Check Your Work

Washington Workplace Watch: Check your work

Get the latest investigative news

A newsletter for resources, data and behind-the-scenes insight into investigative efforts.

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.

Crosscut guide to workplace safety complaints and employer violations.

Thousands of employers across Washington undergo work site inspections each year. Safety violations get tracked as citations or fines. Some companies get caught shorting employees on their wages or protective equipment. Federal agencies oversee unionization elections and disputes. Worker complaints spark investigations.

Whether applying for a new job at a business or vetting a local contractor, it helps to know how to check their record for safety, wage or other violations. Public agencies track and document much of this information, but we’re hoping to make it easier to find while adding independent context or data where we can. 

Below you will find information on filing a safety or wage-theft complaint with L&I, as well as public tools for accessing inspection records, wage violations, unfair labor practices complaints and other workplace oversight tools. We plan to continue building out this guide as our coverage expands and we discover new or insightful data. 

Read our independent investigative reporting on working conditions, safety concerns and government oversight efforts throughout the state at WA Workplace Watch. Send your questions or suggestions to the investigations editor at jacob.jones@crosscut.com or reporter lizz.giordano@crosscut.com.

The state Department of Labor & Industries is charged with overseeing the safety of nearly all workers in the state except for federal employees and employers on tribal lands. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the U.S. Department of Labor oversees the safety of federal workers. Labor & Industries is also tasked with investigating wage theft complaints and running the state’s worker’s compensation program.

Filing a safety or health complaint

L&I provides a searchable list of safety and health requirements by industry. Common safety violations include failing to develop a formal accident prevention program, not using fall protection at heights of four feet or more and failing to provide personal protective equipment. Workplace advocates say many workplace fatalities and injuries result from avoidable violations of mandatory safety practices.

“First and foremost, stay safe! Don’t work under unsafe conditions,” said Jeremiah Miller, legal director of Working Washington, a nonprofit worker advocacy organization. “Tell your supervisor you can’t keep working in the unsafe conditions, and ask them to fix it. … If they don’t fix the problem or [if they] instruct you to keep working, you can refuse to work due to your safety concerns, though you should not leave work.”

The state has also passed new permanent heat-protection and smoke-exposure rules this year. Employers have an obligation to ensure workers know how to do their jobs safely and provide training to employees. 

“If workers have not been trained, they should ask for training specific to their workplace,” Miller added. “If their employer refuses, they should report that refusal.”

Samantha Grad, political director of Teamsters 117 and a member of L&I’s safety and health advisory committee, recommends that when reporting, workers make note of the safety hazard, the times it occurred and the law that was violated.

“My best pro tips for anyone who’s going to file a safety complaint, is as much as possible drilling down on what law was violated,” said Grad. “That’s all really helpful information to share with the investigators when you file your complaint.”

Workers can file a health or safety complaint by filling out an L&I complaint form and uploading it. This can be done on a computer or smartphone, which might require downloading a free app, available for both Apple iOS and Android. Forms can also be faxed to a local office, or workers can report a complaint over the phone by calling 1-800-423-7233. 

Miller also suggests being prepared to be as specific as possible to assist L&I with an inspection, and, if it can be done safely, getting other workers to confirm the hazard. Workers can also submit videos and photographs with their complaint. 

On the complaint form, workers can choose to remain anonymous or allow L&I to reveal their name to their employer. Whether or not a worker requests confidentiality, it’s against the law for a company to retaliate against an employee for filing a health or safety complaint. L&I also conducts investigations of retaliation, which can be reported using a retaliation complaint form.

Workers at unionized workplaces can receive help from their union when reporting a health or safety hazard. Unions also can file a complaint. Non-unionized workers can reach out to Working Washington, Fair Work Center or the Northwest Justice Project for assistance.

A welder works in a shop in Seattle on April 4, 2023. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Checking a company’s safety record

L&I also offers tools to verify businesses or contractors. Searching by name will show if a company has an active business license or insurance. Hiring an unlicensed contractor can put you at risk if something goes wrong, according to L&I. 

This database also lists a company’s inspection record; any safety or health citations; information about lawsuits against the company; if they owe money on violations and if they have license violations.

L&I provides a debarred contractor list. Those companies cannot bid on public works projects. 

For more in-depth information on a company’s violation history, use OSHA’s inspection database. A search here will return all the inspections conducted at the workplace and any citations and fines issued in either Washington or around the country. That page also allows you to track what fines companies are challenging and which ones have been settled. 

