News & Publications

Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance to Take Effect on September 1, 2012

Submitted By Firm: Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP

Contact(s): Michael Porter, Susan Stahlfeld


Ian Messerle

Date Published: 8/3/2012

Article Type:

Share This:

The Seattle Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance affects every private sector1 employer with at least five full time equivalent employees (“FTEs”) if any one of those employees works within the Seattle city limits.

Affected employers must provide paid sick and safe leave to all eligible employees. The amount of annual paid sick and safe leave an employee may take depends on the employer’s size and the number of hours the employee works within the Seattle city limits.

This News You Can Use Miller Nash article contains a recommendation at the end that employers consider Personal Time Off policies to minimize the expense and administrative burdens the Ordinance imposes.

Which employers are covered by the Ordinance?

The Ordinance applies to all private sector employers with employees who work within the city limits of Seattle. Employees of federal, state, county, and other municipal governments—with the exception of the City of Seattle—are exempt. The employer itself need not be located within the city limits for the Ordinance to apply. The Ordinance applies if the employer is otherwise covered and has at least one employee who works 240 or more hours within the city limits in one year.

Employers with four or fewer FTEs are exempt.

Employers with 249 or fewer FTEs are exempt from the Ordinance until 24 months after the date of hire of their first employee.

What type of leave is provided?

The Ordinance provides for both paid “sick” and “safe” leave. Paid sick time is to be provided when an employee is absent because of a physical or mental illness, injury, or other health condition, or to allow the employee to seek diagnosis, care, or treatment of a physical or mental illness or other health condition, or to seek preventive medical care. The Ordinance does not further define these conditions. Also, the Ordinance provides paid sick leave for an employee to care for or arrange for the care or diagnosis of a family member with a mental or physical illness, injury, or other health condition. A “family member” is given the definition found in RCW 49.76.020 and includes domestic partners, former spouses, persons with a child in common, adult persons who have resided together in the past, adult persons related by blood or marriage, and stepparents and stepchildren, among others.

“Safe” time allows paid leave when the employee’s place of business or an employee’s child’s school or place of care has been closed by public officials “to limit exposure to an infectious agent, biological toxin or hazardous material.”  School or work closures for inclement weather are not otherwise covered by the Ordinance. Paid safe time is also allowed for reasons relating to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, as set forth in RCW 49.76.030, such as enabling an employee to assist law enforcement or seek treatment, or enabling an employee to help a family member do the same.

How much leave does the Ordinance provide to an employee?

An employee’s leave entitlement depends on the employer’s size and the amount of hours worked within the City of Seattle by the employee. The Ordinance divides covered employers into three tiers. Tier One employers are those with more than 4 but fewer than 50 FTEs. Tier Two employers have at least 50 but fewer than 250 FTEs, and Tier Three employers have 250 or more FTEs.

The tiers have different rates of accrual and different annual maximums that restrict use and carryover. Employees of Tier One and Tier Two employers accrue 1 hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked in Seattle. A Tier One employer may cap use of annual leave and carryover of unused annual leave at 40 hours. A Tier Two employer may cap use of annual leave and carryover of unused annual leave at 56 hours. Employees of Tier Three employers accrue 1 hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked in Seattle. A Tier Three employer may cap use of annual leave and carryover of unused annual leave at 72 hours.2


 Tier Employer Size by FTE  Rate of Accrual Caps on Annual Use
and Carryover 
 One More than 4 FTEs but fewer than
50 FTEs
1 hour/40 hours worked 40 hours
 Two At least 50 FTEs but fewer than   250 FTEs 1 hour/40 hours worked 56 hours
 Three       250 or more FTEs 1 hour/30 hours worked 72 hours, or 108 hours for PTO plans

How is an employer’s size determined for tiering?

Size is determined by finding the average number of FTEs paid per calendar week for the preceding calendar year for any and all weeks in which at least one employee worked.

