In Russia, a new variant on boxing involves chaining the two combatants to opposite sides of a podium, with one arm of each boxer immobilized. They then pound each other with the remaining good arm and, because they’re tied to the podium, they have nowhere to go.
The contests, called armboxing, last for three one minute rounds. If the fighters last two rounds, their arms are both freed up for round three, but the boxers remain chained to the podium.
Getting pummeled with nowhere to go is also a fair way to describe Uber’s most recent run-in with the New Jersey Department of Labor over unpaid unemployment contributions. The NJDOL claims that under the Strict ABC Test governing New Jersey unemployment law, rideshare drivers are employees, not independent contractors.
The NJDOL pursued Uber and a subsidiary for failing to pay into the state’s unemployment fund over a five-year period, 2014-2018.
Last week, the NJDOL announced a settlement with Uber to cover the unpaid assessments – for a cool $100 million. The amount was based on $78 million in unpaid contributions plus $22 million in interest. Uber has made the payment but did not concede there was any misclassification.
New Jersey uses a strict ABC Test to determine employee status for unemployment coverage, but uses a different version of the ABC Test for wage and hour law. The strict ABC Test used for unemployment law follows the same formula as the tests in Massachusetts and California. The danger in these tests, of course, lies in prong B, which requires that to be an independent contractor, the work being performed must be “outside the usual course” of the hiring party’s business.
State departments of labor are notoriously aggressive in pursuing misclassification, and courts often defer to their judgment, even if the facts could support independent contractor status. The NJDOL is among the most aggressive enforcers, as you might expect when its Labor Commissioner says this: “Let’s be clear: there is no reason temporary, or on-demand workers who work flexible hours, or even minutes at a time can’t be treated like other employees in New Jersey or any other state.”
For businesses using independent contractors, tools such as arbitration agreements with class action waivers can be effective in preventing class action litigation. But arbitration agreements can’t stop a state agency from conducting an audit and imposing its own penalties for noncompliance.
And that’s how Uber found itself tied to a podium with one arm immobilized as it got hit.
Businesses in states using strict ABC Tests need to be particularly careful when setting up their business plans, their contracts, and their external messaging. State audits can be random, or they can be initiated after a worker complaint.
Unemployment filings by independent contractors can be especially dangerous. State departments of labor will typically investigate those claims, assess whether the worker is misclassified and — most troubling of all — will find that if the one worker was misclassified, then all similarly situated workers were also misclassified. The state DOL may then issue back assessments based on its assumptions about how many workers are similarly situated and how many were therefore misclassified.
When an independent contractor files an unemployment claim, pay attention and be prepared to defend your classification decision. Merely denying that the worker was an employee may not be enough, and a full-fledged audit could follow. In a full-fledged audit, the stakes can be high, and it might not feel like a fair fight.
Be proactive, plan ahead, and don’t chain your business to a podium.
[Reposting with revised link to the article, not behind paywall]
When I was 5 years old, and my sister was 3, the rule was that we had to be in our rooms by 8 p.m.
We followed that rule, but in our own way. We’d put on our pajamas, say good night and go into our rooms. But then we would lie down on the carpet at the very edge of our rooms, with our bodies still in the room and our heads in the hallway so we could talk.
In the strictest sense, we followed the rule. But we did it in our own way, to serve our own purposes. In essence, we chose to define what it means to be in our rooms.
Worker protection laws are a bit different in China.
According to this report, a Chinese company forces its employees to eat raw eggs as punishment if their work does not meet expectations. When one intern complained, the HR Manager allegedly responded, “What law is preventing you from eating a raw egg?”
Even if the company’s motivational techniques could be challenged under Chinese labor law, Chinese legal experts caution that the intern is probably not the right person to complain. His unpaid internship apparently doesn’t make him an employee under Chinese law. And there it is: The age old questionof Who Is My Employee? is a thing in China too.
Back in the U.S., we know that the employee vs. independent contractor question makes all the difference in whether several types of employment, tax, and benefits laws apply. But what about military leave law?
Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), employees are guaranteed reinstatement and other job protection rights after taking military leave. And employers must grant military leave when requested.
Do the same protections apply to independent contractors?
According to federal regulations, the answer is no — so long as the contractor is properly classified as a contractor.
