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FAQ: Employees' Rights

Posted by Chris Harmon | Oct 02, 2023

As an employee in California, you have rights. Coupled with those rights are responsibilities. Both are meant to make sure that work environments are safe and productive for everyone. Sometimes, though, things happen. An issue arises. If your rights are violated in any way or if an employee fails to uphold their obligations, you may have legal action to compensate for any damages you suffer. But oftentimes, it's understanding whether or not you have a right to file a claim. Many people fail to file a claim because they fear for their job. These are things you should not have to worry about. What's more, you should be compensated when you suffer damages. At Chris Harmon Law, we handle a wide range of employment issues. Contact us at (800) 520-1924 to schedule a Free Consultation and to know whether or not you can take legal action for harm suffered by an employer, co-worker, or third-party.

Do Employees in California Have Rights in the Workplace?

All employees have basic rights. What those rights are can vary by state, but there are some that are the same across the board. Employees have a right to work in an environment where they are not discriminated against or harassed due to their race, religion, national origin, age, disability, color, sex, or genetic information.  

As an employee in California, you also have the right to:

  • Minimum wage
  • Meal and rest breaks
  • Overtime
  • Proper classification of your position

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), you also have the right to:

  • Safe and healthful workplaces
  • Protective equipment free of charge, where appropriate
  • Information (like chemical hazards, workplace injuries, exposure data, etc.) 
  • Training, where appropriate
  • File a complaint with OSHA to request an on-site OSHA inspection

Federal and state laws establish rights and implement systems to address violations of rights. Always speak to an employment law lawyer, if you work in the area and believe your rights have been violated.

Am I an At-Will Employee in California?

An at-will employee is an employee that is free to leave their place of employment at any time for any reason, or for no reason whatsoever. Most states recognize at-will employment, although there may be special state-specific rules that govern the process. If, however, you signed a written employment contract, you are more than likely not an at-will employee.

Can my Employer in California Fire Me for Any Reason?

Whether or not your employer can fire you for any reason, or no reason at all, depends on whether or not you are an at-will employee. If you are an at-will employee, your employer can fire you for any reason except where it is unlawful. For example, they are not allowed to fire you due to your race, sex, religion, or disability. If, however, you signed a written employment contract, the employer may only be able to terminate your position based on the terms and conditions of the contract. Again, as this is an area of law that can be state-specific, it is best to speak with an attorney if you believe you were illegally terminated.

How Do I Know If I Have a Wrongful Termination Claim in California?

Determining whether or not your termination was wrongful can be a complicated task, and the rules for determination vary by state. Most at-will employees can be terminated without reason. Wrongful termination is different from unfair termination. Wrongful indicates the employer did something unlawfully.

Are you a member of a protected class? For instance, what is your ethnicity, national origin, religion, or gender? Are you pregnant? Are you over the age of 40? Do you have a disability? If fired because you are a member of one of these classes, you may have been wrongfully terminated. The next task is to be able to prove it.

On the other hand, if you are terminated because your boss favors another person, there were personality conflicts, or you posted something on social media that your boss did not like, these things do not constitute wrongful termination.

Do I Have to Work Overtime in California?

In short, the answer is yes, your employer may require that you work overtime. Each state deals with mandatory overtime in its own way, but the federal guidelines from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) do state that it is allowed. The employer must pay no less than 1.5 times the regular rate of pay. There are no limits to the number of hours an employee over the age of 16 can work in one week.   

Can I Take a Rest or Meal Break during Work Hours in California?

The FLSA does not require meal or rest breaks. As such, their availability really depends on state laws, and those vary widely. Here in California, employers are required to provide non-exempt employees with their legally required meal and rest breaks. 

A Family Member is Sick, and I Need to Take Time off Work to Care for Them. Does my Employer Have to Save My Position and Let Me Take a Leave of Absence?

The answer to this question depends on a few different factors. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does provide employees with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave per year. This time is uncompensated, and there are several requirements that must be met, including that the employee must have worked with that employer for at least 12 months. There are other requirements as well. Plus, the FMLA only applies to companies of a certain size (50 or more employees). California also provides protection under California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and there are other medical leave requirements that could provide you with protection. 

If I Quit or am Terminated, What Happens If the Employer Withholds My Last Paycheck in California?

