What Are My Rights As An Employee In California?

Employment law covers a range of rights and responsibilities that make up the relationship between an employer and employee. Employment law applies not only to current employees, but also former workers and individuals who are applying for a job. A number of the legal disputes that involve companies, corporations and even smaller businesses relate to employee rights.

Employment law can be a complex and challenging area of the law to comprehend and thoroughly understand. In California, these laws are constantly evolving.  Whether you are an employee, employer or job applicant, it is important to understand the rights of employees and the duty of employers. If your rights have been violated as an employee in California, it is important that you contact an experienced Los Angeles employment law attorney who can fight to protect your rights and help you secure the compensation you rightfully deserve.

Your Most Important Employee Rights 

Employees have a reasonable right to privacy in the workplace. This right applies to the worker's personal possessions such as backpacks, purses or briefcases, storage lockers that are accessible only to the employee, and private mail that is specifically addressed to the employee. Workers also have the right to privacy on their personal phone conversations. However, such rights do not apply to work e-mail messages and Internet usage while using the employer's network and computer system.

Here are some of the important rights to which all employees are entitled:

  • The right to a safe workspace that is free from dangerous conditions that could cause injuries or illnesses.
  • The right to be paid fair wages for the work that is performed.
  • The right to a work environment that is free of harassment and discrimination of all types.
  • The right to not be retaliated against for filing a complaint against an employer.

In addition to employees, those who apply for jobs also have rights, even though they are not technically employees. They have the right not to be discriminated on the basis of characteristics such as race, national origin, religion, age or gender during the hiring process. For example, an employer may not ask a job applicant regarding his or her religious beliefs or conduct a credit or background check of a prospective employee or employee without first receiving permission from them to do so.

There are a number of employment law issues our employment attorneys at Kingsley & Kingsley provide assistance with. Here are some of the most common employment issues for which our clients retain us.

Employment Discrimination 

Discrimination at the workplace is illegal under federal and state laws. Since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, federal and state governments have enacted a number of laws, which prohibit employers from discriminating against employees. Here are some of the most common types of discrimination we see in California workplaces:

Race, religion and nationality: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer (with 15 employees or more) from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin or religion. It is illegal under this federal law for an employer to refuse to hire, discipline, fire, deny training, demote or harass any employee based on these protected characteristics. 

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this type of discrimination involves treating someone (an employee or job applicant) unfavorably because he or she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race such as hair texture, skin color or certain facial features. Color discrimination involves treating someone unfavorably because of skin color or complexion. Race or color discrimination could also involve treating someone unfavorably because the person is married to or associated with a person of a certain race or color.

It is also against the law to treat some unfavorably because they belong to a certain religion or a specific country. In addition, the law requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business. These accommodations may include flexible scheduling, shift swaps, job reassignments and dress or grooming practices that are a part of the employee's religion beliefs and practices.

Sex or gender discrimination: This involves treating a job applicant or employee unfavorably because of his or her sex. Discrimination against an individual because of gender identity including transgender status or because of sexual orientation is discrimination because of sex and is a violation of Title VII. Any form of discrimination in any aspect of employment such as hiring, firing, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, etc. is prohibited under the law. Further, the federal Equal Pay Act requires employers to provide equal pay to men and women for equal work.

Age discrimination: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants or employees who are over 40 years of age. For example, it is illegal for a company to fire or lay off older employees and hire younger or cheaper employees to perform the same jobs.

Disability discrimination:  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bars discrimination against those who are disabled. In addition, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities. For example, if an employee is wheelchair-bound, the employer should make sure there is a parking space and wheelchair access for that employee. Reasonable accommodation may also include a modified work schedule or work duties, unpaid time off, or special devices that will help the employee in the performance of his or her job duties.

Wage And Hour Law Violations

Wage and hour laws in California apply to all non-exempt employees, which means that laws pertaining to overtime or meal breaks won't apply to you if you are either an independent contractor, not a full-time employee or a so-called "exempt" employee. It is important to understand the difference between an employee and an independent contractor or exempt employees because companies often misclassify employees in order to avoid paying them full wages and/or benefits.

An independent contractor is someone who renders a service under a contract or agreement for a specific pay, and maintains control over the means by which the work is performed. For example, contractors can determine their own hours of work and don't have to complete time cards like non-exempt employees do.

On the other hand, exempt employees are often administrative, executive and professional employees. In order to be considered "exempt," an employee must spend more than half of his or her work time performing managerial work and earn a monthly salary equivalent to at least twice the state minimum wage for all full-time employment.

