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Washington employers face restrictions on communicating to employees on “political” or “religious” matters

Beginning June 6, 2024, a new Washington law prohibits employers from requiring employees to attend meetings which have the primary purpose of communicating the employer’s opinion on “religious” or “political” matters.

(Susan Eberle Stahlfeld, Miller Nash LLP – April 11, 2024)

Under the new statute, an employer may not threaten or impose any adverse action against an employee who refuses to: (i) attend or participate in an employer-sponsored meeting that has the primary purpose of communicating the employer’s opinion on political or religious matters; or (ii) listen to a speech or view a communication (including electronic communications) providing such employer opinions. Furthermore, employers may not use threats of adverse action to encourage employees to attend such meetings or view such communications. Finally, employers may not retaliate against employees asserting their rights under this new statute. 

“Political matters” are those relating to “elections for political office, political parties, proposals to change legislation, proposals to change regulations, and the decision to join or support any political party or political, civic, community, fraternal, or labor association or organization.”

“Religious matters” are those relating to “religious affiliation and practice, and the decision to join or support any religious organization or association.”

Employers should take particular note that “political matters” includes the employer’s opinion on labor associations and organizations—entities not commonly considered “political.”

The statute applies to nearly all employers, including state and local governments. The only exemption is for a religious corporation, entity, association, education institution, or society that is exempt from the requirements of Title VII. Even for such employers, the exemption is only for communications on religious matters, and only to the extent that the communication is to employees who perform work connected with the activities undertaken by the religious entity.

  • An employer is not prohibited from communicating to employees any information the employer is required by law to communicate, but only to the extent of the legal requirement.
  • Employers are not prohibited from requiring employee attendance at a meeting or other event or communicating to employees any information that is necessary for the employees to perform their lawfully required job duties.
  • Employers may offer meetings, forums, or other communications about religious or political matters for which attendance or participation is strictly voluntary.
  • The statute does not prohibit an employer from requiring employees to attend any training intended to reduce and prevent workplace harassment or discrimination.

The statute creates a private cause of action for employees asserting a violation of the statute. The employee may file a civil lawsuit within 90 days of the alleged violation. If the court finds there was a violation, it may award the employee “all appropriate relief” which can include injunctive relief, reinstatement, back pay, and re-establishment of employee benefits and seniority. While the new statute does not specifically provide for an award of attorney fees and costs, it does allow the court to provide “all other relief the court deems appropriate.”

Employers are required to post a notice to employees of their rights under the statute. The Department of Labor & Industries (LNI) is expected to prepare a notice to be used.

Key Takeaways
To the extent that employers have had mandatory meetings or communications with the primary purpose of communicating the employer’s opinion on political or religious matters, as defined above, in the future those meetings and communications must be strictly voluntary, unless related to the employee’s job duties or as required by law to be communicated.

Employers should also keep an eye out for an LNI prepared notice regarding the statutory rights and make sure to post in with other employee notices. Employers are reminded to regularly obtain updated workplace posters and circulate the new notices to employees (photos of the workplace posters sent by email are recommended), as well as update employee handbooks if mandatory government notices are included in handbooks.

Susan Eberle Stahlfeld, Miller Nash LLP

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