The Biggest Overlooked Risk for Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims Is…

unemployment independent contractor misclassification

Remember the Chicago song called Baby What A Big Surprise? That’s about a good surprise. The girl he longed for was there all along. How sweet.

This post about is about another kind of surprise – one that’s much more bitter.

When trying to avoid independent contractor misclassification claims, we’re often focused on reducing the risks of lawsuits, especially class actions. But there’s another threat that can be much harder to guard against.

So… what is the biggest overlooked risk for independent contractor misclassification claims?

I wrote about it last week, on the BakerHostetler Employment Law Spotlight blog. Still in suspense? You’ll have to click here to find out the answer.

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

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Why Don’t Companies Offer Healthcare Benefits to Independent Contractors?

 

I found this on buzzfeed, while doing academic research for this blog post.

In the business world, it’s not quite as funny when good intentions are misunderstood. Which is why companies generally can’t offer healthcare benefits to independent contractors. Even if they would like to, they can’t.

Good intentions would be misunderstood, and the effect of offering healthcare coverage to independent contractors would likely be that they are turned into employees.

Why?

The law limits who can sell health insurance coverage. You need a license. It’s the same reason I can’t work as an Aquatic Antifouling Paint Operator in New York State. If you want to commercially apply antifouling paints, which are pesticides, on vessel hulls, boat bottoms, or other other marine surfaces to inhibit the growth of aquatic organisms, you need an Aquatic Antifouling Paint Operator license. (Apply here.)

Companies that aren’t licensed to sell healthcare insurance can’t go around selling healthcare insurance. But there’s a narrow exception, which allows companies to offer healthcare insurance to its employees. The exception doesn’t extend to vendors, suppliers, or independent contractors. Only employees.

Some of the large rideshare app companies have advocated for legal reform that would allow them to offer more benefits to independent contractor drivers. But there’s not much they can do right now. Companies without a license to sell healthcare insurance can only offer healthcare insurance to its employees, not to independent contractors.

Some companies have begun to get creative in an effort to offer more benefits to independent contractor drivers. According to benefitsnews.com, some app companies are beginning to offer limited benefits, such as access to accident insurance, free online college courses, and professional certifications.

Some states, such as New York, have considered legislation that would expand the availability of benefits to independent contractors, but the current state of the law severely restricts what companies can do.

The legal problem for companies who want to offer more benefits to contractors is not just that they can’t sell healthcare insurance to non-employees. It’s also that the more benefits they offer to contractors, the more those contractors may start to resemble employees. Since U.S. law currently sees the Employee vs. Independent Contractor issue as binary — you can only be one or the other — companies who offer increased employee-like benefits to contractors run the risk that the contractors will be deemed their employees, which creates a whole big mess of other legal problems.

A company might wish to provide healthcare coverage to independent contractors, but the company’s good intentions would be misunderstood. Which is also why if you want a haircut and dye, you should just type it into your phone’s calendar instead of just telling Siri.

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

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

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Reefer Madness? Did Colorado Just Criminalize Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Colorado independent contractor misclassification wage theft law 2019

The state that brought us legalized recreational marijuana and local decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms may be a bigger buzzkill than we thought — at least for businesses using independent contractors.

A new Colorado law reclassifies the failure to pay wages as theft, which sounds pretty chill; but the way the law is written, it could have the effect of making independent contractor misclassification a crime.

Failing to pay wages under Colorado law includes failing to pay a minimum wage or overtime. When independent contractors sue and allege they were really employees, one of the most common claims asserted is that, since they were really employees, they were entitled to a minimum wage and overtime pay. In these lawsuits, contractors often allege they worked enough hours that they should have been paid overtime. Colorado overtime law requires employees to be paid overtime not only after working 40 hours in a workweek, but also after working more than 12 hours in a workday or 12 consecutive hours over two days.

It is unclear whether the new law was intended to criminalize independent contractor misclassification, but it may have that effect. On the other hand, Colorado businesses may be able to an assert a good faith defense, arguing that the new criminalization law is intended only to cover willful acts of failure to pay, not legitimate disputes over whether someone is legitimately classified as an independent contractor.

It remains to be seen how things play out, but when Colorado businesses get an occasional break from making sure their laborers aren’t high, it might be a good idea to double check independent contractor relationships to make sure they can withstand a legal challenge.

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

Does your business need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? I do that!