All California employees must be paid the minimum wage as set out in the state's wage and hour laws. California's minimum wage as of Jan. 1, 2019 is $11 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees and $12 for employers with 26 or more employees. The state's minimum wage is scheduled to rise annually until it reaches $15 per hour for all employers in the year 2022.

California employees also have the right to overtime pay. Employers must pay employees "time and a half" overtime for any work done in excess of eight hours in one workday or 40 hours in one workweek. Employers are not allowed to circumvent overtime requirements by requiring or pressuring employees to work "off the clock." Employers must pay "double time" for any work done in excess of 12 hours in on workday or in excess of eight hours on the seventh day of a workweek.

Most non-exempt California employees who work more than five hours in a workday must be given a meal break of at least 30 minutes. Also, employees who will work more than 10 hours in a day must get a second 30-minute meal break. California employees are entitled to rest periods as well. Non-exempt employees are entitled to 10 minutes of rest period for each four hours they work.

Sexual Harassment

It is against the law to harass an employee or job applicant because of that person's sex. Sexual harassment in the workplace may include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. While the harassment doesn't have to be of a sexual nature, it could also include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a female employee by making offensive comments about women in general. The victim and the harasser could be of either gender or of the same sex.

It is important to remember that the law does not prohibit offhand comments, teasing or isolated incidents are not serious in nature. Harassment is considered against the law only when it is frequent, severe and consistent enough to create a hostile or offensive work environment or when it leads the employee to be fired or demoted, or when it forces the employee to quit. A harasser may be the victim's direct supervisor, manager, colleague or even a client or customer.

Workplace Retaliation

Federal and state laws also prohibit employers from punishing job applicants and employees for asserting their rights to participate in "protected activity." Such activity may include: 

  • Filing a complaint or being a witness in a government case against the employer.
  • Telling a supervisor or manager about discrimination and/or harassment in the workplace.
  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination.
  • Resisting sexual advances or intervening in a situation to protect someone else.
  • Asking managers or co-workers about salary information to shed light on potentially discriminatory wages.
  • Complains to a state or federal agency about unsafe conditions in the workplace.

When an employee participates in a complaint process, he or she is protected from retaliation under all circumstances. Some of the acts on the part of an employer that could be considered retaliatory include giving an employee a poor performance evaluation as retaliation; transferring an employee to a less desirable position; physically or verbally abusing the employee; making verbal or physical threats; and spreading false rumors about the individual.

Wrongful Termination

In California, most workers are employed "at will," which means that their employment can be terminated at any time and employers don't have to provide cause or justification for doing so. However, if an employee is fired in violation of an employment contract, for discriminatory reasons or as retaliation for exercising their legal rights, they may have a wrongful termination claim. 

The term "wrongful termination" essentially means that the employer has fired or laid off a worker for reasons that are illegal or in violation of state and/or federal employment laws. For example, if an employer laid off an employee over the age of 40 and then hired a younger worker for the same position at a much lower pay scale, that would amount to age discrimination and the laid-off employee may have a wrongful termination lawsuit. Employers also cannot fire employees for exercising their wrongful termination legal rights. For example, if an employee complained to the company's human resources department about sexual harassment or if an employee filed a workers' compensation claim for an injury sustained on the job, an employer cannot retaliate against that employee by firing him or her. That would be illegal and would amount to wrongful termination.

What Actions Can You Take?

If your rights are being violated on the job, there are a number of steps you can take to protect your rights. First, stay calm and do not act out on your employer. If you have an employment contract, make sure you have a copy of it and become familiar with the conditions of the contract. Ask your employer or the human resources department about why you were terminated. Ask to view your personnel file. You have the right to do so. Request and negotiate a severance package. Do not allow your employer to intimidate you or coax you into signing anything you don't want to sign.

Need Help?

If you're not sure what your next step should be, speak with a Kingsley and Kingsley employment attorney via a free consultation. Many people do not need to hire an attorney, but, if you are not sure, it makes sense to have your questions answered by an experienced, licensed legal professional.

Kingsley and Kingsley has more nearly four decades of experience fighting for the rights of employees who have been mistreated, wronged and exploited. They are passionate in their pursuit for justice and fair compensation for their clients. If you believe your rights as an employee in California have been violated, call Kingsley and Kingsley today at (818) 239-7030 for a free consultation and comprehensive case evaluation.