Is California a Right-to-Work State?

FT Contributor
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California is not a right-to-work state. In right-to-work states, an employer cannot require that you join a union as a condition of your employment.

Since no such law exists in California, an employer can require you to join a union as a condition of employment. However, the state has other regulations that ensure workers’ rights and workplace protections.

When you work or seek employment in California, you need to understand the regulations and rules that could affect your job and your rights as an employee. With this understanding, you can be sure to get the benefits and protections you are entitled to in California.

What Is Right to Work?

Right-to-work states have laws that prohibit employers from requiring workers to join labor unions.

Most right-to-work laws do not explicitly block employers from requiring union membership. Workers in right-to-work states have the right to opt into a union if they so choose. However, right-to-work states prohibit union security agreements.

A union security agreement is a contract between an employer and a labor union. If an employer signs a union security agreement, they are required to make membership in the union a condition of employment. In right-to-work states, such agreements are illegal.

California tried to pass a Paycheck Protection clause, which would have outlawed using union dues for specific political purposes, on three occasions, in 2012, 2005, and 1998. All three times, voters rejected the proposals.

Requiring union membership was first allowed after the Wagner Act in 1935. States got the right to make their own decisions about union membership requirements after the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. These laws affected California and the other U.S. states.

Currently, 27 states have right-to-work laws.

Is California an At-Will Employment State?

California is an at-will employment state. The state assumes that all employees are at-will workers unless they have a contract or agreement that specifies otherwise.

In an at-will employment situation, the employer can fire an employee for any reason with no prior notice. An employee may likewise quit for any purpose without notice. However, employers cannot terminate an employee if it infringes on their rights or goes against other protections guaranteed by different California laws and regulations.

Employers can ask employees to sign an agreement that expressly defines their position as an at-will employee. Some employers may include a similar statement on an employment application or in an employee handbook, which the worker must read and sign to show that they have read and understood it.

If you do not wish to work as an at-will employee, you need to sign an employment contract that requires a good cause for termination. Some unions have collective bargaining agreements that only allow for firing with good reason.

In some cases, an employer may make verbal or written promises or guarantees to an employee. In these instances, you may be able to use these guarantees as evidence if you feel that you got terminated unfairly.

Can You Be Fired in California for Any Reason?

At-will employees can be fired with or without cause in California unless they have a contract or agreement that requires justification for termination.

California does, however, have laws that protect the civil rights of workers. You can sue an employer if you feel that your termination was the result of discrimination. California also has statutes that protect whistleblowers from getting fired in retaliation for reporting wrongdoing and require companies to provide family leave when necessary.

Other California Labor Laws

California has additional labor laws that employees in the state need to understand. These rules offer protections against discrimination and govern wages and compensation, child labor, insurance, and other subjects that affect employees in California.

California State Minimum Wage

The minimum wage in California depends on the size of the employer for whom you work. For companies with fewer than 25 employees, the minimum wage is $12 per hour. For companies with 25 or more employees, the minimum wage is $13 per hour. These rates started on January 1, 2020. In 2019, the state’s minimum wage was only $11 per hour.

California plans to increase the minimum wage in the future. The minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour in 2022. The federal minimum wage is much lower. It currently sits at $7.25.

California Fair Employment and Housing Act

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects against different forms of discrimination in the workplace and in the housing market. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing oversees the applications of this law and provides information about what it covers.

All employers with five or more employees, whether they are part-time or full-time workers, must abide by the FEHA.

FEHA offers protections against discrimination, termination, retaliation, or harassment in the workplace because of race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, military service, ancestry, disability, or medical condition.

FEHA rules also protect whistleblowers, pregnant workers, and those who request leave for family reasons.

Workers’ Compensation Insurance Law

Every company must have workers’ compensation insurance, even if they only have one employee. If you are self-employed, you do not need to have workers’ compensation insurance, unless you work in the roofing industry.

All business owners need to have workers’ compensation insurance if they operate in California, even if the business has its headquarters in another state.

California State Discrimination and Harassment Law

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act protects employees from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. In addition to employees, the law protects unpaid volunteers, interns, temporary employees, and the immediate family members of employees. Job applicants also have discrimination and harassment protections under this law.

Though the law does not cover discrimination for independent contractors, it does offer protections for contractors who are the victims of harassment.

Child Labor Laws

California considers those under age 18 to be minors. Special rules dictate how many hours per day and week minors can work. Fourteen and 15-year-olds can work no more than three hours on a school day or eight hours on one weekend day. They must work outside of regular school hours, and they cannot work more than 18 hours per week, except during the summer, when they can work eight hours per day and 40 hours per week.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds can work four hours per day on school days and eight hours per day on non-school days. Those under 18 who already graduated from high school can work the same hours as an adult provided they also receive equal compensation.

California State Civil Rights Laws

California state civil rights laws cover discrimination in the workplace and all other aspects of public life. While FEHA includes workplace civil rights, the Unruh Civil Rights Act has a broader scope. It says that businesses cannot deny services, accommodations, or facilities to anyone because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, nation of origin, disability, religion, or marital status.

National laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide protections for workers with disabilities.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

California has a pregnancy discrimination act that applies to all employers who have five or more employees. The law prohibits employers from unfavorably treating women who are pregnant, have given birth, or could give birth while employed.

The law protects women who do not get hired, get fired, or get laid off because they are pregnant. Companies also need to provide reasonable accommodations to women during pregnancy or after childbirth. Additionally, the law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for new mothers for things such as breastfeeding or breast pumping.

California New Parents Leave Law

The New Parent Leave Act guarantees time off for parents of newborns. The law applies to parents who have a biological child, but it can also protect those who adopt a child or accept a child for foster care.

All employers who have 20 or more employees need to abide by the act. The employee needs to work for the company for at least 12 months before they qualify for parental leave. The New Parent Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of parental leave, and it requires employers to continue providing health coverage during the leave period.

Unemployment Laws

If you lost your job through no fault of your own, you could qualify for unemployment insurance in California. If you are totally or partially unemployed, physically able to work, willing to seek employment, actively looking for work, and ready to accept any viable job, you may qualify for weekly unemployment benefits.

You can file your unemployment claim with the California Employment Development Department. They allow applicants to file online or by phone, fax, or mail. When part of the program, you must provide evidence of your job search each week to continue receiving unemployment benefits.

Workers’ Compensation Laws

California’s Department of Industrial Relations operates the Division of Workers’ Compensation, which provides information about workers’ compensation laws in the state.

California requires all employers, even those who only have one full-time or part-time employee, to purchase workers’ compensation insurance. Employers are responsible for paying the insurance premium, and they must also notify employees about the availability of workers’ compensation insurance and provide information about how to file a claim if necessary.

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