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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When Sharks Talk to Bears: Beware of Cross-Agency Communications When Defending Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Shark independent contractor misclassification information sharing agreements

According to National Geographic, A 20-year old Colorado man has been bitten by a shark, a bear, and a snake.

Either the animal kingdom hates this guy, or he simply tastes delicious.

Formal information sharing across species is probably unusual, but within government agencies, it’s a thing. Businesses need to be aware of cross-agency information sharing when defending audits and defending agency enforcement actions related to independent contractor misclassification.

Federal and state agencies are particularly focused on sharing information about independent contractor misclassification. The Wage and Hour Division of the DOL has signed information sharing agreements with 27 states. The IRS and the DOL have a Memorandum of Understanding. Tax agencies share information too.

This network of cooperation can spell trouble for businesses undergoing 1099 audits or other agency investigations related to potential independent contractor misclassification.

A small assessment by a state agency may not seem like it’s worth fighting, but beware. Information sharing agreements may cause the assessment to multiply. Adverse findings might also be discoverable in litigation if there’s a civil lawsuit.

In other words, you could be viewed as an easy target, having been found already to be in violation.

A finding of independent contractor misclassification by one state agency may feel like a minor snake bite (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a minor snake bite, but stay with me here).  The snake, however, may share information with the shark, who will tell the bear, and before you know it, you’re that guy in Colorado who’s been bitten by all three.

Ouch!

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

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Pink Floyd or The Who?: NLRB Extends Deadline for Public Input on Important Misclassification Decision

pf photo 1 for nlrb post velox

Roger Waters & the boys, smiling pretty for the camera

Pink Floyd or The Who? Tough call for me, but I generally go with Pink Floyd, unless we’re listening to Tommy. Songs from both bands came to mind last week as I read the NLRB’s update on an important issue relating to independent contractor misclassification.

Who Are You (The Who, 1978)? In this post, we discussed a 2017 ruling, in which an ALJ found that the misclassification of independent contractors, by itself, is a violation of the federal labor law. This decision rejected the pickup basketball rule, “no harm, no foul.” Misclassification was deemed to be an unfair labor practice.

Join Together (The Who, 1990). The full Board then decided to reconsider that decision and invited public input on the question. Non-parties were asked to submit briefs to assist the Board in making its decision. Trade associations and labor groups are filing briefs on both sides of the issue.

Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd, 1975). The Board temporarily lost its 3-2 Republican majority after Member Miscimarra stepped down, but earlier this month, the Senate confirmed John Ring as the third Republican member, restoring a majority and a pro-business slant.

Time (Pink Floyd, 1973). Last week the Board extended the deadline for briefing to April 30th. Any business or trade organization that wishes to provide input to the NLRB on this important issue still has an opportunity. Here are instructions for filing.

Careful with that Axe, Eugene (Pink Floyd, 1969). This is an important issue for businesses using independent contractors. If misclassification by itself violates the NLRA — even with no actual harm to the worker — then businesses may face unfair labor practice charges, even where there’s no union and, even stranger, those ULP charges can come from workers you didn’t even think were your employees.

Take It Back (Pink Floyd, 1994). Hopefully for businesses, the full Board will reverse the ALJ and reinstate the pickup basketball rule. I have High Hopes (Pink Floyd, 1994).

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

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New California Law Aims to Punish Contractors for Wage Violations They Did Not Commit. Huh?

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Suppose you are a general contractor, hired to erect a monument to honor Carlos Santana’s monument-worthy performance of the national anthem during last year’s NBA Finals. Because the monument will be so tall (to house the many awards he should win for it), you need to hire subcontractors. Suppose the subcontractors cheat their employees, though, and don’t pay them a proper wage.

Under a new California law, the general contractor is strictly liable for the sub’s wage violations.

There’s no balancing test. No Right to Control Test. No joint employment finding needed. It’s strict liability. Call it the Jerry Brown corollary to Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule. Someone else breaks it, you own it.

I hear you: “Not fair!” But as we all know, fair is not a required feature element of employment law in California. (Fair may still be an element of due process, however, for those who may seek to challenge the constitutionality of this law.)

The new law, cleverly titled “Section 218.7,” took effect January 1, 2018.

To try to protect themselves, contractors may require their subs to show proof of payment by the subs to its employees. They may also tell noncompliant subs, “you’ve got to change your evil ways, baby, before I start loving you.” But most contractors probably won’t say that.

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

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Strip Clubs Nailed for $8.5 Million in Settlement of Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Independent contractor misclassification settlement $8.5 million spearmint rhinoI learned there’s a chain of strip clubs called the Spearmint Rhino. I didn’t know that was an option for rhinos. The rhinos I’ve seen at the zoo smell nothing like spearmint.

This club was paying its dancers as independent contractors. As we’ve seen in other “exotic dancer” cases, that can be an expensive decision.

This time it cost The Rhino $8.5 million. A class of 8,000 ladies reached a deal after claiming they should have been treated as employees under Caliufornia and federal wage and hour laws. The class members claimed they were denied overtime, denied a minimum wage, denied meal and rest breaks, and had their tips misappropriated.

In other words, they didn’t feel like they had much to dance about.

What happens now to The Rhino? Does it reclassify its dancers as employees? Who knows. Who cares.

I will, however, be asking the zoo if there’s anything they can do about the rhino smell. It seems there may be a minty version of the beast.

 

For more information on independent contractor issues and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2018, join me in Cincinnati on March 28 for the 2018 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: A Time for Change. Attendance is complimentary, but advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com, and list my name in your RSVP so I can be sure to look for you.

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