You must receive payment in full for the time you worked. In some states, your employer must also pay you for any accrued vacation days. When you receive your last paycheck, it depends on your state. Employees who are discharged must be paid all wages due at the time of termination. (Labor Code § 201) “All wages” include any earned, but unused vacation pay. (Labor Code §227.3) There is no requirement under California law that an employer pay accrued sick leave upon termination. An employer must pay a discharged employee at the place of discharge. (Labor Code § 208) An employee who does not have a written agreement for a definite period of employment and who quits without giving prior notice, must be paid his or her wages within 72 hours. If the employee gives at least 72 hours notice of his or her intention to quit, those wages must be paid at the time of quitting. An employee who quits must be paid at the office or agency of the employer in the county where the employee worked. An employee who
quits without 72 hours notice may request that his or her final wage payment be mailed to a designated address. The date of mailing will be considered the date of payment. (Labor Code § 202)

An employer who willfully fails to pay any wages due an employee who is discharged or quits within the time frames provided under Labor Code § 201 or Labor Code § 202, may be assessed continuing wages as a penalty from the date the wages were due up to a maximum of 30 days. (Labor Code § 203) The penalty is calculated by multiplying the daily wage rate of the employee by 30 days. (Mamika v. Barca (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 487) Penalties under Labor Code § 203 may be avoided if the employer can show that a good-faith dispute existed concerning whether any wages were due. A “good-faith” dispute means that the employer's defense, based on law or fact, if successful, would preclude any recovery on part of the employee. (Title 8 California Code of Regulations § 13520) Even if there is a dispute, the employer must pay, without requiring a release, whatever wages are due and not in dispute. If the employer fails to pay what is undisputed, the “good faith” defense will be defeated whatever the outcome of the disputed wages. (Labor Code § 206)  

I Complained at Work about Discrimination, and my Employer Retaliated. What Can I Do in California?

Your employer cannot legally retaliate against you for complaining about work-related discrimination. However, they may still try to discipline you or terminate your employment for reasons unrelated to the complaint. If you feel like your employer is retaliating against you for the discrimination complaint, you should first speak with a supervisor or a human resources representative. If this does not resolve the issue, you can address your concern with California's fair employment agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). An attorney can also advise you on your best course of action in these or other situations.

What is a Whistleblower Claim?

When an employee suspects that there is misconduct or fraud occurring within their place of employment, and they report this activity, they are known as a whistleblower. When this occurs, employers often seek to retaliate against the employee by having them fired or transferred. Because of this, federal and state laws have been enacted to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers. A whistleblower claim is a formal complaint exposing or describing certain types of alleged fraud or misconduct. The whistleblower protection statute of the Labor Code prohibits retaliation against an employee who, or whose family member, discloses information about, or refuses to participate in, an illegal activity. (Lab. Code, § 1102.5(b), (c), (h).) Liability may be predicated on retaliation by “any person acting on behalf of the employer.” (Lab. Code, § 1102.5(a)−(d).) Select any of the optional paragraphs as appropriate to the facts of the case. For claims under Labor Code section 1102.5(c), the plaintiff must show that the activity in question actually would result in a violation of or noncompliance with a statute, rule, or regulation, which is a legal determination that the court is required to make. (Nejadian v. County of Los Angeles (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 703, 719.) On January 27, 2022, the Supreme Court of California held that the employee-friendly California Labor Code Section 1102.6 standard applies to whistleblower retaliation claims under Labor Code section 1102.5.  (Lawson v. PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc. (Cal. 2022) 12 Cal.5th 703, 718.) The Labor Code section 1102.6 standard is as follows:

  1. The employee has the burden to show by preponderance of the evidence that the employee's protected activity was a contributing factor to the employer's adverse employment action.
  2. If the employee meets that burden, the burden shifts to the employer to show by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action for legitimate, independent reasons, even if the employee had not engaged in protected activity. (Cal. Labor Code § 1102.6 (emphasis added).)

Do I Need an Employment Law Attorney in California?

Whether you need an employment law attorney is a trick question. An employment law attorney can always be helpful regardless of the situation, but you are not required to retain one. It becomes important to do so the more complex or nuanced your case is. Even when filing the initial claim with a state or federal department, an attorney can make sure you do so properly and strategically. The people working in these government jobs usually mean well, but they have a demanding workload and cannot take the time to sift through the complaints and get the details right, and that can be detrimental to you. Ultimately, speaking to an attorney can help you understand what you need, what's at stake, and how to best proceed.

Contact an Employment Law Attorney Today

If you believe your employer has violated your rights under federal or state law, Chris Harmon Law can review your case and advise you of any legal action you can (and should) take. At Chris Harmon Law, we uphold the rights and interests of our clients and work toward making sure employers do the same. Contact us by filling out the online form or calling us to schedule a Free Consultation and to learn more about the recourse you can take.

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