Here’s me in a radio interview, explaining independent contractor misclassification risks in California

Ok, so that’s a pretty boring headline. I will accept responsibility for that.

Let’s try something different this week. Instead of reading, you can listen.

Here is a radio interview on KFROG radio, which aired in Southern California a few weeks ago. In the interview, I discuss California’s Assembly Bill 5, which will convert many independent contractors to employees under California law. I address unanticipated consequences and issues for businesses to consider as they prepare for this law to go into effect.

It’s just under 20 minutes so you can listen on your commute.  Or, if you live in trafficky California, you can listen to it four times on your commute.

You can click here to listen.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Proposed Law Would Radically Change App Driver Protections and Legal Status; Might Also Stop Zombie Ant Apocalypse (Maybe).

california driver app law ant zombiesYou’re supposed to learn something new every day, right? Here’s something that’s definitely new, unless you are a fungus aficionado — and, lucky reader, because this is a read-only post, you do not have to identify yourself if you are indeed a fungus aficionado, and if you are, TMI, and keep it to yourself.

Anyway, there’s a fungus that attacks certain kinds of ants, takes over their ant-body cells, turns them into zombies, causes them to take a final mad bite into a certain type of leaf, then causes a plant spore to sprout from their heads. Yes, really. It’s right here in this New York Times article, complete with pictures.

The Ophiocordyceps fungus is not a dinosaur, despite its suspiciously dinosaur-sounding name, but it sounds pretty ferocious and looks like it’s threatening to kill off segments of the ant population.

Another thing that is ferocious and threatening to kill something off is California’s recent Assembly Bill 5, which would convert many independent contractors into employees under state labor laws.

The latest attempt to eradicate that ferocious law comes in the form of a ballot initiative being sponsored by some of the large ride hailing and delivery app companies.

The Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Act, if passed, would preserve the independent contractor status of app-based drivers in California if the app companies provide the drivers with a number of financial considerations and benefits, along with allowing the drivers to maintain control over when and where they work. The law imposes substantial driver protections that app companies are currently hesitant to provide, out of fear that providing these benefits and protections might cause the drivers to be deemed employees.

The law would strike a much-need balance that enhances driver rights while creating certainty on drivers’ classification status.

The app companies would have to provide an earnings guarantee of at least 120% of the local minimum wage for time engaged, a 30-cents per mile stipend to cover vehicle expenses, a healthcare subsidy contribution, occupational accident insurance, and liability insurance.

App companies would be prohibited from engaging in discrimination. Companies would also be required to implement a sexual harassment policy, conduct background checks, implement safety training, and implement a zero tolerance policy prohibiting driving while impaired. Rest periods would also be required.

In exchange, the app companies would receive assurance that the drivers are properly classified as independent contractors so long as four conditions are met:

(a) The network company does not unilaterally prescribe specific dates, times of day, or a minimum number of hours during which the app-based driver must be logged into the network company’s online-enabled application or platform.

(b) The network company does not require the app-based driver to accept any specific rideshare service or delivery service request as a condition of maintaining access to the network company’s online-enabled application or platform.

(c) The network company does not restrict the app-based driver from performing rideshare services or delivery services through other network companies except during engaged time.

(d) The network company does not restrict the app-based driver from working in any other lawful occupation or business.

The proposed law is supported by multiple prominent ride share and delivery app companies. Their hope is to gather enough signatures to place the issue on the November 2020 ballot in California.

This is worth watching. You can read more about it here. If passed, this can serve as model legislation to be applied elsewhere around the country.

In the meantime, if you see fungal spores starting to grow out of app drivers’ heads, you’ll know that Assembly Bill 5 got to them first.  We can only hope.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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California’s New Anti-Arbitration Law: A Hotbed of Problems

California continues to be a hotbed of activity, which got me wondering: what is a hotbed? So I looked it up.

Hotbed – noun – hot·bed |  \ ˈhät-ˌbed

/a bed of soil enclosed in glass, heated especially by fermenting manure, and used for forcing or for raising seedlings/

And now you can decide which is more useful- knowing what a hotbed is or keeping up with the latest legislation in California that makes things harder for businesses.

The latest is AB51, which bans mandatory employee arbitration agreements if they are made a condition of employment. Voluntary arbitration agreements are still permitted.

So let’s just include an opt-out provision, right? That way there’s a choice, so it’s not mandatory. That would seem to make sense. Not so fast. The law says that if you include an opt-out provision, it still counts as mandatory. Huh? That’s contrary to the meaning of opt-out.

Opt – verb \ ˈäpt

/to make a choice/

If the option to opt-in is voluntary, then the option to opt-out is voluntary. Grammarians needed in California please.

The law is also probably illegal, except maybe for jobs in the transportation industry. According to the Supreme Court, the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) prohibits states from enacting laws that treat agreements to arbitrate differently than other agreements. If the parties agree to arbitrate, there’s an enforceable contract, and the states need to get out of the way. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. The FAA doesn’t apply to portions of the interstate transportation industry though, so the California law might be enforceable only as to that small segment of jobs. The enforceability of this law will be tested in the courts.