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Fun with Funerals? Cremation Company Settles Misclassification Case for $2.5 Million

Cannon cremation funeral Independent contractor misclassificationEveryone loves a fun funeral story, right? Apparently so. AARP.com posted this article about creative cremations. Available options for ashes include:

  • Being blasted out of a cannon to the tune of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” (Thank you, Hunter S. Thompson);
  • Being placed in an “environmentally safe, ball-shaped concrete memorial reef” and placed in the ocean to create a marine habitat, (giving a new and more literal meaning to “sleeps with the fishes”);
  • Being launched into space for an earth orbit; and
  • My personal favorite – being loaded into a five-foot biodegradable helium balloon and launched over the hills surrounding the deceased owner’s ranch so his buddies could shoot at the balloon until it burst, spreading the ashes over the surrounding foothills (so beautiful it almost makes me want to weep in my moonshine).

A cremation company had a less fun time last month, when a judge approved a $2.5 million settlement for independent contractor misclassification. The settlement included $1.65 million to a class of independent sales representatives and $825,000 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The company’s independent sales representatives had claimed that they were really employees, despite having signed an Independent Contractor Agreement in which they agreed they were contractors.

As we’ve noted many times before, though, it’s the facts of the relationship that matter, not what the parties call themselves. According to the plaintiffs, the cremation company told them when to work and where to work, paid them an hourly non-negotiable rate, required frequent reports, supervised their work, and provided them a handbook instructing them how to conduct themselves and how to perform their work. These are all facts that weigh in favor of employment status.

The sales reps’ lawsuit alleged that, when assessing the facts of the relationship, they were really employees and not independent contractors. They alleged violations of several laws that apply only to employees, including violations of California’s overtime, meal and rest break, waiting time, recordkeeping, and business expense reimbursement laws; and violations of the federal FLSA overtime rules.

The parties settled the dispute, and a federal judge approved the settlement.

There’s nothing suprising here, but the settlement should remind us that:

  • The facts of the relationship are what matter, even if the parties agree to call the workers “independent contractors” and they sign an Independent Contractor Agreement;
  • Different tests apply to different laws; here, there were claims that would have to be evaluated under:
  • Independent contractor misclassification remains a real and potentially costly risk.

The settlement did not say whether any of these sales representatives sold cannon, reef, space, or skeet shooting funerals along with cremation services. But I sure hope they did.

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

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Don’t be a Hirtle: Here’s Why You Should Avoid “Works Made for Hire” Clauses in Independent Contractor Agreements

independent contractor works made for hireDon’t shoot yourself in the foot, Adam Hirtle of Colorado Springs. It’s an expression, not a thing to do with a real firearm. According to this article, Hirtle did it because he wanted to see how it felt. Presumably: Bad.

Shooting yourself in the foot is something many companies may be doing when trying to protect their intellectual property in independent contractor agreements. Generally, there are two ways to protect copyright: “works made for hire” and assignment.

Many independent contractor agreements use both. Intellectual property clauses often say that anything created by the independent contractor is a “work made for hire,” which would mean that the company — not the individual — owns the copyright. These clauses will also typically say that anything not deemed a “work made for hire” is assigned to the company. This is supposed to be a belt-and-suspenders way to ensure that the company owns the intellectual property created by the independent contractor.

Did you know that clause can turn the contractor into an employee?

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“Flooding” Tactic Creates New Risk for Using Mandatory Arbitration Agreements with Independent Contractors

flood arbitration independent contractorsIn the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, a world-engulfing flood destroys everyone except Noah, his family, and his mini zoo. A similar story appears in the Quran, and a much earlier world-engulfing flood was described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian poem dating back to the 19th Century BC, featuring Utnapishtim as our hero, a fellow who was awarded with immortality but whose name (unfortunately, IMHO) appears much less frequently on the Social Security Administration’s list of most popular baby names than our more recent pal, Noah.

A more recent trend in flooding comes from our friends in the plaintiffs’ bar. A popular tactic by companies wishing to avoid class action misclassification lawsuits has been to require independent contractors to sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers. These agreements force misclassification clams into arbitration on an individual basis, where each individual single claim has little value. By forcing claims into individual arbitration, there’s much less incentive for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take these cases since each case is worth very little. It’s only in the class action arena that these claims are worth big money.

