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Laws Protecting California Employees

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California laws provide various protections to employees to make the workplace a safer, more pleasant environment. Employers and coworkers who fail to follow these regulations can be sued, but telling whether someone has actually broken the law can be challenging. This article provides a brief overview of some of the laws that protect employees in California.

Family and Medical Leave Act & California Family Rights Act

Employers covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and California Family Rights Act (CFRA) must grant eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, a maximum of once per year for appropriate reasons. These reasons include:

  • The birth and care of the employee's newborn baby
  • Placement of a child who's being adopted or fostered by the employee
  • Care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious medical condition
  • Inability to work due to health of the employee

Employees must meet several requirements to be eligible. To be eligible for benefits under FMLA, they need to have worked with their current employer for a minimum of 52 weeks (non-consecutive allowed), and their working hours must add up to at least 1,250. See 29 CFR § 825.110.

California Fair Employment and Housing Act

According to California Government Code section 12940(a), it is illegal for employers, because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, age, or sexual orientation, to:

  • Refuse to hire a person or refuse to choose a person for a training program leading to employment
  • Bar or to fire a person from a job or a training program leading to employment
  • Discriminate against a person in pay or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment

Under section 12940(j)(1), it is unlawful for an employer (and other listed parties) to harass employees and job applicants based on race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, age, or sexual orientation. Harassment can be verbal or physical. Section 12940(j)(4)(C) provides that sexual harassment; gender harassment; and harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions are all included under the umbrella of harassment because of sex.

It can sometimes be difficult to classify what is actionable harassment or discrimination, and superiors whose words or actions cannot be classified as harassment or discrimination are not liable under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Ill-tempered people are not always easy to deal with, but claims that "my boss was a total jerk" are not generally actionable. Likewise, former employees who were fired or laid off generally do not have actionable claims against their former employers unless they can prove the decision was based on discrimination.

Ralph Civil Rights Act

Section 51.7 of the California Civil Code, known as the Ralph Civil Rights Act, protects state residents against hate crimes and provides administrative and civil remedies for victims of hate crimes. These crimes may be based on age, ancestry, race, color, disability, national origin, political affiliation, position in a labor dispute, religious creed, gender or sexual orientation. Offenses most likely to occur in the workplace are name calling, written threats, verbal threats and assault. Victims can file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the Attorney General's Civil Rights Enforcement Section or file a private lawsuit. The Ralph Civil Rights Act provides for civil penalties for perpetrators of up to $25,000 and civil remedies for victims of hate violence including three times the actual amount of damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief and attorneys' fees.
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