed.

Contact Shirazi Law Firm, P.C.

At Shirazi Law Firm, P.C., we protect worker rights. If you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated from your job, you need an attorney who has experience in individual and class-action claims against employers. Contact us and let us protect your employee rights.

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