Employee Rights in California: What Every Worker Needs to Know

This is a guide to employee rights in California. While there are many federal laws about employment, many California state and local laws have stricter requirements for employers than the federal laws.

Where a state law is stricter than a federal law, generally it is the case that the state law applies rather than the federal law. And where a local law is stricter than a state law, generally the local law applies. See our Legal Basics for more on the hierarchy of laws.

See our Guide to Employment Laws in the U.S., and our Guides to Employment Laws in the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco area.

Am I an “employee”?

You should make sure you really are an “employee” rather than an independent contractor aka “freelancer.” If you are an independent contractor, most employment laws do NOT apply to you. See our Freelancer/Independent Contractor page for more.

Do all employment laws apply to all employers?

No. Many employment laws only apply to employers with at least 5 employees.1see for example, California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Govt C §12926(d); Jennings v Marralle (1994) 8 C4th 121, 132 Each employment law generally specifies which employers it applies to.

For example, anti-discrimination law generally only applies to employers with 5 or more employees. However, protection against harassment, including sexual harassment, applies to all employers.2CA Govt Code Sec 12940(j) Many employee leave rights generally apply only to employers with 5 or more employees.

Minimum wage laws apply to all employers, regardless of how many employees they have. However, some minimum wage laws have a tiered system, with one minimum wage for larger employers (often 26 or more employees), and a lower one for small employers.

Do employment laws apply to interns or volunteers?

Most employment laws apply to paid interns. As for legitimate unpaid interns or volunteers, most employment laws do NOT apply, except for anti-discrimination law. So unpaid interns and volunteers are protected from discrimination (see below).3CA Govt Code Sec 12940(c) See more on internships.

1. Overtime Pay & Exempt vs Non Exempt Employees

What does it mean if an employee is “exempt” or “nonexempt” and why does it matter?

This is a very important distinction as it determines whether you have certain rights or not.

Being an exempt employee generally means exempt from overtime laws. But you are also exempt from many other laws. You are an “exempt” employee if you earn a monthly salary equivalent to at least 2 times the state minimum wage for full-time employment (about $50,000 per year) AND your job is executive, administrative, or professional in nature (“white collar” or office job).4Cal Labor Code Sec. 515(a)

For exempt employees, the following rules do NOT apply:

  • overtime
  • minimum wage
  • reporting time pay
  • breaks & meal periods

Non exempt simply means an employee who does NOT qualify under the above definition. To be specific, it means you are either paid hourly, or you earn a salary LESS than 2 times the state minimum wage for full time employment (about $50,000 per year); OR that your job is more of a “blue collar” or manual labor type of job.

When do the overtime laws apply? 

Unless you are exempt (see above), you are entitled to overtime pay (1.5 times your regular rate of pay) if you work more than 40 hours in a week or more than 8 hours in a day.5Cal Labor Code Sec. 510

Farmworkers: Overtime currently works a bit differently for agricultural workers. Agricultural workers at large employers (26 or more employees) must receive overtime pay at a rate of one and one-half times (1.5X) the employee’s regular rate of pay after 8 hours in a day or 40 hours in a workweek, as of January 1, 2022. Agricultural workers at small employers (25 or fewer employees) will receive overtime pay at that rate starting January 1, 2025. In addition, workers will begin to receive double the employee’s regular rate of pay after 12 hours in any workday as of January 1, 2022 (for large employers) and January 1, 2025 (for small employers).6AB 1066

2. Minimum Wage

Barista rights

See our new Guide to Minimum Wage Laws in California.

3. Other Wage and Schedule Issues

Can my boss make me do a brief task off the clock without paying me?

Employers cannot routinely require employees to work for minutes off the clock without compensation.7Troester v Starbucks (2018)

Can my employer round off start and stop times on a punch time clock?

Yes, but not for meal and break periods.8Recently affirmed in Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC

Do employers need to disclose salary range when posting a job?

As of January 1, 2023, a new pay transparency law requires that all employers with at least 15 employees in the state of California must include the hourly rate or salary range in all job postings.9CA SB 1162 (2022)

Is it illegal for my boss to call me after work hours?

As of March 2024, there are no specific laws related to the time of communication between a boss or supervisor and employee. Of course, if you are paid hourly, any substantial work-related communication must be paid at your regular or overtime hourly rate.

