What does "at will" employment mean?
Purely at the will of the employer you can be fired, and you have the similar power to quit your employment at any time. "Just cause" or any "cause" is not required, unless there is some special written or implied promises between the parties. HR policies and practices may also modify an "at will" arrangement. Generally, California is an "at will" employment State, and our Labor Code Section 2922 presumes employment to be "at will". For example, you could be a ten years of service high performing employee and your employment may be legally terminated without cause or advance notice. Non-union employees are normally "at will" employees.
Keep in mind, there may be other employment protections to be considered both under federal and state laws (see below) that limit "at will" justified terminations. California courts have recognized that employment relationships are based in an implied covenant of "good faith and fair dealing" and employers who terminate employees "at will" for bad faith reasons (like cheating a salesperson out of an earned commission) may well find the "at will" rule won't protect them from liability. Additionally, Unemployment Insurance entitlement involves other laws, and the circumstances of employment separation are important to receive these state insurance benefits.
This is a very complex area of the law, do not assume you have it figured out. Talk to an attorney.
Are all non-union, non-government jobs "at will" jobs?
No. During the course of an employment relationship many things may occur and/or be communicated that establish more than an "at will" employment realtionship. It's possible that this is true even if an employee handbook or employment letter generally says employment is "at will". Of course, some jobs have specific employment contracts or other agreements that remove it from "at will" treatment entirely.
I was fired without any warnings or negative performance reviews, is this legal ?
In California, a progressive system and practice of written warnings, disciplines and reviews, meant to be used as a precursor to suspension or termination, may change the "at will" status. Obviously, employees under such a progressive review system rely on the promise that employment actions will not be arbitrary but will follow a certain process and procedure.
Can I be fired just because of my race or national origin, even as an "at will" employee?
Employers cannot discriminate in the rights, privileges and benefits of employment due to race, national origin, age, sex, disability, pregnancy (to name a few classes) and employers may not retaliate for opposing unlawful conduct, terminate employees in violation of public policy, or terminate employees who are "whistleblowers" under protective statutes. Obviously, this is an extremely comprehensive area of law involving several different federal and state enactments and statutes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Suffice to say, an arbitrary termination is often suspect as involving a motive or attitude that could make an otherwise "at will" termination unlawful and in violation of public policy.
I've been fired "at will", what can I do about it?
You can educate yourself on websites, like those linked here. Keep in mind, your termination may have been be unlawful under some provision of the California Labor Code or federal or state statute that hasn't been discussed above.
Act promptly, for example the EEOC generally requires a filing within 300 days of the alleged violation and other rights might sunset after just 6 months. So, gather your facts and move promptly to discuss your options with a qualified attorney.