Pain, Humiliation & Self-Pity: How Does the Definition of “Employ” Relate to Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Suffer or Permit to Work FLSA Definition of Employ

According to the New World Encyclopedia, examples of “suffering” include pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, self-pity, and death.

According to federal wage and hour law, “suffer” means employment.

Ouch. Happy Monday.

One of the many problems with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) — the federal law that sets minimum wage and overtime standards — is that it’s archaic, outdated, old. It was passed in 1938.  Before Hitler invaded Poland.  Before the first Captain America comic book. Even before the invention of the Slinky.

In 1938, Mick Jagger wasn’t even born yet. (But Betty White was 16.)

The language used in the FLSA reflects a different era. In the definitions section of the Act, “employ” includes “to suffer or permit to work.” What exactly does that mean? At the time it was written, what did Congress intend for it to mean? And what does it mean now, in the modern economy, especially when trying to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor?

According to the FLSA regulations, if “the employer knows or has reason to believe that [the individual] is continuing to work,” then the time is working time. It’s employment. Even work that is “not requested” is work time if the employer permitted the work to be done.

When asking the question, Who Is My Employee?, this broad definition presents a challenge. As the Supreme Court has recognized, this definition is broader than the ordinary “common law” definition of employment, which looks at the extent of control the employer exercises (or has the right to exercise) over the worker. That’s the Right to Control Test, which is discussed in more detail here.

Because the definition of “employ” is different under the FLSA than under most other employment laws, the test for determining Who Is My Employee? is different too.

The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine whether a worker is an employee (as compared to an independent contractor).

The Economic Realities Test is expressed slightly differently by different federal courts but, in general, the test asks whether the worker is economically reliant on the potential employer to earn a living. If economically reliant, the worker is likely an employee. If the worker has other sources of income or is business for himself/herself, the worker is more likely an independent contractor, not an employee.

The Economic Realities Test is described in more detail here.

So that’s how the federal courts interpret the “suffer or permit to work” language in the FLSA. But to keep things interesting, California’s wage and hour laws use the same “suffer or permit” language in its state law definition of “employ,” but California interprets that phrase differently and imposes a different test. Same standard, different test.

As we will discuss in Thursday’s post, California’s alternative interpretation of that same phrase can lead to very different results when evaluating whether someone is an employee or independent contractor.

It’s California’s definition — more than the federal definition — that is more likely to cause pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, or self-pity. To the Golden State’s credit, though, probably not death. Good job, California.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Happy Birthday, Rudolph! (You’re Still Just a Temp.)

Temporary workers rudolph reindeer employment law

At age 79, Rudolph is the youngest of Santa’s reindeer, having been created in a promotion for the Montgomery Ward department store in 1939. While he reliably shows up every December, Rudolph is still just a seasonal hire, presumably grazing with his caribou cousins somewhere in Lappland or Siberia the rest of the year.

Seasonal hires, or temps, present special problems. There are different kind of temps.

Temps retained as W-2 employees are regular employees, even if only retained for a short period of time.  Regular employment rules apply.

Temps retained through staffing agencies are a little different, but not much. They are likely joint employees of both the worksite employer and the staffing firm.  They likely take direction and supervision from the worksite employer and work side-by-side with the worksite employer’s regular employees.  These characteristics are generally signs of joint employment.

What is the impact of joint employment? Potentially none, but if the staffing agency does not properly pay its employees, the worksite employer may be on the hook. It is critical to ensure that hours are properly recorded and the staffing firm is reputable and reliable in its pay practices.

The use of temps can be a tremendous help during the holiday season, like having a luminous red headlight for a nose when delivering toys via sleigh.  Just be sure to tighten all the reins before taking off.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What is Joint Employment?

What is joint employment

Despite the spread of marijuana legalization initiatives, the term “joint employment” has nothing to do with edibles, 4/20 day, or the prevailing aroma at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Joint employment simply means that more than one entity is a worker’s employer — at least under some applicable law.

