Washington Wrongful Termination Laws

Learn about illegal firings in the state of Washington.

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Washington, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.

But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your Washington employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.

Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your Washington employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Washington employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced Washington employment lawyer. To learn more about Washington employment law, contact the office of the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.

Discriminatory Firing

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees. However, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for citizenship status discrimination.

Washington law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, age (40 and older), genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, HIV or AIDS status, hepatitis C infection, membership in the state militia, use of a service animal, gender identity, or status as a victim of domestic violence. Washington employers must comply with these laws if they have eight or more employees.

These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.

Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. The Washington Human Rights Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Commission has headquarters in Olympia. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.

Breach of Contract

If you have a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. Washington also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook or oral promises by the employer that indicate a promise of continued employment. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for good cause, your employer cannot fire you without a legitimate reason (such as misconduct or poor performance).

Wage and Hour Issues

Washington employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour. Under federal and Washington law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Washington requires employers to provide both meal and rest breaks to employees.

Employers must provide a 30-minute meal break to employees who work more than five consecutive hours. The meal break should not be less than two hours or more than five hours from the beginning of the shift. This time is unpaid unless the employee is on duty or is required to be at a site for the employer's benefit. Employees who work three or more hours longer than the regular workday are entitled to an additional half hour meal break. Agricultural employees are entitled to a 30-minute meal break if they work more than five hours and an additional 30 minutes if they work 11 or more hours in a day.

Employers must also provide a paid ten-minute rest break for each four hours worked, scheduled as close as possible to the midpoint of each work period. Employees may not be required to work more than three hours without a break. However, scheduled rest breaks aren’t required if the nature of the work allows the employee to take intermittent breaks equivalent to the required standard.

Under federal law, employers who provide breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”

Employers may not fire employees for filing wage claims or otherwise trying to recover their unpaid wages.

Time Off Work

State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Washington, these rights include:

  • Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Under Washington law, members of the Washington National Guard, U.S. armed forces, Cost Guard, or U.S. public health service are entitled to take leave when called to active duty or training, with reinstatement when their service is complete.
  • Jury duty. In Washington, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury service are subject to criminal sanctions and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
  • Family and medical leave. Washington employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position once their leave is over. (To learn more, see Nolo’s FMLA page.) Washington has its own family and medical leave law, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees and mirrors the FMLA in most respects. (For more details, see Nolo’s article Washington Family and Medical Leave.)
  • Pregnancy disability leave. Employers with eight or more employees must provide employees with time off when they are disabled due to pregnancy or childbirth. The amount of leave depends on the employee's specific condition and how long her health care provider has determined that she is unable to work.
  • Military family leave. All employers must provide up to 15 days of unpaid leave when an employee's spouse or registered domestic partner is called to active duty or is on leave from deployment.
  • Domestic violence leave. All employers must provide employees with reasonable unpaid time off to attend to legal, medical, or safety issues arising from domestic violence or sexual assault. There is no established limit on how much time an employee may take for these purposes. An employee may also take time off when a family member is the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault.

    Other State Claims

    • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees because they file, or intend to file, workers' compensation claims or because they otherwise exercise their rights under state workers' compensation laws.
    • Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing employees who exercise their rights under workplace safety laws or who testify in hearings regarding workplace safety violations.

    What to Do Next

    If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Washington employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.

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