If you are legally employed by a California employer, you have extensive employment rights guaranteed under both federal and state laws. Do the employment laws allow an employer in this state to suspend you from your job without pay?

Precisely what are your employment rights when it comes to suspensions and the other “disciplinary” measures that California employers may take? Can a San Francisco employer retaliation attorney help?

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A WORKPLACE SUSPENSION?

First, let’s precisely define what a “suspension” from work is. Suspensions are a period of time when an employer requires an employee to be away from the job for a specific reason that is usually related to a disciplinary matter.

Suspensions take several forms. Some suspensions are paid, and some are not. Some are for a precise length of time, but other suspensions are indefinite.

Many employers have policies that impose some type of discipline – such as a suspension – on an employee who has not adhered to a particular rule or rules. A suspension is basically the grown-up equivalent of making you sit in the corner – and sometimes, without being paid.

BUT WHAT ABOUT YOU? CAN YOU BE SUSPENDED WITHOUT PAY?

Like so many legal questions, the answer to “Can you be suspended from your job without pay?” is “It depends.” And the first thing it depends on is whether or not you an “exempt” or a “non-exempt” employee is California.

The law in California spells out which employees in this state are exempted from wage and hour laws – that is, employees for whom the basic wage and hour laws, and the rules regarding suspensions and pay – don’t apply:

1. anyone who earns over fifty percent of their pay through commissions
2. anyone who earns over one-hundred-fifty percent of the minimum wage
3. executive, professional, and administrative employees
4. most computer software professionals
5. teachers who are working at private schools
6. registered nurses
7. local and government employees
8. surgeons and other physicians
9. employees of the University of California

Except for the employees who are in these categories, almost all other employees in California are considered non-exempt employees.

CAN A NON-EXEMPT EMPLOYEE BE SUSPENDED WITHOUT PAY?

Here’s the rule regarding suspensions and non-exempt employees: An employer in California has the legal right to suspend a non-exempt employee without pay for a disciplinary reason or pending an investigation of an employee’s alleged misconduct.

Some employers may opt to continue to pay a nonexempt employee during a pending investigative suspension, and some employers may even provide back pay if an investigation finds no wrongdoing by the employee, but employers are not legally obliged to provide such pay.

California employers may or may not allow nonexempt employees who are suspended without pay to use their vacation days in lieu of going entirely unpaid for the length of the suspension, but employers in our state are not legally required to make this option available, either.

However, exempt employees who are salaried may be suspended without pay only for an employer’s complete seven-day workweek. For exempt employees in this state, no salary deductions are allowed for one-day or partial workweek suspensions.

WHAT ARE THE RULES REGARDING UNPAID SUSPENSIONS?

For exempt employees, unpaid suspensions must be made in good faith and for major workplace violations. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act allows unpaid suspensions for on-the-job drug or alcohol use, sexual harassment, and other violations of state or federal employment laws.

However, any suspension of an exempt employee in California regarding the quantity or quality of that employee’s work is improper and may trigger legal problems for an employer.

California employers may suspend exempt employees only in full-day increments, and they must already have a written policy in place that specifically allows for such disciplinary suspensions.

It is also inappropriate for an employer in this state to discipline an employee for something vague like “having a negative attitude.” A workplace suspension must be tied to a specific incident of workplace misconduct.

WHAT IS THE BEST STRATEGY IF AN EMPLOYER INVESTIGATES YOU?

An accused employee must try not to react emotionally, especially if an accusation is fabricated or exaggerated. Employees in this situation must avoid sending angry emails, making angry phone calls, or provoking any kind of face-to-face confrontation.

Instead, if you believe that you have been illegally or unjustly suspended at work, or if you are being illegally or unjustly paid, take your concerns – immediately – to an employment rights attorney.

Whether or not an accusation against you is true, and whether or not a workplace investigation is, in your estimate, conducted fairly, here’s the best strategy for dealing with an investigation:

1. Cooperate fully with the workplace investigation.
2. Answer all questions frankly and honestly.
3. Resist the impulse to express anger or to “talk trash” about a manager or colleague.

HOW DOES THE LAW PROTECT EMPLOYEES IN CALIFORNIA?

If you have grounds to bring legal action against an employer regarding a suspension from your job, your employment rights attorney will explain your legal rights and options and will recommend the best way to move forward.

You cannot be suspended from your job or denied pay for a reason that is illegal, such as discrimination or retaliation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents employers with fifteen or more employees from discriminating on the basis of gender, race, religion, or national origin.

If your employer has only five to fourteen employees, California protects you from workplace discrimination through the Fair Employment and Housing Act of 1959.

IF YOUR EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS ARE VIOLATED, WHERE CAN YOU TURN?

If you’re targeted for workplace discrimination – wrongly suspended, improperly paid, or wrongly terminated – discuss your situation and rights at once with a qualified employment discrimination attorney.

There’s not much in life that’s more important than your employment. It’s what lets you provide for your family and meet your obligations and responsibilities.

If your job or the pay you receive is threatened in any way, or if you are a victim of illegal discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, do not be disheartened or intimidated.

In California, if your employment rights have been violated by your employer, the law is on your side.

If you are dealing with discrimination, retaliation, harassment, or a pay-related issue that needs to be resolved, get the legal advice and representation you need – and do it at once. That is your right.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.