In joint employment there is usually a primary employer and a secondary employer. The primary employer, for example, could be a staffing agency. The staffing agency pays the worker, onboards the worker with tax and immigration forms, and assigns the worker to a worksite. The secondary employer is the company where the staffing agency worker performs the services. It’s the company that most directly benefits from the work being performed.

Even though the secondary employer expects the primary employer (the staffing agency) to pay a minimum wage, to properly calculate and pay overtime, and to provide other benefits to its primary employees, a secondary employer can be held liable if the primary employer drops the ball. If the ball dropping is a violation of the law — for example, the primary employer didn’t properly pay overtime — then both joint employers can be held liable.

Joint employment is a backup plan for what happens when the primary employer doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. If Staffing Agency A goes bankrupt and doesn’t pay wages, or if it miscalculates overtime, or if it doesn’t pay for off-the-clock work, both Staffing Agency A and Company B can be deemed joint employers. As joint employers, either company can be held fully liable when a worker doesn’t get what the law says he or she should get.

Let’s digest that for a moment: That means a joint employer can be held responsible for wage and hour violations even when it has no control over how the primary employer runs payroll or calculates worker pay.

In other words, being a joint employer can mean getting punished for things you didn’t do — and weren’t expected to do. As we explained here, it’s like taking steroids by accident.

That hardly seems fair. But it’s the law, intended to protect workers and to ensure there are deep pockets somewhere to ensure the worker is properly compensated for work performed.

So do you want to avoid joint employment? Not necessarily.  Joint employment by itself is not against the law. It is not illegal to be a joint employer.  Joint employment becomes a problem only when the primary employer didn’t treat its employees as the law requires. The law doesn’t care who was supposed to do it. In a joint employment situation, both companies are responsible.

That’s why a detailed contract is so important when engaging a staffing firm to supply employee labor. Contracts with staffing agencies should clearly spell out which company is responsible for what. You can read more here about common deficiencies in off-the-shelf staffing agency contracts. Those agreements generally need to be beefed up to provide proper protection.

How do you know if you are a joint employer? That’s (unfortunately) a tougher question to answer. The test for Who Is a Joint Employer? varies state-by-state, law-by-law. Here is a map showing the current chaos and inconsistencies in the tests. Several previous blog posts address the various tests being used and how these tests continue to develop. We’ll continue to post frequently on developments in joint employment, which is one of the focal points of this blog.

For now, my best non-legal advice is: Subscribe to this blog!

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© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Village People’s Construction Worker Character Wins! Court Expands OSHA Liability for General Contractors

Village People from Wikipedia 1978

The Village People (1978), from Wikipedia

According to the Official Website of the Village People, the group’s original lineup included Disco King, Construction Worker, Cowboy, Leatherman, Indian, and two “Nondescripts.” They were later joined by Cop, G.I., and Biker. Keeping with the times, as we know the Village People do, the costume formerly known as Indian has been rebranded as Native American. (True!)

But Cop or No Cop, Biker or No Biker, there has always been a Construction Worker since the band’s founding in 1977.

A recent court case involving construction workers tests whether a general contractor in control of a worksite (we’ll call him “Macho Man,” after the 1978 hit) has a legal duty to protect another contractor’s employee (we’ll call him “Hot Cop,” after a different 1978 V.P. tune), when none of Macho Man’s own employees are at risk.

The issue arose during a library construction project in Austin, Texas. One subcontractor refused to allow its employees to work near a 12-foot high wall of dirt that had not been properly sloped or reinforced. A citation was issued to the general contractor for allowing the unsafe condition, but it was undisputed that none of the general contractors’ own employees were endangered by the wall of dirt.

“Why does that matter?” you might be asking.

Although the condition was a violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had taken the position since 1981 (when the V.P. released the album, Renaissance) that “OSHA regulations protect only an employer’s own employees.”

The Court’s ruling earlier this week abandoned that rule, instead finding that a general contractor could be cited under OSHA for allowing an unsafe condition that affected only the employees of another contractor.