All compensated hours worked by employees should be counted in determining the number of FTEs. An FTE is “the number of hours worked for compensation that adds up to one full-time employee.”  “One full-time employee” is considered to work a 40 hour work week unless the employer determines that a full work week is less than 40 hours. The calculation includes work by all the employer’s employees, whether they performed that work in Seattle or not. The calculation also includes hours worked by temporary services or staffing agencies. Paid or unpaid leave taken is not included in hours worked for compensation. All hours worked by non exempt employees are included. Exempt employees are deemed to work 40 hours per week unless they work part-time, in which case they are deemed to work the number of hours that their normal part-time workweek entails.

So an employer with 100 FTEs is a Tier Two employer under the Ordinance even if 99 of those employees work outside of Seattle.

The regulations accompanying the Ordinance contain an “enterprise rule” that clarifies when separate but related organizations are considered to be one “employer” for tiering purposes. The test is the extent to which the larger entity has control over the smaller entity.

When does leave begin to accrue, and how soon may an employee take accrued leave?

Employees begin to accrue on the later of September 1, 2012, or the commencement of their employment.

Employees may begin using accrued leave on the 180th day after commencing employment. The 180 day look-back relates to the commencement of employment, not September 1, 2012. In the case of employees who only occasionally work in Seattle, these employees begin accruing leave only once they have worked more than 240 hours in Seattle.

Employers may front load the provision of leave to allow employees to take leave before they would have otherwise accrued it.

Must employers cash out unused leave upon termination of employment?

The Ordinance does not require employers to compensate employees for accrued but unused leave. But those employers that already have policies to cash out employees for unused leave should be aware that the Ordinance may result in employees’ accruing and carrying over greater amounts of leave. Employers can avoid cash out liability by carefully revising their policies. Legal advice is recommended when making these revisions.

Do employees accrue leave for work not performed in Seattle?

Employees accrue leave only for work performed in Seattle. Employees who work some of the time in Seattle and some of the time outside Seattle accrue leave only for the hours worked in Seattle.

How does the Ordinance apply to employees who telecommute?

If the employee is telecommuting from a location outside Seattle, the employee does not accrue leave for those hours, even if the employer is located in Seattle. If the employee is telecommuting from Seattle, the employee accrues leave for the hours spent telecommuting.

How does the Ordinance apply to employees who typically work outside of Seattle but perform occasional work in Seattle?

Employees who work occasionally in Seattle but typically work outside of Seattle are covered by the Ordinance once they have worked more than 240 hours in Seattle in a calendar year. As soon as the employee works more than 240 hours, that employee begins to accrue leave. The employee is then covered for the remainder of that calendar year as well as the following calendar year.

For these purposes, traveling through Seattle and making incidental stops—such as stopping for gas—is not considered “work in Seattle” that would count toward the 240 hour threshold or accrue leave. But when an employee travels to Seattle and makes a stop for work purposes—such as a delivery or a sales call—the employee’s travel time within Seattle is counted. Time spent traveling through the city without stopping is not covered.

How does the Ordinance treat temporary (“leased”) employees?

Except for purposes of determining an employer’s tier, leased employees are considered employees of the staffing agency. The leased employee is considered an employee of both the contracting employer and the staffing agency for determining their respective tiers.

May employers comply with the Ordinance by using PTO plans?

As long as a PTO plan ensures that an employee can take, accrue, and carry over the leave required by the Ordinance, the plan will comply with the Ordinance. But in the case of Tier Three employers, the PTO plan must allow employees to accrue and carry over at least 108 hours (instead of 72) of leave. The Ordinance still only requires that employees be able to take a minimum of 72 hours of leave in a year.

If an employee uses all of her or his PTO for vacation, the employer need not provide the employee with additional paid days off if the employee takes leave that would otherwise qualify as sick and safe leave. The employer may, however, provide unpaid leave.

At what rate are employees paid for sick and safe leave?

The general rule is that employees using accrued sick and safe leave are to be paid the same hourly rate as they would have earned during the time the paid leave is taken. The employer is not obligated by the Ordinance to compensate employees for lost tips or commissions. In the case of commission-only or piece-rate employees, the hourly rate of pay is their base wage or the minimum wage, whichever is higher.

