Employment and labor laws are put in place to protect employees from discrimination, harassment, and potential workplace hazards. Breaking these laws comes with serious consequences for employers, like hefty fines and possible jail time. But legal regulations aren’t one-size-fits-all across the US—they vary depending on the state and even the city.
An Oxfam America study ranks Washington as one of the best states to work in the US; the state has the most worker-friendly wage laws in the country. So whether you're hiring in Spokane or Seattle, you need to pay close attention to the ins and outs of Washington state’s employment laws.
But don’t sweat it—Rippling’s Professional Employer Organization service can take the guesswork out of staying compliant with Washington’s specific regulations, so you can focus on growing your business.
Employment vs. labor laws: What’s the difference?
Though often used interchangeably, employment and labor laws have distinct legal meanings. The difference comes down to who’s involved: Employment law concerns the relationship between an employer and an individual, and labor law concerns the relationship between an employer and a group of people, like a union.
To sum it up:
- Employment law deals with regulations related to hours, wages, overtime, hiring practices, workplace discrimination, and retaliation.
- Labor law is a subset of employment law, covering union membership, collective bargaining agreements, and union dues.
Wages and hours in Washington
Employers in Washington have to follow some of the strictest legal regulations in the country when it comes to paying employees. Plus, you need to comply with Washington’s pay transparency laws by stating pay ranges in every job posting.
Minimum wage in Washington
At $15.74 per hour, Washington state has the highest minimum wage ordinance in the country. Some cities and local jurisdictions have an even higher minimum wage:
$18.69 per hour
$18.69 per hour for employers with 501+ employees
$18.69 per hour for employers with 500 or fewer employees; or $16.50 per hour, if the employer pays $2.19 per hour toward medical benefits, and/or the employee earns $2.19 per hour in tips
The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) revises the minimum wage every year, and you need to stay on top of the changes. Fortunately, Rippling automatically detects minimum wage violations, ensuring you remain compliant with Washington’s local laws.
Overtime pay in Washington
While 40-hour workweeks are the norm, there are times when employees need to clock in extra hours to meet a tight deadline or make up for labor shortages. When this happens, you need to pay Washington employees 1.5 times their regular rate for all hours worked over 40 hours in a week. Double-time pay is not required under Washington state law, with the exception of certain public works projects.
When calculating an employee’s hourly rate, add up all compensation they earn in a week—including commissions and non-discretionary bonuses—and divide it by the number of hours worked.
To ensure compliance with Washington's overtime pay laws, Rippling's payroll software automatically applies the correct overtime pay rates when an employee’s hours exceed the regular workweek.
Pay transparency in Washington
While compensation has traditionally been somewhat of a taboo topic, pay transparency laws are becoming more and more common across the US to ensure equal pay. California was the first state to introduce this legislation in 2018, and 11 US states have since followed suit, including Washington.
Since 2019, Washington state law has required employers with 15 or more employees to disclose a job’s minimum compensation. But as of January 1, 2023, employers are also required to include pay ranges and a description of benefits and compensation in all job postings. Additionally, employers must provide a position’s salary range to current employees who receive an internal transfer or promotion upon request.
Rippling automatically enforces compensation bands during onboarding and flags out-of-band adjustments, so you can approve or deny individual cases.
Breaks and rest periods in Washington
Washington employers must provide workers with proper meal and rest breaks, including:
- At least 10 minutes of rest for every four hours worked
- Unpaid meal breaks of a minimum of 30 minutes when they work more than five hours in a shift, which must start as close to the midpoint of a work period as possible
- An additional unpaid meal period if they work more than three hours beyond their scheduled shift
Additionally, employees can’t be required to work more than three hours without a break. Other specific meal and rest period requirements may apply to nursing mothers and healthcare workers.
Leaves of absence in Washington
Washington law allows workers to take unpaid or paid leave for a range of reasons—whether to recover from an illness, serve on a jury, mourn the death of a family member, or care for a newborn child.