Under USERRA, independent contractor status is evaluated using a Right to Control Test. The regulations say these six factors should be considered:
1. The extent of the employer’s right to control the manner in which the individual’s work is to be performed;
2. The opportunity for profit or loss that depends upon the individual’s managerial skill;
3. Any investment in equipment or materials required for the individual’s tasks, or his or her employment of helpers;
4. Whether the service the individual performs requires a special skill;
5. The permanence of the individual’s working relationship; and,
6. Whether the service the individual performs is an integral part of the employer’s business.
No single factor is controlling, but all are relevant for determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor.
As with so many other laws, it’s not enough just to assume USERRA doesn’t apply because a worker is classified as an independent contractor. The workers has to be properly classified as an independent contractor, according to the test that applies to that particular law.
Getting it wrong means failure to comply with military leave law. That sounds unpatriotic and unfair. And it could leave you with egg on your face.
[Note to self for future blog post idea: Can you require independent contractors to eat raw eggs in the U.S.?]
Lying down in the face of a challenge is rarely a good strategy. I did, however, find one exception.
A man from Montenegro recently won the 12th Annual Lying Down Championships, beating out nine other competitors by remaining horizontal under a tree for 60 hours. As a reward for his (lack of) effort, he received 350 euros, lunch for two at a restaurant, a weekend stay at a local village, and a rafting trip.
Then things got weird. Local media reported that shortly after the competition, the winner was taken into police custody for (allegedly) physically attacking journalists and damaging the headquarters of a newspaper that called him “the biggest swindler in all of Montenegro.”
I suppose there’s a lesson in here somewhere: Offer a man an award and he’ll lie still for 60 hours, but call him a swindler and he won’t take that lying down.
But I digress. In this post, I want to share some tips gleaned from a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case involving prong C of the ABC Test. The case also serves as a reminder never to take a misclassification audit lying down.
The dispute involved East Bay, a drywall installation company that used independent contractor drywall installers for residential jobs. Until 2013, the company treated its installers as employees. It then switched to an independent contractor model. Risky move. This sparked an audit.
The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development wanted to know why this company, which was still active, suddenly lacked employees. The audit looked at the individuals who continued to install drywall and examined whether, under New Jersey’s ABC Test, they were independent contractors or employees.
You can guess what happened next. The Department found that 16 installers were misclassified, and it issued a hefty back assessment against the company for failing to pay into the state unemployment fund. The company appealed and lost.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion focused largely on what it takes to prove prong C of the ABC Test — that the individual “is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.” (You can read more about New Jersey’s ABC Test here, but otherwise I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the basic concept of the ABC Test.)
The drywall company put forth evidence that the independent contractors had registered business entities and certificates of insurance. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that wasn’t enough to satisfy prong C. This evidence wasn’t enough to prove that the individuals truly operated independently. Evidence in support of prong C should demonstrate that the independent contractor would not become unemployed if the work from this company went away.
The Court gave some examples of evidence that would have been more persuasive in satisfying prong C, including:
That the IC’s business will continue when this engagement ends;
That the IC’s business is stable and lasting, or other evidence of longevity;
That the IC has other customers;
That the IC has other sources of revenue, and the company being audited is not the primary source of income for the IC;
That the IC provides the tools, equipment, vehicles, and other resources needed to perform the work;
That the IC has telephone listings or business stationery;
That the IC advertises;
That the IC has its own employees;
That the IC maintains inventory;
That the IC bears the risk of loss;
That the IC benefits from the goodwill generated from a job well done;
That the IC is required to maintain educational and licensure requirements;
That the IC is permitted to obtain work from other businesses; and
That the IC in fact performs work for other businesses.
The court cited these as examples of the types of evidence that would have been helpful to prove prong C. This is not a mandatory list. The point here was just that business registrations and certificates of insurance were not enough. Strategically, there is other evidence that would be helpful too, and there are steps that can be taken when retaining ICs to help build a defense. I maintain a longer list but, hey, I can’t give away all the secrets here.
Other observations from the New Jersey Supreme Court decision:
1. How to invite an audit. Switching from an employee model to an independent contractor model is, by itself, enough to prompt an audit.
2. An ominous footnote about prong B. There was also a dispute in this case over the meaning of prong B. Remember, New Jersey has a standard ABC Test, which allows prong B to be satisfied by showing either the work is outside the hiring party’s usual course of business or the work is performed outside of the places of business of the hiring party. (This is different than the California version of the ABC Test.) All drywall installation work was performed at customers’ residences. After the audit, the Commissioner of Labor found (inexplicably) that prong B was not satisfied. It is unclear from the opinion whether that was based on a conclusion that the customers’ residences were East Bay’s places of business or was based on some other fact, such as some kind of work being done at East Bay’s place of business. If the Commissioner believed customer’s residences to be East Bay’s places of business, then it is hard to see how the latter part of prong B could ever be satisfied. But the NJ Supreme Court did not consider prong B in its decision. The Court ruled that prong C was not satisfied, and so it chose not to wade into the morass of prong B.