California is considering implementing a legal “right to disconnect” for employees, as Australia and some other countries have done. The proposed law written by California Assembly Member Matt Haney would give workers the right to ignore off-hour communication from their bosses, including calls, emails, texts, and other forms of communication. There would be exceptions in the case of emergency, or if related to scheduling changes affecting the next 24 hours

4. Breaks, rest periods, and meals

See our Guide to Laws about Breaks and Meal Periods in California.

5. Vacation time, family leave and other benefits

Is my employer required to give me vacation time or paid time off?

No. In California, employers are not required to give employees any vacation time, either paid or unpaid. But IF an employer does decide to provide vacation time, there are certain rules it must follow. See more at our Guide to Employee Leave Rights in California.

Do I have a right to time off for holidays?

No. Employers may require that employees work on any and all holidays.

Does my boss have to pay me extra for working on a holiday or weekend?

No. Hours worked on holidays, or Saturday or Sunday are treated the same as hours worked on any other day.

Am I entitled to paid time off if I get sick? Or to take care of a family member? Or if I am pregnant?

See our new Guide to Family Leave, Medical Leave, Sick Leave, and Bereavement Leave in California.

Am I entitled to a pension or retirement plan?

No, employers in California are not required to provide any type of retirement benefits.

6. Privacy & Personal life

What are my privacy rights with regard to my employer?

In California, whether you are an employee or prospective employee, your (prospective) employer may not require or request you to disclose your username or password for any personal social media, emails, texts or other similar communication. Your employer also may not ask you to access these in their presence so they can see it.

Exceptions: your employer may do these things if part of an investigation into misconduct, or if necessary to access an employer-provided device.10Cal. Labor Code Sec 980

Can my employer fire or discipline me for things I do outside of work?

You generally have protection from your employer with regard to what you do in your personal life except when your actions have negative implications for your employer.11Labor Code Sec 96(k), 98.6

Is my employer allowed to drug test me?

Yes, employers are allowed to mandate a drug-free work environment.

Can my employer fire me for using marijuana on my own time outside of work?

Beginning January 1, 2024, employers are not allowed to fire employees for off-work use of weed unless you are actively high at work.12AB 2188 (2022) That said, employers are allowed to impose drug-free workplaces.13Prop 64

See more about Laws on Marijuana in California.

See more about privacy rights

7. Free speech

Is my employer allowed to restrict my right to use my personal social media on my own time?

In some ways, yes. If you complain about or say bad things about your employer on Facebook, etc., they can probably legally fire you.

But you DO have the right to use social media for the purpose of getting coworkers to join together to address work-related issues and share information about pay, benefits, and working conditions.14National Labor Relations Act This applies whether you are in a union or not. But BE CAREFUL here. If you just complain about your employer on social media without any intention of getting your coworkers together, this activity may not be protected. For more on this, see the website for the National Labor Relations Board.

And you DO have the right to speak out politically, except when your posts have negative implications for your employer or when your employer’s restrictions on posting relate to your job.15Labor Code Sec 96(k), 98.6 For example, journalists may be prohibited by their employer from volunteering for political campaigns, or participating in political marches.

Posting about your employer anonymously is probably fine, although it’s possible that your identity could be later revealed. However, employers may NOT require that you identify yourself when posting.16Boch Imports (2015) 362 NLRB No. 83; §8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (29 USC §158)

Can my employer prohibit me from participating in political activity on my own time?

As explained above, your employer generally may NOT restrict your right to participate in political activity, such as posting on social media, marching, etc. But there are exceptions, such as when your activity is related to your job or negatively implicates your employer.17Labor Code Sec 96(k), 98.6

Is my employer allowed to prohibit me from revealing my salary?

NO. Under federal law you have the right to discuss your salary with others, and your employer is legally prohibited from doing anything to retaliate against you for doing so.18National Labor Relations Act

See more about free speech law

8. Discrimination

Is it illegal for my employer to discriminate against me? 

See our new Guide to Laws about Discrimination and Harassment at Work in California.

9. Harassment

What is the law about harassment at work?

See our new Guide to Laws about Discrimination and Harassment at Work in California.

