In California, the relationship between an employee and employer is known as “at-will” employment. It means that an employer may terminate an employment relationship at any time, for any reason. You may not have done anything wrong or be cited for poor performance. The company can fire you so long as the reason isn’t illegal such as discrimination based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religious beliefs, etc.
The Benefits of “At-Will” Employment
An employee has the same rights. Employees benefit because they can quit their job without breaking or violating a contract or agreement. This helps if someone needs to find a new job quickly.
On the other hand, “at-will” employment provides employers with a broad range of discretion. Businesses can fire or terminate someone if there’s any type of issue or the company needs to adapt quickly. The company is free to search for new employees to continue its operations.
Changing At-Will Employment Status
“At-will” employment is considered the default status of employees. However, this can be contractually changed between an employer and employee. A formal employment contract can be drafted to document an employee’s work status has been changed, which can help prevent future lawsuits. Exceptions to “at-will” employment include when an employee is a member of a labor union and there are specific termination provisions under a collective bargaining agreement.
Can At-Will Employment Be Overridden?
In addition to union agreements, other exceptions to at-will employment include public-sector employees protected by civil services law. Also including government workers, this applies if there is a “memorandum of understanding” between an agency and union that covers discipline and termination procedures. A written contract that requires “good cause” for termination also exempts an employee.
At-will employment is presumed unless an employer or employee says or acts in such a way that overrides it. Such an implied contract, not in writing, isn’t legally binding, but can be admissible in court when, for example, an employer suggested a job would last a given amount of time or an employee wouldn’t be fired for no reason.
At-Will Employment vs. Wrongful Termination
Just because you are an at-will employee, you can still bring a legal claim against an employer if you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated. In California, “at-will” employees are protected under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which outlines protected classes and prohibits sexual harassment and retaliation. Employees who use sick days, serve on a jury, or take protective leaves of absence, or care for close family members are also protected. Retaliation for these and using other employee rights is considered negligent and can override an employee’s at-will employment status.
What to Do If You Feel You’ve Been Wrongfully Terminated
The first step is to gather documentation supporting the belief you’ve been wrongfully terminated. You can also open a dispute with the human resources department in your company. If that isn’t successful, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). These agencies can file your claim and notify your employer they are investigating the matter.
However, your best option is to consult with an experienced employment lawyer. There may also be legal options if the EEOC or DFEH aren’t helpful. Filing a civil lawsuit against an employer is a complex process. At Lawyers for Justice, we understand every aspect of “at-will” employment law and can help fight for your rights. Contact us today for a free consultation.