Compliance Watch:
Penalties for Breaking Washington Labor Laws

February 15th 2024

In 2018, Washington State was the fastest-growing economy in the US. And despite the impacts of the pandemic in 2020, the state still managed to grow its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 1.1 percent. But with all of this growth comes the need to ensure that labor laws are upheld in the state, and penalties for breaking Washington labor laws are properly enforced.

This article explores the penalties for breaking Washington labor laws, highlighting the consequences of noncompliance and stressing the importance of following the state’s labor standards. By understanding these penalties, employers can proactively maintain a fair and legal work environment for their employees while avoiding potential legal and financial pitfalls.

This Article Covers

Most Common Labor Law Violations in Washington
Penalties for Breaking Washington Labor Laws
How You Can Avoid Violating Washington Labor Laws

Most Common Labor Law Violations in Washington

The Washington State Legislature has enacted several new laws to curb violations in the state. However, despite these new laws and penalties for breaking Washington labor laws, there continue to be employers who find themselves in legal trouble. Some of the most common violations employers commit include:

  • Wage Theft: This violation can take various forms, such as withholding pay, paying less than the minimum wage, not paying overtime, or manipulating time records. In 2020, the Washington Department of Labor and attorneys general were able to collect $3,204,476 in recovered employee wages. Given the magnitude of the problem, Washington continues to be steadfast in preventing wage theft by passing various legislations and strengthening enforcement through local efforts.
  • Employee Misclassification: This is another common violation in Washington, where employers misclassify workers as independent contractors instead of employees. Between 2013 and 2017, an estimated 1.3% of workers were misclassified on average. This may not seem like a lot, but it translates to approximately 44,492 misclassified workers deprived of the pay and benefits they should’ve been entitled to. The construction, clerical services, and hotels/restaurants industries, in particular, see the most employee misclassification cases.
  • Workplace Discrimination: Workplace discrimination refers to unfair treatment of employees based on protected characteristics, including race, color, national origin, gender, age, disability, and religion. Data from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows that there were 1004 individual charges related to discrimination filed in Washington. Most of these discrimination cases were due to retaliation.

Penalties for Breaking Washington Labor Laws

“In our state, we value companies that respect workers’ rights.” – Washington Governor Jay Inslee, 2018

The state of Washington takes workers’ rights and well-being seriously, enforcing a robust set of labor laws to protect employees across various industries. Here’s a look at these key labor laws in the state and the penalties for violating them.

Washington Minimum Wage Act (WMWA)

Washington State currently has the highest state minimum wage in the United States. It is set at $15.74 per hour, which is $1.25 higher than the previous year’s minimum wage. This is also more than double the federal minimum wage, which remains at $7.25.

The $15.74 minimum wage is applicable for most employees in the state, except for workers employed as bona fide executives, administrative employees, computer professionals, outside sales employees, and so on.

Unlike other states, Washington doesn’t allow “Tip Crediting.” This means tips are not part of an employee’s state hourly minimum wage. Tipped employees should receive the standard minimum wage regardless of the amount of tips they receive.

It’s also important to note that the City of Seattle imposes a different minimum wage for employers with 501 or more employees. These large companies must pay non-exempt workers a minimum wage of $18.69/hour.

Penalty for Violation

If employers don’t follow the Washington Minimum Wage Act, they can be ordered to pay all unpaid wages and may face criminal and civil penalties. Even if an employer and employee agree to wages below the minimum wage, the employer is still liable under the WMWA.

Violating the minimum wage law can lead to gross misdemeanor charges, which can result in up to one year of imprisonment, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

For repeated and intentional violations, the court can impose a fine of at least $1,000 or 10 percent of the total unpaid wages, whichever is greater. The maximum fine in such cases is $20,000 for employers.

Overtime Laws

Most employees in Washington who work over 40 hours in a 7-day workweek are entitled to receive overtime pay. Overtime pay should be at least 1.5 times their regular hourly rate.

Regardless of their size, employers must provide this overtime pay to eligible workers. However, certain healthcare facility employees may be exempted from mandatory overtime work. Collective bargaining agreements and employers can offer more generous overtime pay than what is mandated by Washington law.

Other exceptions to the overtime rate include:

  • Executives
  • Administrative employees
  • Learned or creative professionals
  • Computer professionals
  • Highly compensated employees
  • Outside salespeople

In 2021, the legislative session made changes to overtime laws, extending them to cover agricultural workers, particularly those in the dairy industry. Starting January 1, 2022, non-dairy workers were made eligible for overtime pay after working 55 hours or more per week.

Learn more in detail about Washington Overtime Laws.

Penalty for Violation

Employers can face civil money penalties (CMPs) of up to $1,000 per violation if they repeatedly or intentionally violate Washington’s minimum wage and overtime requirements.

These penalties aim to deter future noncompliance and are not directly linked to the amount of unpaid wages. Normally, CMPs are imposed for violations within a two-year investigation period. However, if the violations are found to be intentional, the investigation can cover three years.