But there is an ominous footnote. When the Court declined to consider prong B, it noted that in its prior decisions, the place of business meant locations where the hiring party had a “physical plant or conducts an integral part of its business.” That’s consistent with common sense and would exclude a customer’s residence. The Court then, however, invited the Department of Labor to issue regulations explaining how the Department thinks prong B should be interpreted. Yikes!
3. You need to fight unemployment claims by ICs at the initial audit level; you can’t expect a court to save you on appeal. Courts will defer to the findings of an agency if its factual findings have any support in the record, no matter how flimsy. In other words, the agency can be wrong in its overall weighing of the factors, but a court is supposed to affirm the agency’s decision if there’s evidence to support it. Not “a preponderance of evidence” or “ample evidence” or even “sufficient evidence.” Just “evidence.” Folks, the reason we have trials is because there’s almost always at least some evidence on both sides, even if the preponderance of the evidence leans the other way. You shouldn’t have to pitch a shutout to win the game.
I have seen the same deference standard applied to unemployment decisions in New York and Ohio. The courts defer to the agencies. It is unfair. The result can be that the agency’s decision gets affirmed, even if it made the objectively wrong decision.
This unfair standard highlights how important it is to win at the earliest stages in an unemployment claim, if independent contractor status is being challenged. The initial investigation is your best chance to defend independent contractor status. If you wait, it’s too late. Provide the auditor your best evidence on every factor, and don’t hold back.
Remember the consequences too. If one contractor is misclassified, the agency will likely deem all other similarly situated contractors to be misclassified, and you’ll be on the hook for unpaid assessments for all of them. The stakes are high. Companies using independent contractors should spend the time and money to mount a full defense of their contractor’s status at the audit stage. It’s worth the investment, especially because the state courts will generally defer to the agency’s findings, even if the agency is wrong.
Here’s the ultimate takeaway: If you’ve entered a Lying Down Competition, it’s ok to lie down for as long as you want. But if you’re faced with a worker classification audit, or a 1099 audit, or an unemployment claim by a former independent contractor, do not take that lying down.
You need to fight hard in the audit, producing evidence to support independent contractor status. You’ll have the right to appeal if you lose, but don’t expect a fair chance to prove your case. You’ve got to do your best to win any classification dispute at the initial audit. That’s the time to retain counsel and invest time and resources. If you lose the audit and bring an appeal, you’re fighting a steep uphill climb.
On Sunday, I visited the American History Museum in Washington, where I came across this poster. Which I love. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to save their used cooking fat, which could be repurposed for manufacturing explosives. According to the University of Illinois, one pound of fat contained enough glycerin to make nearly a pound of explosives.
A different kind of battle continues to be fought over independent contractors’ rights. As we’ve discussed in many contexts, independent contractors lack many of the rights that employees have. That’s one of the reasons we see so many independent contractor misclassification claims.
One of the rights independent contractors lack is the right to be protected against disability discrimination—at least under federal law. In a recent case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, a nurse sued the hospital where she worked, alleging interference with her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The nurse had been unable to work for several weeks after a head injury, and the hospital declined to re-credential her.
The problem for her, though, is that the hospital was not her employer, and so she didn’t have any rights under the ADA. (We can ignore the public accommodation sections of the ADA. They don’t apply here.)
The ADA allows workers to sue their employers for disability discrimination or for interference with their ADA rights. But a worker can’t sue a business that’s not the worker’s employer, even if the business takes action because of a disability.
The law has been clear for a long time that independent contractors cannot sue for disability discrimination under the ADA. This case was a bit different, though, because it dealt with the non-interference clause of the ADA, not the anti-discrimination clause. The court ruled that the same limitation applies to non-interference claims.
The plaintiff had another potential argument, and it was probably the better argument. But her lawyers never asserted it.
You see, the nurse was employed by a physicians’ group when she worked at the hospital. She first tried to sue the physicians’ group, but it went into bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court disallowed her claim. She then sued the hospital where she performed the work. The hospital, not insignificantly, used to be her direct employer, but she had been rebadged as an employee of the physicians’ group three years earlier.
