At Will Employment
You often read that California is an “at will” employment state. But what does “at will” employment really mean?
California Labor Code section 2922 states “an employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.” This means that an employer can fire an employee and an employee can quit for any reason or no reason, unless the employer hired the employee for a specific period of time greater than one month.
There are, however, some substantial limitations on an employer’s right to fire an “at will” employee. These limitations are set out in federal and state statutes, case law, municipal codes and collective bargaining agreements. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because of the employee’s race, color, national origin, or ancestry; sex or gender; pregnancy; age, if the employee is over 40 years old; physical or mental disability; marital status; sexual orientation; medical condition; religion or political activity; or service in the Armed Services.
Generally, an employee who has been fired in violation of one of these limitations must file an administrative claim before he or she files a lawsuit. The administrative claim may be filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov), or the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing (www.dfeh.ca.gov) or Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, sometimes called the “Labor Board”(www.dir.ca.gov/DLSE/), depending on the alleged violation. The claim must be filed within a certain time limit, or the employee may lose his or her right to file a lawsuit.