May employees waive the Ordinance provisions through the collective bargaining process?

Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement may waive the Ordinance provisions only by an express waiver that is “clear and unambiguous” and explicitly refers to the Ordinance. The waiver must be included in the collective bargaining agreement itself as a provision within the agreement or as a separate addendum to the agreement. Employees may not waive the Ordinance provisions individually.

What are an employer’s notification responsibilities?

Employers have two basic notification obligations:  they must notify employees about the Ordinance generally and they must provide employees with the employees’ updated leave balances whenever wages are paid.

Employers must notify employees of their entitlement to paid sick and safe leave, of the amount of the entitlement and terms of its use, that retaliation against employees who request sick and safe leave is prohibited, and that an employee has legal recourse if the employer unlawfully denies sick and safe leave or retaliates against the employee. There are a number of ways to comply with this:  by posting a notification poster (to be made available by the City of Seattle) in conspicuous places in the workplace or by including the notification in employee handbooks or similar written guidance, whether in paper or electronic form.

Whenever the employer pays wages, the employer must notify each employee of her or his updated available amount of sick and safe leave.

What documentation may an employer require of an employee?

If an employee uses sick leave of more than three consecutive days, the employer may request written documentation from a health care provider that the sick leave was necessary. The employer may not request that the documentation explain the nature of the illness or condition, unless necessary to comply with applicable law (for example, if leave is also being taken under FMLA). The employer may require similar documentation for safe leave usage exceeding three consecutive days.

How much notification must an employee taking leave provide to an employer?

An employer may require “reasonable” written notice of up to ten days in advance of foreseeable leave. In the case of unforeseeable leave, the employer may require the employee to provide notice as soon as is practicable.

The notification need not explicitly refer to the Ordinance or use the words “safe time” or “sick time.” 

What records must an employer maintain?

Employers must retain records for two years that indicate employee hours worked, accrued leave, and used leave.

How is the Ordinance enforced?

The Seattle Office for Civil Rights investigates and enforces alleged violations of the Ordinance. Charges must be filed with the office within 180 days of the alleged violation. Additionally, the City has taken the position that employees can bring their own civil action in court.


The Ordinance imposes a number of obligations on employers, but these impositions may be mitigated by implementing PTO policies. In the case of Tier One and Tier Two employers, using PTO policies means that employers can comply with the Ordinance by allowing employees 5 and 7 days, respectively, of annual leave. There are additional requirements for Tier Three employers, but they may also benefit from a PTO policy if they already have policies allowing for paid vacation and/or sick time.


1 City of Seattle employees are covered by the Ordinance as well.

2 But if the leave is part of a Personal Time Off (“PTO”) plan, Tier Three employers may cap annual use and carryover at 108 hours.

Find an Employment Lawyer

View or print a complete ELA member list »

Client Successes

Altra Industrial Motion Inc.

Altra Industrial Motion Inc. has multiple locations in the U.S., as well as Central America, Europe, and Asia. The Employment Law Alliance has proved to be a great asset in assisting us in dealing with employment issues and matters in such diverse venues as Mexico, Australia, and Spain. We have obtained excellent results using the ELA network for matters ranging from a multi-state review of employment policies to assisting with individual employment issues in a variety of foreign jurisdictions.

In one instance, we were faced with an employment dispute with a former associate in Mexico that had the potential for substantial economic exposure. The matter had been pending for over a year, and we were not confident in the employment advice we had been receiving. I obtained a referral to the ELA counsel in Mexico, who was able to obtain a favorable resolution of the dispute in only a few days. Based on our experiences with the ELA, we would not hesitate to use its many resources for future employment law needs.