But according to a recent article in Bloomberg Law, some of the larger, more organized plaintiffs’ firms are fighting back by flooding companies with mass arbitration filings. Continue reading

Disco Meets “Permanent Temps”: NLRB Decides a New Joint Employment Issue

disco-297670__480On New Year’s Eve, Sister Sledge will be playing at the Seminole Casino in Coconut Creek, Florida. (You can buy tickets here.  You’re welcome.) The sisters will, of course, play the 1979 single, “We Are Family,” which is a disco song that it’s ok to admit you like. I don’t know what else they’ll play though.  It could be a long night.

“We Are Family” is also what happens when a company retains staffing agency temps for so long that they become, in that company’s words, “permanent temps.” It’s joint employment deluxe.

A recent decision by the NLRB examines what happens when a joint employer fails to apply a collective bargaining agreement to those “permanent temps.”

Orchid Paper Products Company in Pryor, Oklahoma, produces — wait for it — paper products. Their workforce is unionized and they make frequent use of staffing agency temps. The temps frequently remain on-site for long periods of time, at which point they acquire the status of “permanent temps.”

These workers are supervised and controlled by Orchid Paper, even though they are paid by their staffing firm. The Board found that under any test — Browning-Ferris or otherwise — they are joint employees.

One consequence of being a joint employee in a union environment is that the joint employer, Orchid Paper, has to follow the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as to those workers, even though they’re staffing agency workers. When Orchid Paper failed to follow the CBA as to those workers, it engaged in an unfair labor practice. So far, no big surprise.

The issue to be decided here, though, was the scope of the remedy that could be imposed.

As a result of an unfair labor practice, could the Board order a a remedy that held Orchid Paper to the entire CBA for its temps?

The Board said no, ruling that only certain parts of the CBA can be applied. In other words, “We Are Family, but Maybe Only Like Third Cousins.”

The Board ruled that an order intended to remedy an unfair labor practice had to be limited. The Board could only order the joint employer to apply the CBA provisions to the joint employees that related to the working conditions that Orchid Paper controlled.

My research in preparing this blog revealed that Sister Sledge, in fact, had two other Top 20 hits in 1979 — “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “Lost in Music.” Those of you who remember those two songs will thoroughly enjoy the New Year’s Eve Show. Bring your platform soles.

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

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Lessons from a Reggae Cucumber Song: Draft Benefit Plan Eligibility Language Carefully

ERISA independent contractor misclassification cucumber

Reggae artist Macka B has a song touting the nutritional benefits of the cucumber. The song includes verses like:

Get the cucumber cut it inna slice
Put it inna jug of water overnight
You know what you get for a fraction of the price
Energy drink full of electrolytes

I learned about this song when I asked The Google for songs about benefits. But as much as I like the song (youtube here), this post is about a different kind of benefits.

One of the biggest risks of independent contractor misclassification is having to provide employee benefits to workers you thought were independent contractors. If it turns out those workers were misclassified and are really employees, they may suddenly be eligible for all sorts of employee benefits, including retirement plans like 401(k) match and employee stock ownership. And they’ll be eligible retroactively. This can be expensive. A goof of this type cost one major corporation $97 million back in the late 1990s.

As one recent federal court decision from Georgia reminds us, businesses can avoid this risk with careful drafting in its benefit plan document.

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Exotic Dance Marathon Ends with $4.5 Million Misclassification Award

Dollar independent contractor misclassification millionsThe Penthouse Club of Philadelphia was hit with a $4.5 million jury award for having misclassified its dancers as independent contractors. This case was filed in 2013, and the federal court just recently entered the judgment order.

For those of you seeking business lessons from stripper lawsuits, today is your lucky day!

The dancers had alleged that they were treated as employees but not paid as employees. For example, they alleged that the club required them to work a set number of hours and days each week, required them to comply with physical appearance guidelines, and took deductions from their tips for what we’ll call special kinds of dances.

The Club fought hard for five years but could not overcome the negative facts in the case. Remember, the determination of whether someone is an employee or a true independent contractor is not based on what the parties agree. It’s based on the facts of the relationship.

This was primarily a Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit, and so the Economic Realities Test is used. Other laws apply a Right to Control Test. Some states use a more difficult ABC Test.

Independent contractor misclassification lawsuits can be a tremendous liability, and businesses using contractors should be proactive and set up the relationship in a way that will withstand a challenge. When a business maintains control over hours, days of work, worker appearance, location of work, and other aspects of how the work is performed, the relationship starts to resemble employment.

