employment law attorney george allen

Advocating for Employee Rights: Interview with California Employment Law Attorney

In the complex and often murky landscape of employment law, it’s reassuring to know that there are dedicated advocates like the one we recently had the privilege of interviewing on The Legal Odyssey podcast. In our candid conversation with George Allen, employment law attorney in California, we delved into some of the most prevalent issues employees encounter in the workplace. From deciphering contractual rights to shedding light on wage theft disputes, George shares valuable insights and practical advice that could prove invaluable to anyone navigating the intricacies of employment troubles. If you’re an employee seeking guidance, wondering how to distinguish between a valid and an unlawful situation, or simply in need of clarity regarding your rights and limitations, this interview is a must-read.

What drives you to advocate for employees with troubles at work?

The way I have seen and experienced the world has driven my passion to advocate for those facing difficulties with their employer. I think that corporations have way too much power over individuals. Employees with troubles at work are people who need help and it’s never quite that black and white in the real world, but in the law, you’ve got to be on one side of a case or the other. To me, it’s a no-brainer that I would rather be on the side of a worker than the side of the employer.

Being an employment attorney in Sacramento, California, undoubtedly you’ve probably seen an abundance of different situations and experienced different things. What are some of the most prevalent issues that employees frequently encounter within their work environments? 

Probably the single most common thing that causes people to contact my office is that they are experiencing what they feel is a hostile work environment. The important thing to know about that is that a hostile work environment is only a legal issue if it’s based on a protected characteristic. For example, sexual harassment is a hostile work environment, and if the conduct is bad enough, it’s a violation of the law because it’s targeted at a worker because of their gender, sexual orientation or whatever the case may be. On the other hand, it’s not against the law for the boss to be a jerk. Occasionally, it can be hard to make that distinction.

The other really, really common thing is people who have gone through what they believe is a wrongful termination. In a similar way that a hostile work environment scenario is limited, termination is limited. Most workers are in a category that we call employment at will, which means your employer can fire you at any time for any reason. They can be mean, they can be stupid, and the only thing that makes that a legal issue is if the true motivation for the termination was something that the law says is off-limits. With that being said, there are situations where the true motivation, not why your employer claimed was the reason, but the true motivation for the termination was something that the law says is off-limits, like discrimination on the basis of race, gender, retaliation for legally protected conduct, whistle blowers, things like that.

How can an employment attorney help determine if your situation is one where your employer crossed legal lines?

Well, an attorney who’s familiar with employment law is going to have a sort of mental list of the illegal reasons for termination. When you take the time to discuss your situation with an attorney and provide a worker’s narrative about what happened, the attorney can look for examples that support the idea that the termination is for an illegal reason. The attorney can help uncover the key indicators that show, say, this termination isn’t really because you used too many staples. It’s because you called the EPA and said, my employer is dumping chemicals in the creek behind the building.

What is one of the biggest challenges that you see individuals encounter when considering hiring an attorney for a wage theft dispute?

There is a prevailing misconception that many employees do not have the financial means to hire an attorney to fight something like a wage theft dispute. However, most of the tools that we have as attorneys to help recover wages that have been taken from an employee or withheld from an employee are statutory, and most of those statutes say that if we go to court and the employee wins, the employer has to pay the employee’s attorney fees.

Although most cases are resolved short of going to trial, that’s a big part of the settlement discussion. The people on the other side know that if they take this to court and lose, they’re going to get a really big bill from the employee’s attorney, and so that motivates settlement. The statutes also help make it possible for the attorneys to represent employees on a contingent fee basis. Kind of like if you’re in a car crash and it’s the other driver’s fault, you don’t have to pay out of pocket for your case in court. Your attorney will get paid by a percentage of what’s recovered for you. A great many wage theft cases are like that also.

It’s important to understand that there’s zero financial motivation for an attorney working on contingent fee to take a case that’s not a valid case. It is possible to overcome the financial challenge or, better put, misconception about hiring an attorney to help support you, should you have a valid case of wage theft.

How can an employment attorney assist employees in understanding their contractual rights and limitations in California?

If you get a job offer that contains a package of contracts and paperwork to sign, you need to know that you can certainly send the paperwork to an employment attorney who can review the documents and kind of narrate and explain what everything means. 

With a non-compete, and with all of those agreements, typically individuals are excited about the new job, the people in HR give you a stack of stuff to sign, and you just sign, and you don’t read. You just sign, and sign, and sign, and sign. It’s only later that you really need to know what was in all that stuff that you signed and what it means. As many lawyers say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so I encourage people to have a trusted employment attorney help narrate the documents prior to signing them; just so you can be aware of how certain contracts or agreements may affect your future decisions and goals. 