The law also creates a chicken-and-egg problem for independent contractor misclassification disputes. You can still require in an independent contractor agreement that an independent contractor must arbitrate disputes. And in that arbitration agreement, you can grant the arbitrator the authority to rule on any questions about enforceability of the arbitration agreement.

But what if the dispute is over whether the independent contractor is an employee? If the California law stands, then the agreement to arbitrate the dispute is enforceable only if the arbitrator rules that the contractor is properly classified as a contractor, but the agreement to arbitrate is unenforceable if the arbitrator rules that the contractor is misclassified and should really be an employee. But if the arbitrator rules that contractor was really an employee, then under California law the agreement granting the arbitrator the right to make that decision is void. You’d have to decide the ultimate issue — independent contractor s employee — before determining who decides whether the worker is a contractor or an employee.

Is your head spinning? Good. Just in time for Halloween.

Thanks California. You give me lots to write about.

This new law applies to employee arbitration agreements entered into after January 1, 2020– unless it’s not enforceable at all. We’ll see.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Don’t be a goat: Know the joint employment law before going to trial

Joint employment goatI took a picture of this goat right before it tried to eat a small paper cup. The paper cup had food in it, but the paper cup was not the food. This confusion is understandable because, well, it’s a goat. The bar is set low for a goat.

The bar needs to be set higher when retaining counsel to defend against claims of joint employment. A recent California case shows what happens when your lawyer doesn’t understand the proper test for joint employment.

In the lawsuit, a staffing agency employee had been retained to work in a supervisory role as a line lead in a production department. We’ll call the place where she worked the “contracting company.” The worker was accused of bullying, then she accused another worker of harassment, and the contracting company terminated its her relationship with her. We don’t know whether the staffing agency terminated her direct employment, but that’s not important for now. The point is that the contracting company terminated its relationship with her.

She then sued the contracting company for having terminated her role there, accusing the contracting company of sexual harassment and retaliation. Because her direct employer was the staffing agency, she would have to prove that the contracting company was her joint employer. That’s because you can only allege employment discrimination claims against an employer. In other words, to bring a claim of employment discrimination against the contracting company, she had to prove that she was an employee of the contracting company.

Under California anti-discrimination law, a right to control test is used to determine whether a business is a joint employer. The test looks at how much control the business had over how the worker did her work. Because she was a line lead and a supervisor for the contracting business, there were plenty of facts that could support a finding of joint employment.

The lawyers for the contracting business either didn’t understand the joint employment test or they knew their goose was cooked, so they tried a different approach. Instead of arguing that the contracting business did not have a right to control her work, they argued that the jury should look at who had more control — the staffing agency or the contracting business. They argued that the staffing agency hired her and paid her, so it must have had more control over the essential terms of her employment. The staffing agency, they argued, was therefore her real (and only) employer.

The jury bought this argument, finding that the contracting company was not a joint employer because it exerted less control than the staffing agency.

But this argument was too clever by half. That’s not the test. So last week, a California Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, sending the case back for a new trial. You’ve got to use the proper test.

The test for joint employment is not about who had the most control. It’s just about who had the right to exert certain types of control. If more than one business exerts the right kinds of control, there can be more than one employer. That’s the whole point of joint employment.

Here’s an analogy that may be useful. Suppose a worker has a manager, who reports to a general manager. Both the direct manager and the general manager have control over the worker, even though the direct manager has more day-to-day and direct control. But they both are managers, and both have the right to control how the worker does the job. It’s not about which of the two managers has more control. They both manage the employee. Jointly.

To effectively defend against claims of joint employment, it’s necessary to understand the legal test for joint employment. Here, the contracting company argued the wrong test and scored a hollow victory at trial. In goat-speak, they overlooked the food and ate the paper cup. Now they’ll have to do it all over again, costing the contracting company a boatload in additional legal expenses for a second trial.

The lesson here is: Know the law, and know the tests. It’s hard to mount a real defense against joint employment if you don’t.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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In Contract Labor Agreements, This Simple Clause Can Be Your Pillow

Joint employment contract clauseFor humans, some things are essential. Like a good pillow. For non-humans, the anti pillow sometimes works too. Not sure how. But the non-human in this picture generally sleeps like this.

For businesses contracting for labor, some things are essential too. One clause you are likely to have in contract with a supplier of labor is the right to remove a bad apple from the project.

The bad apple clause typically reads something like this: “We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time.”

That’s useful, but does it create an argument that your business is taking control over the individual’s employment in a way that could make your business an employer (or joint employer) of an individual you remove?

Here’s a simple fix to improve your contracts and limit the viability of that argument:

“We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time. We do not, however, have any right to control the individual’s employment status with contractor. Contractor retains the sole right to make all decisions regarding the hiring, termination, and other conditions of employment for all individuals assigned to the project or removed from the project.”

