Washington is an employment-at-will state. This generally means that unless an employee is covered by a collective-bargaining agreement or other contract, a Washington employer may hire or fire an employee as long as the employer does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, national origin, color, marital status, or disability of the individual. However, Washington employers should be aware that Washington courts recognize the following exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine:
- Public-Policy Exception. Under the public-policy exception, an employer may be liable for wrongful discharge if an employee is terminated in light of an explicit, well-established public policy prohibiting such conduct. Civil actions against employers for violations of public policy have generally been allowed in four different situations:
- Where employees are fired for refusing to commit an illegal act.
- Where employees are fired for performing a public duty or obligation, such as serving jury duty.
- Where employees are fired for exercising a legal right or privilege, such as filing workers’ compensation claims.
- Where employees are fired in retaliation for reporting employer misconduct, such as whistleblowing.
- Implied-Contract Exception. Under the implied-contract exception, oral or written representations made to an employee may be viewed by the courts as an implied contract, making the employer liable under a breach of contract theory for any representations that were not honored.
Pursuant to Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.730, an employer who discloses information about a former or current employee to a prospective employer or employment agency at its specific request is presumed to be acting in good faith and is immune from civil and criminal liability for such disclosure or its consequences if the disclosed information relates to:
- The employee’s ability to perform the job;
- The diligence, skill, or reliability with which the employee carried out the duties of the job; or
- Any illegal or wrongful act committed by the employee when related to the duties of the job.
The presumption of good faith may only be rebutted upon a showing by clear and convincing evidence that the information disclosed by the employer was knowingly false, deliberately misleading, or made with reckless disregard for the truth.
Employers should retain a written record of the identity of the person or entity to which information is disclosed for a minimum of two years from the date of disclosure. The employee or former employee has a right to inspect any such written record upon request and the written record must become part of the employee’s personnel file, subject to other provisions relating to personnel file regulations.
Letter of Discharge
Pursuant to Wash. Admin. Code 296-126-050 and upon an employee’s written request, an employer must furnish him or her with a signed written statement stating the reasons for his or her discharge and the effective date. This statement must be provided within 10 working days of the request.
According to Wash. Rev. Code § 49.48.010, final wages must be paid on or before the next regularly scheduled payday regardless of whether an employee quits or is fired. Severance, personal holidays, and vacation time are voluntary benefits and employers may choose to pay out these benefits on a final paycheck. However, if a business promises any such benefits, then it must abide by the terms it established. Failure to abide by its own standards may result in the business incurring liability for the unpaid benefit promise and unfulfilled benefit.
Paid Sick Leave Balances
Regarding termination, paid sick leave balances are regulated as follows:
- Employees’ unused paid sick leave balances must be reinstated if an employee is terminated or leaves their job for any reason and returns to the same employer within 12 months.
- Paid sick leave balances are not required to be reinstated if they are paid in full to the employee when employment ends.
- Paid sick leave balances do not have to be cashed out or paid when employment ends, unless another state law or a collective-bargaining agreement requires it.
Deductions from Final Wages
Employers may not withhold an employee’s final paycheck if they do not turn in keys, uniforms, tools, or equipment. State law specifically regulates the permitted deductions from an employee’s final paycheck.
Any deductions from final paychecks may not take the employee’s final paycheck below the minimum wage, except for:
- Deductions required by state or federal law, such as federal income taxes, Medicare, workers’ compensation.
- Court-ordered wage garnishments.
- Deductions that benefit the employee, when the worker has agreed to the deductions in advance (final paychecks may include a verbal agreement), for example:
- Personal loans (cash advances, 401(k) or retirement loan payment, bail or bond payments).
- Personal purchases of a business’s goods or services such as:
- Food purchases from the cafeteria;
- Equipment purchased from employer; and
- Rent for living on employer-owned property.
- Employee’s health, dental, vision, and other insurance payments or co-payments.
- Deductions for medical, surgical, or hospital care or service.
Note: Employers may charge retail prices and reasonable interest for loans for any of these deductions, but they cannot otherwise financially profit or benefit.
The following deductions are allowed only when there is a verbal or written agreement between the employee and employer, and the incidents described occurred during the final pay period:
- For covering a cash shortage in the till: If the business has established policies regarding cash acceptance, the employee has sole access to the till, and the employee counted the cash at the start and end of the shift.
- For covering the cost of a lost or damaged equipment: If the equipment damage or loss can be shown to be caused by the employee’s dishonest or willful act.
- For acceptance of a “bad check” (NSF) or credit card purchase: If the business already has policies for check and credit card acceptance at the time of the incident.
- For worker theft: If the employee’s actions are shown to be dishonest or willful and the employer files a police report.
It is the employer’s responsibility to prove the employee’s alleged actions and the existence of any policy, agreement, or procedure. Employers should notify employees of all policies, agreements, and procedures for final paycheck deductions. These policies should be made in writing and signed by employees.