Almost all Washington employers must participate in the Paid Family and Medical Leave program (PFML), from businesses with just one employee to charities and nonprofits. Washington employees also have leave rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); PFML and FMLA will often run concurrently.
To be eligible for Paid Family and Medical Leave, employees must have worked at least 820 hours in Washington over the last year. The 820 hours can be at one job or multiple, including full-time, part-time, temporary, and seasonal work.
In one year, eligible workers in Washington can take either:
- Up to 12 weeks of medical or family leave
- 16-18 weeks of combined medical and family leave
Once they meet the eligibility criteria, employees can receive PFML benefits for:
- Medical leave for a serious health condition
- Providing care for a family member with a serious health diagnosis
- Bonding with a new baby or child in their family
Pregnancy disability leave in Washington
Employees can take 18 weeks of combined medical and family leave if they experience a condition in pregnancy that results in incapacity, such as being put on bed rest or having a C-section.
Even if an employer doesn’t allow leave for sickness or disability, they may not refuse reasonable leave to a woman who is pregnant. Employees must be able to return to the same job, or a similar job of at least the same pay, after taking a pregnancy disability leave.
Paid sick leave in Washington
You must provide workers in Washington with at least one hour of paid sick leave (PSL) for every 40 hours worked.
Full-time, part-time, seasonal, and temporary workers can take paid sick leave once they have been employed for at least 90 days. Reasons employees can take PSL include:
- A mental or physical illness, injury, or health condition
- To seek a medical diagnosis, treatment, or preventative medical care
- To care for a family member who requires medical attention
- If their workplace or their child’s place of care has been closed for a health-related reason by order of a public official
- If they are absent for reasons that qualify under Washington’s Domestic Violence Leave Act
Jury duty leave in Washington
You must provide employees with time off for jury duty without threatening to fire or penalize them in any way. While you’re not required to pay employees on jury duty, most employers provide compensation for at least part, if not all, of the time period.
With Rippling, you can automate and customize your leave policy, so you get a clear view of how employees are taking their leave.
Workplace safety in Washington
Employers are responsible for maintaining safe and healthy workplace conditions for their employees; this includes complying with applicable rules to prevent injuries and illnesses at work.
While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces safety and health requirements throughout the US, Washington is one of the 27 states that administers its own workplace safety and health program through the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH).
According to the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA), employers’ basic requirements include:
- Creating a written safety and health program addressing the specific hazards of your business
- Training employees on job safety and health
- Involving employees in your safety program by either having a safety committee or holding monthly safety meetings
- Keeping a record of all work-related injuries and illnesses that meet the criteria specified by law
Other rules apply to specific industries, like noise control, respiratory protection, and forklift safety. Additionally, L&I requires every employer in Washington state to develop a written Accident Prevention Program (APP) to address any safety and health hazards in their workplace.
To help employers identify and fix hazardous work conditions, L&I conducts on-site consultations, provides education and training resources, inspects workplaces, and investigates WISHA complaints.
Rippling PEO provides an accessible pay-as-you-go workers’ comp plan. Avoid upfront annual payments and scale your business with ease in Washington and anywhere else.
Discrimination and harassment laws in Washington
Washington has some of the strictest regulations in the country for employee harassment training and human rights compliance. The Washington Law Against Discrimination, enforced by the Washington State Human Rights Commission (WSHRC), prohibits unfair employment practices because of a person’s:
- Race or color
- National origin
- Sex (including pregnancy)
- Marital status
- Age (40+)
- Sexual orientation, including gender identity
- Honorably discharged veteran or military status
- State employee or healthcare whistleblower status
- Opposition to a discriminatory practice
- Presence of any disability that’s sensory, mental, or physical
- Use of a trained guide dog or service animal
- HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C status
Employers must comply with anti-discrimination and harassment laws in all areas of employment, including recruiting, wages, layoffs, training, and more. For example, employers can’t ask about a person’s sexual orientation or other protected class status during the hiring process.
