Restaurant Labor Laws Cheat Sheet: Seattle

Restaurant Labor Laws Cheat Sheet: Seattle
AJ Beltis

By AJ Beltis

Date of Publishing: February 11, 2020

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature and businesses should consider whether the information is appropriate to their needs. Legal and other matters referred to in this article are based on 7shifts' interpretation of laws existing at the time and should not be relied on in place of professional legal advice. 7shifts is not responsible for the content of any site owned by a third party that may be linked to this article and no warranty is made by 7shifts concerning the suitability, accuracy or timeliness of the content of any site that may be linked to this article. 7shifts disclaims all liability (except for any liability which by law cannot be excluded) for any error, inaccuracy, or omission from the information contained in this article and any loss or damage suffered by any person directly or indirectly through relying on the information contained in this article.

For the most up to date information, please visit this Seattle state resource.

At its peak, Seattle boasted an impressive 3,000 restaurant locations. But in recent years, notable restaurants in the city have been shutting their doors, indicating a series of problems that Seattle restaurateurs are facing.

While there are multiple factors that have resulted in this trend, from personal choices to economic factors to increased levels of local competition, one of the biggest contributing factors is the number of Seattle restaurant labor laws.

Rising minimum wage, the Seattle Secure Scheduling Ordinance, and other city-specific laws mean Seattle’s restaurateurs need to spend more time—and money—on scheduling and staff management to ensure compliance and avoid thousands (or even millions) of dollars in fines.

If you’re opening a restaurant in Seattle, or if you’re looking to stay compliant at your existing location, you’re in the right place. We’ve compiled a list of the important pay, benefit, time off, and fair workweek laws you’ll need to adhere to if you want to keep your restaurant’s doors open and preserve your restaurant’s good name in Seattle.

Just here for an overview of Seattle’s Fair Work Week Law? Check out the list of laws you’ll need to follow and which fees you could face for violating them in our ebook, Restaurant Fair Workweek Law: An Overview.

Download the ebook

Seattle Employee Pay & Minimum Wage Laws

Seattle Minimum Wage

Seattle is known for having one of the highest minimum wages in the United States, which has made it difficult for the city’s restaurateurs to balance high costs with the need to keep prices down in recent years. This wage has been increasing incrementally for years and is scheduled to continue to do so.

Effective January 1, 2020, Seattle’s minimum wage will be $16.39 per hour for employers with more than 500 employees worldwide. This only affects large restaurant groups and franchises that have multiple locations across the nation or the globe.

For businesses with 500 or fewer employees worldwide, minimum wage is $15.75. However, if employees are tipped $2.25 or more per hour in tips, and/or if employees receive $2.25 per hour in health benefits, the employee’s minimum wage from the employer is $13.50 per hour.

Note that employees must consent to part of their wages going towards health benefits. If an employee does not consent, he or she is entitled to the full minimum wage of $15.75 per hour.

Seattle Overtime Laws

Seattle’s overtime law is consistent with federal and state overtime law–employees are entitled to time-and-a-half pay for all time worked in excess of 40 hours.

One important distinction to make here is that this rule applies to employees who work at different restaurants under the same owner. If an employee works more than 40 hours at two restaurants run by the same restaurateur, that employee is entitled to overtime pay.

For example, say you own two franchise locations and one of your employees works a total of 50 hours within the same week—30 hours at one location and 20 at another. Under Washington law, that employee is entitled to 40 hours of his normal pay and 10 hours of overtime pay.

Another note to make is that employees cannot waive their right to overtime pay, so offering employees the chance to work an extra shift if they agree to their normal wage is not legal in Seattle.

To avoid paying time-and-a-half wages when it isn’t absolutely needed, consider utilizing an employee scheduling software with overtime alerts to warn you during scheduling when an employee crosses the 40-hour threshold.

Seattle Break, Leave, and Time Off Laws

Meal Break Laws

Seattle restaurant employees are entitled to a 30 minute unpaid meal break for each shift that lasts more than five hours. If the shift is exactly five hours, no meal break is required.