In this case, the Club not only is on the hook for $4.5 million. They had to pay their attorneys’ fees, they’ll continue to pay their attorneys’ fees if they appeal, and they had to slog through six years of painful, time-consuming litigation that was undoubtedly a distraction from the business of running whatever type of classy joint they have going there. [Note to wife: I did not do any onsite investigation.]

We’ve seen lots of activity lately in the field of “exotic dancing.” I mean misclassification activity, and lawsuit activity, just to be clear on what I’ve been “seeing.” See other multi-million dollar misclassification awards here and here, all of which are SFW.

Businesses that use independent contractors need to evaluate the facts of the relationship and need to be proactive in setting up the facts to support true independent contractor status. Those who fail may get an extra long high-heeled kick in the rear.

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

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Epic Ruling Clears Path: Arbitration Agreements Can Save Millions in Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Arbitration agreements for independent contractorsToday in the Epic Systems case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that in employer-employee relationships, mandatory arbitration agreements with class action waivers are lawful.

A class action waiver means that employees cannot file class actions. They must instead bring any claim individually to arbitration, one person at a time, even if there are a lot of others in the same situation.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the employers could require employees to sign these agreements.

  • The argument for allowing the agreements was that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) favors arbitration as a way to resolve disputes and says that most attempts to invalidate arbitration agreements are against the law. But there are narrow exceptions.
  • The argument against allowing the agreements was that the NLRA grants workers the right to engage in protected concerted activity, and filing class actions (they argue) is a type of protected concerted activity.

The court had to decide whether the NLRA’s right to engage in protected concerted activity created an exception to the FAA’s rule favoring arbitration. As expected, the conservative court held that mandatory employee arbitration agreements — including class action waivers — are lawfulIn other words, businesses may require their employees to sign away their right to bring class actions. Read that again slowly. It’s important.

What does this mean for independent contractor agreements?

The decision does not directly address independent contractor agreements, but the decision does say that the Supreme Court has rejected every other challenge to the FAA’s policy favoring arbitration.

It seems pretty safe, then, to assume that the Court would allow mandatory arbitration agreements, with class action waivers, in independent contractor agreements.

Should businesses include mandatory arbitration provisions in independent contractor agreements?

There are pros and cons to arbitration, and the answer depends largely on how reliant your business is on independent contractor relationships as part of the business model. In other words, are you at risk of a class action?

If yes you are, then yes you probably should. (But please consult counsel.)

Businesses that may be at risk of a widespread finding of independent contractor misclassification can use these agreements to prevent class actions from being filed. If contractors who claim misclassification have to bring their claims individually, there is a lot less money at stake and, strategically, the incentive for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take these cases is greatly diminished. Few lawyers will take a case that may be worth a few thousand dollars (or often less). Most lawyers would love a case that may be worth a few million dollars. The difference is in the numbers. Class action waivers can greatly reduce your company’s risk of a large misclassification verdict.

Other advantages of arbitration include:

  • The results of individual arbitrations can be kept confidential, unlike court decisions. That means a finding against you will not hit the social media feeds or trade publications;
  • The parties select the arbitrator, which means you can ensure that your fact finder is a lawyer or has a background in the industry or type of dispute involved;
  • There’s no risk of a runaway jury, populated by regular folks who might have an axe to grind and no sense of the value of money;
  • The dispute gets resolved quickly, with finality, and with no right to appeal (except in very limited circumstances)

But there are potential downsides to arbitrations too:

  • Filing fees can be expensive;
  • Arbitrators can be expensive too. They get paid by the hour, unlike a judge who is not being paid by either side (we hope);
  • The barrier for employees to bring a claim is lower. They don’t need an attorney, and they can initiate a claim with ease, which could mean that more individual claims would be filed than if employees had to go to court;
  • There is no right to appeal (except in limited circumstances). This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on whether you win!

Arbitration agreements have pros and cons, but for businesses that make substantial use of independent contractors, an arbitration agreement with a class action waiver can be critically important in avoiding a large claim.

One final reminder: If you use an mandatory arbitration agreement, remember to include a class action waiver. That’s one of the main benefits of these agreements.

Please consult with your employment lawyer to decide whether arbitration agreements are right for your business.

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

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