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What Does "At Will" Mean?

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In California, most employees are considered to be "at will" employees. Specifically, California Labor Code Section 2922 states 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, an employer can fire an employee without cause, or in the alternative, employees can quit whenever they want. While this may seem like a pretty cut and dry concept, there are situations where an at will termination is improper or unlawful.

Exempt Employees

Employees may be exempt from at-will employment by agreement. This generally applies to the following categories of employees: (1) Employees with an employment contract that requires some sort of cause to be fired; (2) Union employees, who have some form of collective bargaining agreement that requires "good cause" or "just cause" to fire an employee; and (3) Public and government employees, who are protected from at will termination by agreement or legal statute.

Employees may also be exempt if a court finds that there was an "implied" contract that at will employment did not exist. This is a controversial and hard fought exemption that may be based on the totality of the employment relationship, including numerous factors like:

  • the employer's practices, handbooks, and manual
  • spoken promises or assurances between the employer and employee
  • the duration of employment
  • a performance evaluation system, including a discipline policy that leads to termination
  • awards
  • regular salary increases and promotions

Unlawful Terminations

There are a plethora Labor Code provisions, as well as other state and federal laws that protect employees from discrimination and retaliation. The at will termination presumption does nothing to protect an employer that engages in discrimination or retaliation when firing an employee. Employees are legally protected from discrimination based on gender, race, disability, country of origin, victim status, or breastfeeding, among many other categories. In addition, an employee's termination may not be based on retaliation, such as punishment for filing a claim for lost wages, taking sick leave, refusing to engage in illegal activity, or whistleblowing.

Call Moss Bollinger

Your employer has attorneys, so should you. If you have been wrongly fired, based on discrimination or the breach of an agreement, contact us today so we can evaluate your claim. Moss Bollinger is dedicated to employees who want to fight for their rights against their employers. We work on a contingency basis and do not get paid unless you do. Call Moss Bollinger today at 800-249-1175 for a free consultation or reach us online.

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