10 of the most important rights that employees 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.
Workers in California also have other rights, as well. However, exempt employees do not benefit from some of these protections.
1. Do employees have a right to overtime pay?
Non-exempt employees 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.
Hours worked past these limitations are paid at one-and-one-half (1.5) times the worker’s regular rate of pay.
In California, non-exempt workers can also earn overtime premium pay – which is twice their regular hourly rate (“double time”) – if they work:
- more than 12 hours in a single day, or
- more than 8 hours on their seventh consecutive day of work.
These rights, however, do not extend to:
- exempt employees, or
- independent contractors.
Overtime rights can also be adjusted by:
- an alternative workweek schedule,
- union contracts, or
- collective bargaining agreements.
2. Do workers have a right to meal and rest breaks under California employment law?
Non-exempt workers also have a right to meal and rest breaks if they work for more than 3.5 hours in a day.
These workers have a right to a rest break of 10 minutes for every 4 hours they work.
They also have a right to a 30-minute lunch or a meal break if they work more than 5 hours in a day. This break has to come during the first 5 hours of their workday. If they work more than 10 hours in a day, they are entitled to a second 30-minute meal break.
3. What anti-discrimination laws protect a California employee?
All California workers are legally protected from discrimination in the workplace. There are both state and federal anti-discrimination laws that apply. They cover workplace discrimination that is based on:
- sexual orientation,
- gender identity,
- national origin, and
Workers who have been discriminated against in the workplace can hire an employment attorney from a law firm and file a claim with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
4. What labor laws protect a worker from sexual harassment?
Workers 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.
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. Do employee rights include leave to care for a sick family member?
California workers have both 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).
The CFRA gives rights to public employees as well as to employees in the private sector, so long as their private employer has 5 or more employees. Eligible employees under the CFRA are:
- paid by commission, or
- uncompensated, like interns.
Employees are not entitled to paid leave under these laws. However, while they are on leave, their employers are required to:
- continue providing healthcare coverage,
- provide other health benefits, and
- bring the employee back in the same or a comparable position.
6. What about state minimum wage laws?
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 $15.50 an hour for all non-exempt workers.
As the minimum hourly wage increases, so too does the minimum salary for exempt employees. In January, 2023, exempt employees have a right to be paid at least $64,480 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.
7. What does it mean to be protected from retaliation in the workplace?
California workers cannot face retaliation for:
- filing or assisting in a “qui tam” claim under the California False Claims Act,
- requesting reasonable accommodations for their disability or religious beliefs,
- opposing workplace harassment or discrimination, or filing a complaint about it or participating in an investigation, or
- reporting violations of state or federal law.
Retaliation is any adverse employment action that targets an employee because the employee engaged in one of these protected activities.
8. What are rights to a safe workplace?
Workers 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.
Workers 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 an employee get hurt on the job, they will often have a right to workers’ compensation to cover the costs of their 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 take or threaten adverse action against workers for refusing to come or stay at work because they have a reasonable belief the work site is unsafe.
9. Do California workers have sick leave rights?
Many California employees have a right to paid sick leave if they get sick, themselves.
California law requires full-time employees have access to at least 24 hours – or 3 full workdays – of paid sick leave per 12 months. These employees earn paid sick leave at a rate of at least 1 hour for every 30 hours worked.
Most employers, however, have more generous sick leave provisions.
10. What about protections from wrongful termination?
Employees in California also have a right that protects them from being wrongfully terminated from their position.
Among other things, California employers are prohibited from firing or terminating an employee for:
- filing a workers’ compensation claim or reporting a workplace injury,
- engaging in whistleblower activities,
- exercising their First Amendment rights or their rights under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), or
- using their employee leave rights.
If a worker gets fired for one of these reasons, it can amount to a wrongful termination that violates the employee’s rights.