Employee FAQ: Understanding Worker Rights and Responsibilities in California

California employees have a wide range of rights, sometimes coupled with 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. Our firm e based in the San Francisco Bay Area handles a wide range of employment matters, including wrongful termination, retaliation, whistleblower, wage and hour, and class action litigation on behalf of employees. Contact us at 844-WRK-LAWS to schedule a free consultation.

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
  • 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. Speak to an employment law lawyer if you believe your rights have been violated.

Am I an At-Will Employee?

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, including California. 

If, however, you signed a written employment contract or are a member of a union (or subject to a collective bargaining agreement), you may not be an at-will employee. An attorney can help you navigate these issues. 

Can my Employer Fire Me for Any Reason?

As a basic rule, 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, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other characteristic that pertains to your status as a member of a protected class. 

If, however, you signed a written employment contract, the employer may be able to terminate your position based on the terms and conditions of the contract.

Again, 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?

Determining whether or not your termination was wrongful can be a complicated task. 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, or any of the classes enumerated in California or Federal law, you may have been wrongfully terminated--even if your employer claims to have fired you for a different reason. Wrongful termination can also result from retaliation; for example, if you "blew the whistle" on unlawful activity (or otherwise engaged in protected activity) and were terminated in response. The task is to be able to prove it--to prove that you were terminated "because of" your status as a person who is a member of a protected category or that engaged in "protected activity." That's where an attorney can help.

If I Work Overtime in California, Do I Get Overtime Pay?

In short, the answer is yes, your employer may require that you work overtime but you are entitled to overtime pay. Typically, this applies where the employer "suffers or permits" the employee to work overtime, which means that even if you work overtime and were not asked to do so you may be entitled to overtime pay.

In California, the employer must pay no less than 1.5 times the regular rate of pay or 2 times the rate of pay in some circumstances (for example after working more than 12 hours in a day. There are no limits to the number of hours an employee over the age of 16 can work in one week but other violations may result from working long overtime hours, such as meal or rest period violations (explained below). 

Is My Employer Supposed to Provide Rest or Meal Breaks?

In most cases, California requires employees be allowed to take a 10 minute rest break each 4 hours worked, a 30 minute meal break when working more than 5 hours in a day, an additional meal break of 30 minutes after working a 12 hour day. These breaks must be uninterrupted--i.e., free from the control of the employer. If, for example, you can be interrupted (even if you are not interrupted), the break does not meet the requirements in California. For example, if you have to respond to work communications during your meal or rest period, your employer must pay you for that time. You are also entitled to meal and rest period premium pay for missed meal and rest breaks, equivalent to an additional hour of pay for each day you missed a meal and/or rest break. 

Meal and rest break violations are very common in California. An attorney can help you ascertain whether your rights to meal and rest breaks have been violated. 

A Family Member is Sick, and I Need to Care for Them. Does My Employer Have to Let Me Take Time Off?

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. 

California laws that apply to such situations include the the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). While similar to the FMLA, CFRA is also more protective of employees. For example, the FMLA applies to private sector employers employing 50 or more employees for at least 20 workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year – including joint employers and successors of covered employers. Under CFRA, all employers employing 5 or more employees are required to provide leave to its employees for certain medical reasons such as disability or pregnancy. 

If you feel you have been denied medical leave, an attorney may be able to assist you. Call to discuss your particular circumstances. 

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

In California, you must receive payment in full for the time you worked and any wages earned, including vacation pay. 

Labor Code section 201 requires that an employee who is discharged be paid all of his or her wages, including accrued vacation, immediately at the time of termination. 

Labor Code section 202 requires that an employee without a written employment contract and who 72 hours prior notice or more of his or her intention to quit, and quits on the day given in the notice, must be paid all of his or her wages, including accrued vacation, at the time of quitting. An employee who quits without giving 72 hours prior notice must be paid all of his or her wages within 72 hours of quitting. An employee who quits without giving 72-hours notice may request final wage payment be mailed to a designated address and the date of mailing will be considered the date of payment for purposes.

Labor Code section 203 provides that an employer who willfully fails to pay any wages due a terminated employee (discharge or quit) in the prescribed time frame may be assessed a waiting time penalty. The waiting time penalty is an amount equal to the employee's daily rate of pay for each day the wages remain unpaid, up to a maximum of thirty (30) calendar days. A good faith dispute may preclude such recovery, however. 

If you are owed for unpaid wages, including any wages due for unpaid overtime, missed meal periods, missed rest periods, or any other wages, an attorney may be able to assist you in getting paid those wages. 

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 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 the California Civil Rights Department (formerly known as the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Be careful, however, certain actions triggered by these departments may impact your legal rights. An attorney can 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 may seek to retaliate against the employee by having them fired, transferred, changing their schedule, lowering pay, or by some other adverse employment action. 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. These can be complicated cases. An attorney can assist you with these types of claims. 

Do I Need an Employment Law Attorney in California?

Whether you need an employment law attorney is a trick question. An employment law attorney may be helpful in your situation, but you are not required to retain one. It becomes important to do so the more complex or nuanced your case is.Your employer likely has an attorney so generally having one yourself is a good idea. 

For example, when filing the initial claim with a state or federal department, an attorney can make sure you do so properly and strategically. You may be missing certain details or unaware of other rights you have as an employee. Attorneys can spot these issues for 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 in the San Francisco Bay Area Today

If you have any questions, please contact me using the online form or calling 844-WRK-LAWS for a free consultation.