While employers must offer the break, employees may choose to not take the break.

If the employee does take the break, he or she must be completely relieved of his or her duties for the full 30 minutes. If the employee is not fully relieved, or is forced to remain on call during the break, the employee’s time spent on their meal break must be paid for by the employer.

Rest Break Laws

Employees get a paid 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. Therefore, if an employee works a nine-hour shift, he or she is entitled to two 10-minute paid breaks.

These breaks require employees to be completely relieved of their duties and are mandatory, meaning employees cannot skip their breaks. That break must be taken no later than the end of the third working hour.

However, employers may also adopt a policy of intermittent, unscheduled rest breaks throughout the day. These breaks must add up to 10 or more minutes for every four hours worked.

Since your restaurant probably has ebbs and flows as you weave between popular times for meals, this less structured approach to guaranteeing breaks might be the best case scenario for your restaurants. However, you don’t want to get caught abusing this leniency within the law, so make sure your staff knows their rights when it comes to rest breaks. If you do choose to offer intermittent breaks, let employees know to speak up if they feel they aren’t getting the break time they are entitled to.

Seattle Sick Leave Laws

Seattle’s Paid Sick & Safe Time (PSST) Ordinance ensures employees the right to health-related leave time for themselves and their families.

  • Sick time refers to “A physical or mental health condition, including a medical appointment.”
  • Safe time refers to “Reasons related to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or public health issues.”

One hour of PSST is accrued for every 40 hours worked at a restaurant with fewer than 250 employees or for every 30 hours worked at a restaurant with more than 250 employees.

Seattle Vacation Leave Laws

Neither the City of Seattle nor the state of Washington require private businesses like restaurants to offer either paid or unpaid vacation time to their employees.

That said, restaurateurs can retain staff by letting them know their time is valued and granting time off and shift swap arrangement requests when requested.

If your employees are hourly, ask them to request shift swaps as far in advance as possible so you can adjust a schedule accordingly without diminishing the amount of hours they work.

For extended vacations, employees at your restaurant will know if that time is paid or not when they start working for you. While paid vacation is a great perk that will help you earn and keep amazing talent, it’s not feasible at all restaurants, so try to be as flexible as possible with employee time off-requests. That way, even if you can’t pay employees for time off, you can still try to accommodate their schedules to let them know they’re valued.

Employers also have no obligation to close, pay a premium wage, or provide paid vacation for holidays.

Seattle Secure Scheduling Ordinance Overview

Seattle is one of five US cities (six as of July 2020) to require restaurants to provide fair workweek rights to their workers. The law was enacted as Seattle’s Secure Scheduling Ordinance and went into effect in July 2017.

Before we jump into the details of this ordinance, note that these laws currently apply to Seattle restaurants with 500+ worldwide employees only–think McDonald’s, Subway, Chipotle, etc.

If your restaurant business employs fewer people than that, you’re in the clear here. However, you should still note that these laws do exist and familiarize yourself with the details of fair workweek and predictive scheduling. As fair workweek continues to become a topic of national discussion, it wouldn’t be surprising to see these restrictions placed on smaller restaurants, too.

You can learn more about how to stay compliant with Seattle’s Secure Scheduling Ordinance in our downloadable guide here.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the benefits qualified restaurants must offer to hourly employees.

  • A two-week notice of their hours also known as predictive scheduling.
  • Predictability pay for changes made to their schedule within the two-week threshold. When employees request a shift change, or if they swap with another employee, restaurants do not have to pay the premium. However, if the shift change is mandated by the employer, the restaurant must provide:
  • One extra hour of regular pay when hours are added.
  • Pay for half of the employee’s scheduled hours if an employee is sent home early, or if employees are scheduled for an on-call shift and told not to come.
  • The right to rest between shifts, which means no “clopens”. However, employees may work a “clopen” if they consent and if they are paid time-and-a-half for hours worked that are not separated by a ten-hour break.
  • A good faith estimate of how many hours they can expect to work upon being hired.
  • The ability to request shifts and scheduling input, and “employers must engage in an interactive process with employees to discuss these requests.”
  • A right to work available shifts before employers attempt to hire new workers.

