Washington State Bans Alcohol in the Workplace

Washington State Bans Alcohol in the Workplace

Man Drinking Beer at WorkThere was a time when it was a common and widely accepted practice to have a drink or two at lunch (just watch an episode of Mad Men to see what I mean).

The dot com revolution revived this practice, with young people working day and night for start-ups, fueled by caffeine and micro-brews. Not only were employees provided with free meals, but stocked bars and onsite happy hours were back.  Companies even advertise this as a perk.

Yelp has an onsite kegerator to keep the beer properly chilled, and Twitter’s fridge is filled with both beer and wine.   No one thinks twice about this, as it’s just what has to be done in order to attract the necessary talent to succeed.

And in Washington State, all of this is illegal!

Washington State prohibits alcohol in the workplace:

Late in May, an undercover investigation revealed that employees of Kiewit, General and Manson Contractors working on the SR520 project were drinking beer in the office.

To the surprise of many people, we learned from Hector Castro, spokesman for the Department of Labor & Industries, that, “State rules are very clear: Alcohol and drugs are prohibited from the workplace.”  And, indeed, Castro is correct.

Washington State’s WAC 296-800-11025 states that “You must prohibit alcohol and narcotics from your workplace” and “prohibit employees under the influence of alcohol or narcotics from the worksite.”  This law applies to all Washington businesses, not just to state contractors.

The only exception would be for companies in the business of producing, distributing or selling alcohol or narcotic drugs.  Enforcement of this state law falls to the Department of Labor & Industries.

What does Washington’s workplace ban on alcohol mean for your business?

Currently, there is no elaboration or guidance on this policy from the Department of Labor & Industries.  But it is in the works — possibly due to the news coverage of the contractors on the SR520 project.  I’ve spoken with Elaine Fischer at L&I, and she’s given me some insight into the guidelines that will be included in the policy.

  • The policy guidelines will state that a business cannot have alcohol at the workplace during the workday, even if the containers are unopened, and employees cannot drink alcohol at work at any time during the course of their work day.

What is the definition of “workplace” in this context?  It is “any facility over which the employer has the right of access or control and where work is being performed for the employer.”

Exceptions to the law:

Social events:  Exceptions will be made for employees who are not “acting in the course of employment.”  For example, it wouldn’t apply to employee participation in social activities, such as recreational or athletic activities, events, competitions, and parties or picnics, regardless of whether the employer pays some or all of the costs involved.

However, if an employee is compensated, or it happens during their work hours, or they were ordered or directed by the employer to participate (or believed that they were), then there would be no exception to the law.  That means you can still have beer at the company’s summer picnic.  Just be sure your employees know that their attendance is voluntary, their time is unpaid, and don’t forget to get your Banquet Permit from the Liquor Control Board.

After-hours events:  L&I’s guidelines say that businesses will “usually not be cited as a violation” for having alcohol in the workplace for events that take place after working hours, as long as employees aren’t paid, attendance isn’t mandatory, and the employer has obtained a Banquet Permit from the state Liquor Control Board.  So if you want to hold an event in your business, such as a Chamber After Hours, your company should be good, as long as you don’t require your employees to be there, or pay them for their participation.

The wrap-up:

So, how do the tech companies get away with the onsite bars, happy hours, kegerators and margarita machines?  Well, so far, L&I hasn’t started fridge raids, so these events are flying below their radar screen, unless a hidden news camera reveals them.  But now that we all know about WAC 296-800-11025, we can’t naively crack open the beer on a hot summer Friday afternoon with the staff.  And, before you blame us for being a buzz kill, just remember, ignorance of the law wasn’t a valid excuse anyway.