The first few months of every new year always brings about the most change in employment laws, regulations and policies. One would have to be buried deep to realize that this year is no exception, especially with a few of the state laws that went into place. Some are more known than others, however, so continue reading to get a quick overview of what came into play as we entered 2022.
The main state law making headlines is the Washington Cares Act (known as the Long Term Care tax). As of this writing, the law is in effect — employers are required to deduct premiums from employee paychecks (unless there’s an ESD-approved exemption). More information on this law can be found at WA Cares Fund (https://wacaresfund.wa.gov/) and then navigating Long Term Care Benefits – Exemptions – Enrollment.
Having said that, there was quite a bit of confusion and backlash throughout Washington, and the state legislature is working through the process to take action. The House passed SHB 1732 and SHB 1733 on January 19, which would delay the implementation of the law (i.e., employers would not collect the premiums from employees) and would allow for voluntary exemptions for certain populations. It is fully expected that the Senate will seek to pass these bills during the week of January 24, setting up a signing by the Governor at the beginning of February. Then, the chaos of returning any funds collected will fall on employers’ shoulders, along with the work of figuring out how to better set up this plan (or eliminate it) by vested legislators, activists, business representatives and many others can begin.
A lesser-known law that hit the books this year is the Washington Wage Recovery Act. Employers need to know about this because employees who are owed wages are now able to go and file a lien against personal property of employers. It’s a new avenue for workers to recoup any wages they may be owed through the Department of Licensing. More information about this can be found Chapter 60.90 RCW: WASHINGTON WAGE RECOVERY ACT.
Something that changed in July of 2021 but important to note was an expansion of qualified individuals for which an employee can take Paid Family Medical Leave. Now it also includes a category of individuals “who rely on you [employee] for care, whether you live together, are related or not.” Determining whether an employee has a close enough relationship with the individual needing care, along with granting the paid leave, is still up to the state’s Employment Security Department.
From a federal level, the big discussion has been around OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) which stemmed from President Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate for private employers of 100-plus employees. The Supreme Court ruled in January that this ETS was not enforceable, and OSHA has responded by pulling that ETS. It is important to note, however, that OSHA is moving ahead through the proper process of review and hearings to create a permanent safety policy for the workforce with respect to COVID-19.
Related to this, at the state level, employers should remember that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the ETS has no bearing on any regulations that the state might implement in the meantime. Always keep an eye out and an ear to the ground on any changes that might be coming down while OSHA continues to go through the formal process of a policy, nationwide.
Further, the ruling does not affect the rights of private employers to create their own policy around vaccines – whether they mandate it for their workforce, or have a test-out feature, or any other policy they see fit. The policy a private employer may have must meet the minimum safety guidelines outlined by the employer’s state, but it can go above that minimum as well. Policies should be reviewed by counsel and enforced uniformly across the organization’s workforce.
More vaccine-based policies at the federal level continue to be tested in courts of law, including most recently the requirement for all federal employees to be vaccinated. A federal judge in Texas has blocked this executive order, but the story isn’t finished here, as the decision will likely be appealed to the higher court. In addition, the Supreme Court has also ruled that the vaccine regulations for healthcare industry workers can remain in effect.
There are some things still in process at the federal level — not yet law — but being considered. Non-compete agreements, right to unionize, paid family and medical leave, among other ideas, are on the table.
Similarly, at the state level, new policies continue to be discussed. Revamping the Washington Cares Act of course is top of the list, but also include revisions to eligibility for unemployment benefits, protecting and enforcing data privacy rights, prevailing wage in the private sector, and licensure reciprocity in some health care professions — just to name a few.
As always, things can change in an instant. Staying on top of many of these continually shifting regulations is a big job, and many HR professionals have found more of their time is spent following these laws and regulations more than ever before. The new 2022 is already proving to continue (if not pick up) the pace of change, so hold on for the ride!
Monica Blackwood is CEO of Westsound Workforce, a staffing agency with offices in Gig Harbor and Poulsbo.