There’s no reason our maps are oriented the way they are, with Australia at the bottom and Canada near the top. There’s no right side up in space, and we could just as easily think of the world with Australia on top, in the middle.
Same with our way of deciding Who Is My Employee? The process for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor doesn’t have to be the way Americans conduct that analysis.
Two High Court decisions this month in Australia highlight a key difference between the American approach and what is now the new Australian approach.
In the U.S., courts look past the written contract and analyze a worker’s status based on the actual facts of the relationship.
The Australian High Court says the U.S. approach is upside down.
In two highly publicized decisions, the Australian court ruled that the contract establishes the rules of the relationship and therefore also determines the worker’s status. In one case, the agreement said the work would be controlled by the hiring party. By contractually reserving the right to control the work, the hiring party inadvertently made the worker an employee. The court still looked past the fact that the parties called the worker an independent contractor, but the court said the contractual requirements of the relationship — the terms and conditions — controlled the outcome.
The other High Court case involved two truck drivers. Their contracts exhaustively set forth terms preserving their flexibility to work for others and to control how their work was performed. Their contracts also called for the drivers to use their own equipment, which involved a significant investment by the drivers. The court overruled a lower court decision that deemed the workers to be employees. The lower court focused on actual control exerted by the hiring party. But the High Court said the contract controls and, in this case, the contract established requirements consistent with independent contractor status. It is up to the parties to follow the contract, but the contract establishes the independent contractor relationship.
There are lessons for American companies here too.
While under U.S. law, the actual facts of the relationship control whether the worker is an employee, the independent contractor agreement is an opportunity to memorialize the helpful facts. That’s why off-the-shelf templates in the U.S. are of no value. (Hot tip: Google & Bing is not a law firm.) See related posts here and here, including how to discomfit a bear.
An independent contractor agreement in the U.S. should be drafted with the particular facts of the relationship in mind. Does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done? If so, put that in the contract. The worker controls when and where the work is performed, and the hiring party has no right to control when and where.
If the worker’s status is challenged, you want the contract to be a helpful piece of evidence. You want to be able to say to a court: Not only does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done (or insert other factor), but the contract forbids us from controlling that.
In the U.S., contract terms like that will be persuasive evidence, but only if the actual facts align. In Australia, the contract sets the rules, and the parties are in breach if they fail to follow the rules established in the contract.
But no matter where you sit, and no matter which way your map is aligned, companies should view independent contractor agreements as an opportunity to build the case that an independent contractor is properly classified.
By planning ahead and drafting carefully, you can maximize your chances of coming out on top.
© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.