American University in Bulgaria

In my career I have been a practicing attorney, counsel to the Governor of Maine, and CEO of a major public utility. I have worked with many lawyers in many settings. When the American University in Bulgaria needed help with employment litigation in federal court in Syracuse, New York, we turned to Pierce Atwood, the ELA member we knew and trusted in Maine, for a referral. We were extremely pleased with the responsiveness and high quality of service we received from Bond Schoeneck & King, the ELA's firm in upstate New York. I would not hesitate to recommend the ELA to any employer.

David T. Flanagan
Member of Board of Trustees 

Arcata Associates

I really enjoyed the Conducting an Effective Internal Investigation in the United States webinar.  We are in the midst of a rather delicate employee relations issue in California right now and the discussion helped me tremendously.  It also reinforced things that you tend to forget if you don't do these investigations frequently.  So, many, many thanks to the Employment Law Alliance for putting that webinar together.  It was extremely beneficial.

Lynn Clayton
Vice President, Human Resources

Barrett Business Services, Inc.

I recently participated in the ELA-sponsored webinar on the Employee Free Choice Act.  I was most impressed with that presentation.  It was extremely helpful and very worthwhile.  I have also been utilizing the ELA's online Global Employer Handbook.  This compliance tool is absolutely terrific. 

I am familiar with several other products that purport to provide up-to- date employment law information and I believe that this resource is superior to other similar compliance manuals.  I am delighted that the ELA provides this free to its members' clients.

Boyd Coffee Company

Employment Law Alliance (ELA) has provided Boyd Coffee Company with a highly valued connection to resources, important information and learning. With complex operations and employees working in approximately 20 states, we are continually striving to keep abreast of specific state laws, many of which vary from state to state. We have participated in the ELA web seminars and have found the content very useful. We appreciate the ease, cost effectiveness and quality of the content and presenters offered by these web seminars.  The Global Employer Handbook has provided our company with a very helpful overview of legal issues in the various states in which we operate, and the network of attorneys has helped us manage issues that have arisen in states other than where our Roastery and corporate headquarters are located in Portland, Oregon.

Capgemini Outsourcing Services GmbH

As an international operating outsourcing and consulting supplier Capgemini has used firms of the Employment Law Alliance in Central Europe. We were always highly satisfied with the quality of employment law advice and the responsiveness. I can really recommend the ELA lawyers.

Hirschfeld Kraemer

As an employment lawyer based in San Francisco, I work closely with high tech clients with operations around the globe. Last year, one of my clients needed to implement a workforce reduction in a dozen countries simultaneously. And they gave me 48 hours to accomplish this. I don't know how I could have pulled this off without the resources of the ELA. I don't know of any single law firm that could have made this happen. My client received all of the help they needed in a timely fashion and on a cost effective basis.

Stephen J. Hirschfeld

Hollywood Entertainment Corporation

As the Vice President for Litigation & Associate General Counsel for my company, I need to ensure that we have a team of top-notch employment lawyers in place in every jurisdiction where we do business. And I want to be confident that those lawyers know our business so they don't have to reinvent the wheel when a new legal matter arises. With more than 3400 stores and 35,000 employees operating in all 50 U.S. states and across Canada, we rely on the ELA to partner with us to help accomplish our objectives. I have been delighted with the consistent high quality of the work performed by ELA lawyers. I encourage other in-house counsel to use their services, as well.

Ingram Micro

Ingram Micro is the world's largest technology distributor, providing sales, marketing, and logistics services for the IT industry around the globe. With over 13,000 employees working throughout the U.S. and in 35 international countries, we need employment lawyers who we can count on to ensure global legal compliance. Our experience with many multi-state and multi-national law firms is that their employment law services are not always a high priority for them, and many do not have experts in many of their offices. The ELA has assembled an excellent team of highly skilled employment lawyers, wherever and whenever I need them, and they have proven to be an invaluable resource to our company.

Konami Gaming

Our company, Konami Gaming, Inc., is growing rapidly in a very diverse and highly regulated industry. We are aggressively entering new markets outside the domestic U.S., including Canada and South America. I have had the recent opportunity to utilize the services provided by the ELA. The legal advice was both responsive and professional. Most of all, the entire process was seamless since our Nevada attorney coordinated the services and legal advice requested. I look forward to working with the ELA in the future, as it serves as a great resource to the legal community.

