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Employment laws cover a range of rights and responsibilities that encompasses the relationship between an employer and an employee. Employment law covers not only current employees but expands to include former workers and individuals applying for a job. Legal disputes that arise in the workplace relate to employee rights. Employment law is a complex and challenging area of the law to comprehend and navigate effectively, and in California, labor laws are constantly evolving. No matter your employment status in the job market, it’s important to understand your employer’s duty to workplace protections. If you’re an employee, employer, or job applicant, California has some of the broadest worker protection laws around the country, particularly when it comes to anti-discrimination, so being mindful of the specific regulations that your employer must follow can significantly help your claim in the long run. When you suspect a labor law violation, begin the documentation process and speak to an attorney immediately. 

Wrongful Termination

Most California employees are considered “at-will,” meaning they can leave their job anytime.  Under at-will employment, employers can fire you at any time without providing a reason, but this doesn’t mean they can fire you for any reason. California law is strict when it comes to employees who’ve been wrongfully terminated. Wrongful or unlawful termination occurs when an employee is fired in response to them engaging in any of the following: 

  • Reporting violations of law or policy, or “Whistleblowing” 

  • Requesting “reasonable accommodations” for your religious belief or disability 

  • Complaining, reporting, or participating in an investigation about workplace harassment or employment discrimination 

Wrongful termination also falls under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which outlaws discrimination in business practices based on one or multiple of the following:

  • Age

  • Disability 

  • Ethnicity 

  • Gender

  • Sex

  • Sexual Orientation 

  • Race

  • Pregnancy 

  • Military Status 

  • National Origin

  • Religion 

  • Domestic Violence victims 

FEHA applies to public and private employers, labor organizations, and employment agencies. Employment discrimination can look like a lot of different things, so it’s important to understand and be able to identify potential discrimination. Disparate working conditions, including compensation and discrimination against job applicants, are both common examples. Discrimination can happen at any point during the employment process, including pre-employment interviews or screenings. Harassment is prohibited in all workplaces, including employers with less than the required five under FEHA. If you feel you are being discriminated against, begin recording the alleged violations, as you’ll need a trail of documentation to support your claim in court. 

Job-Protected Leave

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) mandates that employers with five or more employees must provide eligible employees with job-protected leave to care for themselves or a child, spouse, domestic partner, or other family members with a serious health condition. Employees can also take leave within one year of their child’s birth, adoption, or foster placement. Employers are required to provide up to four months of disability leave due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.

Wage and Hour Violations

Employers must pay you according to California’s “wage and hour” laws, and you can sue your employer if they violate them. Examples of wage theft and other labor law violations include non-payment of minimum wage or overtime and failure to provide rest periods. For a complete list of potential workplace violations, you can go here. If you believe your employer is in violation of California labor laws, you can file a report online through this form. Please be advised this is not a wage claim. 

Hostile Work Environment or Retaliation

An employer that creates a hostile work environment through blacklisting, demoting, intimidating, or unfairly disciplining an employee can land them in hot water. California law extends worker’s protections beyond termination alone though to include reporting the violation(s). Employers are forbidden from retaliating against any employee that reports unlawful activity under the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA). Reducing your pay or work availability or failing to hire or promote you are a few other examples of potential employer retaliation. 

Breach of Contract

Employers are required to abide by the conditions outlined in an employment contract, such as job expectations or working conditions. Violations of employment contracts are covered under California law, and employers considered in breach of those contracts are liable for lawsuits. 

Privacy Violations

Employees have a right to their privacy in the workplace but different states have varying workplace protections. Generally speaking, California employers are allowed to monitor workplace communications, such as business calls and computer usage along with access to your work email and voicemail. In California, employers are prohibited from requiring an employee or applicant’s username or password for the purpose of accessing personal social media. Under FEHA law, California employers are also not allowed to include any questions that seek the disclosure of an applicant’s conviction history. California is also among eleven other states that limit an employer’s ability to use a person’s credit report within the employment setting. You can check out more of what’s covered under workplace protections here

COVID-19 Protections

California law has had to evolve its workplace protections since the coronavirus’s unprecedented impact on workers’ health and well-being. Under California law, workers are protected from retaliation for disclosing a positive COVID-19 test, diagnosis, or order to quarantine or isolate. Employees are allowed to take available paid sick leave under California paid sick leave laws. Preventative care, such as self-quarantine as a result of potential exposure to coronavirus or as recommended by civil authorities, allows employees to exercise their right to take paid sick leave. 

If you’re traveling to a place with a high risk for exposure to coronavirus, employers can request that employees inform them of their travel plans. However, under medical privacy rights, an employer cannot inquire beyond this, and any additional requests for information can be seen as a violation of the worker’s privacy. 

What Are the Penalties for Unlawful Termination in California?

In the United States, wrongful termination occurs when someone is fired for reasons that violate existing state or federal laws and are illegal. To sue your prior employer, you’ll need to have documentation that they broke the law by firing you. Since California is an at-will state, it can be challenging to prove a viable lawsuit because employers are able to fire employers at any time, for any reason. 

Workers who have been terminated under any of the specific circumstances previously listed should seek legal recourse. In California, a successful lawsuit can bring compensatory damages, which aim to provide restitution for benefits, lost wages, or emotional distress from their firing, as well as payment of court fees. The Court can also assign punitive damages to an employer if the violation is particularly heinous. 

How Much Can Someone Sue an Employer For in California?

There’s no average settlement for wrongful termination in California. The exact settlement amount largely depends on many different variables, such as lost benefits, wages, and the grounds for termination. Under Labor Code section 98.6, a civil penalty of up to $10K may be awarded to an employee for each documented violation. However, an experienced attorney can help identify alternative remedies for California labor code violations. This means a wrongful termination claim in California can be settled for as little as $10,000, while more comprehensive cases can result in multi-million dollar awards. 

The Statute of Limitations in California

In California, aggrieved workers have three years from the termination date to file an administrative complaint with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD). Once they receive a notice of the right to sue from CRD, they have one more year to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against their former employer. Depending on the exact reason behind the termination, other factors may impact the statute of limitations timeline, so it’s recommended you consult with a knowledgeable attorney. 

Resources for Employees in California

For folks interested in learning more about employment laws in California, the best resource is a well-versed attorney about their case. A lawyer will be able to provide a more concrete timeline for the lawsuit process and estimate a potential award. However, if you’re eager to start the process, there are many ways you can begin the documentation process without representation. If you’re pregnant or believe your termination was a result of pregnancy, then there are relevant resources online to prepare your claim. 

File a Complaint with EEOC

If you believe your termination was a result of a violation of regulations due to discrimination, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the organization in charge of upholding anti-discrimination laws, and you can file claims due to discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, or retaliation. To learn more about the process of filing a formal complaint, go to their website and speak to an EEO Counselor. The EEO Counselor will interview and counsel you through the complaint process, but be mindful of the 15-day deadline for filing a formal complaint that begins after your final interview with your counselor. 

New-Parents Rights Advisor App

If you’re a new parent and unsure whether you can take time off from work due to pregnancy or bonding with a new child, check out this interactive app that advises you on your rights during pregnancy or bonding with a new child. The app will prepare a detailed report on your rights under CRD and your civil rights agency so you understand your rights before you welcome your new child. 

Search for an Interpreter

For hard-of-hearing or deaf folks in need of an interpreter, use the Judicial Council Master List search tool here to find court-certified, registered, and enrolled interpreters in good standing with the Judicial Council. You can also locate other types of interpreters or translators using the search function if your first language isn’t English.  

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