Do Pre-Employment Laws Apply When Running Background Checks on Independent Contractors? (Tip: Instead, Just Ask Edward)

Time traveller independent contractor background check requirements

A time traveler named “Edward” claims to have photographic proof that he is visiting from 5,000 years in the future. According to Metro UK, he described his experience as “unbelievable.” Ponder that.

One of the benefits of time travel is that you’d know if your workers are going commit crimes in the future that could jeopardize your company. With people like Edward in short supply, we are instead forced to try to predict future behavior through more widely accepted methods, like reading tarot cards or performing background checks. (Free tip: pick the latter.)

There are federal and state laws that strictly regulate the processes and procedures for running pre-employment background checks. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week highlights the importance of following all technical requirements, including that employers provide a “clear and conspicuous disclosure” that they may run a background check and that the disclosure is “in a document that consists solely of the disclosure.” In that decision, the court ruled that it’s illegal to provide a disclosure that includes state law disclosures on the same page as the federal disclosure. It is common for employers to combine these disclosures on the same form, so check your forms! I blogged about the ruling here, on BakerHostetler’s Employment Class Action blog.

In contrast, the rules for running background checks on independent contractors are not as strict. The federal law requiring a stand alone disclosure applies only to reports being run “for employment purposes.” Same thing for the pre-adverse action notification requirement. It applies only to reports that are run “for employment purposes.”

Interpreting the “for employment purposes” language, at least three federal courts have ruled that a report on a prospective independent contractor is not being run “for employment purposes” and, therefore, these requirements do not apply to reports being run on independent contractors. (The FTC has issued guidance that the “for employment purposes” requirements do apply to independent contractors, but the courts have so far rejected this guidance as being inconsistent with the language of the statute.)

Some of the requirements in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) may still apply, depending on the purpose of the report, but the bottom line is that the rules are different for background checks being run on employees and independent contractors. The FCRA is somewhat complicated, and don’t forget the patchwork of state laws.

There’s also the risk of misclassification — that the independent contractor could be deemed an employee — in which case the FCRA and state law requirements for pre-employment background checks would need to be followed, and the failure to follow them can be costly. The FCRA allows for statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation, plus attorneys’ fees.

So if you’re afraid of a misclassification claim should you just follow the “for employment purposes” requirements anyway? Not necessarily. Though it can be prudent to follow some of the technical disclosure and pre-adverse action requirements that apply to pre-employment checks, be careful about using any forms with independent contractors that say the background check is being run “for employment purposes.” In other words, the forms you are using for pre-employment background checks might not be suitable for use with independent contractors.

This earlier blog post discusses more of the issues (and potential risks) related to running background checks on independent contractors.

There are plenty of good reasons to run background checks on some types of contractors, particularly those who will be entering customers’ homes. The goal, of course, is to try to predict the risk of future wrongdoing. Background checks can be useful for that purpose.

But the only surefire way to know what is going to happen in the future is to ask Edward.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

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

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