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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Who, exactly, is ‘essential?’

State offers new reporting options for employees concerned for their safety

By Emily Feek

Non-essential Washington businesses have been closed to the public since March 25, but some non-essential employees are still reporting to work. 

Reporting to work at a non-essential business is not necessarily a violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” mandate. Under the mandate, “performance of basic minimum operations” for a non-essential business is still permitted. 

Employees who can perform their work duties from home are encouraged to do so, according to Gov. Inslee’s March 23 address. However, it is up to businesses to determine what “basic minimum operations” means, and whether work can be done remotely. 

If employees feel their work is not essential or their employer is posing a threat to their safety by requiring employees to report to work at a non-essential business, there are options for reporting the violation. 

On Monday, March 30, Gov. Inslee provided new guidance on law enforcement for the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. The update included an online form accessible through the Washington Governor’s website for reporting violations. 

The violations that can be reported include businesses remaining open, essential businesses violating social distancing guidelines or businesses performing non-essential functions. 

While the form is the latest update in reporting options, other ideas are circulating. Organizations such as the Department of Labor and Industry, the Washington State Labor Council and the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) may seem like reasonable points of contact for violations. 

However, these groups do not have the authority to enforce the mandate. The Department of Labor and Industry specifically cannot enforce anything, said Employment Standards customer service specialist Laura Thorne. 

“The ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order was made pursuant to the Governor’s emergency powers and not within Employment Standards’ scope of authority to enforce,” Thorne said in an email. 

Thorne said to contact local law enforcement through the non-emergency line to report violations. 

The Washington State Labor Council is also not an enforcement agency for the mandate, Communications Director David Groves said in an email. 

“That said, the governor’s office has also set up an Essential Business Inquiries form where you can seek clarification on whether a business should even be open at this time,” Groves said. 

More information on what businesses are considered essential is available in the “WA Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” document released alongside the mandate. 

PERC doesn’t have authority to enforce the mandate either, but Executive Director Mike Sellars clarified the agency also only deals with state employees. 

“We administer labor relations laws for public sector employees in Washington,” Sellars said. “So it would only come to us if someone had filed a [Unfair Labor Practices]…If it were a private company, we would have no jurisdiction whatsoever over the question.”

While there are a number of labor-oriented state agencies, local law enforcement is responsible for enforcing Gov. Inslee’s mandate. Anyone looking to report a business violation should use the online form provided by the Governor’s Office. 

Follow The Western Front on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates.

If you’re interested in contributing to the Front’s reporting during this crisis, you are invited to participate in our open newsroom project, where experienced reporters and editors will work alongside the community to gather and verify information that leads Whatcom County toward shared solutions. To participate, please fill out this form.

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