California Law: Employee Protection Act

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California laws offer employees many protections, more than are provided in most other states. However, the state has not enacted a specific law called an Employee Protection Act. Instead, protections for workers are found in a variety of statutes. Some of the most important laws benefiting workers are those that set a minimum wage, regulate overtime pay, mandate work breaks and lactation breaks, paid vacation regulations and parental leave in California.

California's Minimum Wage

Minimum wage laws establish a floor on the amount employees must be paid per hour. The federal government's minimum wage applies to employees in all states. It is adjusted from time to time and is $7.25 an hour in 2019.

But states can also set a minimum wage for their residents, and employees in that state are entitled to whichever minimum wage is higher, federal or state. California's minimum wage in 2019 is $12.00 per hour, much higher than the federal minimum wage, and is set to rise to $15 per hour by 2023, so that is the floor wage for hourly employees in the state.

Individual cities in California can also set their own minimum wages and an employee is entitled to the highest applicable minimum wage. When a city's minimum wage is higher than California's minimum wage, workers there get the city minimum wage. Many cities have higher minimum wages than the state minimum wage. As of 2019, the city of Emeryville has the highest minimum wage in California, currently set at $16.30 per hour.

California Overtime Laws

It's a common misconception that overtime laws restrict the number of hours an employee can work each week. In California, no laws limit the number of hours an adult employee can work in a day or in a week or in a year. Both federal and state laws leave the setting of work hours to the employer and the employee.

Instead, overtime laws require the employer to pay an employee more money per hour when she works more than a certain number of hours. Federal overtime provisions give employees time-and-a-half of the regular hourly pay for every hour above 40 hours in a workweek.

But California tops this. California law gives overtime pay (time-and-a-half) to an employee who works more than 40 hours a week, as well as one who works more than eight hours in a regular work day up to 12 hours. When an employee is asked to work over 12 hours in a workday, she must be paid double time. The double-time law also applies to all hours over eight worked on the seventh workday in a row.

Paid and Unpaid Work Breaks

Work breaks are periods during an employee's work day when she doesn't have to work. They give her the chance to step away from job responsibilities and get a bite to eat or to just relax. While federal law does not mandate work breaks, California law does.

In California, employers must give every employee a 10-minute paid rest break if the employee works 3.5 hours or more in a shift. If her shift is six hours or more, she gets two 10-minute rest breaks. During rest breaks, she is not required to do any work tasks and can leave the work area if she likes. This is paid time and counts in her total hours worked.

California also requires that employees get unpaid meal breaks of 30 minutes each for every five hours of shift. Like rest breaks, meal breaks are time that belong to the employee, and the employer cannot require that she work during these breaks. She is permitted to skip a meal break if her shift is six hours, or skip a second work break if she takes the first one.

Lactation Breaks in California

Breastfeeding mothers are given special breaks under California law, lactation breaks, in which to express milk with a lactation machine for her infant child. Employers must provide a room that is private and protected for lactation. This cannot be a toilet stall and ideally shouldn't be too far from the employee's workspace.

How long are mandated lactation breaks? They must provide the employee with a reasonable amount of time, which differs depending on the location of the lactation area and other practical circumstances. Lactation breaks taken at the same time as rest breaks are paid time, at least the first 10 minutes. But if the lactation break is longer than the 10-minute period of a rest break, it is unpaid time.

Paid Vacation Regulations

California law doesn't require that employees get vacation time, not even unpaid vacation time. Despite this, many employers do offer paid vacation time to employees. Once vacation time is part of an employment contract, California protects the employee's rights to it.

Usually employers do not just "give" a new employee a couple of weeks to go to Hawaii the minute he is hired. Instead, most require that the employee put in a specified amount of work time to earn vacation days. Under California law, once an employee has earned some amount of vacation time, it is to be treated the same as earned wages, and the employee has a vested right to it.

That is, if the employee gets fired when he has earned vacation time that he hasn't used, all is not lost. A California employer cannot take back the vacation benefits an employee has earned, even if the employee is fired for wrongful conduct.

Parental Leave in California

The federal Family Medical Leave Act and California's Family Rights Act both require employers who have at least 50 employees to give new mothers and new fathers up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave. Parental leave is time new parents get to stay home from work to care for and bond with a new child. In 2018, California's New Parents Leave Act expanded that requirement to employers with 20 to 49 employees.

For female employees, maternity leave combines parental leave and disability pregnancy leave. For male employees, paternity leave is parental leave. To qualify, an employee must have worked as a covered employee for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months immediately preceding the leave.

While both male and female parents each are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, female employees receive an additional 10 to 12 weeks time off for pregnancy disability. And some cities like San Francisco, require that the parental leave be paid, not unpaid.

Other Employee Protections in California

While these are among the most important employee protections in California, there are many, many other laws that are also significant. These include laws describing an employee's right to privacy in the work place; child labor laws; laws permitting employees to inspect and copy payroll and personnel records; laws that protect a worker during the hiring process; and whistleblower laws that protect employees reporting fraud, inefficiency or wrongdoing in the workplace. It is also against California law for an employer to fire an employee on the basis of his race, sex, religion, disability, marital status, medical condition, sexual orientation or gender identity.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.