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House of Representatives passes Worker Protection Act

OLYMPIA (March 6, 2021) — On Friday, the Washington State House of Representatives voted 53-44 to pass the Worker Protection Act to allow workers to sue businesses on behalf of the state for violating labor and workplace standard laws. HB 1076 was introduced by Rep. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge Island).

“All workers should be paid the wages they are owed, given the breaks guaranteed in law, and protected in the workplace,” Hansen said. “But that isn’t always the case and in those unfortunate and thankfully rare occasions, workers need every tool available to them to get justice. The Worker Protection Act gives workers the chance to blow the whistle on bad activity they’re experiencing, or witnessing, and get relief for themselves or their coworkers.”

“All Washington workers — particularly Black, brown and immigrant workers on the front lines of the pandemic — need to know that existing wage and safety laws will protect them,” said Larry Brown, president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “Too many face retaliation, intimidation or firing when they stand up for basic rights. The Worker Protection Act allows them to blow the whistle when they face discrimination or illegal treatment. That will help improve compliance with the law and ensure that all employers compete on a level playing field. We thank Representative Hansen and all the state representatives who voted to protect workers with HB 1076.”

The bill now advances to the Senate for consideration.

BACKGROUND — Over the years, Washington state has enacted many important protections for working people. We have been leaders on raising the minimum wage, requiring paid sick leave, strengthening overtime pay standards and protecting workers from discrimination, just to name a few. But sometimes, unscrupulous employers break these laws and get away with it.

HB 1076 would allow workers to blow the whistle in court if their employers violate wage, work safety and discrimination laws but state agencies are unable or have declined to investigate the complaint. If the court finds that an employer has violated the law, any penalties paid would be divided between the affected worker(s) and the state.

Withheld wages, dangerous workplaces, and racial and gender discrimination — although illegal under current state law — are real problems that are hurting workers in Washington state, particularly Black and Indigenous folks and people of color. When these violations are not prosecuted, it harms not just the workers but also law-abiding employers who are undercut by unscrupulous competition.

Workers can already blow the whistle in court on fraud in the Medicaid system or in federal contracting, and California workers can do so when their state labor laws are violated. In all of these areas, this system has proven successful in improving compliance and enforcement.

HB 1076 would allow workers to do the same in Washington state. It doesn’t grant any new worker rights, it merely promotes the enforcement of existing ones.

At House committee hearings on the Worker Protection Act, workers told legislators about the barriers they have faced when trying to protect themselves and exercise their rights, and how HB 1076 will help hold employers accountable if they break the law.

“I have personally experienced working conditions that do not comply with labor laws,” said Agustin Lopez, who works in a fruit-packing warehouse in Yakima Valley. “It is very sad but many of my coworkers are too fearful to make formal complaints. They do not want to lose their job and income. I support the Worker Protection Act because it allows for a worker to file a lawsuit for themselves and their coworkers… I think this law will be a major step in the right direction for workers at my place of work and for others who work in the agricultural industry.”

Shellea Allen, National President of Pride At Work and an organizer with Teamsters Local 117, also testified in support of HB 1076.

“Here in Washington we already have some of the best laws in the country that protect the LGBTQ community,” Allen said. “Unfortunately, even with these laws on the books there is no capacity for enforcement and even worse, workers are often afraid to come forward to tell their stories… The Worker Protection Act would give the LGBTQ community another avenue to enforce the anti-discrimination and retaliation laws that already exist.”

For more information about the Worker Protection Act, download this one-pager from the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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