Employee FAQ: Understanding Worker Rights and Responsibilities in California


As an employee in California, you have rights. Coupled with those rights are responsibilities. Both are meant to make sure that work environments are safe and productive for everyone. Sometimes, 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. At the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke, our employment law attorney based in California handles a wide range of employment issues. Contact us at 310-213-7711 to schedule a free consultation and to know whether or not you can take legal action for harm suffered by an employer or co-worker.

Do Employees in California Have Rights in the Workplace?

All employees have basic rights. What those rights are can vary by state, but some 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. Always speak to an employment law lawyer in California if you work in the area and believe your rights have been violated.

Am I an At-Will Employee in California?

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, although there may be special state-specific rules that govern the process. 

If, however, you signed a written employment contract, you are more than likely not an at-will employee.

Can my Employer in California Fire Me for Any Reason?

Whether or not your employer can fire you for any reason, or no reason at all depends on whether or not you are an at-will employee. 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, or disability. 

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

Again, as this is an area of law that can be state-specific, 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 in California?

Determining whether or not your termination was wrongful can be a complicated task, and the rules for determination vary by state. 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, you may have been wrongfully terminated. The next task is to be able to prove it.

On the other hand, if you are terminated because your boss favors another person, there were personality conflicts, or you posted something on social media that your boss did not like, these things do not constitute wrongful termination.

Do I Have to Work Overtime in California?

In short, the answer is yes, your employer may require that you work overtime. Each state deals with mandatory overtime in its own way, but the federal guidelines from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) do state that it is allowed. The employer must pay no less than 1.5 times the regular rate of pay. There are no limits to the number of hours an employee over the age of 16 can work in one week.   

Can I Take a Rest or Meal Break during Work Hours in California?

Employers must permit uninterrupted rest breaks for all nonexempt employees whose total daily work time is at least 3.5 hours. These mandatory rest breaks must be offered at the rate of 10 minutes for every four hours worked, or a "major fraction" thereof. Anything over two hours is considered by the courts to be a "major fraction" of four.

Employers must provide employees that work more than five hours with an unpaid, off-duty meal break of at least 30 minutes. The first meal break must be provided no later than the end of the employee's fifth hour of work. If applicable, employers must provide a second meal break of at least 30 minutes for all workdays on which an employee works more than 10 hours. The second meal break must be provided no later than the end of an employee's 10th hour of work.

A Family Member is Sick and I Need to Take Time off Work to Care for Them. Does my Employer Have to Save My Position and Let Me Take a Leave of Absence?

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 several requirements must be met, including that the employee must have worked with that employer for at least 12 months. 

There are other requirements, too. Plus, the FMLA only applies to companies of a certain size (50 or more employees).

Under the California Family Rights Act ("CFRA"), an employer with five or more employees must provide eligible employees who meet specified requirements to take up to a total of 12 workweeks in any 12-month period for family care and medical leave as defined by the CFRA.

A Family Member Recently Passed Away. May I Take Bereavement Leave?

It depends on how long you have been employed. CFRA permits eligible employees who have been employed for at least 30 days to take up to five (5) days of unpaid leave (subject to an employee's ability to use available paid time off) related to the death of a family member. Family member means a spouse or a child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, domestic partner, or parent-in-law.

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

In California, if you are fired or terminated, your employer is required to pay you all of your outstanding wages, bonuses, commission pay, accrued vacation, and expense reimbursement on the same day of your termination. 

If you quit or resign without notice, you must be paid within 72 hours.

If a California, if your employer does not issue your final paycheck on time, you may be able to seek damages (money) for each day the wages remain unpaid.

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 Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). An attorney can also advise you on your best course of action in these or other situations.

What is a Whistleblower Claim?

When an employee suspects that misconduct or fraud is occurring within their place of employment, and report this activity, they are known as a whistleblower. When this occurs, employers often seek to retaliate against the employee by having them fired or transferred. 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.

Contact an Employment Law Attorney in California Today

If you believe your employer has violated your rights under federal or state law, our employment law lawyer in California can review your case and advise you of any legal action you can (and should) take. At the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke, we uphold the rights and interests of our clients and work toward making sure employers do the same. Contact us using our online form or call us at 310-213-7711 to schedule a free consultation today.

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At the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke, we focus on Employment and Personal Injury matters and we are here to listen to you and help you navigate the legal system.

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