Consider the addition of that extra sentence or two to be a fluffy pillow.  It will help you sleep better if faced with a misclassification or joint employment claim.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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A New Smell: Ninth Circuit Rejects ABC Test for Determining Joint Employment

Joint employment dogsWhere I play tennis, there’s a lake with a beach that is open all summer. Like most places in the Midwest, it closes for the season on Labor Day. The weekend after Labor Day, they open it up for everyone to bring their dogs to run around, jump off the high dive (I wish!), and sniff each other’s butts. Because dogs are not typically allowed at the lake, these dogs are unfamiliar with each other, so there’s even more butt-sniffing than you might normally see at a canine networking event. 

My daughter captured this gem of a photo — a five-dog sniffing train.

An unfamiliar smell wafted our way from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week too. And this was a more pleasant scent for California businesses than usual.

The case was a joint employment case involving a franchisor. A local franchisee was accused of miscalculating overtime and failing to provide sufficient meal and rest breaks. The plaintiff-employees settled with the franchisee but continued to go after the deeper pockets, the franchisor. They made several arguments.

Two were of the most interest to me.

First, they argued that the Dynamex ABC Test should be used to determine whether the franchisee’s employees were also the franchisor’s employees. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the Dynamex ABC Test applies only to the question of whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee. To determine whether someone is a joint employee, a different test is used.

Second, they argued that under California’s broad definition of employ, the franchisor “permitted” the franchisee’s employees to work and therefore was a joint employer and jointly liable for the franchisee’s mistakes.

The Ninth Circuit rejected that argument too. To determine whether someone is a joint employer under California wage and hour law, the Court said you look at three alternative definitions of employ: control, “suffer or permit to work,” and the common law S.G. Borello balancing test. If any of these three tests is met, there’s joint employment. The “suffer or permit to work” definition is the broadest and is the one that is most likely to tag a company with joint employer status.

The Court determined that even that broadest of definitions could not be met. The franchisor had no control over day-to-day operations, hiring, firing, scheduling, or worker pay.

For California businesses, the key takeaways from this case are (1) that the ABC Test is used only to determine independent contractor misclassification, not to determine joint employment, and (2) that the test for joint employment is relatively easy to meet but it’s not automatic, even for a franchisor.

The Court acknowledged that the nature of a franchisee-franchisor relationship necessarily involves franchisor control over the product, but that does not mean it controls the employees. It is the franchisor’s relationship with the franchisee’s employees that must be looked at to determine whether there is joint employment.

We have seen plenty of decisions from of the federal and state courts in California that have threatened to expand joint employment and threatened the franchise business model. But this decision smells good, even if a bit unexpected — like an unfamiliar but friendly dog at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NLRB Wants New Rule To Prevent Student Teaching Assistants From Joining Unions

Flip flops NLRB union graduate students 2019Summer may be over, but the National Labor Relations Board isn’t ready to put away its flip flops.

It’s been a busy few months, with the NLRB releasing a number of recent decisions that change Obama-era interpretations of federal labor law.

On Friday, the Board released a new proposed rule that would declare college teaching assistants to be non-employees, meaning they cannot form unions. The proposed rule would declare these graduate students to be just students under federal labor law, not both students and employees of their institutions. The new rule would apply even though the students are paid.

The Board’s explanation for the proposed rule is that graduate students are primarily students and the paid work is primarily for an educational purpose.

If this rule were to pass, it would reverse a 2016 NLRB decision, which found that Columbia University students assistants were also employees of the school because “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated.”

The 2016 decision reversed a 2004 George W. Bush-era Board decision, which found that Brown University student assistants were not employees because their relationship to the university was primarily educational.

The 2004 decision reversed a 2000 Clinton-era Board decision finding that NYU graduate student assistants were employees that could form unions.

The 2000 decision reversed a 1974 decision, which found that Stanford University graduate students were not employees because their paid roles as student assistants was primarily educational.

I think you see what’s happening here.

The new development is just that the Board has proposed a new rule. The rule, if enacted, would change the offical interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act to be that graduate student assistants are not employees. Notably, despite the flip flops listed above, the statute has not changed. But depending on which political party has a majority on the 5-member Board (currently 4-member Board), the Board’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act changes and changes again.

The current Board seems to think that by making its changes through rulemaking, rather than through Board decisions on actual cases, maybe its interpretation will be stickier in the long run. I doubt it.

Even if the proposed rule passes, it seems inevitable that whenever the next Democratic-majority Board is in place, it will switch back to the view that graduate student assistants are employees and can form unions.

There’s a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule, then the Board can decide whether to pass it as written, modify it, or scrap it.

In any event, students are back in school, and so far the weather seems good enough to keep using flip flops — at least in Washington, D.C., at the National Labor Relations Board.

See you at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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