California’s Top Court Creates New Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee, Re-Interprets 102-Year Old Definition

horse race dynamexA three-way horse race can be exciting. As the finish line gets closer, each horse seems to dig deeper and find a little extra something to try to pull ahead. (Or gets whipped. Whatever. Stay with me here.)

It’s been a nail-biter over the past several years, with California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts competing to see which state could create the most difficult test for maintaining independent contractor status in wage and hour cases. For years, courts have used an Economic Realities balancing test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee status under federal wage and hour law. Most states apply a variant of that test or apply a Right to Control Test for determining Who Is My Employee? under their wage and hour laws.

In 2004, however, the Plymouth Rockers surged ahead, passing a law that used an ABC Test to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under Massachusetts’ minimum wage and overtime laws. ABC Tests make it harder to prove that a worker is truly an independent contractor (and not an employee), as we’ll see in more detail below. In 2015, the Home of Bruce Springsteen pushed forward, with the New Jersey Supreme Court requiring businesses to Prove It All Night and adopting an ABC Test for its state wage and hour laws.

Poor California was left behind. (No Surrender?) The state that birthed the Eagles and Hotel California did not rewrite its wage and hour laws and did not adopt an ABC Test. Finding no help from the legislature, the California Supreme Court took it upon itself April 30th to whip the Golden State forward, creating a new ABC Test in its 82-page Dynamex decision.

Let’s be clear about what just happened:

  • There’s no new law.
  • There’s no new regulation.
  • There’s no new executive order.

In fact, the definition of “employ” that this decision is based upon has been the same since Year 4 of the Woodrow Wilson presidency.

But now, despite none of those things changing, there’s a new test — at least for wage and hour claims that are covered under California IWC wage orders.

An ABC Test sets a higher bar than a Right to Control Test or an Economic Realities Test. It also sets a higher bar than California’s S.G. Borello test, which is a hybrid Right to Control/Economic Realities Test that has been in place since 1989.

California’s new ABC Test starts with the presumption that, for claims covered under California wage orders, every worker is an employee. Then, to prove otherwise, the business retaining that worker must prove (all 3):

(A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact, and 

(B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, and 

(C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

Fail just one part, and the worker is an employee under California wage and hour law. This new test is even stricter than most other states’ ABC Tests, which usually include two ways that Part B can be satisfied.

The new Dynamex test applies only to claims brought under California wage orders. These claims generally include minimum wage, overtime, and meal and rest break claims. This test does not apply to claims such as failure to reimburse expenses or failure to provide employee benefits.

Good luck out there!

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

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