California Labor Law

1. Introduction

California, known for its dynamic economy and diverse population, is often at the forefront of progressive employment laws in the United States. The state's approach to regulating the workplace exemplifies its commitment to balancing the scales between employers' rights and workers' protection. This comprehensive exploration into California State Law as it pertains to employment will delve into various aspects such as minimum wage, overtime regulations, leave policies, termination laws, and workplace safety. These laws not only aim to define the legal framework within which businesses operate but also provide safeguards to ensure that workers are treated fairly and with respect. As we analyze these components, it is crucial to recognize the importance of staying informed and compliant with these regulations, as they frequently evolve to meet the changing needs of the workforce.

2. Minimum Wage Laws

California maintains one of the highest minimum wage rates in the United States. The state's dedication to establishing fair pay is reflected in its progressive wage standards, which are designed to help ensure a decent quality of life for all workers. The minimum wage in California is subject to periodic increases that are intended to keep up with the cost of living and the economy.

The current minimum wage in California, as of January 1, 2024, is set at:

  • $16 per hour for all employers, regardless of the number of employees they have.

This increase from previous years marks a significant step towards providing workers with a living wage. Employers are required by law to comply with these wage standards and may face legal repercussions if they fail to meet the minimum wage obligations.

Additionally, some cities and counties within California have enacted their own local minimum wage rates, which are even higher than the statewide minimum. Employers operating in these jurisdictions must adhere to the local minimum wage if it is greater than the state standard.

It is important to note that there are certain exemptions and exceptions to the minimum wage laws in California. For instance, outside salespeople, individuals who are the parent, spouse, or child of the employer, and apprentices legally registered in a state-approved apprenticeship program may be exempt from these minimum wage requirements. Moreover, learners, irrespective of age, during their first 160 hours of employment working in occupations in which they have no previous similar or related experience, can be paid no less than 85% of the applicable minimum wage.

Employers are also obliged to display an updated minimum wage poster in a visible location to inform employees of the current wage rate and their rights under California law. Failure to do so can lead to fines and increased scrutiny from enforcement agencies.

The increase in the minimum wage is part of California's ongoing effort to combat income inequality and provide a livable wage for all workers. As the cost of living continues to rise, it is anticipated that the state will continue to review and adjust the minimum wage accordingly.

3. Overtime Regulations

California has stringent overtime regulations designed to compensate employees fairly for longer work hours and to encourage employers to limit work to standard hours for health and productivity reasons. The state’s overtime laws are some of the most employee-friendly in the United States, offering additional pay for work beyond the traditional 40-hour workweek, and in some cases, beyond an 8-hour workday.

In California, overtime compensation is calculated as follows:

  • 1.5 times the employee's regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 8 hours up to and including 12 hours in any workday, and for the first 8 hours worked on the seventh consecutive day of work in a workweek.

  • Double the employee's regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 12 hours in any workday and for all hours worked over 8 hours on the seventh consecutive day of work in a workweek.

Employers must also be aware of alternative workweek schedules that some businesses might adopt. With a properly conducted secret ballot vote, a work unit can approve a schedule that allows for up to 10 hours of work within a day without overtime pay, as long as the weekly total doesn’t exceed 40 hours. If it does, the aforementioned overtime rules apply.

It's important to note that not all employees are eligible for overtime. Certain types of employees, known as "exempt" workers, such as executive, administrative, and professional employees, are exempt from overtime if they meet specific criteria related to their duties, responsibilities, and compensation.

Additionally, California has special overtime rules for certain industries such as agriculture, domestic work, and personal attendance. Employers in these sectors should consult the specific regulations that apply to their industry to ensure compliance.

Furthermore, employees must be compensated for overtime unless it is explicitly indicated that they are exempt. This compensation sometimes leads to litigation, emphasizing the importance of employers maintaining accurate records of hours worked and wages paid. Violations of California's overtime provisions can result in hefty penalties, payment of back wages, interest, and potentially an additional amount known as liquidated damages.

Both employers and employees need to understand the specifics of California's overtime regulations, as noncompliance or misunderstanding of these rules can lead to disputes, legal action, and financial losses for businesses. Moreover, periodic changes in the law require ongoing vigilance to ensure that workplace practices remain current and lawful.

4. Vacation Leave

In California, vacation leave policies are left to the discretion of the employer. This means there is no legal requirement for employers to provide vacation time. However, if an employer chooses to offer vacation leave, whether paid or unpaid, the state considers it a form of wages that accrue over time as the employee works. As such, once earned, these benefits cannot be forfeited (known as "use it or lose it" policies), according to the California Labor Code.