Washington Pay Transparency Law

On January 1, 2023, Washington joined states like California, New York, and Maryland in enforcing pay transparency laws. Under the new amendments to the state’s Equal Pay and Opportunities Act, employers are required to include specific details about pay and benefits in their job postings.

Job postings from covered employers must include the following information:

  • Wage scale or salary range: Employers should provide a reasonable and expected compensation range for the job, starting from the lowest to the highest pay. Open-ended ranges are not allowed.
  • General description of benefits: Employers must give a general overview of all benefits offered, such as healthcare, retirement plans, vacation time, paid holidays, and any other benefits required for federal tax purposes.

For specific benefits:

  • Insurance: Different types of insurance should be listed separately, such as medical, vision, dental, life, and disability insurance.
  • Retirement plans: Various retirement plan options, like 401(k) and employer-funded plans, should be specified.
  • PTO, vacation, and other leaves: If the job offers PTO, vacation, or other leaves beyond legal requirements, the accrual rate or the number of hours/days should be mentioned.
  • Holidays: The number of paid holidays should be listed without specifying each holiday’s name.
  • General description of other compensation: Employers should provide a general overview of bonuses, commissions, profit-sharing, stock options, and other cash or incentive-based compensation.
  • Commissions and piece rates: If compensation is commission-based or paid on a piece rate basis, the posting should include the range of commission rates or applicable piece rates.
Penalty for Violation

Washington employers can face an administrative penalty of $1,000 for each violation of the pay transparency regulations.

In addition, candidates and current employees who feel aggrieved can take legal action against the employer to recover a minimum of $5,000 in damages, along with interest, costs, and attorney fees.

Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML)

The state of Washington provides Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits to eligible workers through a program administered by the Employment Security Department (ESD).

To qualify for PFML, employees must have worked at least 820 hours within a specific period. This benefit can only be used for certain qualifying events, such as personal illness, taking care of newborn or young children, caring for a sick family member, or certain military-related situations.

Typically, workers can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave. However, if they experience multiple qualifying events in a year, they may get up to 16 weeks of leave. If an employee suffers from a serious health condition with a pregnancy that results in incapacity, they may be eligible for up to 18 weeks of leave.

As for the amount of benefits employees can receive, this is based on a percentage of their average weekly pay. The benefit can replace up to 90% of the weekly wage, with a minimum of $100 per week and a maximum of $1,427 per week.

It’s important to note that PFML is a statewide program and does not replace the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Penalty for Violation

If an employer violates a family leave law requirement, they can be fined at least $1,000 for each violation. Even if the employer hasn’t been found guilty by the Department of Labor & Industries, an employee can still file a separate civil lawsuit to claim damages.

Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

In the US, every state follows the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which aims to ensure that workers have a safe and healthy work environment. Washington is no exception. The act helps prevent work-related injuries by addressing workplace hazards, including biological, chemical, organizational, safety, physical, and ergonomic hazards.

Under OSHA, employer responsibilities include:

  • Displaying the official OSHA poster that explains rights and responsibilities under the OSH Act.
  • Informing workers about hazards through training, labels, alarms, color-coded systems, and chemical information sheets.
  • Providing safety training.
  • Keeping accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
  • Conducting workplace tests, such as air sampling, as required by certain OSHA standards.
  • Arranging for hearing exams or other medical tests mandated by OSHA standards.
  • Displaying OSHA citations and data on injuries and illnesses where workers can see them.
  • Notifying OSHA within 8 hours in case of a workplace fatality or within 24 hours for any work-related hospitalization, amputation, or eye loss.

Washington has two programs that work together with OSHA to promote workplace safety: the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Administration (WISHA) and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH).

WISHA enforces additional rules to create a safe working environment for employees. At the same time, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) within DOSH is responsible for inspecting work environments to identify and report any problems or issues.

Penalty for Violation

If an employer is found guilty of violating OSHA laws and failing to provide a secure work environment, they could be looking at fines ranging from $5,000 all the way up to a whopping $70,000 for each violation.

These penalties can further increase if the violation results in severe injury or death to the worker involved.

Whistleblower Protection Law

Several laws exist to prevent companies from retaliating against whistleblowers who expose them through protected acts. In Washington state, RCW 42.40 safeguards whistleblowers in government positions, while RCW 49.60 makes it illegal for all companies to retaliate or penalize individuals who report them. Retaliation may take the form of termination, demotion, or harassment.

OSHA also has its own Whistleblower Protection Program in the US. This program enforces laws that protect workers and offers support to those who face retaliation from their employers after reporting unsafe, illegal, or unethical activities in the workplace.

Penalty for Violation

Under RCW 42.52.410, if it’s found that someone has taken revenge or retaliated against an employee for whistleblowing, the person responsible could face a civil penalty of up to $5,000.

As for OSHA’s whistleblower protection provisions, if it is discovered that there is indeed a violation after investigation, they will send a determination letter to the employer. This letter will require the employer to pay back wages, reinstate the employee, reimburse the employee for legal and expert witness fees, and take other necessary steps to provide relief. Complaints that are found to be invalid will be dismissed.

