The State of California provides many substantial protections for workers pursuant to its labor and employment laws, including a minimum wage and paid overtime that are both more generous than mandated by federal law.

What is At-Will Employment?

The California Labor Code is made up of many “employee-friendly” laws designed to promote and protect the important employee interests. However, the Code also contains some state laws that provide employers with important protections. One example is the state’s law regarding at-will employment. Specifically, the California Labor Code provides that:

“An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. Employment for a specified term means an employment for a period greater than one month.”

In other words, the law presumes that an employment relationship between a California employer and employee is, by default, an at-will employment relationship. This enables either party to terminate the employment – at any time for any reason – or for no reason at all.

Terminating an At-Will Employee

From an employee’s perspective, at-will employment provides an easy, no-strings-attached way to quit a job. However, it also means that an employer can terminate an employee just as easily. It is easy to see how the at-will employment law does not provide employees with the level of protections found in California’s other labor laws.

Employer Benefits

The at-will employment structure clearly favors employer interests::
 

  • It provides employers with the freedom to terminate an at-will employee without cause (i.e., for no reason)
     

    • This is a very important for employers because “cause” has a specific meaning in the context of California employment law. It is defined as “a fair and honest cause or reason, regulated by good faith on the part of the employer.”
       

    • Because employers do not have to prove cause when terminating at-will employees, they are relieved of a significant legal burden.

    • More specifically, at-will employment means that a terminated employee cannot sue an employer for breach of implied contract based on cause.

 

  • It is important to note that while employers can terminate at-will employees for any reason or for no reason, employers must still comply with all federal, state, and local laws prohibiting discrimination and retaliation.
     

    • Employers must also comply with labor laws by paying employees for earned overtime, unused vacation, etc.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

As mentioned, California presumes that an employment relationship is at-will. However, there are many exceptions that can overcome this presumptions, including the following:

 

  • Employees who have written employment contracts that require good cause and/or specific procedures for termination
     

  • Employees hired for a specific term of employment, such as a specific number of years
     

  • Employees covered by collective bargaining agreements that require just cause and due process prior to termination  
     

  • Public-sector employees protected by various civil service laws and/or union-agency agreements that cover termination
     

  • Employees whose employers - through their words and/or actions - overcome the presumption of at-will employment
     

    • One example would be an employer-established process and protocol that must be followed prior to termination  
       

    • Another example is an employer’s assurances that an employee has long-term employment status

Preserving At-Will Employment

Certain steps that employers can take to ensure they preserve at-will employment (and the benefits associated therewith) include the following:

  • Include an at-will employment notice on all employment applications and job offers

  • Require employees to sign an acknowledgement of at-will employment prior to starting work

  • Train managers to refrain from making any statements to job applicants and employees that could be construed as an “assurance of long-term employment” or a guarantee of work

  • Include an at-will employment notice in employee handbooks

 

Our firm offers risk mitigation advice to employers wishing to avoid litigation. We also provide representation to employees being asked to sign employment contracts affecting their at-will status.

Experienced Employment Law Attorneys in Southern California

At CKB Vienna LLP, our labor and employment attorneys specialize in helping employers craft and implement various strategies to create and preserve at-will employment. We also represent employers in matters where at at-will employment relationship is challenged by employees.  

To learn more, contact us today by calling 909-980-1040 or filling out our short online form. We have locations in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles – for your convenience.

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