She probably should have argued that the hospital was her joint employer. But she didn’t. Because she never made the argument, the court didn’t conduct a joint employment analysis, and so we don’t know if the facts could have supported a finding of joint employment. But at least she might have had a viable argument. Maybe. But without any employment relationship, she had no argument and no chance to win. And that’s why the district court dismissed her claim and the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.
There are two takeaways here.
First, independent contractors have far fewer rights than employees. Federal anti-discrimination laws protect employees, not independent contractors. Some state anti-discrimination laws protect independent contractors, but the ADA does not.
Second, when a worker is employed by a vendor or subcontractor, the real danger is joint employment. Your business can be held liable as a joint employer for misdeeds of the direct employer. The dangers of joint employment are even greater when the direct employer goes bankrupt. The whole purpose of joint employment is to make sure there is someone who can make the employee whole for any damages suffered. If your business is a joint employer, it doesn’t matter if you were primarily responsible for the wrong or not. Joint employment means both employers are fully liable for the loss.
You might be saying, hey, wait a minute. If she couldn’t work, how was that an ADA violation? We don’t know if her underlying claim had any legs or not. That’s not the point here. The point is that the court never got into the merits of the claim because it didn’t have to. The hospital had a complete defense. No employment relationship, no claim.
This case serves as a reminder of how important it is to be careful with non-employment relationships. Just like you would have been careful with your bacon grease, back in the 1940s.
The natives of Papua New Guinea call the hooded pitohui a “garbage bird,” and they don’t eat it or touch it. As Westerners learned more recently, there’s a good reason for the islanders’ hostility.
The hooded pitohui is the first bird confirmed to be poisonous. The bird‘s feathers emit batrachotoxins, which causes numbness and burning in low concentrations. A heavier does can cause paralysis, cardiac arrest and death. In other words, there’s good reason for keeping the hooded pitohui off the menu.
Numbness and burning may also describe the impact of a recent DOL enforcement action on two contractors in Louisiana. They were dealt a double hit—the DOL found independent contractor misclassification and joint employment.
After an investigation, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division found that hundreds of painters and drywall workers had been misclassified as independent contractors. The company that retained the workers, PL Construction, failed to pay overtime and failed to maintain accurate time records, both violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Adding to the pain, the DOL found that a higher tier contractor, Lanehart, was the workers’ joint employer. That meant Lanehart was jointly liable for the violations—even though it had no control over PL Construction’s pay practices.
The DOL recovered more than $240,000 in overtime back wages for 306 workers.
There are several lessons here, both for companies that retain independent contractors directly and for higher tier contractors that engage subcontractors that use ICs.
1. The DOL considers independent contractor misclassification an enforcement priority. The agency is actively looking for violations.
2. The DOL publishes its wins. That means you can expect a press release naming and shaming your company if the DOL finds that there’s a practice of misclassifying workers. Have you heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? It’s not true.
3. Higher tier contractors are taking a risk if they put their head in the sand and disregard misclassification by their lower tier subs—especially if they plan to direct the work of the lower tier sub’s workers.
Here, the DOL found that Lanehart, the higher tier contractor, supervised PL’s workers and maintained records of who worked when. Lanehart’s supervision and direction made it a joint employer of PL’s workers. Under the FLSA, a joint employer is fully liable for wage and hour violations, even where it had no control over how the lower tier sub paid its workers.
4. A lawsuit is not the only way misclassification claims arise. Federal and state agencies can initiate investigations too. And while arbitration agreements with class action waivers can prevent class action litigation, they can’t stop a federal agency from pursuing claims on its own.
The DOL made its position pretty clear in its press release: “Our investigation shows the costly consequences employers face when they or their subcontractors fail to comply with the law. When we determine a joint employment relationship exists, the Wage and Hour Division will hold all responsible employers accountable for the violations.”
Misclassification hurts. Joint employment doubles the pain. The DOL can inflict an uncomfortable burning sensation, even without sending a a hooded pitohui your way.
In 2009, the James Brown compilation album The Godfather’s Smackdown, Live! was released. It’s a two-disc compilation of live shows from 1980. I never saw James Brown live, but I did see James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a different kind of smackdown, chastising the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for ignoring the Circuit Court’s earlier directive about the joint employer test. Believe it or not, this case is another chapter in the ongoing Browning-Ferris saga.
Click here to read the rest, originally posted on the BakerHostetler Employment Law Spotlight blog.
Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment.