Jennifer Martinez
Vice President, Human Resources

Nikkiso Cryo, Inc.

Until recently, I was unaware of the ELA's existence. We have subsidiaries and affiliates throughout the United States, as well as in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. When a recent legal issue arose in Texas, our long-time Nevada counsel, who is a member of the ELA, suggested that this matter be handled by his ELA colleague in Dallas. We are very pleased with the quality and timeliness of services provided by that firm, and we are excited to now have the ELA as an important asset to help us address employment law issues worldwide.

Palm, Inc.

The ELA network has been immensely important to our company in helping us address an array of human resources challenges around the world. I strongly encourage H.R. executives who have employees located in many different jurisdictions to utilize the ELA's unparalleled expertise and geographic coverage.

Stacy Murphy
Former Senior Director of Human Resources

Rich Products

As the General Counsel for a company with 6,500 employees operating across the U.S. and in eight countries, it is critical that I have top quality lawyers on the ground where we do business. The ELA is an indispensable resource. It has taken the guesswork out of finding the best employment counsel wherever we have a problem.

Jill K. Bond
Senior Vice President/General Counsel, Shared Services and Benefits

Ricoh Americas Corporation

We have direct sales and service offices all over the U.S., but have not necessarily had the need in the past for assistance with legal work in every state where we have a business presence. From time to time, we suddenly find ourselves facing a legal issue in a state where we have no outside counsel relationship. It has been a real benefit to know that the ELA has assembled such an impressive team of experts throughout the U.S. and overseas.

A few years ago, we faced a very tough discrimination lawsuit in Mississippi. We had never had to retain a lawyer there before. I was absolutely delighted with the Mississippi ELA firm. We received an excellent result. They will no doubt handle all of our employment law matters in Mississippi in the future. I have also obtained the assistance of several other ELA firms around the U.S. and have received the same outstanding service. The ELA is a tremendous resource for our company.

Roberts-Gordon LLC

Our affiliated companies have used the Employment Law Alliance in connection with numerous acquisitions, and have always been extremely pleased with our ability to obtain the highest quality legal advice on due diligence issues from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We have found the Employment Law Alliance firms to be not only first rate with respect to their legal advice but also responsive and timely in assisting us with federal and state law issues critical to our due diligence efforts. We consider the Employment Law Alliance to be an important part of our team.

Rockwell Collins, Inc.

We have partnered with many ELA firms on the development and execution of case management strategies with very positive results. We have been very pleased with the legal advice and counsel provided by the law firms we have utilized who are affiliated with the Employment Law Alliance. The ELA firms we have worked with are customer focused, responsive, and thorough in their approach to handling labor and employment law matters.

Elizabeth Daly
Assistant General Counsel


Sanmina-SCI has facilities strategically located in key regions throughout the world. Our customers expect that we will provide them with the highest quality and most sophisticated services in the marketplace. We have that same expectation for the lawyers with whom we do business. With operations in 17 countries, we need to be certain that we have a team of lawyers working together to address our employment law needs worldwide. The ELA has delivered exactly what it promised-- seamless and consistent high quality services delivered in each locale around the globe. It has quickly become a key asset for our human resources department.


We own, manage, and franchise hotels throughout the U.S. and in more than 90 countries. With more than 145,000 employees worldwide, ensuring that we comply with the complex web of local labor and employment laws in every one of these jurisdictions is a daunting task. The Employment Law Alliance has served as an important resource for us and we have benefited greatly from its expertise and long reach. When a legal dispute or issue has arisen in some far-flung place, Employment Law Alliance lawyers have always provided responsive, practical, and cost-effective assistance.

Wilmington Trust Corporation

Wilmington Trust has used the ELA to locate firms in California, Washington State, Georgia, and Europe. Our experience with the ELA lawyers with whom we have worked has always been one of complete satisfaction and prompt, practical advice.

Michael A. DiGregorio
General Counsel