Simply put, employment “at will” means that both parties can terminate the work contract at any time.
While this means that an employee has the right to leave a job for any reason, he or she may also be fired at any time by the employer—and neither party has to give a reason for the decision. This simple doctrine can cause big headaches for both employers and employees.
Exceptions to the California Employment At-Will Rule
Although an at-will employee can generally be fired at any time, for any reason, there are some exceptions. At-will employees are still protected by state and federal laws. Which means you can't be fired because of:
Employers are subject to strict labor laws to protect employees from discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. If you were fired because of your race, gender, nationality, religion, disability, medical condition, marital status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age, you have recourse to sue your employer for reinstatement or damages.
If you provided information about your employer’s illegal or unsafe business practices, you cannot be fired for this reason.
Employers are not permitted to terminate employees for their political activities, nor can they fire employees for engaging in legal activities during nonworking hours away from the workplace.
The National Labor Relations Act prevents employers from firing employees who exercise collective bargaining rights or seek to form a union.
Protected leaves of absence:
California law states that employees cannot be terminated during or as a result of taking certain types of permitted leave. Examples of protected leave include recovery from work-related injuries and maternity leave.
Lack of good cause:
Some employees are protected by “good cause” contracts, documents which expressly state that employees cannot be fired without a legitimate reason. The Supreme Court of California has provided that a “good cause” contract may exist even if it is not explicit. Depending on the circumstances of these cases, a court may find that the employer does need grounds to fire an employee.
Most California Workers Are At-Will Employees, But There Are Exceptions:
People who are specifically contracted to work for a specified period of one month or longer are not employed, nor are those who have specific job security provisions included in a signed employment contract.
If you are fired for a reason that violates labor laws, you could have a legal claim against your employer. For more information on these types of cases, please use our blog to learn more about California employment laws.