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California Employment Laws Every Employee Should Know

California has a wide range of employment laws that protect workers in every industry. As employers often violate these laws, it is vital for California workers to understand and know how to protect their rights.

Our team at Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP has put together a list of the fundamental California employment laws every employee should know.

California Employment Laws

California is an at-will employment state as are virtually all of the United States. Generally, “at-will” means that an employer may lawfully terminate an employee at any time and for any reason that is not against the law. In turn, an employee may quit at any time without explanation.

It is common for employers to highlight the “at-will” nature of their relationship with employees in employment contracts and personnel handbooks. This oftentimes misleads employees into believing they have no rights in the workplace; on the contrary, they have many. Here are some critical employment laws that protect California workers:

#1: Wrongful Termination

Although California is an at-will employment state, there are a number of exceptions to the general at-will rule. For example, employers cannot terminate an employment contract for reasons that are discriminatory or retaliatory (punishment for whistleblowing, filing a harassment complaint, or taking protected medical leave).

If you believe that you’ve been wrongfully terminated, you should speak to our team at Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP to have your case reviewed. We can help you determine if your rights were violated.

#2: Employment Discrimination

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) protects California employees from discrimination, retaliation, and harassment in the workplace. The FEHA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on a broad range of “protected categories,” including:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Ancestry
  • Religious creed
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Gender/gender identity/gender expression
  • Veteran or military status

What Are Common Examples of Discrimination in the Workplace?

Discriminatory actions are “personnel management actions” that impact an employee in the workplace. For example, employers cannot discriminate based on one of the protected categories when making any of the following management decisions:

  • Deciding whether to hire an employee,
  • Deciding an employee’s job or project assignments, including whether an employee should be given supervisory responsibilities,
  • Promoting or demoting an employee,
  • Evaluating an employee’s performance,
  • Deciding whether and what support to provide an employee,
  • Deciding who will and who will not attend meetings,
  • Deciding whether to terminate employment, including whether to fire or lay off an employee.[i]

#3: Whistleblower Retaliation

The California Labor Code also protects employees from retaliation for disclosing information they reasonably believe reveals a violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, regulation, or unsafe work condition or practice. An employee has the right to report such noncompliance to (1) a government/law enforcement agency, (2) a person with authority over the employee, (3) a person with authority to address the violation or noncompliance, or (4) a public body conducting an investigation, hearing, or inquiry.

Employees are also protected when they refuse to participate in conduct that would result in a violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, or regulation. Some examples of “protected activity” are complaining about discrimination, raising concerns about unpaid wages, refusing to engage in fraud, and participating in an investigation of the employer’s alleged misconduct.

A retaliatory action includes not only ultimate employment decisions, such as hiring or firing, “but also the entire spectrum of employment actions that are reasonably likely to adversely and materially affect an employee’s job performance or opportunity for advancement in their career.”[ii]For example where an employee is denied training or subjected to unwarranted criticism of their work in retaliation for having complained of discrimination or harassment by their supervisor, the employee may have a claim for retaliation.

#4: Unpaid Minimum & Overtime Wages

Unless an employee comes within a category of exemption, the California Labor Code guarantees employees a right to minimum wage and overtime pay, in addition to other wage entitlements and work conditions. The Labor Code provides additional protections, including the right to duty-free meal and rest periods. With only a few exceptions, an employee cannot waive their rights to these protections.

Understanding Exempt & Non-Exempt Classifications

Whether an employee is exempt or non-exempt is determined by the industry, job classification, and job duties of the employee, not whether the employer has chosen to pay an employee a salary or hourly wage. For more information about exemptions based on job classification and industry, please visit the California Labor Commissioner Office’s website.

An employee who is properly classified as exempt is not entitled to certain protections that are available to hourly employees, such as overtime and meal and rest breaks. Where state law allows an employee to be classified as exempt, the employee must also be paid a salary of at least twice the minimum wage (“the Salary Test”). For 2022, that amount is $58,240 for employers with 25 or fewer employees and $62,400 for employers with more than 25 employees. If the employer does not pass the Salary Test, the employee must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week and provided meal and rest breaks.

What Is the Minimum Wage Rate in California?

According to the California Labor Code, all non-exempt employees in California should receive at least minimum wage. From January 1, 2022, to December 31, 2022, the minimum wage rate is $15 per hour for employers with 26 or more employees and $14 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

Note that an employer must comply with all federal, state, and local laws. Therefore, if there is a local ordinance that provides a higher minimum wage rate, an employer must pay that higher wage rate to its employees.

How Is Overtime Pay Calculated in California?

The California Labor Code provides that “work performed by an employee in excess of eight hours in one workday and in excess of 40 hours in any one workweek, as well as the first eight hours worked on the seventh day of work in any one workweek, must be compensated at one and one-half times the ‘regular rate of pay’ for an employee.”

Any work in excess of 12 hours in one workday must be compensated at the rate of no less than twice the regular rate of pay for an employee. In addition, any work in excess of eight hours on any seventh day of a workweek shall be compensated at the rate of no less than twice the regular rate of pay of an employee.

The "regular rate of pay" is the compensation an employee normally earns for the work they perform. The regular rate of pay includes different kinds of remuneration, such as hourly wages, salary, piecework earnings, commissions, and nondiscretionary bonuses.[iii]

#5: Family and Medical Leave

According to the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”), qualifying employees of employers who employ five or more employees are authorized to take up to 12 weeks of leave during a 12-month period. Upon return to work from CFRA leave, employees are entitled to their same or a comparable position.

An employee can take a CFRA leave for any of the following reasons:

  • To care for the employee’s own serious health condition,
  • To care for certain family members’ serious health condition,
  • To bond with a new child (by birth, adoption, or foster placement), or
  • For a qualifying exigency related to covered active duty or call to covered active duty of an employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, or parent in the U.S. Armed Forces.

A “serious health condition” is an illness, injury, or physical or mental condition involving either inpatient care or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider.

A “family member” for whom CFRA leave can be taken includes an employee’s spouse, domestic partner, parent, parent-in-law, minor child, adult child, child of a domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild, or sibling.

If you believe your employer has violated your employment rights, you have laws that protect you. Contact Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP today at (626) 775-7870 to schedule a consultation today!


[i] Reno v. Baird, 18 Cal. 4th 640, 646–47 (1998).

[ii] Patten v. Grant Joint Union High Sch. Dist., 134 Cal. App. 4th 1378, 1389 (2005), disapproved of on other grounds by Lawson v. PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc., 12 Cal. 5th 703 (2022).

[iii] California Labor Code Section 510, Available at: <https://california.public.law/codes/ca_lab_code_section_510> (last accessed April 27, 2022).

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