10. Protection against retaliation/ “Whistleblower” laws

If I file a claim against my employer or speak to a lawyer about my employer, can they fire me?

In California, employees that speak out against employer violations of law have strong protection against retaliation by employers.  If your employer fires you or takes other negative action against you in response to your “blowing the whistle,” you can sue for the wages and benefits you would have earned had you not been fired (and possibly more damages, depending on the situation).19Cal. Labor Code Sec. 98.6

Further, California protects you even if you haven’t take any action yet! If your employer fires you or takes other negative action based on a mere FEAR that you will file a complaint, you can sue the employer.20Lujan v. Minagar (2004) 124 CA4th 1040

You may also be entitled to a “whistleblower award” (meaning money) for providing information to the government about violations of federal financial regulations. See more at our Guide to Laws for Employees in the U.S.

11. Getting Fired, Laid Off, or Quitting

What can I do if I get fired?

If you are fired as a result of discrimination or retaliation for whistleblowing (see above), you may have a claim for “wrongful termination.” Also, if you have an employment agreement or contract that says you cannot be terminated except for “cause” or “good cause,” you may also have a claim for wrongful termination and/or breach of contract.

Other than that, you probably don’t have much recourse if you get fired, as the default rule is that employees are “at will,” serving at the will of the employer.

Do I need to give 2 weeks notice before quitting?

There is no legal requirement that employees give any notice to their employer before quitting (unless it specifically says so in your employment agreement). You can generally quit on the spot, just as your employer can generally terminate you on the spot. The “2 week notice” standard before leaving a job is simply a convention or social norm that is expected in many workplaces, but is not legally required.

Are employees entitled to severance payments?

California employers are not required to pay severance or termination compensation upon terminating employees. It doesn’t matter whether the employee was fired, or “let go,” or quit.

That said, if you have an employment agreement with your employer that stipulates a certain severance payment, then you would be entitled to the terms of the agreement.

Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?

If you are unemployed through no fault of your own, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. See our Guide to Unemployment Benefits in California.

12. Intellectual property

Who owns the rights to work I create during my employment?

For employees, creative work or inventions created for your employer within the scope of your employment is usually the employer’s “property” and the employee generally does NOT have rights to it. Such work can include business plans & presentations, drawings and artwork, inventions, etc.

This is because the work is usually considered “work made for hire,” or that you were “hired to invent”21Banks v. Unisys Corp., 228 F. 3d 1357 – Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit 2000Gen. Elec. Co. v. Wilkins, No. CV-10-0674 LJO JLT, 2012 WL 3778865 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 31, 2012) it. However, inventions or other works you create outside the scope of what you were hired to do are likely your intellectual property, even if it’s related to your employer’s business.22Board of Trustees v Roche

In addition, often employers will have you sign an agreement granting them all rights to any potential intellectual property you could possibly create during the employment relationship. However, even if you’ve signed such an agreement, the law says you still own any intellectual property you create outside of work hours, not using your employer’s equipment, and not relating to the employer’s business.23Cal Labor Code Sec. 2870

But even if a company does not own an employee’s invention, the company may be able to claim a “shop right” to the work, which is a non-exclusive, no-cost license to use the invention within the normal scope of their business. This may apply when an employee conceives of and perfects an invention during their hours of employment, working with the company’s materials and appliances.

Clearly it’s a complicated area of law, so check with a lawyer for your situation. For more on copyright law in particular, check out our Copyright page.

13. Non compete

Can my employer prevent me from leaving and going to work for a competing company?

No, in California, an attempt by an employer to prevent a former employee from going to work for a competing company, such as by a “non compete” or “non competition” provision in an employment agreement, is invalid.24BPC 16600 The one main exception is that an owner of a business, as part of selling his/her ownership in the business, may agree to not carry on a similar business in the geographic area.25BPC 16601, 16602

However, this does not mean you can use confidential and proprietary information (aka “trade secrets”) you obtained from performing services for one company to your own benefit or for the benefit of another company. A related concept is that a company you perform services for may prohibit you from “soliciting” their clients, through a “non solicit” or “non solicitation” provision. But if the clients contact you on their own, the company can’t prevent this.

14. Suing your employer

What is arbitration and are employers allowed to force employees and prospective employees to agree to it?