Seattle restaurants will be subject to a $500 fine for each violation of the Secure Scheduling Ordinance, including not keeping employee records for at least three years or not notifying employees of these rights with a workplace poster in the restaurant. Retaliation against employees for inquiring about their Secure Scheduling Ordinance rights results in a $1,000 fine/

Restaurants that are required to abide by fair workweek laws should note that these are not suggestions or “best practices.” In New York City, where a similar ordinance exists, Chipotle was sued in September 2019 for $1 million for allegedly not following the law. Over time, we can expect Seattle to follow suit and forgo any leniency when it comes to enforcing these laws.

Just here for an overview of Seattle’s Fair Work Week Law? Check out the list of laws you’ll need to follow and which fees you could face for violating them in our ebook, Restaurant Fair Workweek Law: An Overview.

Download the ebook

Additional Seattle Labor Standards and Ordinances

On top of its minimum wage and sick leave policies, Seattle also has unique laws on fair chance employment and commuter benefits to further protect employees.

Fair Chance Employment

Seattle’s Fair Chance Employment Ordinance (formerly known as the Job Assistance Ordinance) protects those with prior conviction or arrest records from being discriminated against in the hiring process.

To comply with this law, restaurateurs are not allowed to:

  • Post job openings with discouraging language, such as “felons need not apply” or “no applicants with criminal backgrounds.”
  • Ask questions on job applications pertaining to arrest records or prior convictions.
  • Deny protected candidates a job they are qualified for without a legitimate business reason.

Additionally, employers may not inquire about these legal issues in a background check until all unqualified candidates have been eliminated from consideration.

Commuter Benefits

Eligible business in Seattle must offer commuter benefits to their employees, but may choose the option that they see fit for their business.

  • Option 1 is to allow employees to deduct their transit expenses from their taxable wages “up to the maximum level allowed by federal tax law.”
  • Option 2 is to provide a subsidized transit pass, either fully or partially.

Your restaurant must offer this benefit to employees if you employ at least 20 people who work on average at least 10 hours each week.

You must offer this benefit within 60 days of each employee’s starting day, which gives restaurants some breathing room, as the average tenure of a restaurant employee is less than two months.

How Technology Can Help You Follow the Law

Seattle restaurants have already paid more than $6 million in compliance fees–and this is only the beginning. Many of these laws have been in place for years, and any sort of leniency your restaurant may have gotten in the past likely won’t last forever.

Therefore, as restrictions tighten and minimum wage increases, restaurants should be equipped with Washington labor law compliant software to avoid fees and to stay on top of what new restrictions and regulations are coming.

Compliant restaurant technology like 7shifts is built with features that make it simple and manageable to play by the rules in Seattle, including:

  • Making scheduling a simple and flexible process so you can easily incorporate employee scheduling requests.
  • Allowing employees to voluntarily swap shifts within the two-week predictive scheduling time frame, meaning you don’t have to pay a premium.
  • Sharing schedules to employees electronically.
  • Overtime and “clopen” alerts to make you aware of when an employee is about to pass a threshold that would require you to pay more than you had allotted for employee wages.

In the restaurant industry, things change all the time. There are no-shows, last-minute call-outs, and that unexpectedly hectic Thursday night that demands another cook in the back of the house. That said, predictability pay is something large restaurants in Seattle are unlikely to avoid altogether, but technology like 7shifts helps restaurants save thousands on unnecessary fees every year.

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AJ Beltis
AJ Beltis

AJ Beltis is a freelance writer with almost a decade of experience in the restaurant industry. He currently works as a content manager at HubSpot, and previously as a blogger at Toast.