For employers who do offer vacation leave, the following rules apply:

  • Accrual System: Many employers use a "vacation accrual" system, where employees earn vacation hours over time, which could be based on the number of hours they work.

  • Cap on Accruals: Employers can place a "cap," or limit, on vacation accruals, meaning that once an employee reaches a certain amount of accrued vacation, they must use some of that time off before accruing more.

  • Payment Upon Termination: When an employee leaves or is terminated, they are entitled to be paid out for their accrued and unused vacation time at their final rate of pay.

  • No Expiration: Vacation days do not expire and must carry over year-to-year; however, as mentioned, employers may cap the accrual of vacation time.

  • Reasonable Notice: While employees must be allowed by their employers to take accrued vacation, employers have the right to manage when vacation can be taken and may require reasonable notice before employees use vacation time.

Employers often detail their vacation leave policies in the company's employee handbook or through written agreements. These policies can include information about how and when vacation can be taken, any caps on accruals, and how long employees might need to be employed before they start accruing vacation.

It is crucial for employees and employers to understand the specific policies established by their workplace regarding vacation time. While California law sets certain requirements once an employer opts to provide vacation leave, the specifics of such policies have significant room for variation and must be clearly communicated to prevent misunderstanding and potential disputes.

5. Sick Leave

In California, workers have specific rights to sick leave thanks to the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014. This law requires most employers, regardless of size, to provide paid sick leave to their employees, aiming to promote a healthier and more productive workforce.

  • Accrual and Usage: Employees earn at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Employers can limit the use of paid sick leave to 24 hours or three days per year.

  • Eligibility: Most employees who have worked in California for the same employer for at least 30 days within a year since the beginning of their employment are entitled to paid sick leave.

  • Carry Over: Employers must allow accrued, unused paid sick days to carry over to the following year of employment but may cap the total accrual at 48 hours or six days.

  • Reasons for Use: Paid sick leave can be used for the diagnosis, care, or treatment of an existing health condition or preventive care for the employee or a family member. It can also be used for certain purposes if the employee is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

  • Minimum Increments: Employers may set reasonable minimum increments not to exceed two hours for the use of sick leave.

  • No Retaliation: Employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee for using accrued sick leave.

  • Notification & Documentation: Employers are required to provide written notice to employees about their available amount of paid sick leave upon request, and on each pay stub, or can opt to provide this information through an online system. However, employers may not require employees to provide documentation for taking less than three consecutive days of sick leave.

  • Payment: Employees must be compensated for sick days at their regular wage rate, which should be calculated based on an average of the wages for the last 90 days of employment, excluding overtime.

Companies may also offer more generous sick leave benefits than the state minimum requirements. Additionally, some local jurisdictions in California may have their own sick leave ordinances that might provide greater benefits with different accrual rates and usage rules. Employers must comply with both state and local laws, providing whichever benefit is more generous to employees.

The provision of paid sick leave reflects California's commitment to workers' wellbeing and public health at large. Employers are advised to maintain accurate records of sick leave accrual and usage and ensure their policies meet or exceed the legal requirements.

6. Holiday Leave

California state law does not require private employers to provide employees with paid or unpaid holiday leave. In California, a private employer can require an employee to work holidays without providing additional compensation above the standard pay rate, except when working on a holiday results in overtime work deserving of overtime pay.

That being said, many employers in California choose to offer holiday leave as part of their benefits package, recognizing that offering such leave can enhance morale and serve as an incentive for attracting and retaining employees. The specific holidays and the amount of leave provided are typically at the discretion of the employer.

For employers who offer holiday leave, it is common to observe the following holidays, among others:

  • New Year's Day

  • Memorial Day

  • Independence Day

  • Labor Day

  • Thanksgiving Day

  • Christmas Day

Employers have the flexibility to set their own rules regarding holiday pay and whether such leave is considered paid or unpaid. If an organization provides for paid holidays, it will usually be outlined in the employment contract or the company policy manual. Moreover, some businesses may also offer a premium pay rate for employees who work on observed holidays, although this is not mandated by state law.

In terms of public employers, such as state or local government agencies, these entities may be closed on certain state-recognized holidays, and employees may receive holiday pay according to respective government regulations or union agreements.

It's also important to note that an employer's holiday leave policy must be administered impartially and consistently in compliance with anti-discrimination laws. Policies that provide additional benefits based on protected classes such as religion, race, disability, etc., could lead to legal issues.

Ultimately, California employers are encouraged to clearly communicate their holiday policies to their employees, including eligibility, how holiday pay is calculated, and any requirements or procedures for taking leave. This transparency helps to manage employee expectations and avoid potential misunderstandings.

