With all the focus on the imminent changes to mask mandates and renewed return to work planning efforts underway, one important new obligation in Washington State may have slipped past many employers’ radars. While announcing the anticipated changes to masking and other COVID-19-related protocols, Washington Governor Inslee also issued a Safe Worker Proclamation that provides additional COVID-19-related job protections for Washington workers.
As of now, employers are expressly prohibited from taking any adverse action against an employee for:
- Receiving the COVID-19 vaccination;
- Taking a reasonable period of time off to receive the COVID-19 vaccination or recover from any side effects of the vaccine;
- Taking the time off required under a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19, or as advised by a health care official or provider due to concerns of or a potential positive test result for COVID-19, or while they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis;
- Wearing a face covering (e.g., a mask).
“Adverse action,” for purposes of these protections, is broadly defined but expressly includes:
- Terminating, suspending, demoting, or denying a promotion;
- Denying the worker their choice of any available paid leave provided by existing state laws, a collective bargaining agreement, or employer policy to cover the qualifying event, unless otherwise allowed by existing federal or state leave laws;
- Denying unpaid leave to the worker if they do not have any paid leave available to cover the qualifying event, unless otherwise allowed by existing federal or state leave laws;
- Denying use of, or delaying payment for, paid leave, wages, or other amounts owed to the worker;
- Reducing the number of work hours for which the employee is scheduled;
- Altering the employee’s preexisting work schedule;
- Reducing the employee’s rate of pay; and
- Threatening to take, or taking action, based upon the immigration status of an employee or an employee’s family member.
In addition to insulating employees from negative consequences because they choose to mask or become vaccinated, this Safe Worker Proclamation effectively creates a new category of job-protected, but otherwise unpaid, leave for qualifying reasons. This new category of leave kicks in when the employee has exhausted any otherwise available paid or unpaid leave, sick time, or PTO. Employers with employees in Washington will want to be sure that as they work to update their COVID-19 protocols and safe workplace practices, they comply with these new requirements.