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Firing Could Be Illegal if It Followed a Valid Query

February 11, 2001

Q: I was recently fired after six months on the job, despite great results. The owner and I did not see eye to eye on many subjects and he fired me for asking a question about a possible illegal situation in the company.

Can a person be fired without any reason, other than the employer does not like him or her? I understand at-will employment, but I did nothing wrong.

I had questioned whether it was proper for the company to assign nonexempt employees to work a weekend without pay. These employees also had to work a weekend so they could take off Friday after Thanksgiving.

Would my question be considered whistle-blowing?

--J.H., Los Angeles

A: Employees should evaluate the real reason for termination, rather than relying on the reason given to them.

It may be perfectly appropriate for an employer to fire an employee because they do not see eye to eye or because that person is an at-will employee.

If the real reason you were fired was for complaining about the employer's failure to pay appropriate wages, however, your termination would be illegal.

Your question would be considered whistle-blowing and would give you protection according to the California Labor Code.

You have this protection regardless of any at-will employment status.

Furthermore, it does not matter whether your legal concern was correct, as long as you reasonably thought it was.

As it happens, it appears you were correct in your perception that it is illegal to require nonexempt employees to work a weekend without pay.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

Important to Get Bonus Agreements in Writing

Q: Nine years ago I was hired as a manager of a retail store. I was promised a 1% bonus on the profit.

I have received nothing so far. Whenever I approach my employer, she says there has been no profit.

I have access only to daily, weekly and monthly sales. Is there a way I can find out if there has been a profit without jeopardizing my position?

--A.R., Reseda

A It is a little hard to believe that a store would remain in business for nine years without making any money, although depending on the legal structure of the business, your employer may have been drawing salary and bonuses for herself equal to the profit of the business.

This would not necessarily be a breach of her agreement with you, and it highlights the importance for both the employer and employee of putting these kinds of bonus agreements into writing.

You could ask to see your employer's financial records. Since you would be making such a request to determine whether additional wages are due, you would be protected under the law from retaliation by your employer.

As a practical matter, however, your request might irreparably damage your working relationship with your boss.

The better approach might be for you to ask that you and she put the bonus agreement in writing, with a clear description of how profit is to be measured. This would make it much easier in the future to determine whether a bonus is due.

If your boss refuses to do so, you might want to consider pursuing a better employment opportunity elsewhere.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips

Labor law instructor, UC Irvine


If you have a question about an on-the-job situation, please mail it to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictate it to (714) 966-7873; or e-mail it to Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice. Recent Shop Talk columns are available at

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