Arbitration is a way to resolve legal disputes outside of the court system. Employers and large companies generally prefer arbitration rather than the courts for many reasons (see below). Thus, many employers26over 50% of private sector non-union employees are subject to arbitration clauses include an “arbitration clause” in employment contracts, requiring employees, as a condition of getting or keeping a job, to agree that if they sue the employer in the future, they must do so through arbitration rather than through the courts. What’s more, employers usually go even further in these contracts to prohibit employees from joining together with other employees to sue. When employees are prevented from suing jointly (called a “class action”), this makes it much more difficult for the aggrieved employees to assert their rights.

However, starting Jan 2020, a new California law prohibits employers from requiring new employees to agree to arbitration clauses as a condition of their employment. Thus, employees have the right to opt out of these clauses.27AB 51 (2019)

Why do employers like arbitration clauses?

Employers prefer arbitration over the court system because arbitration usually involves fewer costs and gets resolved more quickly, there is no jury, there is fewer opportunity for appeals, and because arbitration proceedings are generally private and confidential (unlike most court proceedings).

Because of the confidential nature, a particularly controversial aspect of arbitration is that it allows employers to keep sexual harassment complaints quiet.

15. Taking action with other employees to improve working conditions

You have the right to organize co-workers to take actions with the goal of improving the terms and conditions of your employment. A single employee may act alone if he or she is acting on behalf of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action.28National Labor Relations Act You do NOT need to be in a union to exercise this right.

16. Health & Safety, Workers Compensation

Does my employer have to provide a safe working environment?

Yes, all employers in California must abide by the health and safety regulations of the agency called Cal OSHA.

Is my employer required to compensate me if I am injured or get sick from my job?

If you are hurt or get sick from your job, you may be entitled to compensation from your employer’s workers compensation insurance, which all employers are required to have.29Labor Code 3700 See more here.

17. Getting sued as a result of doing your job

Help! I got sued just for doing my job!

If you are sued by someone based on the duties you performed as part of your job (that you did with “ordinary care”), your employer is required to reimburse or compensate you for any losses you have from that lawsuit. This is referred to as “indemnification” where the employer indemnifies the employee.30Lab C §2802(a); see Grissom v Vons Cos. (1991) 1 CA4th 52; Douglas v Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (1975) 50 CA3d 449, 461

Can my employer force me to waive indemnification?

No, employers may not require that employees waive indemnification rights.31Edwards v Arthur Andersen LLP (2008) 44 C4th 937.

What if I messed up in performing my job?

If you used “ordinary care” in performing your duties, but something still went wrong, your employer would probably need to “indemnify” you. But if you did NOT use ordinary care, then you would probably be liable to your employer for any losses the employer suffered.32California Labor Code Sec 2865; Dahl-Beck Elec. Co. v Rogge (1969) 275 CA2d 893

18. Taxes

What is my employer required to send me for my taxes?

Employers are required to send you a copy of a W-2 form by Jan 31 for the prior year’s income. The W-2 says how much that employer paid you in that year, and how much they took out in taxes.

19. Smoking & Vaping

Is it illegal to smoke or vape at work?

It is illegal to smoke or vape in any enclosed space at a workplace.33CA Labor Code Sec 6404.5

20. Manufacturing

Is it legal to require employees to manufacture goods at home?

Yes, except for certain goods, including: food or drink or goods used in connection with serving them; clothing; toys and dolls; tobacco; drugs and poisons; bandages and other sanitary goods; explosives, fireworks, and similar items; goods that are harmful to the health or welfare of those who make them or that would make it unreasonably difficult to maintain or enforce existing labor standards.34Labor Code 2651

BUT the employer must get a special license, and the employee must get a special permit.

21. Fast Food Workers

Are there specific laws and rights for fast food workers in California?

There will be if voters approve of the new fast food worker protection law, AB 257.

Exercise Your Rights

California has very favorable laws for employees, but they can be complicated. If you feel your rights have been violated, we highly encourage you to find an employment lawyer. Many employment lawyers offer free consultations, and many even agree to be paid solely as a percent of your case payout; so don’t hesitate to give them a call!

Or you can file a claim with the government:

Related Pages

Freelancers vs Employees

Guide to Free Speech Law

Guide to Privacy Law

Guide to Hiring Employees


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