No Suction: The DOL Doesn’t Care About Your Arbitration Agreements with Independent Contractors

In Japan’s Aomori Prefecture, bald men compete annually in a Suction Cup Tug of War. In each round, two contestants attach suction cups to their heads and pull in opposite directions. The person whose cup detaches first is the loser.

The event is sponsored by the Tsuruta Hagemasu Association, which aims to shed positive light on male baldness. The Association’s website, which I cannot read because it is Japanese, includes several hilarious/serious photos, including one of six elderly gents with flags suction cupped to their heads. Only the guy on the far right seems to be in on the joke. The others seem deadly serious about what their heads can do.

Using your head to win is not unique to the Suction Cup Tug of War. Well, maybe it is unique to the Suction Cup Tug of War if we take that in the most literal way, but now I’m straying into the figurative so that I can transition from something absurd to something topical.

Using your head to win independent contractor misclassification disputes often involves relying on individual arbitration agreements, which can help to prevent class action lawsuits. But the DOL is using its head too, and it’s pulling in an opposite direction. When the DOL pulls against your individual arbitration agreements, the DOL is going to win. The arbitration agreement will lose its stickiness.

Recent DOL news releases have highlighted the Department’s success in prosecuting misclassification cases, even when the target company had its independent contractors sign arbitration agreements. The DOL, in other words, doesn’t care about your arbitration agreements. The DOL is not a party to those agreements, and the DOL isn’t bound by them.

While an individual contractor can waive the right to file a lawsuit, the DOL is not waiving that right. The DOL can — and will — bring misclassification claims against companies that use arbitration agreements. I’m not suggesting that having arbitration agreements makes businesses a target for enforcement; I have seen no evidence of that. My point is just that arbitration agreements have their weak points, and the major weak point is that they do nothing to prevent a government agency, state or federal, from conducting an audit or bringing an enforcement action.

The US DOL, state labor departments, state unemployment agencies, and state and federal tax services have all made misclassification an enforcement priority.

Businesses should keep using arbitration agreements with their independent contractors, but be aware that these agreements do not protect against all mass enforcement activity. The stickiness of these agreements is useful, but when the DOL pulls in the opposite direction, the suction cup is probably coming off your head.

For those of you wishing you could have been there, here’s a video of the 2023 Suction Cup Tug of War. After some bizarre preliminaries, including tournament officials and a young girl throwing wet paper rectangles at the competitors’ heads, the thrilling tug of war action begins at about 1:20 into the clip.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.