Termination Considerations for At-Will Employment

terminationEmployee termination without cause. Can California workers be terminated without cause? California is an at-will state, meaning that either the employer or the employee may terminate the relationship at any time. Even so, California courts look at a number of factors when employees claim that a wrongful termination has occurred. If you find yourself without a job and believe the termination was unlawful, a local employment attorney can help.

Implied-in-Fact Contracts

Sometimes employers and employees have unspoken agreements that take precedence over an employer’s ability to fire at will. California courts do consider whether or not there is an implied contract. These determinations rest on the totality of several factors, including the employee’s length of employment with the company, employment practices within the industry, company policies, and employer actions that would give an employee a reasonable expectation of continued employment. One such case involved Wayne Pugh vs. Sees Candies. When Pugh was fired from his Palo Alto job without explanation, the courts found that, absent a written contract, the implied contract between employee and employer negated any right to fire without cause.

Express Contracts

When an employee’s contract expressly states that termination may only occur with cause, employers must have legitimate reasons documented for a termination. Often these contractual obligations are through a labor union, although oral agreements may be just as valid.

Statutory Protections from Termination

Despite being able to fire at-will employees without cause, employees cannot be terminated for a number of protected reasons.

  • Federal law calls out several protections, including race, gender, age, religion, and disability. California law piggybacks federal statutes, and adds additional protections for sexual orientation.
  • Public sector workers generally have termination policies and civil service laws that protect them from random terminations;
  • Union activity is also protected, so employees may join a union and exercise any collective bargaining rights without threat of termination.
  • Employees are also entitled to certain types of leave without fear of termination. Employees may miss work to vote in a state election, may take leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to care for sick family members, and may miss work to serve as a juror. Maternity leave is also protected for women. These are common reasons for which employees are entitled to take leave without fear of termination.
  • Federal whistleblower protections exist for individuals who report safety violations, discrimination, or other violations of either state or federal law.
  • Employees cannot be fired for their behavior or activities that occur outside of work. If the behavior is legal, employers cannot consider it in a termination.

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