New year means new laws for employers of all sizes | Crain's Seattle

New year means new laws for employers of all sizes

A new year can bring many things. New hope. New resolve. New laws. Employers based in Oregon and Washington will need to address, and in some cases merely revisit, existing policies and procedures they have in place on everything from sexual harassment to secured scheduling.

To get a better sense of employment-related changes and challenges businesses will face in 2018, Crain’s spoke with Shayda Zaerpoor Le, an attorney with the Portland-based Barran Liebman; and with Catharine Morisset, an attorney with Fisher Phillips, a national legal firm with a presence in both Portland and Seattle. Both firms specialize in employment law.

Crain’s: What do you see as some of the biggest employment-related challenges businesses will face in 2018?

Le: Sexual harassment issues. The majority of businesses won’t be facing issues of Harvey Weinstein proportions, but there is a heightened level of both concern and awareness surrounding all stages of precursor levels of behavior. Anyone who doesn’t already have a measured and carefully thought-out approach for how employee complaints can be lodged and what the response process will be would be wise to start working on that. 

For those businesses who do already have complaint and response procedures in place, it’s an excellent time to take a second look at those – not just for the purpose of making sure they are formulated, but also to consider what kinds of behaviors they will promote or discourage in practice, and whether updates could be beneficial.    

Secondly, I’d say pay equity. Oregon’s new pay equity law will go into effect in stages. But for some businesses, compliance may require a larger overhaul of how they set compensation, and an in-depth evaluation of relative levels of pay between lots of similarly-situated employees. Particularly for those companies who visit and adjust salaries once a year (often in the first quarter of the calendar year following employee reviews at year-end), an even earlier game plan may be needed – so that they don’t find themselves propagating pay issues with the 2018 round of raises which will then need to be further corrected come the start of 2019.

Morisset: Employers need to comply with Washington’s new statewide paid sick and safe leave law. The highlights of the law include:

  • Employers must provide at least 1 hour of paid sick and safe leave for every 40 hours worked
  • Paid sick leave must be paid to employees at their “normal rate of pay,” which is different than an employee’s regular rate of pay and may include commissions
  • Employees must be permitted to use their sick and safe leave after their 90th day of employment
  • Employees may carry over up to 40 hours of paid sick leave at the end of the year
  • Employees are permitted to use their sick and safe leave to care for themselves or a family member or for any reason that would qualify the employee under Washington’s Domestic Violence Leave Act, and
  •  Employers may not require the employee using paid sick and safe leave to find a replacement worker to cover for the employee using the leave.

The new law does not pre-empt, or overrule, various Washington cities’ paid sick and safe laws, such as Seattle’s. The statewide law also differs in many aspects from local laws, which means that employers may need to make adjustments (for example, if you currently have a front-loaded or universal PTO policy).

Also changing is the minimum wage in Washington. Effective the turn of the year, Washington’s minimum wage increased to $11.50. On January 1, 2019, it will once again bump to $12, and then to $13.50 on Jan.1, 2020. Some important things to keep in mind:

  • Employers must still pay all tips, gratuities, and service charges (except those that are itemized as not being payable to the employee or employees servicing the customer) to the employees or risk a wage claim
  • Tips and service charges paid to an employee may not offset Washington’s minimum wage requirement, and 
  • The new law does not pre-empt higher local minimum wages such as Seattle’s.

Crain’s: What do you view as the most positive impacts on employer-related laws changing/taking effect in 2018? It could be anything from so many changes makes it a great time to review employee policies on everything from sexual harassment to PTO, or whatever stands out to you.

Morisset: Employers may be discouraged by the current legislative and regulatory climate in our state, as well as recent headlines. But there is opportunity. A prudent employer will turn the publicity regarding some egregious examples of workplace sexual harassment into an opportunity to renew its commitment to positive workplace interactions. Particularly by conducting up-to-date, effective, workplace anti-harassment training for managers and its workforce, beyond just an out-of-date video. A recent study by the EEOC suggests that only in-person training conducted by a professional gets results. Content matters.

Le: This answer might be cheating, but the same issues relating to sexual harassment.  As much as it’s painful to institute change, or to be forced into new processes, harassment in the workplace should be something that all employers are committed to stamping out.  Your employees not only deserve to work in a safe and healthy environment, they are more productive when they do.  

And on the other side, you may be paying transgressors who not only spend working time bothering other people instead of doing their jobs, they are simultaneously making other people less productive. A renewed focus and commitment to working on and reducing these issues is good news for employees and employers alike. 

Crain’s: How do you think Washington and Oregon stand on these issues compared to other states?

Morisset: Washington state courts have long recognized our state as a pioneer for employee rights.  With the other “Left Coast” states (California and Oregon), it remains one of the most progressive and pro-employee. The city of Seattle is even more so, often adopting laws that end up leading a trend in other Washington cities or states. Paid sick leave is one example.  Seattle is one of the few jurisdictions with a secured scheduling law, and has one of the highest minimum wages in the country.  It remains a challenging climate for businesses who operate here.

Le: Oregon is generally on the progressive side of the line when it comes to employee protections, and particularly with our new pay equity bill, we are towards the front of the pack.

January 3, 2018 - 12:12pm