What Is An "At-Will" State?: California Employment Law

What It Means To Be An "At Will" Employee In California


The employee's job status is "at will," which means the employer can legally fire the employee without cause or warning. California is an at-will employment state, which means that any employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all.


That said, this doesn't mean you can't be fired for illegal reasons. As an at-will employee, your employer might have the right to fire you at their discretion, but they still cannot fire you as an act of discrimination, retaliation, or policy violation. If they fire you for any of the mentioned illegal reasons, it is considered grounds for Wrongful Termination.


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What Is An At-Will Employment?

In an at-will employment state, the law presumes you are employed at will unless your company expressly states in an employment contract that it will only dismiss you for a good reason or if it gives a list of justifications for firing an employee.

If you signed a contract that stipulates that your employer will only fire you for a good reason, you are legally protected against being fired. If your contract does not say that you are entitled to these benefits, the law presumes that you are employed at will.

Regardless of whether or not employees are employed at will, local and federal laws prohibit specific justifications for discharging employees. The following are some examples of these illegal reasons to terminate:

  1. You cannot be fired because of your age, race, color, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, and so on.

  2. If you report illegal conduct, discrimination, harassment, or health and food breaches, they cannot fire you in retaliation.

  3. They can't terminate you for taking sick or family leave, serving in the military, serving on a jury, or voting.

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If you were fired for one of these reasons, it would be termed "wrongful termination." If you've experienced this in California, your employee rights (even as an at-will worker) have been infringed. It's best that you consult with a California Wrongful Termination Lawyer to help you with your legal options.

What Does At-Will Employment Mean For Employers?


The California Labor Code was designed to promote and defend essential employee interests. However, the Code also includes some state statutes that give essential protections to employers. The state's law on at-will employment is one example. The California Labor Code emphasizes that a job with no set end date can be terminated at any time by either side on notice to the other. A job for a specific term is one that lasts longer than one month.


In other words, the law assumes that an employment relationship between a California employer and an employee is an at-will relationship by default. This allows either partner to end the employment relationship at any moment and for any reason or for no reason at all.


Termination Of At-Will Employees

From the standpoint of an employee, at-will employment offers a simple, no-strings-attached approach to leave a job. However, it also means that an employer has the same ability to fire an employee. It's clear that California's at-will employment legislation does not offer employees the same amount of protection as the state's other labor regulations.

Employer interests are obviously favored by the at-will employment structure because:

  1. It gives employers the authority to fire an at-will employee for any reason (i.e., for no reason)

  2. This is crucial for employers since "cause" has a specific meaning in California employment law. It is defined as "a just and honest cause or rationale, governed by the employer's good faith."

  3. Employers are relieved of a considerable legal burden when firing at-will employees since they do not have to prove cause.

  4. At-will employment means that an employee who is fired without cause cannot sue the employer for breach of an implicit contract.

While businesses can fire at-will employees for any reason or no reason, they must still follow all federal, state, and local anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation rules. Employers must also follow labor regulations by compensating workers for earned overtime, unused vacation, and other benefits.


Again, just because you are an at-will employee working at the discretion of your employer, that doesn't mean you don't have the right to fight against missing wages, illegal employment acts, and labor law violations. Contact a Labor Lawyer in California to help you with specific Employment Law concerns.


What Are Some Exceptions?

As previously stated, California is an at-will state, and some employees might have reduced employment rights due to this. There are, however, a number of exceptions that can be used to overcome the challenges of working at-will, including the following:

  • Employees with signed employment contracts requiring good cause and/or defined termination processes

  • Employees that have been hired for a certain period of time, such as a set number of years, cannot be fired if it is stated in a contract.

  • Employees who are protected by collective bargaining agreements that require just cause and due process before being fired

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  • Employees in the public sector are protected by numerous civil service statutes and/or collective bargaining agreements that cover termination.

  • Employees whose employers break the presumption of at-will employment through their words and/or conduct.

If you are unsure about the exact legal implications of your recent termination, call a California Labor Law Attorney to help clarify things. Knowing your rights and what you can do about them will make filing claims and asserting yourself easier in the long run.


Find A California Wrongful Termination Lawyer Near Me


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