In response to the Court’s ruling, the Village People have reportedly abandoned plans to introduce a nebishy Health Inspector character on their next tour.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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A Christmas Poem: ‘Twas the Night Before an Independent Contractor Misclassification Ruling

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the nation,
Plaintiffs’ lawyers were alleging independent contractor misclassification;

The businesses’ owners hung by their lawyers with care,
In hopes they could prove that all claims were threadbare;

The workers were all independent contractors, we said,
But the plaintiff was claiming to be an employee instead.

Contracts were reviewed; deposition transcripts were read,
And visions of a dismissal entry danced in our heads.

The judge in her robe, and I in my suit,
Feeling confident our side could win this dispute—

We argued that the facts proved no right to control;
None of the workers were on the payroll.

They could bring their own tools and could hire assistants;
They had formed LLCs and had other means for subsistence.

They only accepted the jobs they desired;
They never were hired. No application required.

We felt pretty good that when the facts were applied,
The judge would agree that no contractors were misclassified.

We filed our motion for summary judgment and waited.
The ruling was issued, and we all were elated.

The court weighed the factors. Nothing was missed.
The workers were contractors. Case dismissed.

Thank you, dear readers. I hope you like what I write.
Happy Christmas (and Hanukkah) to all, and to all a good night!

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NYC May Expand Anti-Discrimination Law to Cover Contractors, Interns

NYC anti discrimination gapI will admit, without shame, that in the 1980s, I loved the Gap Band. Songs like “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” and “Burn Rubber on Me” were just plain fun to listen to. Tip: Try it!

The band’s name didn’t refer to any actual gap — the name comes from the first letters of streets in Tulsa, Oklahoma — but I do know there are many gaps in anti-discrimination law, leaving some types of workers without adequate protection.  

The federal laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, like many (but not all) state laws, protect only employees. That leaves a gap. Independent contractors and interns who have been discriminated against may have no recourse.

The New York City Council is trying to close that gap.

In the same bill we excoriated on Monday for unfairly attacking the franchise model, the New York City Council also proposes to expand the protections of the City’s anti-discrimination law (section 8-107 of the Administrative Code) to protect independent contractors and interns, not just employees. 

Closing that gap makes sense. Hopefully this bill will be amended to keep the parts that expand anti-discrimination protection to non-employee workers (a good idea), while removing the parts that would expand liability to companies not responsible for the discrimination (a bad one).

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NYC to Franchisors: We’re Going “Crazy on You”!

Barracuda NYCIn 1976, the band Heart released the album Dreamboat Annie. Soon after its release, the label (Mushroom Records) released a suggestive National Enquirer-style ad suggesting that sister Ann and Nancy Wilson might also be lesbian lovers. Ann’s outrage led her to write the song “Barracuda,” about ambush and false accusations.

A different Heart song title came to mind as I read the latest attempt by the New York City Council to hold franchisors responsible for acts they did not commit. 

A bill co-sponsored by 19 council members would amend the City’s anti-discrimination law to hold franchisors strictly liable for discriminatory acts by their franchisee. We have seen many attempts to expand the definition of “joint employer” to include franchisors, but this proposal goes beyond anything we’ve seen. This bill doesn’t even deal with the concept of “joint employment.” It just says that franchisors are liable for discriminatory acts of their franchisees, without any analysis of their involvement in the discriminatory acts or their level of control over the franchisee. It’s automatic.

That’s crazy. Holding one company strictly liable for the wrongful acts of another raises all sorts of legal concerns and, if passed, the bill will certainly be challenged in court.

Franchisors, the Council wants to go “Crazy on You.”

Now, truth be told, in the Heart song, going “Crazy on You” has a very different meaning than I intend it here. Ann Wilson and Roger Fisher (her bandmate, co-writer, and lover) meant it in an amorous way, but there is certainly no love between NYC and franchisors. The attacks by NYC on the franchisor-franchisee relationship are more like those of the sharp-toothed predator of the sea, the Barracuda.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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