Child Labor Laws

In Washington, the minimum age for employment is 14 years, with a few exceptions for limited types of work. Children aged 14 and 15 are only allowed to work a maximum of three hours per day on school days and a total of 16 hours per week. On non-school days, weekends, and during school breaks, they can work up to eight hours per day and a maximum of 40 hours per week.

For those aged 16 and 17, there are fewer limitations on working hours. They can work up to 20 hours per week during school days and up to 48 hours per week during school breaks. However, they must still be provided with appropriate rest and meal breaks during their shifts.

Certain hazardous occupations, such as operating heavy machinery or working with dangerous chemicals, are completely off-limits for individuals under 18. Additionally, there are restrictions on working in potentially harmful environments, including construction sites or places that may expose minors to risks that could jeopardize their safety.

It’s important to note that all minors who want to work in Washington first must secure a work permit or employment certificate issued by the Washington Department of Labor.

Penalty for Violation

If employers fail to provide safe and appropriate working conditions, the Department of Labor and Industries has the authority to revoke the employer’s minor work permit.

Penalties for violating child labor laws can also include civil penalties of up to $1,000, depending on the severity of the violation.

In cases where a child dies or suffers permanent disability due to a violation, it may be treated as a Class C felony. Employers who knowingly or recklessly violate child labor laws may face gross misdemeanor charges.

Washington Rest and Meal Breaks

Washington regular employees have the right to a paid rest period lasting at least 10 minutes for every 4 hours of work. Some additional rules include the following:

  • Employees cannot be made to work more than 3 hours without a break.
  • Breaks should be scheduled as close to the middle of the work period as possible.
  • Employers can require workers to remain at the job site during their break.
  • Rest breaks are considered as “hours worked” when calculating paid sick leave and overtime.
  • In certain jobs, shorter “mini” breaks can be taken instead of a scheduled break, as long as the total break time adds up to at least 10 minutes within a 4-hour period.

As for meal breaks, employees are entitled to one meal period if they work for more than five hours in a shift. The meal break should be at least 30 minutes long and start between the second and fifth hours of the shift. These meal breaks should be paid if the employee is required to stay on duty during the break or is suddenly called back to interrupt their meal break.

Minors also have their unique break regulations, different from the ones stated above.

Penalty for Violation

According to Washington’s top court, if employees miss their paid rest breaks, it should be considered as time worked. This means that employers must include the missed rest break time in the total hours worked by employees and pay them overtime for any hours exceeding 40 in a workweek.

Failure to properly pay for these breaks can violate Washington’s overtime laws, resulting in civil money penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

How You Can Avoid Violating Washington Labor Laws

To avoid violating Washington labor laws, it’s important to understand and comply with the state’s employment regulations. Here are some key steps you can take to ensure compliance:

Tip #1 Learn about Washington’s key labor laws.

Familiarize yourself with the key labor laws in Washington that apply to your business. Some important laws to be aware of include the Washington Minimum Wage Act, Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave, and OSHA’s safety regulations. Understanding these laws will help you establish a solid foundation for compliance and save you from the penalties for breaking Washington labor laws.

Tip #2 Set clear company policies.

Develop comprehensive and clear company policies that align with Washington labor laws. These policies should cover areas such as minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest breaks, anti-discrimination and harassment, and safety protocols. Communicate these policies to all employees and ensure they are easily accessible.

Tip #3 Maintain accurate employment records.

Keep thorough and accurate employment records for each employee. This includes employment contracts, job descriptions, and performance evaluations.

It’s also important to track employee work hours, including overtime, breaks, and leaves taken. This will help you ensure that they are paid for all the hours they’ve worked. To simplify the process of recording employee hours, try using time tracking software. Not only do these tools save you a lot of time, but they also minimize the risk of errors associated with manual calculations.

Tip #4 Stay informed about changes.

Labor laws are subject to change, so it is crucial to stay up-to-date with any updates or amendments to Washington’s labor laws. Regularly review the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries’ website, attend relevant seminars or webinars, and consider subscribing to newsletters or alerts from trusted sources. Being aware of changes will help you proactively adjust your policies and practices accordingly.

Tip #5 Seek professional guidance if needed.

If you have any doubts or concerns about complying with Washington labor laws, it is advisable to seek professional guidance. Consult with an attorney specializing in employment law or engage the services of a reputable human resources consultant. These experts can provide accurate advice and ensure your practices align with legal requirements.

Important Cautionary Note

The penalties for breaking Washington labor laws mentioned in this article are potential consequences under the FLSA and related statutes. However, actual penalties depend on the violation severity and the decision of the court or relevant authorities. The information provided in this article is intended to be informative but should not be considered legal advice.

Laws and regulations can change, so it’s advisable to consult employment attorneys or consultants for current and personalized guidance in your circumstances and jurisdiction. Learn more about Washington Labor Laws through our detailed guide.