10 of the most important rights that you have under California employment law include:
- overtime pay,
- meal and rest breaks,
- anti-discrimination rights,
- protection from sexual harassment,
- family and medical leave (FMLA),
- minimum wages,
- protection from workplace retaliation,
- workplace safety,
- sick leave, and
- protection from wrongful termination.
You also have other employee rights, as well. However, exempt California employees do not benefit from some of these protections.
1. The right to overtime pay
If you are a non-exempt employee, you have a right to receive overtime pay for time worked in excess of:
- 8 hours in a workday,
- 40 hours in a workweek, or
- 6 days in a workweek.1
Hours worked past these limitations are paid at one-and-one-half (1.5) times your regular rate of pay.
In California, you can also earn overtime premium pay – which is twice your regular hourly rate (“double time”) – if you work:
- more than 12 hours in a single day, or
- more than 8 hours on your seventh consecutive day of work.2
Overtime rights can also be adjusted by:
- an alternative workweek schedule,
- union contracts, or
- collective bargaining agreements.
These rights, however, do not extend to:
- exempt employees (most administrative, executive, and professional employees) or
- independent contractors (who work on a contract basis and maintain more control over how they work than employees).
Employers often try to misclassify non-exempt employees as exempt employees or as independent contractors in an effort to get out of paying overtime.
2. The right to meal and rest breaks
If you are a non-exempt California worker, you also have a right to meal and rest breaks if you work for more than 3.5 hours in a day.
You have a right to a rest break of 10 minutes for every 4 hours you work.
You also have a right to a 30-minute lunch or a meal break if you work more than 5 hours in a day. This break has to come during the first 5 hours of your workday. If you work more than 10 hours in a day, you are entitled to a second 30-minute meal break.
3. The right to protection from discrimination
In California, you are legally protected from discrimination in the workplace. There are both state and federal anti-discrimination laws that apply. They cover workplace discrimination based on:
- age (40 or older),
- sexual orientation,
- gender identity,
- national origin, and
If you have been discriminated against in the workplace, you can hire an employment attorney from a law firm and file a claim with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
4. The right to protection from sexual harassment
You also have a right to be protected from sexual harassment in the workplace.
Sexual harassment comes in 2 forms. It can:
- create a hostile working environment with inappropriate behavior that is severe or pervasive, or
- amount to a quid pro quo, where a job-related benefit is tied to a sexual favor.3
Both forms of behavior are prohibited by state laws, like the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), as well as federal laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
5. The right to family and medical leave
You have both California state and federal rights to take a limited amount of unpaid time off from work to care for a sick family member.
These family and medical leave rights come from
- the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and
- the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
CFRA gives rights to public employees as well as to employees in the private sector, so long as the private employer has 5 or more employees. You are eligible under CFRA if you are:
- paid by commission, or
- uncompensated, like interns.4
You are not entitled to paid leave under these laws. However, while you are on leave, your employer is required to:
- continue providing healthcare coverage,
- provide other health benefits, and
- bring you back in the same or a comparable position.
6. The right to minimum wage
Non-exempt workers in California also have a right to earn at least the minimum wage. Exempt workers have a right to be paid at least the minimum salary, which is twice the state’s applicable minimum hourly wage.
California’s minimum wage is $16.00 an hour for all non-exempt workers.
As the minimum hourly wage increases, so too does the minimum salary for exempt employees. In January 2024, exempt employees have a right to be paid at least $66,560 per year.
These minimum wage rights are far friendlier to workers in California than in the rest of the United States. For example, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) only increased the minimum salary for exempt workers from $23,660 to $35,568 per year on January 1, 2020.5
7. The right to protection from workplace retaliation
In California, you cannot face retaliation for:
- filing or assisting in a “qui tam” claim under the California False Claims Act,6
- requesting reasonable accommodations for your disability or religious beliefs,7
- opposing workplace harassment or discrimination, or filing a complaint about it or participating in an investigation,8 or
- reporting violations of state or federal law.9
Retaliation is any adverse employment action that targets you because you engaged in one of these protected activities.
8. The right to a safe workplace
You also have a right to a safe workplace under California labor law.
Employers have legal obligations to:
- inspect their worksites to find dangerous or hazardous conditions,
- correct unsafe situations or hazards in work environments,
- properly maintain working equipment, and
- provide and pay for personal protective equipment.
You have a right to file a complaint about unsafe working conditions with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or its California equivalent, Cal/OSHA.
Should you get hurt on the job, you will often have a right to workers’ compensation to cover the costs of your work-related injuries.
Also see SB 321 (The Health and Safety For All Workers Act) that extends OSHA protections to domestic workers.
Note that in an emergency situation, employers are not permitted to take or threaten adverse action against you for refusing to come or stay at work because you have a reasonable belief the work site is unsafe.10
In addition to having a right to workplace safety, employees in California have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace under state law. This means that workers are generally entitled to the privacy of their personal possessions, such as backpacks, purses, briefcases, and storage lockers, as long as those items are not accessible to others.
Employees also have a right to privacy regarding personal phone calls and conversations that take place at work, as long as they do not excessively interfere with work duties. However, privacy rights do not extend to company-owned equipment like computers and phones, and employers can monitor usage of those items.
9. The right to sick leave
Many California employers offer paid sick leave if you get sick yourself.
California law requires full-time employees to have access to at least 24 hours – or 3 full workdays – of paid sick leave per 12 months. You earn paid sick leave at a rate of at least 1 hour for every 30 hours worked.11
Most employers, however, have more generous sick leave provisions.
10. The right to protection from wrongful termination
In California, you also have a right that protects you from being wrongfully terminated from your position.
Among other things, California employers are prohibited from firing or terminating you for:
- filing a workers’ compensation claim or reporting a workplace injury,
- engaging in whistleblower activities,
- exercising your First Amendment rights or your rights under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), or
- using your employee leave rights.
If you get fired for one of these reasons, it can amount to a wrongful termination that violates your rights.
My workplace rights have been violated. Now what?
If you believe your rights as an employee have been violated, request a copy of your personnel file and any employment contract or employee handbook that may be relevant. Refuse to sign any documents you are uncomfortable with, and be sure to document any unlawful or retaliatory actions taken against you.
Next, contact me so we can discuss filing a claim with the appropriate state agency and possibly a lawsuit. Depending on your case, I may be able to persuade your employer to reinstate you and/or agree to a generous severance package.
For more information, refer to the following:
- Employee Rights – Summary provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- 13 Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do – List by U.S. News and World Report.
- Worker Rights – Overview by the U.S. Department of Labor.
- National Labor Relations Board – An independent federal agency protecting the rights of private sector workers.
- Journal of Workplace Rights – A quarterly academic journal that publishes research related to employment rights, labor laws, and management-labor relations.
- California Labor Code 510 LAB.
- Holmes v. Petrovich Development Co., 191 Cal.App.4th 1047 (2011).
- California Government Code 12945.2(a).
- Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Computer and Outside Sales Employees, 84 Fed. Reg. 51,306 (Sept. 27, 2019).
- California Government Code 12653.
- California Government Code 12940.
- California Labor Code 1102.5.
- Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations and the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973. Senate Bill 1044 (2022); California Labor Code 1139.
- California Labor Code 246.