What Are California's Worker Rights Law

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Throughout history, workers' rights organizations and specific workers' rights movements in the United States and abroad have brought about progressive pro-worker legislation. This legislation granted workers many of the rights they enjoy today, such as the right to earn at least a minimum wage and the right to form and join labor unions and collectively bargain for improved working conditions. In Californiaand in many other statesworkers' rights movements have led to state-level worker protection laws, such as the California Family Rights Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. In many ways, California’s employee protection laws exceed federal protections for employees, making California one of the most pro-worker states in the country.

Federal and State Workers' Rights Laws

American workers are protected by many workers' rights laws at both the state and federal levels. These laws were enacted following years of hard work and advocacy by worker's rights organizations. At the federal level, laws that protect workers’ rights include:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Affordable Care Act of 2010.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
  • Social Security Act of 1935.

California laws that provide additional worker protections include:

  • California Occupational Safety and Health Act.
  • California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
  • California Family Rights Act.
  • California New Parent Leave Act.

Fair Wage Rights

California’s minimum wage in 2019 is $12 per hour, with an even higher minimum wage in certain cities. This means that every employee, including tipped employees, must be paid at least $12 per hour for his work, unless he lives in one of the cities with a higher minimum wage, like San Francisco.

Workers have the right to be paid for every minute they spend on the clock. It is illegal for an employer to force employees to work for free, whether this is accomplished by requiring them to work through company-offered paid lunch breaks or by requiring employees to continue working after clocking out.

California law also requires that employees be paid at least every two weeks, and that paychecks be delivered no later than 11 days following pay day.

Overtime Pay Rights

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employees in many categories must be paid one and one-half times their normal wage for hours worked beyond a 40-hour workweek. In other words, if an employee who earns $15 per hour works 45 hours during a seven-day period, the employee must be paid $22.50 per hour for the additional five hours worked.

In addition to this type of overtime pay, employees in California have the right to be paid two times their typical rate for hours worked beyond 12-hour workdays. When an employee works seven consecutive days, she must be paid twice her typical wage for all hours worked beyond an eight-hour workday on the seventh consecutive day.

Employees who are not appropriately compensated, whether because they were paid less than the applicable minimum wage or they were not paid their overtime rate for hours worked beyond a 40-hour workweek, may file unpaid wage claims with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing to pursue reimbursement for lost wages.

Workplace Safety Rights

Workers also have the right to a safe workplace. This right is guaranteed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and underscored by the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973. The agencies created by these laws, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) enforce general workplace safety guidelines as well as industry-specific regulations employers must follow to prevent worker injuries and deaths.

Freedom From Discrimination at Work

Employees also have the right to workplaces free from sexual harassment and discrimination. This right is guaranteed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and extended to California workers by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Federally, it is illegal to discriminate against employees and job applicants based on:

  • Sex.
  • Race.
  • Age, if 40 or older.
  • National origin.
  • Disability.
  • Religion.
  • Color.
  • Genetic information.
  • Citizenship status.

In California, employers also may not discriminate based on:

  • Ancestry.
  • Political affiliation or activities.
  • HIV/AIDS status.
  • Marital status.
  • Military or veteran status.
  • Status as a domestic violence victim.
  • Medical conditions.
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Gender identity.

Workplace discrimination takes many forms. It can be as subtle as asking job applicants about their future family plans or as overt as using derogatory language and racial slurs in the workplace. Specific examples of workplace discrimination include:

  • Maintaining higher conduct and job performance expectations for white employees.

  • Segregating female employees into secretarial and supporting roles.

  • Refusing to hire or promote individuals born outside the United States.

  • Barring older employees from professional development opportunities.

  • Refusing a homosexual employee the same right to parental leave that heterosexual employees are granted.

Labor Union Rights

Throughout the United States, employees have the right to join labor unions and to participate in union activities. Employers may not discriminate against employees for engaging in these activities.

California is not a right to work state. This means that in California, workers may be barred from specific workplaces if they choose not to join the labor unions associated with them. In states that have right to work laws in place, employees may work at unionized workplaces and benefit from the conditions achieved through collective bargaining without being obligated to join the union.

