Whistleblower Protection and Discrimination Law in California

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California laws provide robust protections for workers — and California juries have acted strongly against workplace bias, harassment, and retaliation. If your reputation or your career is at risk, please contact our award-winning attorneys by calling 1-888-826-5260, sending us e-mail, or using the “Chat” function on this page.

Whistleblower Protection in California

If you are a California employee who was punished — or even fired — for trying to do the right thing, several state laws can help to set things right.

The California Whistleblower Protection Act, for example, provides protections for state employees who report improper governmental activity. The California False Claims Act prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers who report attempts to defraud the State of California. Such whistleblowers also may get a reward of up to half the proceeds recovered.

In addition, California has a general whistleblower statute that protects employees who report what they believe to be violations of state or federal law.

These California-specific protections are bolstered by anti-retaliation provisions in federal laws including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Dodd-Frank Act, and the False Claims Act. If you have been punished as a whistleblower, laws such as these may entitle you to reinstatement in your job, back pay, attorney fees, and other damages.

Workplace Discrimination in California

In addition to federal laws that prohibit bias, the California Fair Housing and Employment Act (FHEA) protects employees from many forms of discrimination and harassment. FHEA also protects employees from punishment for trying to prevent discrimination.

California’s anti-discrimination laws provide broader protection than similar federal laws. As an example, California law explicitly bans discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation. Federal law may prohibit such discrimination via Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it does not do so explicitly.

Other notable areas of difference:

  • California law protects independent contractors, not just employees and job applicants.
  • California law bans harassment by all employers, and bans discrimination by employers with five or more employees — while Title VII applies only to employers with 15 or more workers.

Wrongful Termination in California

Although California generally considers employment to be “at will,” meaning that workers can be discharged for any reason — or for no reason at all — the state recognizes an exception to protect employees who disclose criminal, illegal, unethical, or unsafe practices.

This public-policy exception, first recognized in the landmark case of Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co., also forbids the punishment of employees who refuse to engage in illegal conduct.

In California, employees have two years to file a claim of wrongful discharge. Plaintiffs may claim compensation for lost wages and benefits, and for pain and suffering; they also may be awarded punitive damages.

Among the conduct that is protected — besides obvious whistleblowing, which may be protected under other laws: Refusing to sign illegal contracts; cooperating in government investigations; refusing to work in unsafe conditions; and disclosing wage information.

Other Employment Laws in California

California’s labor laws generally provide better protections and benefits for employees than the corresponding federal laws — starting with the state’s minimum wage, which was $10 per hour in 2016 and is set to rise to $15 per hour for many businesses in 2022. This compares to the national minimum wage of $7.25 in 2016.

In addition, some local governments in California have even stronger rules: The City of Los Angeles, for instance, required larger employers to pay workers at least $10.50 per hour starting on July 1, 2016, and will reach the $15 level sooner than the state as a whole. Los Angeles also requires businesses to provide more days of paid sick leave than required by state law.

California and federal laws protect employees from retaliation when they voice their concerns about unpaid wages or other violations. In addition to seeking remedies including reinstatement, lost wages, and attorney fees, employees who know that their companies have violated labor laws can invoke California’s Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (PAGA) to pursue fines that normally the state would enforce. Prevailing employees can keep 25% of the fines recovered due to their action.