Can Your Business Be Liable for Sexual Harassment by an Independent Contractor?

Independent contractors sexual harassment

Damage can come from unexpected places.

Earlier this year, Brock Holt of the Boston Red Sox landed on baseball’s Injured List after his two-year old son poked him in the eye. Baseball players accept the risk of injury, but that’s not a way you’d expect to get hurt.

I think you see where I’m going here. Don’t let an independent contractor become Brock Holt’s son. Yes, a business can be liable for harassment by a contractor — if it fails to respond appropriately to a complaint. If one of your employees complains of harassment by a contractor, pay attention.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), businesses can be liable for harassment by non-employees if the business knows about the harassment and fails to take reasonable steps to prevent it. EEOC Guidance says:

The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

That means you can’t just say, “It’s not our employee so we can’t do anything about it.” Investigate. Interview witnesses. Take statements. If there’s something there, act upon it.

If the bad actor is a contractor, options may include:

  1. Terminating the independent contractor relationship, 
  2. Limiting the contractor’s access to your facility,
  3. Poking out the contractor’s eye (or both eyes, if the harassment is particularly egregious), or 
  4. Any other steps to prevent bad behavior. 

My wife, who is in HR, says #3 is not an appropriate response, so I stand corrected. Don’t do #3. The other options are still good though.

As for #4, you should not discipline an independent contractor, but you can issue a stern warning to that contractor that the relationship will be terminated if there are any further complaints. Just don’t call it “discipline.” Disciplinary action is a sign of control, which can be used as evidence that the contractor might really be an employee. The last thing you need if one of your employees is being harassed by a contractor is to convert that contractor into your employee. 

Whatever you decide, do something.

While businesses might not expect that they could be held liable for bad acts by a contractor, the risk is real. Employers have a responsibility to provide their workers with a workplace that is free from harassment. If you allow a contractor to create a hostile work environment, your business can be liable for allowing that environment to persist. The employer’s responsibility is to take “prompt and appropriate corrective action.” 

For Brock Holt, terminating the relationship with the wayward eye-poker was not an option. (His wife reportedly vetoed that proposal. She is probably in HR.) But for businesses whose contractors are accused of harassing employees, terminating the relationship may be the best decision. 

So the answer is yes. Business have a responsibility to provide a workplace that is free from harassment, and the failure to do so may result in liability, even if the harassment is coming from a non-employee. Busiensses can be liable for harassment by contractors if the business knows or should know about the harassment and fails to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

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

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How Do I Run a Background Check on an Independent Contractor?

How do i run a background check on an independent contractorAfter the events of this past weekend, I don’t have to say anything about the risks involved in allowing dangerous people onto your premises. Before retaining an independent contractor who will have access to your business’s facilities, people, or information, it makes sense to know who you are inviting into your house.

An employment-style background check is often appropriate, but there are a few important differences between background checks being run before hiring an employee and before engaging a non-employee contractor.  [We’re talking here about 1099 contractors, not staffing agency employees.]

If the background check is being run by a third party, then the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is likely to apply. But the rules are different for pre-employment background checks and non-employment background checks.

For pre-employment background checks, certain disclosures must be made before the background check is obtained, and additional disclosures have to be made before you take an “adverse action” based on the result of the background check, such as revoking a conditional offer or not hiring someone. These additional requirements apply only for background checks being run “for employment purposes.”

Ok, Todd. These don’t sound too burdensome. Can’t I just follow the more burdensome pre-employment rules just to be safe?

Yes, sort of. But a few words of caution are in order.

First, your User Agreement with the background check company requires you to certify to the background check company the purposes for which you will be requesting background checks. Review your agreement to see whether you certified that you would only run background checks “for employment purposes.” 

Since this is not a background check being run “for employment purposes,” you need to have another permissible purpose under the FCRA. The law lists several alternatives. Two are likely to apply:  You may obtain a background check (1) “in accordance with the written instructions of the consumer” or (2) if you have “a legitimate business need for the information in connection with a business transaction that is initiated by the consumer.” Here, the “consumer” would be the individual contractor.

You may need to amend your agreement with the background check company before  you run any background checks on potential independent contractors. You never want independent contractors to be considered your employees.

Second, check the federal forms you give to the individual before you run the background check. You do not want to give an independent contractor a Disclosure form or an Authorization form that says your company will run a background check “for employment purposes.” Many generic forms include that phrase because it’s a term of art used in the FCRA. For background checks being run on independent contractors, you don’t want to have the contractor sign a document that can be used to argue you were creating an employment relationship, rather than an independent contractor relationship.