Freedom From Retaliation and Wrongful Termination

Workers also have the right to be free from the fear of retaliation and wrongful termination. Retaliation is any action an employer takes to punish an employee for her actions, such as filing a sexual harassment claim, joining a labor union, becoming pregnant while employed or participating in a protest. Forms of unlawful retaliation include:

  • Poor performance reviews.
  • Termination.
  • Demotion.
  • Harassment.
  • Blocking the employee from professional development opportunities.
  • Refusing to promote the employee despite her capacity for taking on additional responsibilities.

The concept of at-will employment causes many people to become confused about wrongful terminations. A wrongful termination is a firing that violates a worker’s rights or the law in some way, such as firing an employee for being pregnant or firing all employees who participate in a protest against workplace conditions they consider subpar. Although California is an at-will state when it comes to employment, there are circumstances under which an employer may not fire an employee. In addition to illegal reasons, California employers are also barred from terminating employees when the terminations would violate federal law, state law or state public policy or violate the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Many states have exceptions to at-will employment, and California is no different. In California, all employment agreements include an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which means that an employer cannot terminate an employee for reasons that are deemed malicious, arbitrary or in bad faith. Similarly, an employer cannot terminate an employee in circumstances where the termination would somehow violate state law, federal law or public policy.

Workers’ Whistleblower Rights

A whistleblower is an employee who notifies authorities or the media about wrongdoing at his company. The authorities he notifies include the company’s leaders, the industry regulatory board or the state or federal agency tasked with regulating his industry. The wrongdoing could be anything from engaging in unethical practices to taking illegal actions like paying employees less than minimum wage or failing to take the proper safety measures to ensure that products are safe for consumers.

There is no specific law that by itself protects whistleblower rights. Rather, various workers' rights laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act outline and enforce employees’ rights to take whistleblower action without fear of retaliation.

California’s numerous whistleblower protection laws underscore federal whistleblower protection laws. (These laws include California Labor Code 1102.5, Labor Code 98.6, Labor Code 6310 and Government Code 8547). In California, both public sector and private sector employees are covered by whistleblower protection laws.

Right to Take Legal Action

Perhaps one of the most important rights workers have in California and throughout the United States is the right to take legal action against employers that violate their rights. This includes, but is not limited to, situations where the employee:

  • Is not compensated fairly.
  • Faces discrimination.
  • Faces retaliation.
  • Faces sexual harassment.
  • Is barred from exercising her family leave rights.
  • Is injured in an accident caused by unsafe workplace conditions.

Employees who have experienced losses, such as lost wages and emotional distress, resulting from violations of their rights can sue to recover financial compensation for these losses. To pursue this compensation, employees file claims with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or other agencies that handle workers' rights violation claims, such as the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Often, these claims are settled outside of court after an investigation by the agency that has jurisdiction over the case, but in some cases, the agency files a lawsuit on the employee’s behalf or grants the employee the right to sue the employer directly, and the case heads to court. Depending on the nature of his claim, an employee may pursue compensation for:

  • Lost wages.
  • Missed career advancement opportunities.
  • Medical expenses.
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs.
  • Emotional distress.
  • Lost benefits.

Departments That Protect Workers' Rights in California

One of the primary federal agencies tasked with protecting workers’ rights is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This agency works closely with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), California’s anti-workplace discrimination agency. When a California employee files a claim with the EEOC, the claim is automatically filed with the DFEH. Similarly, DFEH claims are also filed with the EEOC when the claim alleges a federal law was violated.

Under most circumstances, the statute of limitations for filing DFEH claims is one year from the date the alleged rights violation occurred. Following an investigation, the DFEH may issue a right-to-sue letter, which grants the employee the right to sue her employer for one year. When the case involves an alleged violation of federal law, the employee has 300 days to file a claim with either the EEOC or the DFEH. If granted a right-to-sue letter, the employee then has 90 days to file a lawsuit.

Other agencies have different statutes of limitations for claims and specific filing requirements that employees must follow. For example, Cal/OSHA claims are held to a six-month statute of limitations. Workers who feel their rights have been violated in some way can discuss their experiences with employment lawyers, who can explain their legal options and direct them toward the appropriate state or federal agencies that can handle their cases.