Every day employees throughout Washington are forced to fight to ensure that they receive the full scope of wages to which they are entitled. Unfortunately, many employers try to skirt the law and employment contracts, particularly when it comes to more confusing aspects of payment requirements, like overtime pay or back-payment for unused vacation time. Employees are often unclear about their rights, and some may simply accept the actions of their employer without action. But it is critical not to simply go along with an employer’s decisions, particularly if you have suspicions that the law is not being followed. In many cases, you may be able to pursue legal action.
Take the issue of unused vacation time. Under Washington law employers are actually not required to provide either paid or unpaid vacation time. However, many employers include such time as part of their compensation packages. Most employment contracts–which are private agreements between parties–include benefits including anywhere from two to six weeks paid vacation. Additionally, companies often have policies in place which delineate what happens when the vacation time is not used. Often the contract requires an employer to pay for accrued vacation time when the employee leaves.
Even though there is not a state law that mandates some vacation time, if an employment contract or policy is in place then it must be followed. When it is not followed, employees can pursue civil action to demand fairness.
For example, the Spokesman recently wrote about just such a legal case. The plaintiff in the case was a judge who worked for a very brief time in the District Court. She left the position after being elected to the Superior Court. Disagreement arose, however, when Spokane County refused to pay the judge for unused vacation time from her short stint on the District Court. That total included $15,000.
The judge hired an attorney and demanded accountability. One of the main arguments in the matter was the past practices of the County, which routinely included payment for unused vacation time for judges who moved on for various reasons (i.e. retirement).
Under state law, officials are given the option of compensating judges for unused time. However, the judge in this case signed an employee manual which states that “any employee who is laid off, discharged, retired, or separated from the service of the employer for any reason, shall be compensated in cash for the unused vacation accumulated at the time of the separation.”
Based on the handbook terms and the fact that previous District Court judges were paid for unused time, the legal case was decided in favor of the employee-judge. The court ordered her to receive the $15,000 she was owed. In addition, the County was forced to pay for attorney’s fees and costs that were incurred in securing the judgement.
This case is a good example of how employers–even public employers–often try to skirt the law and past practices to the detriment of employees. By seeking out an employee rights attorneys and demanding fairness, workers are often able to receive what they are owed and ensure accountability.