Finally, check the state law forms you are using. If your background check company supplied you with a suite of forms, those forms likely include various disclosures required under state laws. States with additional pre-employment background check requirements include California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington State, among others. Almost all of the required state law disclosures, however, apply only to background checks being run “for employment purposes.” Be careful not to use forms with language that could be used to argue you were creating an employment relationship, rather than a contractor relationship.

Final thoughts:  Running a background check on an independent contractor can be a good idea and can bring you and your business some piece of mind. Be careful, though, that you don’t solve one problem by inadvertently creating another.

Background check pitfalls can be prevented if you use the correct forms and documents ahead of time. It’s not that hard to do this correctly, but it requires a some extra attention and care.

If you’d like more information, you can review two earlier blog posts I’ve written on this topic, here and here. Or feel free to contact me directly at tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com.

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

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Do Over for California’s ABC Test? Retroactivity Issue is Headed Back to the State Supreme Court

Independent contractor ABC Test cow

“Placido Domingo’s pretty great, but I also love Pavarotti.”

In Hampshire, England, there is a veterinarian who sings opera to cows.

Now if your spidey-sense is as tingly as mine, you’ll immediately realize there is something wrong with this picture. It’s obvious, right? It should be an opera singer who sings opera to cows, not a veterinarian. Vet school does not include the proper classical training.

While this Hampshire vet has apparently not realized he is out of his lane, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week did acknowledge it was operating out of its lane in a major case involving independent contractors. The Ninth Circuit is withdrawing a major decision it released in May 2019 and sending that issue to the California Supreme Court instead.

In May, we wrote about the ruling by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that’s being withdrawn. In that case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that California’s ABC Test (the Dynamex Test) for deciding the Independent Contractor vs. Employee question would apply retroactively. (You can read my seething critique of that ruling, Vazquez v. Jan-Pro, here.)

The Dynamex decision is the one in which the California Supreme Court made up an ABC Test as the new standard for determining whether someone is a contractor or an employee under California’s wage and hour laws (claims of overtime, minimum wage, meal and rest breaks, etc.). The ramifications are enormous for California businesses.

Now back to the May 2019 Vazquez ruling. In that case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that California businesses should have been applying the ABC Test that was made up in Dynamex, even though that test did not yet exist. Seems pretty unfair, doesn’t it? Very unfair.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit withdrew its ruling in the May 2019 Vazquez case. This is half good news, not all good news.

The Ninth Circuit didn’t concded that its May 2019 decision was wrong (even though it was, heh heh). Rather, the Ninth Circuit decided that — like a veterinarian singing opera to cows — it had been operating out of its lane. The Ninth Circuit now says that the California Supreme Court — not the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals  —  should be the one to decide whether the ABC Test applies retroactively.

The California Supreme Court case is definitely one to watch. Industry groups from around the country are likely to weigh in. Many will file amicus briefs (non-party “friend of the court” memos) to try to persuade the court that retroactivity would be unfair and would have significant negative effects on California businesses and the state’s economy.

For now, the question of whether the Dynamex ABC Test applies retroactively is again unresolved. That means there is a period of a few years extending back from April 2018 in which nobody knows what the test is for determining whether someone was then an employee or an independent contractor under California’s wage and hour laws.

That’s important because the are a lot of lawsuits alleging that independent contractors are misclassified. Some have been decided, some have not. Could some cases that were already decided be reopened?

We’ll keep an eye on this case as it makes its way through the California Supreme Court. We’ll also be watching for new developments among bovine opera aficionados. I want to know whether the cows think this veterinarian singer is any good.

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

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Can Study Time be Considered Employment? Yes, Says a Federal Court

Is study time compensable employmentSam Cooke admittedly didn’t know much about history, didn’t know much about biology, didn’t know much about a science book, and didn’t know much about the French he took.

That’s probably because he didn’t study.

Studying can have its rewards, but can those rewards include being paid to study? Yes, says a federal court in Arizona—at least under one set of facts.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), time spent working must be compensated. In Julian v. Swift Transportation, the court had to decide whether study time was working time.

As part of the new hire trainee process, potential new drivers for a transportation company were provided a three-day period of orientation, then were sent for six weeks of paid training with a mentor. During the paid training period, the newbies were required to study in preparation for company-specific new driver tests. Some of the study time was spent on the clock during the 8-hour training day, but some of the required study time was performed while off-the-clock in “sleeper berth” time.

