Here’s the skinny on what Washington State employers need to know about minimum wage laws in 2011:
- In 1998 Washington voters passed an initiative that declared that our state’s minimum wage would rise on January 1st each year.
- On January 1, 2011 our minimum wage will rise to $8.67, giving us the highest minimum wage in the nation.
- In the past, employers were required to put a minimum wage information poster up in the workplace, but no longer! Labor & Industries has discontinued this requirement in 2011 to make things a little simpler for businesses. However, you still must put up the “Your Rights as a Worker” poster, which you can download from the L&I website. (Don’t forget to send a link to this poster to any employees who work from home. They still have to be notified of their rights!)
Employers occasionally ask us if there is a way that they can pay less than the minimum wage. The only exception is for teen workers, ages 14 and 15, who may be paid 85% of the minimum wage, which is $7.37 per hour.
Can you allow people to work as unpaid volunteers?
Some employers have asked if they can utilize volunteers in their business. This question can especially pop up when a business is in a start-up mode, and has limited funds.
It can be tempting to entice volunteers with the promise of later payment or stock options down the road after the business takes off. Sometimes a job seeker will even suggest to a business that they work as a volunteer, in the hope that they’ll gain some valuable job experience, or that the work they do as a volunteer will ultimately convince the company to hire them.
While it may be tempting to get free labor, it is against the law for a for-profit business to utilize volunteers! You must at least pay your employees minimum wage. If you allow an individual to work directly or indirectly on behalf of your business, or permit them to do any work for your business, they are your employee, and you must pay them for the hours they work.
Do you have to pay people for “working” interviews?
Employers also ask us if they can utilize working interviews as a way to see if an employee is a good match for their business.
In a working interview an employee will typically interview with the employer, and then will work for a short period of time in the job, usually no more than a day or two, in order for the employer to verify that the job applicant has the basic skills necessary for the job.
Again, any time someone is working for your company, even if you consider it a working interview, they are your employee during that period of time, and you must pay them at least minimum wage for the hours worked.
Do you have to pay an employee who works unauthorized overtime?
The employers we work with are often seeking ways to manage their payroll costs. Recently an employer mentioned a situation with an employee who would come in early or stay late periodically, without permission, which would throw her into overtime for the week.
The first few times she did this, the employer felt it showed initiative. But then he started to wonder if she was taking advantage of the company.
He asked her to not work any extra hours without permission, and she did it again, so he asked us if he could refuse to pay her.
The law requires that employees be paid for all hours worked. Even having a written policy that requires prior permission from a supervisor to work overtime does not negate the requirement to pay an employee.
However, having a written policy that clearly prohibits unauthorized overtime does give an employer a guideline for employees to follow. You should already have a written policy in place that outlines disciplinary measures for employees who violate company rules. If an employee ignores your restrictions on working overtime without permission, you should begin consistently enforcing your company’s established disciplinary measures, which can lead to termination.
Do you have to pay an employee who goofs off on company time?
Another question that we sometimes get is whether a business can refuse to pay a worker for hours worked when the worker was not really productive.
For instance, if your phone bill shows that an employee spent a half hour on a personal phone call, do you have to pay the employee for the time?
If you have an employee who’s goofing off on the job, the key phrase to pay attention to is on the job. If your employee is being unproductive on company time, they must still be paid, and as with the example of an employee who works unauthorized overtime, you must solve this problem by treating it as a disciplinary issue.
Can you correct an employee’s incorrect or falsified time card data?
Sometimes employers want to know what they can do if an employee turns in a time card that contains hours that he or she actually did not work, or hours information that’s simply incorrect.
In this instance, the supervisor may physically change an employee’s timecard. Do not erase the hours the employee entered. Instead, mark through those hours and enter the correct hours, then initial the change and explain to the employee why the timecard was changed.
With a continuously rising minimum wage and an unpredictable economy, employers are facing increased pressures to hold the line on costs and utilize creative methods to recruit, staff and retain employees.
While it feels at times like the laws favor employees, employers have rights too, and we need to know what they are. Above all, we are protected when we have a well written employee handbook, clear employment practices, consistent discipline policies, and when we effectively utilize these tools to manage our workplace and hold the line on costs.