Under California law, employment is "at will." This means that an employer can fire or lay off an employee at any time with no reason. It also means that an employee can quit a job at any time as well, without notice. Employment contracts and collective bargaining agreements that stipulate notice and conditions for termination are legally binding, however. Other special circumstances may provide grounds for legal or administrative action.
Enforcement of the law regarding termination is under the jurisdiction of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) of California's Department of Industrial Standards Enforcement. The DLSE enforces laws on final pay and vacation pay in cases of employment termination. The DLSE also has jurisdiction when an employee has been terminated for engaging in a protected activity, such as participation in jury duty, filing a complaint with the DLSE, providing testimony about such a complaint or complaining about safety concerns in the workplace.
Termination "at will" may be limited by other factors over which the DLSE does not have jurisdiction. Collective bargaining agreements can have terms for termination. Terminated employees were working under a union contract should contact their union representatives for more information. In cases of discrimination based on "race, religion, gender, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, medical condition, marital status, age (over 40), sexual orientation or denial of family medical leave," the DLSE's information sheet directs employees to contact the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In cases involving assault or the threat of physical danger, employees should contact local law enforcement. Employees should seek legal assistance to file a lawsuit in civil court for other forms of harassment.
When an employer discharges an employee, all of the wages due to an employee must be paid at the place where the employee is discharged. If the employee quits without notice, the employer must pay final wages within 72 hours. If the employee gives notice at least 72 hours in advance, the employer must pay final wages at the time the employee leaves work. Unless the employee requests that the payment be mailed, the employer must pay him at the employer's office or agency. An employer who fails to pay final wages may be required to pay the employee, after termination, for up to 30 days or until the wages are paid.
Employers are not obligated to provide paid vacation time under California law. If an employer has a paid vacation policy, however, the paid time is considered earned wages. Upon termination, the employer must include payment for accrued vacation time in the employee's final paycheck.
Read More: Can You Fire an Employee While They Are on Vacation?
The "at will" employment relationship is subject to several other limitations. Legal assistance may be helpful in such cases. If an employer has issued a handbook that specifies procedures for discipline and termination, for example, a terminated employee may have a case for wrongful termination if the employer's stated procedures were not followed. Other limits have been established under California case law that restrict employers' legal ability to terminate employment "at will." An employer cannot legally fire an employee for refusing to do something illegal or injurious to the public, for example.
Margaret Lodge has been writing and editing newsletters, publicity information and research reports for nonprofit organizations since 1974. Her scholarly work has been published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals in her field. She holds the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in social change, a Master of Divinity and a doctorate in an area of religious studies.