Washington adds worker protection laws, including ban on mandatory anti-union meetings

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs labor rights and environmental protection bills into law on March 25. (Courtesy Office of the Governor)

Washington workers will soon gain some new rights, including protections against employers holding mandatory meetings on religious and political issues.

“In Washington state, we protect that which we value. We value our workers and we value our working families,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, who signed a slate of workplace protection bills on Thursday.

The Employee Free Choice Act makes Washington the sixth state to prohibit employers from disciplining or firing employees who refuse to attend “captive audience” meetings, which employers often use as a union-busting tactic.

“Nothing in this bill prevents an employer from saying what they want to say, it just doesn’t require an employee to listen,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, lead sponsor of the bill. The Employee Free Choice Act is Keiser’s final bill to become law before she retires. 

Inslee also signed a bill that will allow the Department of Labor & Industries to investigate pay equity discrimination claims made on the basis of age, race, disability and other classes protected under Washington’s anti-discrimination laws.

The department until now has only had the authority to investigate claims based on gender. Other protected classes could file claims to the Human Rights Commission or sue in civil court.

Washington’s gender wage gap is among the worst in the country.

Another bill Inslee signed, Senate Bill 5793, expands Washington’s paid sick leave law, which requires employers to offer at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked — around 12 to 18 weeks a year for most employees. The law also allows employees to use paid sick leave to care for ailing family members.

SB 5793 broadens the definition of “family member” to include roommates and close relationships. It will also allow employees to use paid sick leave if a child’s school or daycare is closed due to emergency declarations made by local, state or federal government.

Other bills signed will prohibit mandatory overtime for all health care workers and promote construction apprenticeship programs for incarcerated people.

Inslee signed the bills at the Kent headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46.

Washington has a union membership rate of 16.5% among all employees, which means the state has about 576,000 union members, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2023. The data show the national union membership rate for last year was 10%.

“There’s a reason we have the third-highest union membership in the state of Washington and we won’t rest until it’s number one, by the way,” Inslee said.

While the number of Washington employees in a union has steadily risen since at least 2013, the membership rate in the state is the lowest it’s been in the past decade, despite a surge in union activity across the United States.

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

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