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Santa Barbara Employment Law Blog

4 signs your employment termination was illegal

Imagine getting called into your boss's office first thing in the morning. You walk in and instead of the meeting you expected, your boss terminates your employment. Perhaps there were signs this was coming. Maybe your boss had been looking for a reason to let you go. Or, maybe this came out of nowhere. No matter the specifics, the best thing you can do is to stay calm and take stock of the both how and when you were fired.

Unless you were covered by a union contract, you were probably an "at-will" employee. This means that not only can you generally quit your job at any time for any reason but your boss can also fire you at almost any time for any reason. The key word here is "almost." There are certain situations that can result in a wrongful termination and you might be able to take legal steps to fight back. Here are some signs of a wrongful termination that could apply to your circumstances.

California minimum wage laws and how to file a wage claim

On the campaign trail for the 2016 presidential elections, Bernie Sanders and other democrats raised the importance of a higher minimum wage. At the time, many private corporations shot down the idea of raising the minimum wage to the $15 Sanders recommended. However, several states disagreed. Since then, several of these put plans in place to raise the minimum wage annually to ensure residents make a more livable income. California is one such state.

According to the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations, effective at the start of 2017, the Golden State continues to raise the minimum wage each year. The goal is to bring all employees to the $15 minimum wage proposal by 2023, giving companies time to adjust. California makes some exceptions for learners, workers with disabilities and nonprofit organizations employing people with disabilities.

What a worker can do about workplace retaliation

When workers in California file a complaint related to sexual harassment or other workplace issues, they may find themselves the target of workplace retaliation. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that the discrimination findings based on retaliation has been as high as 53% in the past decade.

The EEOC reminds employers that they can not demote, fire or harass individuals for filing discrimination complaints. Employees are also protected when they oppose incidents of discrimination or participate in ongoing proceedings. The federal agency states that one of the reasons for its commitment to preventing retaliation is that it discourages workers from cooperating with agents during an investigation.

Gender wage gap is highest among educated workers

It is a well-known fact that women are the most educated workers in California and the rest of the United States. Many women go through extreme lengths to acquire several degrees or to move up the educational ladder to see a corresponding effect on their career and their pay checks.

Unfortunately, one CNBC article published in 2019 showed that while women are getting more degrees than men at every level, this does not reflect in their salaries. In fact, when both women and men have bachelor’s degrees, the woman still earns only 74 cents for every dollar the man makes. When neither party have a degree, the woman makes 78 cents for every dollar the man makes.

Psychologists try to explain why men harass women at work

When the #MeToo movement first took off in California, few people expected it to spread in the way it did. Celebrities, politicians and business moguls all across the United States continue to find themselves haunted and even incarcerated by the sins of their past, involving unethical and illegal behavior regarding their treatment of women. In some instances, the victims are even underage girls.

While a lot of the focus is on what men do in the workplace and positions of power, there is not enough research on why. According to psychologists who spoke to CNBC, one of the big reasons men harass women is territorialism. They want to protect their own occupational territory from the invasion of women. This is most likely to happen in male-dominated fields, such as tech, medicine, the military and politics.

It’s illegal for your employer to make you work off the clock

It's not uncommon for an employer to request an employee to work off the clock. While this sounds innocent enough, it's something you should fight against. You are not required to work off the clock, and there are laws in place to protect you against this.

The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a variety of protections for workers, including those associated with overtime. Under this regulation, all non-exempt employees are legally entitled to receive compensation for all hours worked.

It may be possible to fight a wrongful termination

When employees in California lose their jobs under unfair circumstances, many of them shrug it off as normal and simply move on to another job. For others, the transition process is more difficult. It may take weeks or months to find another job and it may not be as high-paying as the one they lost. When seeking new employment, recruiters may also be reluctant to hire employees for top positions if they were fired from their last job. So, what can these employees do?

According to Forbes, unless an individual is protected by specific inclusions in an individual contract or is part of a collective bargaining agreement, employers can fire them at any reason for any time. This is somewhat true, but not entirely. California has put laws in place to make some firing situations illegal. Here are a few of these instances:

  • When firing the employee goes against the contractual agreement, such as proposed length of contract
  • If firing the employee is in retaliation, such as after sexual harassment claims
  • When the reason for firing the employee is based on discrimination 
  • If the employee is fired because they exercised a legal right

You cannot be fired for objecting to lack of rest breaks

According to California law, employers have a duty to provide their workers with rest breaks, provided that workers have performed labor for four hours. So if you notice that your employer is not giving workers the amount of rest breaks that they deserve, it is a valid complaint and you should not be penalized for it. If an employer decides to take retaliatory action against you, you should know that your rights are being violated.

The right to call attention to employer misconduct against employees is protected under law, and objecting to employer policy on rest breaks is no exception. Aside from lodging a verbal complaint to an employer about a lack of rest breaks, the law also protects you if you alert an employer that you will file a claim with California’s Labor Commissioner office if workplace policy does not change. You are also protected if you decide to file a claim anyway.

Fighting religious discrimination in the workplace

When people in California talk about discrimination, most of the conversation veers toward racial, sex and LGBTQ discrimination. However, one other aspect of workplace discrimination that deserves more attention is religious discrimination. Some companies have found new ways to avoid hiring or promoting workers that belong to certain faiths by creating restrictions based on dress codes for some positions.

Business Insider reports that in 2018, UPS paid $4.9 million to employees for alleged discrimination that followed this formula. The company’s uniform policy restricted male employees from having facial hair below the lips or growing their hair beyond collar-length. While the rule did not apply to workers who worked in the back-office, it did mean employees could not hold certain jobs, which restricted upward mobility in the company. UPS employees who practiced Rastafarianism, Islam, Sikhism, Orthodox Christianity and similar faiths all suffered the consequences. Native Americans were also affected.

To report or not to report sexual harassment in the workplace

Companies in California may not have a legal obligation to put sexual harassment policies in place, but most have one anyway. Sexual harassment policies may be especially important in the Golden State, where the #MeToo movement rocked Hollywood and took down some of the most well-known names in the entertainment business. These men — and sometimes, women — allegedly took advantage of younger candidates and employees seeking to advance their careers.

CNN reports that 90% of human resources professionals say the company they work for has sexual harassment policies in place. This helps to provide workers with protection in a number of ways. It establishes a route for people to address, report and prevent sexual harassment. Good policies also outline the consequences of proven allegations, regardless of position in the company.

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