In 2011, L&I created a Severe Violator Enforcement Program to increase monitoring of companies with repeat serious violations and those that knowingly violated safety regulations. Companies remain on the list for at least three years.

Jake Emerson, a safety manager with MacDonald-Miller, uses hearing protection during a consult with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries at a MacDonald-Miller shop in Seattle. The company participated in an L&I safety check earlier this year to proactively identify potential hazards. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Information on labor complaints and union disputes

While the percentage of workers represented by unions dropped by about 1% between 2021 and 2022, the number of union elections filed in the state jumped 37% during that same period. Filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election requires that at least 30% of employees sign a membership authorization card. Elections to certify a union are decided by a majority of votes cast.

After the NLRB certifies a vote, the union’s bargaining unit and employer start negotiating a contract. That first contract takes on average 465 days, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis. 

For Starbucks baristas who began unionizing in December 2021, the path to a contract has stretched longer, a Crosscut investigation found. Pushing back against the coffee giant as negotiations drag, their union, Starbucks Workers United, has filed a flurry of unfair labor practice complaints accusing the company of not bargaining in good faith and retaliating against union organizers. The company has also filed complaints against the union.

The NLRB website has a searchable database of filed labor dispute cases. There you can also look up workplaces that have held union elections and their outcomes. Many filings require a Freedom of Information Act request to view the full document.

Crosscut has obtained copies of unfair labor practice complaints filed by Washington employers, employees or unions from January 2022 to February 2023. These are just allegations. The NLRB decides which charges to pursue. This database will be updated as records become available.

For a worker filing a wage-theft complaint

Most agricultural and non-agricultural workers must be paid the state’s minimum wage. Tips and service charges do not count toward a worker’s hourly minimum wage. The 2023 minimum wage in the state of Washington is $15.74 per hour. Next year that rises to $16.28 per hour. Workers under 16 may be paid 85% of the minimum wage. Some cities, such as Seattle and SeaTac, also have their own local minimum wage mandates.

Employees working over 40 hours in a week must receive overtime, which is at least 1.5 times their hourly rate. Workers are not allowed to waive their right to overtime pay. This applies to most hourly workers, and some salaried employees. 

The state legislature extended overtime pay to agriculture workers in 2021. In 2023, these workers had to be compensated for any hours worked over 48 in a week. In 2024, this is set to drop to 40. 

Being paid below minimum wage or not receiving breaks, paid sick leave or overtime pay all qualify as wage theft. Workers can file wage-theft complaints three ways: using an online complaint form, downloading and mailing a worker rights complaint form or visiting an L&I office

The agency requests that workers include supporting documents with their complaints, which can include time cards, shift schedules, pay stubs, workplace policies or any written wage agreements. Investigations typically take up to 60 days to complete, according to L&I. 

Collect all the documentation you can to demonstrate the failure to pay the wages you are owed, suggests Miller with Working Washington.

“If your employer doesn’t keep records – a common occurrence – you should make your own records of start and stop times, missed breaks, tips you didn’t receive, etc.,” he said. “This will really help you as you work to get paid properly.”

Often it is very clear if a worker isn’t receiving sick leave or overtime, Grad said. 

“Documents don’t have to be something super-duper fancy and official; pull out your phone or pull out a notepad and start making a note on this day, ‘I was called back from my break and forced to work, I only got five minutes of a break,’ or ‘I didn't get a lunch break this day,’” she added. “This will be very helpful when it comes to filing a complaint.”

Working Washington, Fair Work Center and the Northwest Justice Project are also available to assist with wage issues. 

Find employers that L&I has found to have violated wage-theft laws with this search tool. You can search by company name, city or ZIP code.

Seattle has its own rules regarding labor standards, which include paid sick leave for gig workers. The city also conducts its own wage-theft investigations. Complaints can be filed  through a web form; by calling (206) 256-5297 (interpreters can be provided); or by visiting the Office of Labor Standards.

The city indicates that it prioritizes investigating complaints from workers making less than 350% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which is $51,030 for 2023, and those that impact a larger number of employees.

Ask Lizz your questions about workplaces in Washington state. 

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano

Investigative Reporter

Lizz Giordano is Crosscut’s investigative reporter, focused on following working conditions, government oversight procedures and labor organizing efforts across Washington state. Before joining Crosscut, as writer and photographer, Lizz covered transit and transportation issues impacting the region. She can be followed on Twitter @lizzgior or reached on email at elizabeth.giordano@crosscut.com.