In my house, we have declared this to be the Summer of Fun, and we’ve committed to going to events around Cleveland that we haven’t tried before. Sometimes the dog gets to come too. Last month, we took Zippy to her first reggae concert. You can tell she enjoyed it because she’s smiling. (Or she’s thirsty. Still not sure.)
No concert t-shirt for Zippy though. They had suitably small sizes but nothing with four arm holes.
The Federal Trade Commission is also trying new things this summer. In a July press release, the FTC announced that one of its new initiatives is a crackdown on gig economy abuses.
The FTC can’t bring independent contractor misclassification cases, but it can bring enforcement actions when it believes there have been unfair or deceptive business practices that disadvantage gig workers.
The FTC announced that “the agency will continue to take action to stop deceptive and unfair acts and practices aimed at workers; particularly those in the ‘gig economy’ who often don’t enjoy the full protections of traditional employment relationships.” The press release then listed several examples of enforcement actions the FTC has been pursuing against gig economy companies. The cases tend to involve deceptive claims about earning opportunities, including for gig workers who use their platforms.
The FTC further announced that it’s teaming up with the NLRB to share information about alleged wrongdoers in the gig space. We already know that the NLRB’s General Counsel is on a mission to crack down on independent contractor business models. The decisions by the NLRB and FTC to join forces only heightens the risks for companies using an independent contractor business model.
Business using an independent contractor model need to remember that misclassification claims are not the only legal risk. Be sure that representations made to independent contractors about potential earning opportunities and other business practices are accurate and realistic.
Otherwise, despite it being the Summer of Fun, with reggae concerts and other goodness, the FTC may soon be on your doorstep, ready to Stir It Up.
The caption above may be too small to read, but it’s from a recent New York Times article about updates to the airport. The caption says, “An old passenger walkway in the process of being demolished at La Guardia Airport.”
You might not think this applies to you, but I say it’s about time! The idea of a walkway for old passengers doesn’t seem right, and old passengers should be allowed to use the same walkway as everyone else.
Another area where I sometimes hear “this doesn’t apply to me” is when we talk about the National Labor Relations Board’s views on independent contractor misclassification. But even if your business is union-free (meaning no union, not that the union is complimentary), the NLRB’s position on independent contractor misclassification matters. (Also, how is it that we intuitively know caffeine free means there’s no caffeine, rather than there’s lots of it and there’s no extra charge?)
The NLRB wants to make it harder to maintain independent contractor status under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Here are four reasons your non-union business should care about the NLRB’s views on independent contractor misclassification:
The NLRB’s General Counsel has issued a policy memo indicated that she intends to have independent contractor misclassification declared to be an automatic unfair labor practice (ULP). This spring, the Board issued a complaint in a case that may help it achieve this policy goal. If misclassification becomes an automatic ULP, that would overturn the Board’s 2019 decision in Velox Express, when the Board said it was reasonable for a company to express its opinion that a worker was a contractor, not an employee, even if the company turned out to be wrong.
If the NLRB rules that your contractors are employees, you can hang up a welcome shingle for your favorite union. (Aside: I don’t think anyone would welcome shingles, but you can buy welcome shingles on amazon.) Such a ruling would empower the unions to try to organize your newly-declared employees. If some independent contractors were already feeling mistreated enough to seek employee status, they’ll likely welcome union representation to help them fight back against The Man.
The protections granted to employees under the NLRA apply to non-union employees too. But the NLRA doesn’t apply to independent contractors. Non-union employees have the right to engage in protected, concerted activity without fear of retaliation or reprisal. Contractors don’t. Protected, concerted activity can include more than you might think. Any time two employees get together to object to a business practice, that’s potentially protected, concerted activity. If two contractors jointly complain, the NLRA doesn’t apply.
The NLRB has an information sharing agreement with the Department of Labor (DOL). If the NLRB thinks your contractors are misclassified, they’re probably gonna tell on you. The DOL may then starts its own investigation, viewing your company as an easy target for misclassification, even though the tests for employee status are different under the NLRA and the federal wage and hour laws administered by the DOL.
Like La Guardia, the NLRB is trying to do a little remodeling, but the NLRB’s remodeling is not for the benefit of old passengers. Instead, the Board is trying to make it harder to classify a worker as an independent contractor. The Board also wants to declare worker misclassification to be an automatic ULP.
Whether your workforce is union or non-union, businesses should pay attention. This is a rebuild that’s worth watching.
This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.
We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.
Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.
The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.
While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.
Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and various other situations.
Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.
The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.
We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.