Non-compete agreements are void in California. We have a statute that just says non-compete agreements are not enforceable. In a simple case, if you’re an employee in California working in California for a California employer, that’s pretty straightforward – void agreement. However, it can get messy if you go to work for another employer that’s headquartered somewhere else, and your old California employer gets wind of that, they may try to go into court in a different state that has different law regarding a non-compete agreement to prevent you from working for that new employer. If you’re that kind of desirable employee and you have a non-disclosure agreement, you should disclose that to the prospective employer when you’re interviewing so that they know, because they don’t want to be surprised by that.Plus, if something does happen, you may want to enlist the new employer to defend you and ideally to pay for an attorney or provide an attorney to represent you if there’s litigation over that non-disclosure agreement.

When someone is confronted with something like a concern for, you know, one of these contracts or a wage theft concern, what are some initial steps that someone can take to find the right attorney for them?

Finding a great employment attorney can be a challenge. With attorneys, just like with doctors or plumbers or therapists or anyone else, the best thing is to ask the people in your community, your friends or your family, if they have a referral. That’s the gold standard. In California, we also have an organization, the California Employment Lawyers Association, which is a statewide organization for attorneys who represent employees. On the website, which is cela.org, there’s a button that says, ‘find a lawyer’ and when you click that button, it takes you to a search engine. You can search the CELA membership by geography, area of practice, name, and other fields. CELA is specific to California. The CELA attorneys are, as a group, people who are dedicated to representing employees. We keep up on the law. We take this very seriously. We’re kind of like the true believers. There’s a similar national organization, it’s the National Employment Lawyers Association, NELA.org. They also have a search engine on their website.

Imagine an individual seeking an employment law attorney in Sacramento, California. If you had to give them one piece of advice while dealing with their situation, what would it be?

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I can give is to document. Document what’s going on. Keep your head down and keep doing your work and do it well and be polite and professional and courteous. Don’t give the employer any reason to terminate you that’s disconnected from whatever the trouble is, and then document! The ability to document does depend on the culture of the workplace. There are some places where it would stick out like a sore thumb and be really obvious that what you’re doing is documenting a problem, and maybe that’s what you have to do anyway. But if, for example, you have a meeting with human resources and they tell you something, you can send an email later that says, “Hey, human resources, I just want to make sure I understood correctly, I told you about yada and you said blah blah. Let me know if I got that correct. If anything’s wrong there, please let me know.” This way, you have some kind of record of the conversation that occurred.

Always be mindful of your employer’s policies about confidentiality of information and don’t violate those. While, at the same time realizing that if things go wrong and you get terminated, you may lose access to your company email, for example. It can good to CC or BCC yourself on things that you need. If you are allowed to do so, make copies of relevant documents when allowed and keep documenting.

You may need to talk to HR throughout the employment issue, but understand that they’re not your advocate. HR exists, human resources exist to be a resource for management, and their duty, their obligation is to do what they think is best for the company. That may be in alignment with what’s best for you, the employee with troubles at work, or it may not be. You have to be kind of skeptical or cynical about what HR is doing and what they’re telling you when experiencing troubles at work. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to share for those that are seeking an employment attorney in California?

It can be hard to find an employment attorney, and so don’t give up. Go through the steps that you’re going through to tell your story and if the first attorney that you talk to about your case says, no, I’m not interested, don’t give up. Sometimes you need to talk to several attorneys before you find one who hears a case that they think they can help you with in what you’re saying. So don’t be discouraged. A little secret, attorneys will almost never tell you, you don’t have a case, right? We don’t know if we may have missed something and we caused the person to give up looking for an attorney and maybe somebody else would hear something. So an attorney won’t tell you that you don’t have a case. What you’ll hear is, I’m too busy or that’s not my area of law or something along those lines. Sure, at some point you’ve got to say to yourself, okay, I’ve talked to eight attorneys who are all really experienced employment attorneys. I communicated really well with them and none of them want to take my case. At some point, call it a day, but don’t give up because one or two attorneys said no, thank you.

This insightful interview has shed light on the complexities of employment law, offering valuable guidance on crucial issues like hostile work environments, wrongful termination, wage theft disputes, and even contractual rights. Remember, the journey to find the right attorney may have its twists and turns, but perseverance is key. Don’t be disheartened by a few initial setbacks; there are passionate legal advocates out there ready to fight for your rights. Whether you’re an employee in California or elsewhere, the knowledge shared here serves as a beacon of hope and a reminder that you don’t have to face workplace challenges alone. With the right attorney, you can navigate through your situation and emerge stronger on the other side!

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