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Washington Employment Law Basics

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Washington employees are protected at work by both state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination, requiring employers to pay the minimum wage, and much more.

If you are an employee in the state of Washington, you are protected by federal and state laws throughout the employment process, from applying for the job and getting hired through the end of your relationship with your employer. Below, we explain some of the laws that apply to Washington employees, including laws prohibiting discrimination, requiring employers to pay overtime and the minimum wage, and giving employees the right to take time off work.

Discrimination and Harassment Laws in Washington

Under federal law, employers may not make employment decisions based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (if the employee is at least 40 years old), disability, or genetic information. Employers with at least 15 employees are subject to these laws (for age discrimination, employers with at least 20 employees must comply with the law).

These laws prohibit discrimination in every aspect of employment, from job postings, interviews, and hiring decisions to promotions, benefits, pay, discipline, performance reviews, layoffs, and firing. For detailed information on the federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination, see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Laws Enforced by the EEOC.

Washington law also protects employees from discrimination based on most of these traits. In addition, employees in Washington are protected from discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, use of a service animal, being a veteran or member of the military, and HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C status. Washington employers with at least eight employees must comply with these laws. Washington’s Human Rights Commission enforces these laws and takes complaints of discrimination and harassment.

Workplace harassment based on any of these traits is also illegal. From a legal perspective, harassment is unwelcome workplace conduct or comments, based on the target’s protected characteristic, that creates a hostile work environment or that the target must endure as a condition of getting or keeping the job. Sexual harassment is the most familiar type of harassment, but harassment might also be based on disability, ethnicity, religion, and other protected traits.

Your employer may not retaliate against you for complaining of discrimination or harassment. Your employer may not discipline, fire, or take other negative action against you because you complain within the company, to a government agency (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Washington Human Rights Commission), or in a lawsuit.

Workplace Safety Laws in Washington

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a safe workplace, free of known dangers. This law applies in all states, including Washington. Employers must provide safe working conditions, including the training and safety equipment necessary for your industry and the type of work you do.

Employees have the right to request an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection if they believe their employer has committed safety violations. Your employer may not retaliate against you for complaining about unsafe working conditions.

Washington Workers’ Compensation

If you suffer an on-the-job injury, you will likely be eligible for workers’ compensation. Most Washington employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ comp provides you with a percentage of your usual earnings, pays for necessary medical treatment, and provides vocational rehabilitation and other benefits.

Wage and Hour Laws in Washington

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Washington law set the wage and hour standards employers must follow, including the minimum wage, overtime, and other wage laws. Employers must pay the highest minimum wage applicable to employees, whether set by federal, state, or local law. For 2016, Washington employers must pay employees at least $9.47 an hour. Because this is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, Washington employees are entitled to the higher state amount. If your local government has an even higher minimum wage (as Seattle has, for example), you are entitled to that amount.

Under the FLSA and Washington law, employers must pay employees time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime, however. If you fall within an exception to the overtime laws (for example, because you are a salaried manager as defined by the law), you are an exempt employee, which means you are not eligible for overtime.

Learn more about Washington wage and overtime rules at the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. You can find out more about the FLSA from the Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor.

Your Right to Time Off Work in Washington

Many employers voluntarily offer their employees paid leave, such as vacation time, sick days, holidays, or paid time off (PTO) benefits. In Washington, as in most states, these benefits are discretionary. However, Washington employers are obligated to provide unpaid leave in some circumstances, including:

  • Family and medical leave. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers with at least 50 employees must give eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year for illness, bonding with a new child, and caregiving. Washington requires employers to give similar leave rights, but Washington’s law also applies to employees who need time off to care for domestic partners, which is not covered under the FMLA.
  • Domestic violence leave. Washington law requires employers to allow employees who are victims (or family members of victims) of domestic violence to take time off to get counseling, medical treatment, legal help, or other services.
  • Pregnancy disability leave. In addition to the time available under the FMLA, Washington employers must give employees time off while they are disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. The state estimates this will typically be from six to eight weeks.
  • Military family leave. An employee may use the federal FMLA to take time off to handle certain practical matters arising from a family member’s deployment or military service. And employers must give eligible employees up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who suffers a serious injury on active military duty. Washington law requires employers to give employees up to 15 days off to spend with a spouse or domestic partner who is called to active duty or is on leave from deployment.
  • Military leave. The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) requires employers to allow employees to take leave from work for federal or state military service or duty. Employees must be reinstated after their leave, and may not be discriminated against based on their service. Washington law also requires employers to provide time off for active duty training, state active duty, and inactive duty training.
  • Jury duty. Washington employers must also allow employees to take time off work for jury service. This time is unpaid.

Job Termination in Washington

Washington employees generally work at will. This means they can be fired at any time, for any reason that is not illegal. However, even at-will employees may not be fired for reasons that are discriminatory or retaliatory. You may not be fired, for example, for complaining about illegal discrimination or filing a wage claim for unpaid overtime.

Post-Termination Benefits

If you are laid off or otherwise lose your job through no fault of your own (for example, you are not fired for serious misconduct and you don’t quit voluntarily), you may qualify for unemployment benefits in Washington. Once you start receiving benefits, you will have to search for work to continue receiving them. If you are eligible, you will receive a percentage of your previous earnings for 26 weeks while you are looking for a new job.

Under a federal law called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), you may have the right to continue your health insurance coverage after your employment ends. However, you will have to pay the full premium (including whatever portion your employer used to pay), plus up to 2% of that amount for administrative costs. You can continue these benefits for 18 to 36 months, depending on your situation.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have questions about your workplace rights, you should speak to an experienced Washington employment lawyer.

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