7. Breaks

California law mandates meal and rest breaks for non-exempt (hourly) employees during the workday. These provisions are intended to provide employees with necessary downtime to rest, eat, and attend to personal matters apart from their work responsibilities. The following outlines basic break entitlements under California State Law:

  • Meal Breaks: Employees who work more than five hours in a day are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid, off-duty meal break. However, if the employee's workday is six hours or shorter, the meal break can be waived by mutual consent between the employer and the employee.

  • Second Meal Break: If an employee works over 10 hours in a day, they are entitled to a second 30-minute unpaid meal break. This second break may be waived if the total workday is 12 hours or less and the first meal break was not waived.

  • Rest Breaks: Employees are entitled to a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours worked or major fraction thereof. As much as practicable, rest breaks should be in the middle of each work period. For most jobs, a rest break is not required for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and a half hours.

  • Timing of Breaks: Employers must allow meal breaks no later than the end of an employee's fifth hour of work, and the second meal break no later than the end of the employee’s tenth hour of work. Rest breaks should be spaced out throughout the day.

  • On-Duty Meal Breaks: On rare occasions, when the nature of work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty, an "on-duty" meal period may be agreed upon in writing. This on-duty meal break is paid.

  • Lactation Breaks: Employers are also required to provide reasonable break time and make efforts to provide a private space (other than a bathroom) for an employee to express breast milk for her infant child as needed for up to one year after the child's birth.

Failure to provide these mandated breaks can result in penalties for the employer, including a requirement to pay the employee one additional hour of pay at the regular rate for each workday that the meal or rest period is not provided.

Employers should have clear policies regarding breaks and ensure that employees have an opportunity to take them. They must also understand that failure to follow these regulations can lead to legal disputes, claims for wage and hour violations, and potential financial liabilities. Accurate timekeeping systems and records are essential in demonstrating compliance with these requirements.

These break rules apply to most non-exempt workers in California, although certain industries, such as those involving motion picture production, broadcasting, health care, and construction, have special rules tailored to their specific work environments.

By stipulating specific durations and times for breaks throughout the workday, California emphasizes employee wellbeing, safety, and productivity. Both employers and employees should familiarize themselves with these regulations to ensure a fair and compliant workplace.

8. Employment Termination Laws

Terminating an employee in California is subject to both federal and state laws that protect employees against wrongful termination and ensure the process is handled with fairness and respect. California is an "at-will" employment state, which means that, barring any contractual obligations or illegal reasons, employers can terminate an employee without cause, and employees can resign without reason or notice.

However, while the at-will doctrine holds significant sway in California's employment termination landscape, there are limitations and conditions that employers must adhere to:

  • Discrimination: Employers cannot terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons based on protected characteristics such as race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military or veteran status, or medical conditions.

  • Retaliation: It is unlawful for employers to fire employees in retaliation for exercising their legal rights, including but not limited to filing a workers' compensation claim, reporting safety violations, or blowing the whistle on illegal activities.

  • Contractual Obligations: If there is a written employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that stipulates the conditions under which termination is permissible, employers must honor those terms. Breach of an employment contract can lead to a wrongful termination suit.

  • Notice Requirements: Although not generally required for at-will employees, layoffs that fall under the California WARN act require 60 days’ notice if they affect a certain number of employees within a 30-day period.

  • Final Pay: Upon termination, employers must provide the employee's final paycheck immediately, which includes compensation for all hours worked and accrued vacation pay.

  • Mass Layoffs: The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires that employers with 75 or more full or part-time employees provide at least a 60-day advance notice of a plant closure or mass layoff affecting 50 or more employees at a single site of employment.

  • COBRA Notices: Employers must notify terminated employees about their right to continue healthcare benefits under COBRA if the employer has 20 or more employees and provides group health benefits.

Discharged employees may also be entitled to unemployment insurance benefits as long as the termination was not due to serious misconduct and the individual meets other eligibility requirements set by the California Employment Development Department (EDD).

Employers should note that even though California follows the at-will employment doctrine, the courts have established public policy exceptions over time. Terminating an employee for reasons that violate fundamental public policy, such as firing an employee for refusing to participate in illegal activities, can lead to wrongful termination claims even if no specific statute has been violated.

To avoid potential claims for wrongful termination, employers are encouraged to keep detailed records that justify the reasons behind a termination and, where possible, follow a consistent disciplinary process before termination. This practice not only promotes fairness but can also serve as important documentation in the event of a legal dispute. Moreover, conducting terminations with dignity and providing outplacement services can help reduce the likelihood of litigation.

