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California Workplace Search Laws

July 27, 2023 Legal Team

Workplace search laws play a crucial role in maintaining a balance between employee privacy rights and ensuring a safe and secure work environment.

Understanding Workplace Searches

Workplace searches refer to any inspection or investigation conducted by an employer within the workplace premises, including employees’ personal belongings like bags, purses, lockers, or electronic devices. These searches are often carried out to maintain safety, prevent theft, ensure compliance with company policies, or safeguard sensitive information.

California Constitution, Article 1, Section 1

The California Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to privacy for its citizens. While this right extends to the workplace, it is important to note that the level of privacy an employee can reasonably expect in the workplace is generally lower than in other contexts, given the employer-employee relationship.

California Labor Code, Section 1198.5

This statute grants employees the right to access their personnel records upon reasonable request to their employer. While this section does not directly address workplace searches, it highlights the importance of respecting employees’ privacy rights regarding their employment-related information.

Workplace Search Policies

California employers are encouraged to establish clear and written workplace search policies. These policies should outline the circumstances under which searches may occur, the types of searches that may be conducted, and the process for obtaining employee consent.

Consent Searches

In California, one of the primary ways to conduct a workplace search is through employee consent. Employers must obtain voluntary and explicit permission from the employee before conducting a search of their personal belongings, workspace, or electronic devices. In addition, the employee has the right to refuse without facing adverse consequences.

Reasonableness of Searches

Workplace searches must be conducted in a reasonable manner. This means that the scope and extent of the search should be proportionate to the legitimate business purpose for which it is being undertaken. Employers should have a valid reason for the search, such as suspected theft or violation of company policies.

Electronic Communications and Devices

Employers generally have the right to monitor company-provided electronic devices and communications used by employees during work hours. However, it is essential to inform employees of this monitoring through clear policies.

Personal Vehicles

California employers may have limited rights to search an employee’s personal vehicle if it is parked on company property. However, this must be done cautiously, and policies regarding vehicle searches should be clearly communicated to employees. In addition, under California Penal Code § 637.7, it is a misdemeanor to install a GPS device to an employee-owned car without consent.

Case Law

California courts have established various precedents that influence the interpretation of workplace search laws, especially regarding the expectation of privacy and what constitutes a reasonable search. For instance, in the case of Ortega v. O’Connor, 146 F.3d. 1149 (9th Cir. Cal. 1998) set the precedent that employers must balance their need for controlling the workplace against an employee’s right to privacy.

When an employer has information that does not clearly point to a particular employee or define the purpose of the search, the search of a private area is less justifiable. If you believe your employer violated the law, schedule a free consultation with an Orange County employment attorney today to explore your legal options.