Washington's Legislature wrapped up in March, once again passing several substantial employment laws that should prompt employers to spring into action. The Legislature broadened the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act to cover all protected classes, not just gender. It also amended the state's Paid Sick Leave Act to provide additional grounds for taking leave and to narrow the sick leave payment requirements for construction workers. The Legislature also passed a law providing hiring and retention protections for grocery workers after a purchase or merger. Read on for more about these laws and steps that employers should take.

Equal Pay and Opportunities Act Expands to Cover All Protected Classes

Washington's Equal Pay and Opportunities Act (EPOA) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of gender with regard to compensation and career advancement opportunities. The EPOA was passed in 2018 and has been amended twice in recent years, each time to provide greater pay transparency and broader protections to applicants and employees. (To learn more about the EPOA, see our previous Legal Updates here, here, and here.)

In the 2024 session, the Washington Legislature took the biggest step yet by extending the law to cover all classes that are protected from discrimination under state law: a person's age, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, national origin, citizenship or immigration status, honorably discharged veteran or military status, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.

Employers should spring into action to ensure that their practices and policies are compliant when SHB 1905 becomes effective on July 1, 2025. Employers who fail to comply with the EPOA may face complaints filed with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Aggrieved employees may also file individual and class action lawsuits seeking damages, penalties, and attorneys' fees.

Paid Sick Leave Act Expands Reasons for Taking Leave and Limits Payments for Construction Workers

Washington state's Paid Sick Leave Act, passed by voter initiative in 2017, requires employers to provide paid sick leave to employees who are classified as non-exempt from overtime compensation under state law. (See our firm's Legal Update on this law.) The Legislature amended the Paid Sick Leave Act in two significant aspects.

First, ESSB 5793 expanded the reasons employees may take paid sick leave and amended certain definitions. The following changes become effective on January 1, 2025:

  • The Sick Leave Act already allows employees to use paid sick leave when an employee's child's school or place of care has been closed for any health-related reason.
  • Under the new law, employers must now also allow employees to use paid sick leave when an employee's child's school or place of care has been closed "after the declaration of an emergency by a local or state government or agency, or by the federal government."
  • The Legislature also amended the definitions of "family member," "child," "grandchild," "grandparent," and "spouse."
    • "Family member" will now include any individual who regularly resides in the employee's home or where the relationship creates an expectation that the employee care for the person and that individual depends on the employee for care.
    • However, "family member" will not include an individual who simply resides in the same home with no expectation that the employee care for the individual. Additionally, "child" now includes a child's spouse.

Second, Washington legislation that just became effective in January 2024 required construction industry employers to pay out accrued sick leave upon separation to all workers covered under the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Code 23, including workers not directly engaged in the construction work itself.

SSB 5979 modifies which workers in the construction industry must receive paid sick leave payouts upon separation. As of March 13, 2024, construction industry employers primarily engaged in the preparation of sites for new construction, excluding residential building construction, must cash out paid sick leave to construction workers who perform service, maintenance, or construction work on a job site, in the field, or in a fabrication shop if the workers separate before completing 90 days of employment.

Washington's Department of Labor and Industries has announced it will engage in expedited rulemaking this Spring to implement these changes to the Paid Sick Leave Act.

New Law Protects Grocery Workers Upon a Change in Store Ownership

The Legislature passed ESSB 6007, which provides protections for grocery workers after a merger or other change in ownership. The new law will become effective on June 6, 2024.

  • The law states that grocery workers who work at a grocery store subject to a change in ownership or control must be preferentially hired or retained for at least 180 days until stores become fully operational under a merger. Workers at distribution centers also qualify for these protections.
  • After the 180-day period, workers at affected stores must receive a written performance evaluation, and if a worker receives satisfactory marks, the successor grocery employer "must consider offering the eligible grocery worker continued employment."
  • If the successor grocery employer does not hire an eligible worker following a change in control or does not retain an eligible worker for at least 180 days following a change in control, the successor must provide the employee with a "dislocated grocery worker allowance" equal to one week of pay for each full year of employment.
  • The law only applies to successor grocery stores that will own, control, or operate 20 or more stores after a change in control.

What Should Employers Do Now?

  • Prior to July 1, 2025, review existing policies, practices, and procedures that relate to employee compensation or career advancement opportunities to ensure compliance with the new amendments to the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act and update as necessary. Consider conducting an internal pay equity audit, in consultation with your legal counsel, to identify any pay inequities or pay gaps across all protected classes of similarly situated employees.
  • Prior to January 1, 2025, review paid sick leave policies to ensure compliance with the new requirements and update as necessary. Employers in the construction industry must pay careful attention to both the current law and the new law that will become effective on January 1, 2025.
  • Watch for additional guidance and rulemaking from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries to implement the changes to the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act and the state's paid sick leave law.
  • Those in the grocery industry must prepare for the new hiring and retention protections for grocery store workers if they experience a change in control or ownership of their store.
  • For more changes to employment law from the 2024 session, review Lane Powell's Legal Updates on legislative changes to Washington's noncompete law and the new Employer Free Choice Act.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.