California Employment Law Basics

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn about the California and federal laws that protect your rights as an employee.

As an employee in California, you are protected by federal and state laws throughout the employment process, from hiring through discharge. In fact, California is among the most employee-friendly states in the nation. This article explains some of your workplace rights in California.

California Laws Against Discrimination and Harassment

Under federal law, employers may not make employment decisions based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (if the employee is at least 40 years old), disability, or genetic information. Employers with at least 15 employees are subject to these laws (for age discrimination, employers with at least 20 employees must comply with the law).

These laws prohibit discrimination in every aspect of employment, from job postings, interviews, and hiring decisions to promotions, benefits, pay, discipline, performance reviews, layoffs, and firing. For detailed information on the federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination, see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Laws Enforced by the EEOC.

California law also protects employees from discrimination based on these traits. In addition, employees in California are protected from discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, medical condition, military status, political activities or affiliations, and status as a victim of domestic violence, assault, or stalking. In California, employers with five or more employees must comply with these laws. (All California employers, regardless of size, have a duty to prevent harassment.) To file a complaint or learn more about California’s laws prohibiting discrimination, see the website of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Workplace harassment based on any of these traits is also illegal. From a legal perspective, harassment is unwelcome workplace conduct or comments, based on the target’s protected characteristic, that creates a hostile work environment or that the target must endure as a condition of employment. Sexual harassment is the most familiar type of harassment, but harassment might also be based on age, national origin, and other protected traits.

Your employer may not retaliate against you for complaining of discrimination or harassment. Your employer may not discipline, fire, or take other negative action against you because you complain within the company, to a government agency (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing), or in a lawsuit.

California Workplace Safety Laws

In every state, including California, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a safe workplace, free of known hazards. Employers must provide safe, healthy working conditions as well as the safety equipment and training required for their industry.

Employees have the right to request an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection if they believe their employer has committed safety violations. It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who complain of unsafe or hazardous working conditions.

Workers’ Compensation in California

If you suffer an on-the-job injury, you will likely be eligible for workers’ compensation. Most California employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ comp provides you with a percentage of your usual earnings, pays for necessary medical treatment, and provides vocational rehabilitation and other benefits.

California Minimum Wage and Overtime Laws

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay a minimum wage of $7.25. However, California has set a higher minimum wage that employers must follow. In 2018, smaller employers (those with up to 25 employees) must pay $10.50 per hour, while larger employers (those with 26 or more employees) must pay $11 per hour. In 2019, these numbers will increase to $11 for smaller employers and $12 for larger employers. These annual increases will continue until 2023, when all employers must pay a minimum wage of $15.

Under the FLSA and California law, employers must pay employees time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. California also has a daily overtime standard, which requires employers to pay overtime to eligible employees who work more than eight hours in a day, whether or not they also exceed 40 hours in a week. And, California employees are entitled to double time after they work 12 hours in one day. Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime, however. If you fall within an exception to the overtime laws (for example, because you are a salaried manager as defined by the law), you are an exempt employee, which means you are not eligible for overtime.

Learn more about California wage and overtime rules at the website of the California Department of Industrial Relations. You can find out more about the FLSA from the Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor.

Your Right to Time Off Work in California

Many employers voluntarily offer their employees paid leave, such as vacation time, sick days, holidays, or paid time off (PTO) benefits. In most states, this time off is completely discretionary. In California, however, employees are entitled to take paid sick leave and to take advantage of certain insurance programs to be paid while off work. In addition, employees have the right to take unpaid leave in a variety of circumstances.

Paid Sick Leave

All California employers must provide paid sick leave to employees who have worked for at least 30 days in the past year. Employees accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work, up to a total of 48 hours or six days off. Employers may limit an employee’s use of sick leave to 24 hours per year. Sick leave is available both for the employee’s own illness or preventive care and to care for a family member.

Paid Disability and Family Leave

California is one of a handful of states that has a paid temporary disability program, funded by payroll withholding. Employees who are eligible may collect 55% of their usual paycheck, untaxed, while they are temporarily unable to work due to disability. (In 2018, this percentage increases to either 60% or 70%, depending on the employee's wages.)

The same program pays employees for up to six weeks of leave while employees are bonding with a new child or caring for a seriously ill family member. To learn more about these programs, go to the State Disability Insurance Page of the California Employment Development Department.

Other Leave

California requires employers to provide the following additional leave, most of which is unpaid:

  • Military leave. The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and California military leave law both require employers to allow employees to take leave from work for federal or state military service or duty. Employees must be reinstated after their leave, and may not be discriminated against based on their service. California law also gives employees the right to take up to 17 days of work per year for military training, encampments, exercises, and similar activities.
  • Family and medical leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) require employers with at least 50 employees to give eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year for illness and caregiving. Beginning in 2018, employers with 20 or more employees must also provide up to 12 weeks off for employees to bond with a new child. While you are on leave, your employer must continue your group health benefits. You have the right to be reinstated when your leave is through.
  • Military family leave. The FMLA gives employees the right to take up to 26 weeks off in one year to care for a family member who is seriously injured in active military duty. Under California law, employees may take time off while a spouse is on leave from deployment.
  • Pregnancy disability leave. California law requires employers to allow employees to take a reasonable period of time off work (up to four months) while they are temporarily disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions.
  • Domestic violence leave. Employees are entitled to take time off to seek a restraining order, get medical treatment, receive counseling or other services, or engage in safety planning (including relocating) relating to domestic violence.
  • Time off for school activities. Employers that have at least 25 employees must let employees take up to 40 hours off per year to participate in a child’s school or day care activities.
  • Voting. California employees are entitled to time off work, with pay, to vote. Employers need not provide time off if employees have enough time to vote while they are off duty. Otherwise, employers must give employees up to two hours off at the start or end of their shifts in order to vote.
  • Jury duty. California employers must also allow employees to take time off work for jury service and may not retaliate against employees who are called to jury duty.

Job Termination in California

California employees generally work at will. This means they can be fired at any time, for any reason that is not illegal. However, even at-will employees may not be fired for reasons that are discriminatory or retaliatory. You may not be fired, for example, for complaining about illegal discrimination or filing a wage claim for unpaid overtime.

Post-Termination Benefits

If you are laid off or otherwise lose your job through no fault of your own (for example, you are not fired for serious misconduct and you don’t quit voluntarily), you may qualify for unemployment benefits in California. Once you start receiving benefits, you will have to search for work to continue receiving them. If you are eligible, you will receive a percentage of your previous earnings for 26 weeks while you are looking for a new job. To learn more (or file a claim online), visit the California Employment Development Department website.

Under a federal law called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), you may have the right to continue your health insurance coverage after your employment ends. However, you will have to pay the full premium (including whatever portion your employer used to pay), plus up to 2% of that amount for administrative costs. You can continue these benefits for 18 to 36 months, depending on your situation.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have questions about your workplace rights, you should speak to an experienced California employment lawyer.

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