Washington Layoff Laws

Although Washington law doesn't give employees layoff rights, the federal WARN Act does.

Have you recently lost your job in a layoff or plant closing? If so, you should know your rights. Unfortunately, employers in Washington are not legally prohibited from closing a plant or laying off workers in the first place. However, even if you don’t necessarily have the right to keep your job, you might have other rights.

If you are a union member, for example, you may have layoff rights through your collective bargaining agreement. For example, the agreement might give employees who lose their jobs the right to be considered first for rehire or to “bump” less senior employees who were not targeted for layoff.

Employees may also have the right to notice before they lose their jobs. The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires employers to give notice of substantial layoffs or plant closures. Employees who don’t receive the legally required notice might be entitled to damages.

Some states also have notice laws. Because most of them are modeled on WARN, they are often called “mini-WARN” laws. A few states go further and require employers to provide health insurance continuation or severance for a period after the layoffs. However, Washington doesn’t have a mini-WARN law. In Washington, employees have rights only through the WARN Act.

This article explains how the WARN Act protects Washington employees. For articles on other rights you may have if you are terminated, see our Losing or Leaving Your Job page. There, you’ll find articles on how to continue your health benefits, when you should receive your final paycheck, and much more.

Who Must Comply With WARN

WARN applies only to larger employers. Employers must provide the notice required by WARN only if they have 100 or more full-time employees, or at least 100 employees who work a combined 4,000 hours or more per week. Employees count as “full time” if they work 20 or more hours a week and have worked for the employer for at least six of the 12 months before notice is required.

Layoffs and Plant Closings Covered by WARN

WARN applies only if a large number of employees lose their jobs in a plant closing or mass layoff.

  • A plant closing takes place when an employer shuts down a single site of employment (such as an office, building, or campus of buildings), or at least one operating unit or facility within a site, resulting in at least 50 full-time employees losing their jobs during any 30-day period.
  • A mass layoff is a reduction in force that results in job loss at a single employment site for 50 to 499 full-time employees, if the number of employees laid off makes up at least one third of the employer’s active workforce, or for at least 500 employees.

Contents and Timing of WARN Notice

To comply with WARN, Washington employers must notify employees of a mass layoff or plant closing 60 days in advance. Employees are entitled to notice if they will lose their jobs. For employees who are union members, the employer must notify their union representative instead.

The notice must include certain information, including the date when layoffs are expected to begin, whether the layoffs are expected to be permanent, and the date when the employee will receive a termination letter.

Exceptions to WARN’s Notice Requirement

Employers can’t always give notice 60 days in advance. There are a handful of exceptions to WARN, which allow employers to give less notice – or even no notice at all – in certain circumstances.

An employer doesn’t have to give any notice of a mass layoff or plant closing resulting from an employee strike or lockout. An employer also doesn’t have to give notice if it lays off employees who were hired only for a temporary project that has been completed, or to work in a temporary facility that is shutting down. However, an employer can rely on this exception only if the employees knew, when they were hired, that their jobs were temporary.

In some situations, employers may give less than 60 days’ notice. An employer who relies on one of these exceptions must give as much notice as possible. And, in its notice paperwork, the employer must explain why it couldn’t give more notice.

  • Unforeseeable business circumstances. If the need for plant closing or layoffs could not reasonably be foreseen when the employer should have given 60 days’ notice, less notice is allowed.
  • Natural disasters. Shorter notice is allowed if a natural disaster necessitated the layoff or plant closing.
  • Faltering company. An employer may give less notice if it was actively seeking business or investments that would have allowed it to postpone or avoid the plant closing altogether, and it reasonably believed that notifying employees as required by WARN would have precluded it from obtaining the necessary investment. This exception does not apply to mass layoffs, only to plant closings.

If Your Rights Are Violated

Although the federal Department of Labor is responsible for interpreting and explaining WARN through regulations, it isn’t authorized to investigate complaints, issue citations, or file lawsuits against employers that violate the law. The only way employees can enforce their rights under WARN is by filing a lawsuit.

Workers who don’t receive the notice required by WARN can be awarded all compensation and benefits lost due to the WARN violation, up to the full 60 days WARN requires. This amount is reduced by any wages earned or severance payments the employer made voluntarily during that time. For example, if an employer gave notice 20 days in advance of a mass layoff, it owes employees damages for the remaining 40 days.

If your employer violates WARN, you should consult with an experienced Washington employment attorney. Employees who win a WARN lawsuit are entitled to attorney fees, which gives attorneys an incentive to take a good case. Because the damages available to any one employee are relatively low, an attorney might suggest going forward as part of a class action, on behalf of all of the employees who did not get the notice required by WARN.

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