California termination laws regulate what happens when you are discharged from your job. Here are five that every worker should be aware of:
- you are generally an at-will employee,
- if you are terminated for an unlawful reason it can be a wrongful termination,
- you are entitled to a final paycheck,
- you are entitled to a notice period before certain mass layoffs, and
- you can be constructively terminated.
Note that these labor laws only apply to California employees, not to independent contractors.
1. California is an at-will employment state
Like every other state in the U.S. except for Montana, the state of California presumes that employment is at-will. This means that either you or your employer can end the employment:
- at any time, and
- for any reason at all, or for no reason.
You will be an at-will employee unless:
- you and your employer agree otherwise, or
- there is an exception to the presumption of at-will employment.
You and your employer can agree that it is not an at-will employment arrangement in the employment contract. Generally, though, the employment contract will explicitly state that the job is at-will.
The exceptions to at-will employment are:
- there was an implied contract that:
- the job would be for a certain amount of time, or
- the employee could only be terminated for good cause;
- your employer induced you to take the job through fraud,
- the termination violated an important public policy, and
- the termination violated the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
If one of these exceptions applied or there had been an agreement that you were not in an at-will employment relationship, your termination may have been a wrongful one.
2. A discharge can still violate wrongful termination laws
Even if you are an at-will employee, you can still be unlawfully terminated. California law prohibits employers from terminating any of their employees for wrongful reasons. Violating this law can lead to a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Most of these laws refer to exceptions to the at-will employment presumption. For example, at-will employees can still be wrongfully terminated if the discharge violates public policy. A discharge violates public policy if it was because you:
- exercised a legal right or privilege in the workplace, such as medical leave under the California Family Rights Act,
- performed a legal obligation,
- reported a potential violation of the law, or
- refused to break the law.
Examples of this include getting fired for:
- filing a workers’ compensation claim,
- participating in a workplace harassment claim, such as a sexual harassment allegation,
- demanding unpaid wages,
- acting as a whistleblower against corporate misconduct, or
- engaging in political speech to support your political affiliation.
An especially common ground for a wrongful termination claim is if your employer does it out of retaliation for your filing a discrimination claim under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). This is a claim that your employer is discriminating against you based on any of the following protected classes:
- national origin,
- marital status,
- gender or gender identity,
- sexual orientation,
- genetic information,
- medical condition,
- disability, and
- many others.
If you suspect that you were fired for any of these illegal reasons, you may have legal recourse.
3. Your employer still has to pay any wages that you have earned
In California, if you have been terminated from your job you are still entitled to receive the wages that you have earned.
Those earned wages include:
- any wages that still have not been paid to you,
- unused vacation time, and
- any other unused but accrued paid time off (PTO), such as sick leave.
California state law requires this final payment to be made promptly. How promptly depends on how you left your job.
If you were terminated, it has to be paid immediately.
If you quit or resigned, it depends on whether you gave adequate prior notice to your employer. If:
- you provided at least 72 hours of notice of your resignation, then you are entitled to receive your final pay on your last day or work, but
- if you did not provide 72 hours of notice, then you are entitled to your final pay within 72 hours.
If your employer willfully fails to pay on time, you are also entitled to waiting time penalties.
4. Prior notice is required before certain mass layoffs
The California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) regulates mass layoffs in the state.
Under the WARN Act, large employers must provide at least 60 days of advance notice before a:
- mass layoff of 50 or more employees in a 30-day period,
- major relocation to somewhere 100 or more miles away, or
- plant closure of at least a substantial portion of the activities.
That notice has to be provided to:
- workers, and
- local government officials.
Only large employers are subject to the WARN Act. These are California employers with at least 75 employees in the past year.
Employers that fail to provide adequate notice have to pay back pay and benefits to fired employees for the number of days that the employer was silent.
There is a federal equivalent of California’s WARN Act. The federal law, however, does not provide as extensive protections as the state law does. Terminated employees generally invoke their employee rights under California’s law, instead.
5. You can be constructively terminated
Not all terminations in California are explicit. You can be constructively discharged, as well.
A constructive termination happens when your employer makes your working conditions so bad that a reasonable employee would have no choice but to quit.
In these cases, you may have grounds for a wrongful termination even though you quit. To do so, you would have to show that:
- your employer intentionally or knowingly created an intolerable working situation for you,
- you had no choice but to resign due to those conditions, and
- had your employer explicitly fired you, you would have had a valid claim for wrongful termination against them.
For example: Marcia has been with her employer for over 20 years. Her boss, Rhea, realizes that she can save money by replacing Marcia with a younger worker with less pay. Rhea does everything she can to make Marcia miserable at work. Finally, Marcia quits.
What can I do if I have been wrongfully terminated?
If you think that your termination was wrongful, you should talk to an employment lawyer. You should also take steps to gather relevant evidence.
If your lawyer thinks that you have a case for wrongful termination, you can file a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for this lawsuit will depend on the reason why it was a wrongful termination. Generally, California employment law gives you 2 or 3 years to file your claim, though you may have as little as 180 days after your termination.
These lawsuits can demand the following types of damages:
- lost wages and benefits, also known as back pay,
- lost future wages, or front pay,
- emotional distress,
- attorneys’ fees,
- court costs,
- punitive damages, and
- injunctive relief, such as reinstatement to your old job.
The best way to pursue these damages is to establish an attorney-client relationship with a lawyer from a reputable law firm.
What if my employer is refusing to pay my final wages?
If you have been terminated but your former employer is refusing to pay your final wages, you can file a wage and hour lawsuit. These lawsuits demand reimbursement for your unpaid wages as well as:
- unpaid overtime,
- meal or rest breaks that were not provided,
- wages for hours worked “off the clock,”
- a waiting time penalty,
- liquidated damages,
- attorneys’ fees, and
- court costs.
Getting the legal advice of a skilled employment attorney can help you recover what you deserve.
 California Labor Code 2922 LAB.
 Foley v. Interactive Data Corp., 47 Cal.3d 654 (1988).
 Lazar v. Superior Court, 12 Cal.4th 631 (1996).
 Turner v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 7 Cal.4th 1238 (1994).
 Kelecheva v. Multivision Cable T.V. Corp., 18 Cal.App.4th 521 (1993).
 California Labor Code 1102.5 LAB.
 California Government Code 12940 GOV.
 California Labor Code 227.3 LAB.
 California Labor Code 202 LAB.
 California Labor Code 203 LAB.
 California Labor Code 1401 LAB.
 California Labor Code 1400 LAB.
 California Labor Code 1402 LAB.
 29 USC 2101 et seq.
 Turner v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., supra note 5.
 California Labor Code sections 206, 1194, and 1194.2 LAB.