What Is At-Will California Employment Law?

Updated: Apr 21

What Does Being At-Will Entail And How Does It Affect Employment Law Claims

California is an At-Will employment state, which means people can work for others without a contract. However, while the lack of contract seems to pose problems for employees, it doesn't mean they aren't protected from illegal employment actions.


What's at-will employment, what does it mean for employees, and what are your rights? Let's talk about At-Will Employment in California:


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What Is At-Will Employment In California?

"At-will" means you're working at your employer's discretion. This means your boss can fire you any time for any reason, sometimes for no reason at all. That said, this also means you can quit at any time for any reason.

Oftentimes, at-will employment can mean no employment contract in California. However, just because your employer can fire you anytime doesn't mean they can fire you for illegal reasons.

The presumption of at-will employment is a default rule that the contract can change. A contract may, for example, specify a certain period of work or allow for only reason termination. Individual employment agreements are usually exclusively negotiated with high-level employees in the United States. Employees under a collective bargaining agreement are usually only fired for a good reason.


Poor performance, misconduct, or financial necessity are all examples of valid termination causes. In addition, an employment contract may specify the circumstances or conduct that might result in a termination for cause.


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What Are The Legal Exemptions For At-Will Employment In California?


In some cases, an employer or employee may be required to follow stricter restrictions than is customary for at-will employment. Here are some examples of such exceptions:

  • Employment Contracts. Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement or have an employment contract may have privileges that are not available to at-will workers.

  • Implied Contracts. Employers are banned from discharging employees who have formed an implicit contract with them, whether or not a legal agreement exists.

  • It can be challenging to prove the legitimacy of such an agreement, and the employee bears this responsibility. However, according to your employer's policy book or new-hire manual, employees are not at will and can only be fired for a good reason.

  • Good Faith and Fair Dealing. The implied promise of good faith and fair dealing is yet another exception. Employers cannot fire someone in this situation to avoid paying for healthcare, retirement, or commission-based labor.

  • Government Policy. Employers are prohibited from firing an employee if the conduct breaches the public policy exception in their state. In addition, employers are barred from terminating or suing an employee in this scenario if the employee's motive for leaving is for the public good.

If you're not sure if you have a viable claim, consult with a California Employment Law Attorney to help you. A prescreened California Employment Attorney will be able to look through the facts of your case and point out possible legal options for you.


What Are The Illegal Reasons For Firing An At-Will Employee?

Wrongful Termination still applies to at-will employees. This means employers can't fire their employees for the following reasons:

  • Discrimination. Under federal and state discrimination laws, employers are prohibited from making hiring decisions based on an employee's race, religion, sex, national origin, color, gender, age, disability, or veteran status. Under state statutes, employees may also be protected from discrimination based on other variables, such as sexual orientation.

  • Retaliation. Another statutory exemption to the at-will presumption is retaliation. Employers are prohibited by federal and/or state regulations from terminating employees in retribution for engaging in legally permissible, necessary, or desirable activities. Claiming minimum wage or overtime pay, participating in union activities, protesting unlawful discriminatory practices, filing for workers' compensation, and "whistleblowing" are all examples of protected actions.

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