The court ruled that, because the company actively stressed the importance of studying, even during sleeper berth time, this time was compensable “employment.” In this case, the study time had to be paid.

This ruling is limited to the facts of this case and certainly does not mean that all study time for new hires is compensable. Sorry, Sam Cooke. But here, where workers were on the road with a mentor for a six-week training program and were expected to study frequently, the study time was determined to be working time.

Now, I don’t claim to be an A student, but I’m trying to be. For maybe by being an A student, baby, I can win your love for me. (And an extra paycheck?)

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

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Future of “Joint Employment” Test May Be at Issue, as NLRB Chair Files Complaint Against NLRB’s Inspector General.

F35D8CDD-3497-4FCC-83D8-732CC87B195A

From the county sheriff’s scratch-and-sniff twitter account

Police officers in Clay County, Missouri were searching for a suspect wanted for felony possession. They brought out the K9 crew. The suspect was hiding and, so far so good. But then…

According to Fox 4 in Kansas City, the suspect passed gas so loudly that he gave his location away. The police sniffed him out and cuffed him. Stinks for that guy.

There’s another search-and-destroy mission going on at the NLRB. It’s a power struggle that could be described as a complicated game of cat vs. mouse vs. cat, and — bizarre as it seems — the result of this internal power struggle may ultimately decide the test for joint employment.

Board Chairman John Ring is trying to sack NLRB Inspector General David Berry, who is trying to disqualify Republican-appointed Board member William Emanuel from participating in two key joint employment cases. Member Emanuel is likely to be the deciding vote in favor of a stricter, more pro-business definition of joint employment in either of two significant joint employment cases before the Board. (The cases are Hy-Brand and McDonald’s.)

According to this piece of excellent reporting by Bloomberg Law’s @HassanKanu, Chairman Ring has filed a formal complaint against Inspector General Berry, seeking to have him removed from his post for inappropriate conduct. The complaint, according to Kanu, alleges that Berry has mistreated agency employees, and it references an EEOC complaint filed againt Berry.

So how does this affect joint employment?

Inspector General Berry has been the driving force behind efforts to disqualify Member Emanuel (R) from participating in two key joint employment cases — the Hy-Brand case (in which the Board tried to overturn the Browning-Ferris joint employment test) and the pending McDonald’s case.

Berry claims that Member Emanuel has a conflict of interest that prevents him from particpating in these two cases, stemming from Emanuel having been a partner at the Littler law firm.

If Berry is removed, a new Inspector General may view the conflict issue differently.

From my point of view, there’s no conflict and Member Emanuel should be allowed to participate. For those of you who like to peek behind the curtain, here is a copy of the amicus brief that I filed on behalf of the Restaurant Law Center. The brief argues in support of McDonald’s position that Member Emanuel should not be recused. (There have been similar efforts to try to recuse Ring too.) But that issue remains unresolved.

If a new Inspector General concludes that there is no conflict, then a three-member Republican majority of the Board is likely to rule, at its first opportunity, that the test for determining joint employment should be changed.

The Hy-Brand decision in late 2017 described the test the Republican majority wants to implement. Read more here. The test the Board wants to implement would make it much harder to prove that joint employment exists under federal labor law. Although the Board adopted the new test in the Hy-Brand case, it later withdrew the Hy-Brand ruling because of the conflict issue. The Board wants to go back to the Hy-Brand test but needs to clear up the conflict/recusal issue first.

If Inspector General Berry is forced out, the recusal obstacle could go away.

The recusal issue could also go away if the Board just sits on the pending McDonald’s case until October. September 2019 marks two years since Member Emanuel was appointed to the Board, and any conflict issue related to his previous role as a partner at the Littler firm should drop off. There are two ethics rules in play. One has a one-year lookback period, and the other has a two-year lookback period. If the Board delays deciding the McDonald’s case, the conflict issue might just go away because of the passage of time. (More detail in the amicus brief, here.)

So where does that leave us? Ring is going after Berry, who is trying to interfere with Ring’s effort to adopt a new pro-business definition of joint employment. Sound complicated? That’s high drama within the NLRB!

Will Berry survive the complaint? Will Ring oust his rival? Will Emanuel be allowed to participate in joint employment decisions? Will the Board find a way to implement its desired new definition of joint employment? Can the whole recusal issue be avoided if the Board just waits until October before doing anything? Can the Board get around the whole recusal issue by relying on the rulemaking process to implement a new test for joint employment?