Unlawful harassment includes any unwelcome verbal or physical conduct towards an employee based on the characteristics listed above, such as intimidation, ridicule, insults, and sexual assault. Washington state law prohibits any ongoing behavior that contributes to a hostile work environment and hinders an employee’s wellbeing and performance at work. If an employee has to put up with offensive behavior to keep their job, that qualifies as unlawful harassment.
There are two recognized types of illegal sexual harassment in Washington: hostile work environment and quid pro quo harassment. Sexual harassment training requirements vary by state. Washington employers in certain industries like hotels, motels, retail corporations, security guard entities, and property service contractors must provide employees with a specified list of assault and harassment prevention resources and a panic button.
Rippling’s Learning Management System is pre-loaded with core sexual harassment training courses to ensure each employee meets the state requirements regardless of where they live.
In Washington (and federally), employers are liable for the discrimination and harassment committed by their employees, even if they didn’t know about it happening. And the legal consequences can be steep.
Unions in Washington
A labor union is a group of two or more workers who come together to advance common interests and improve their working conditions, such as higher salaries, more time off, or improved benefits. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the rights to:
- Organize, join, or aid a union to negotiate with their employer
- Bargain collectively through their chosen employee representatives
- Discuss the terms and conditions of their employment with colleagues
- Take action to improve their working conditions by raising work-related complaints with their employer or government agency, or seeking help from a union
- Strike and picket, depending on the purpose
- Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining a union
The NLRA prohibits unions from threatening employees with job loss or harm if they don't support the union. Similarly, employers can't prohibit, discourage, fire, demote, or threaten employees who choose to join or support a union.
Union-related laws can vary from one state to another, including the “right-to-work” law, which gives employees the right to decide whether or not to join or support a union. Washington is not a “right-to-work” state, meaning Washington employers and labor unions have the freedom to negotiate contracts that require union membership. Employers can require workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
FAQs about Washington labor and employment laws
Are independent contractors covered under Washington employment laws?
It depends—independent contractors may be considered your employees under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act, RCW 49.17. A person can be an independent contractor for federal tax purposes but still be a “covered worker” for workers’ compensation purposes.
Rippling’s free worker classification analyzer helps ensure you’re correctly classifying workers and complying with employment regulations.
Does at-will employment exist in Washington?
Yes, Washington is an at-will employment state; employers can fire an employee at any time, for any reason, and without giving notice. However, employers can’t fire or retaliate against an employee who exercises a protected right or files a complaint under certain employment laws.
What privacy rights do employees have in Washington?
Washington privacy laws require employers to keep employees’ personally identifying, sensitive, or health-related information confidential. When employers no longer need to keep an employee’s payroll or personal records, they must properly discard or destroy them.
Employers are also prohibited from requiring or coercing employees to share their social media accounts.
Are background checks legal in Washington?
Yes, background checks are legal in Washington, but there are certain regulations employers must follow when requesting them. Washington state’s “ban-the-box” law requires employers to complete background checks only after determining that the applicant is qualified—with some exceptions.
Are whistleblowers protected in Washington?
Yes, the Washington Whistleblower Act protects whistleblowers by making retaliation against them unlawful.
Is workers’ compensation coverage required in Washington?
Yes, workers’ compensation insurance is generally required in Washington state for any business with one or more employees to protect workers from the financial impact of a work-related injury or disease. However, there are exceptions for certain types of workers.
Are there required healthcare benefits in Washington?
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires employers with 50+ full-time employees to offer essential health insurance benefits. Washington state law also requires certain healthcare plans to offer additional benefits.
Are Washington employers required to provide bereavement leave?
Yes, Washington employees are entitled to three days of paid bereavement leave following the death of a family member or household member.
What employee protections are available in Washington if layoffs occur?
Employers covered under federal law by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act are required to give employees a 60-day notice before being laid off.
Are Washington employees entitled to unemployment benefits?
Yes, employees who have worked at least 680 hours in their base year can apply for unemployment benefits through the Washington state Employment Security Department. If you reduce an employee’s hours, they may also qualify for partial unemployment benefits.
Disclaimer: Rippling and its affiliates do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal, or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any related activities or transactions.