Both employers and employees in California need to understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to termination of employment. Missteps in the termination process can lead to legal challenges, financial consequences, and damage to professional reputations. Therefore, it is prudent for employers to consult with legal counsel when considering terminating an employee to ensure compliance with all applicable laws.

9. Unemployment Rights

In California, unemployment insurance (UI) provides temporary financial assistance to eligible workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own and who are looking for work, willing to accept work, and meet certain other legal requirements. The California Employment Development Department (EDD) administers the unemployment insurance program according to both state and federal guidelines.

To be eligible for UI benefits in California, individuals must have:

  • Earned enough wages during a 12-month period (known as the base period).

  • Become unemployed through no fault of their own, as defined by California law.

  • Physically able to work.

  • Available to work.

  • Ready and willing to accept work immediately.

  • Actively seeking work and be able to prove work search efforts.

The amount and duration of UI benefits an individual receives are determined by the earnings during the base period. Generally, UI benefits can be collected for up to 26 weeks, but this duration may be extended depending on California's unemployment rate and any extensions provided by federal or state laws.

To apply for unemployment benefits in California, individuals must file a claim with the EDD, which can be done online, by phone, or by mail. When filing a claim, claimants must provide certain information such as their last employer’s information, reason for unemployment, and work history. After filing a claim, claimants are typically required to certify their eligibility every two weeks to continue receiving benefits. This certification includes reporting any earnings from work and confirming that they are still unemployed and eligible for benefits.

If a claimant disagrees with an EDD decision regarding their unemployment benefits, they have the right to appeal that decision. Appeals must be filed within 30 days from the date of the decision notice. The appeal process can include a hearing before an administrative law judge where both the claimant and former employer can present evidence and testimony.

It's also worth noting that California actively works to prevent UI fraud and there are serious consequences for committing UI fraud, including fines, penalties, and potentially incarceration.

Unemployment benefits are subject to federal and state taxes, and claimants can choose to have taxes withheld from their UI payments or pay taxes on benefits received when filing their annual income tax returns.

During periods of high unemployment or during times of special circumstances such as natural disasters or public health emergencies, additional support may be available to unemployed workers through programs like Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) among others. Eligibility for these programs is determined by the specific rules in place at the time they are offered.

California also offers resources and services through its CalJOBS system, which provides job-seeking individuals with the tools to build their resumes, research job markets, and access training opportunities to enhance their employability while receiving unemployment benefits.

10. Workplace Safety

In California, workplace safety is governed by various regulations and statutes designed to protect the health and safety of employees across all industries. The primary agency responsible for overseeing workplace safety is the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), which operates under the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR). Cal/OSHA enforces regulations and conducts inspections to ensure employers provide a safe working environment for their employees.

Employers in California are required to establish, implement, and maintain an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP). The IIPP must include a system to identify and evaluate workplace hazards, methods or procedures to correct unsafe conditions, health and safety training for employees and supervisors, and communication systems regarding occupational safety and health matters.

Specific workplace safety requirements in California include:

  • Hazard Communication: Employers must inform workers about the hazards associated with chemicals they may be exposed to at work. This includes providing access to Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) and ensuring proper labeling of chemical containers.

  • Emergency Action and Fire Prevention Plans: Workplaces are required to have written and well-practiced emergency action and fire prevention plans to ensure employee safety during emergencies.

  • Aerosol Transmissible Diseases (ATD): For workplaces like hospitals and laboratories, additional standards are in place to protect workers from diseases transmitted through the air.

  • Workplace Violence Prevention in Healthcare: Specific regulations are designed to protect healthcare workers from workplace violence. This includes having a violence prevention plan and training for staff.

  • Heat Illness Prevention: Outdoor industries such as agriculture and construction have regulations that require employers to provide adequate water, shade, rest breaks, and training to prevent heat illness among workers.

Cal/OSHA also focuses on preventing serious injuries and fatalities through targeted inspection and consultation programs. They issue citations and fines for non-compliance with safety regulations. Employers have the right to appeal violations, and Cal/OSHA provides resources to help businesses understand and comply with safety laws.

In addition to state regulations, California employers must also abide by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. However, because California's safety laws are often more stringent than federal standards, employers typically focus on compliance with state regulations to ensure they meet or exceed federal requirements.

Workers in California have the right to report unsafe working conditions and are protected from retaliation by employers for exercising their rights under occupational safety and health laws. In the event of work-related injuries, employees are entitled to workers' compensation benefits.

Overall, workplace safety is a crucial aspect of employment law in California, reflecting the state's commitment to protecting its workers from harm and ensuring that they have a secure and healthy work environment.