There’s a lot to keep watching here. A change to the test for joint employment would be welcomed by the business community.

Until then, keep checking here for the latest developments on joint employment, and keep checking Fox 4 in K.C. for the latest developments on suspects who fart away their hiding places.

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

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Will NY Lawmakers Create a New Class of “Dependent Contractors”? If So, It Could Be a Work of Art.

Horse no shadow - independent contractor misclassification - dependent contractor - Todd Lebowitz

This piece of art hung in the bedroom at the apartment I rented on my recent vacation in Paris. See the shadow of the dog? Yep. See the shadow of the horse? Yep. See the shadow of the rider?

Oops. I expected it to be there. Chalk up another win for bad art.

Art requires creativity and, sometimes, a different perspective. Things are not always the way we expect them to be. That can be due to oversight (such as with bad art) or due to creativity. New York lawmakers are looking at new ways to approach the Independent Contractor vs. Employee question, and under one recent proposal, lawmakers could get creative.

A proposed bill would create the status of dependent worker, allowing gig workers to form quasi-unions to negotiate fees and directing the state to hold public hearings exploring ways to provide other rights to gig workers, such as minimum wage and anti-discrimination protections.

The bill was withdrawn just before summer recess, but the question will be revisited in the next legislative session. 

Some worker groups say the bill does not go far enough. Many worker advocates would like to see a new law that presumes all gig workers to be employees, unless the hiring party can prove an exception. ABC Tests are one example of that type of law. Business groups seem more open to the proposal, recognizing that labor laws probably need to start recognizing a middle ground between employees and independent contractors. (You can read more about that movement here, in last week’s post.)

We’ll have to wait until the fall, when New York lawmakers return to Albany, to see how this plays out in New York. In the meantime, if anyone is looking for something fun to do during summer break, I know of at least one amateur French painter who could use some tutoring.

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

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Opinion Piece Asks California Not to Be the Pigeon in this Photo

Pigeon head Tuileries - independent contractor misclassification Todd LebowitzI took this picture last week in Paris, walking through the Jardin des Tuileries with my family, just outside the Louvre.  

If you think of the statue as being ride-share giants Uber and Lyft, and if you think of the California state legislature as the pigeon, you’ll know why Uber and Lyft’s chief executives joined forces to write this opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

As we explained here, California seems likely to pass a bill that would rewrite California law in a way that will instantly convert many — perhaps most — independent contractors into employees.  The bill would take the ABC Test created last year in the Dynamex case and apply it to the entire California Labor Code, as well as to state unemployment law. (Currently, the ABC Test applies only to state wage and hour claims, and a more neutral balancing test applies to other state law claims.)

The law, if passed, would undoubtedly fuel new claims against Uber and Lyft, alleging that ride-share drivers are employees under state law.

In the opinion piece, the companies argue in favor of legal reform, but in a way that does not threaten to change drivers into employees.

The Uber-Lyft proposal would secure three new types of protections for ride-share drivers, while safeguarding their status as independent contractors. The proposal would:

  1. Set up a portable benefits system for gig workers, including retirement savings accounts, paid time off, and lifelong learning opportunities;
  2. Create a drivers’ association, in partnership with state lawmakers and labor groups, to represent drivers’ interests and administer benefits; and
  3. Establish a new driver pay system that includes greater earnings transparency for the work performed between accepting a ride and dropping off a passenger after accounting for reasonable expenses.

So why can’t Uber and Lyft just do these things on their own? Because if they did, the current legal system would likely treat those acts of goodwill as evidence that Uber and Lyft were treating the drivers as employees.

Current labor laws were not written with the gig economy in mind. The law right now is an all-or-nothing proposition — independent contractor or employee. The modern economy, though, requires a middle ground — an alternative that allows app companies to provide greater benefits and protections to drivers without running the risk that these well-meaning gestures could convert the drivers into employees.

Pigeons are going to poop on statues forever. Marble heads provide a comfortable spot for loosening the ol’ avian bowels, and we all know it’s hard to find a good public toilet these days. But some things should not be set in stone. Let’s hope the California assembly backs off of the fast track for A.B. 5 and instead tries something new. The system proposed in the joint Uber-Lyft opinion piece would help drivers and would help the gig economy continue to thrive. 

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

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