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Safe Start Washington: What Employers Need To Know As Governor Eases Restrictions


Washington Governor Inslee just issued a proclamation to kick off the four-phase plan to reopen the state, titled Safe Start Washington: A Phased Approach to Recovery. Each detailed phase of the plan allows additional industries to resume operations subject to limitations designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. What do employers need to know about this phased plan?

Businesses Allowed To Reopen Now 

As of May 5, landscaping businesses, auto/RV/boat/RV sales, retail (curbside pick-up only), car washes, pet walkers, and golf courses may re-open, provided they fully comply with all stated requirements. Already-allowed essential businesses and certain construction projects may remain in operation under earlier guidance. Religious services may also resume, but only for drive-in services with one household per vehicle.

Progression Through Phases

The plan requires Washington to remain in each phase for at least three weeks. At the conclusion of that time period, the state may remain in the current phase, advance to the next phase, or return to the prior phase, largely dependent on the outcome of certain health-based statistical measures. Unfortunately, this could mean that businesses that reopened during any phase might be forced to close again in as little as three weeks. To prepare, you should plan now for how to handle both future closures and future lifting of restrictions.

Requirements For Reopening

Business reopening during Phase I must comply with any industry-specific requirements, which Governor Inslee promised would be issued by May 15,2020. You also have a general duty under OSHA and its Washington counterpart, WISHA, to provide a safe workplace for employees. You also must comply with the following plan requirements during each phase:

Accelerated Reopening For Less-Populated Counties

Counties with fewer than 75,000 residents who have not identified a resident with COVID-19 for the past three weeks may ask the Department of Health for a “variance,” allowing it permission to advance to Phase II of the plan before the rest of Washington. Phase II businesses in such counties should stay aware of local efforts to obtain a variance and accelerate plans to re-open accordingly.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Businesses allowed to reopen during Phase I should take steps to comply with all requirements before reopening. Recommended steps include implementing policies regarding employees who resist returning to work for fear of infection and for employees needing accommodation, either under disability laws or Governor Inslee’s proclamation protecting high-risk workers. Clear policies set expectations for employees and guide managers dealing with these issues. 

You should also reacquaint yourself with the various COVID-19-related leaves that may be available to employees, including state and local paid leave laws, and leave under the FFCRA (Emergency Paid Sick Leave and Expanded FMLA). Businesses that will open during later phases can take many of the same steps now to prepare to reopen safely when allowed to do so.

As you begin the process of reopening, you should familiarize yourself with our alert: 5 Steps To Reopen Your Workplace, According To CDC’s Latest Guidance. You should also keep handy our 4-Step Plan For Handling Confirmed COVID-19 Cases When Your Business Reopens in the event you learn of a positive case at your workplace. For a more thorough analysis of the many issues you may encounter from a labor and employment perspective, we recommend you review our FP BEYOND THE CURVE: Post-Pandemic Back-To-Business FAQs For Employers and our FP Resource Center For Employers.


Fisher Phillips will continue to monitor the rapidly developing COVID-19 situation and provide updates as appropriate. Make sure you are subscribed to Fisher Phillips’ Alert System to get the most up-to-date information. For further information, contact your Fisher Phillips attorney, any attorney in our Seattle office, or any member of our Post-Pandemic Strategy Group Roster.

This Legal Alert provides an overview of a specific developing situation. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation.


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