Last week I was in Boston, spending time with many of my favorite people at our BakerHostetler Labor and Employment Group Retreat. I always enjoy spending time with the people in our other offices. They are wonderful, kind, smart, and a joy to be around.
As part of the programing, each practice team leader gave a six-minute TED-style talk. In my session about the Contingent Workforce Practice Team, I included a slide that I wanted share here.
We sometimes hear from companies that they don’t think they’re at risk for an independent contractor misclassification claim. They sometimes say, we’ve been doing it this way forever, and we haven’t been sued.
To that I would say, you mean you haven’t been sued yet.
Here’s what can happen when companies get sued for independent contractor misclassification.
What Companies Using Temps In New Jersey Need to Know
According to the National Constitution Center, there were 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights, with one sent to each of the 13 states and another kept by the federal government. The Center also reports, however, that four of the states — Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania — lost their copies. North Carolina’s was stolen by a Union soldier during the Civil War but recovered in 2002 through an FBI sting. (“Hey buddy, I’m lookin’ to buy a Bill of Rights. Ya know anyone?”)
New Jersey kept its copy, but also just added some new stuff. Sort of.
This month, New Jersey passed the Temporary Workers Bill of Rights. It’s less sweeping than the original 1791 Bill of Rights, but it co-opts the important sounding name to get everyone’s attention and to show constituents that the lawmakers are doing really important things that warrant re-election, financial support, the undying love of chatbots, etc.
The Temporary Workers’ Bill of Rights imposes new burdens on staffing agencies and the companies using temp workers. This post will focus on the obligations imposed by the companies using the temp workers.
Does the Bill apply to your industry?
The Bill applies to temp workers assigned by a temp staffing firm to work in any of the following industries, using Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) designations:
33-90000 Other Protective Service Workers
35-0000 Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations
37-0000 Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance Occupations
39-0000 Personal Care and Service Occupations
47-2060 Construction Laborers
47-30000 Helpers, Construction Trades
49-0000 Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations
51-0000 Production Occupations
53-0000 Transportation and Material Moving Occupations
If you’re not in one of these industries, stop reading and get on with your day.
What obligations does the Bill impose on the users of temp labor?
1. Equal Pay. This sounds fair but may be problematic in practice. Temp workers must be paid “not less than the average rate of pay and average cost of benefits, or the cash equivalent thereof” of the user’s similarly situated employees.
I see two immediate problems here.
First, one of the benefits of using a staffing agency is the ability to pay the temps less until they prove themselves and earn an offer of direct hire. No longer. Now you’ll have to pay the same amount as you pay your regular workers, plus the markup.
Second, how is the staffing agency going to know the wages paid to your similarly situated regular workers and the value of the benefits package you provide them? Presumably you’ll have to tell the staffing agency.
But the staffing agency is not your confidant or fiduciary. It has multiple clients, probably including your competitors. Do you really want the staffing agency to know what your cost of insurance is, or what you pay your regular workers, or the full suite of benefits you offer? The staffing agency will have to adjust what it charges you — and your competitors — based on what each of its clients pay their similarly situated worker. That sounds like a pretty useful set of data for anyone wanting to know what competitors are doing.
You can (and should) designate this information as confidential when disclosing it to a staffing agency, and you should make sure your staffing agency agreement includes an obligation to protect confidential information. But is the information really that safe from prying eyes? If a competitor or temp worker is involved in litigation, couldn’t this information be subject to subpoena? Once you reveal this information, you lose a good bit of control over it.
2. Freedom to direct hire. Under the new law, temp workers must be free to accept offers of direct hire. Staffing agencies cannot restrict the workers’ ability to accept offers of direct hire. The agency can impose a “placement fee” on its client (you), but the amount is limited by statute.
The amount of the placement fee cannot exceed “the equivalent of the total daily commission rate the temporary help service firm would have received over a 60-day period, reduced by the equivalent of the daily commission rate the temporary help service firm would have received for each day the temporary laborer has performed work for the temporary help service firm in the preceding 12 months.”
For purposes of contracting, any provisions prohibiting direct hire for limited periods of time need to be removed. Instead, staffing contracts (in NJ, for these job classifications) should permit direct hire but may charge a permitted placement fee.
3. Reimbursement of tax obligations. The user of services is required to reimburse the temp agency for wages and “related payroll taxes.” Presumably this is already basked into the markup, but now it’s required.
4. Joint and several liability. The law imposes joint liability for any violations of the equal pay or direct hire provisions. Consider what that means for equal pay. You might have to disclose to the temp agency what you pay your similarly situated employees, but you don’t control the temp agency’s payroll practices. If they mess up and pay the temp worker less than the law requires, the law says you’ll be jointly liable.
Who said anything about fair?
Be sure your staffing agency agreement includes robust indemnity provisions. The agreement should also create a contractual obligation for the temp agency to pay workers all amounts they are due under the law so that, if the agency fails to do so, you can point to a breach of contract when seeking indemnity. Indemnity claims based purely on the law could be subject to challenge since the law also says there is joint liability.
This Temporary Workers’ Bill of Rights applies only to certain industries in New Jersey but, for users of temps in these industries, the law creates important new obligations.
For violations, the law allows for a private right of action and carries a six-year statute of limitations.
If you use temp labor in New Jersey in one of the covered industries, be sure you understand the new requirements. This would be a good time to go back and revisit your staffing agency agreements. They may need some tidying up.
Also consider requiring temp workers to sign individual arbitration agreements as a condition of being placed at your worksite. This strategy can help insulate you from a class action filed against both the temp agency and your company. Class actions against both entities are a particular concern, given the joint liability section of the new law.
This headline does not refer to the Chinese spy ballon.
Instead, I’m thinking about 1968. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones had joined up to form a new band after the breakup of the Yardbirds. Drummer Keith Moon of The Who supposedly said the project would go down like a lead balloon.
One of the largest balloons, of course, is the zeppelin. The zeppelin was a passenger airship used until the Hindenberg disaster in 1937. So the band named itself Led Zeppelin, dropping the ‘a’ in Lead so people wouldn’t mispronounce the name of the band.
In 1971, the band released Led Zeppelin IV, which included the song “Going to California” and this lyric:
Spent my days with a woman unkind Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine Made up my mind to make a new start Going to California with an aching in my heart
For today’s post, I’m going to California with an aching in my heart.
Cities in California have upped their game when going after companies that use independent contractors. They’re taking the lead (not led) in bringing their own lawsuits.
In January 2023, the City of San Francisco secured a $5.25 million settlement to cover 5,000 independent contractor delivery drivers. The lawsuit alleged a failure to comply with the city’s health care security and paid sick leave ordinances, which apply to employees.
In October 2022, San Diego’s city attorney settled its own independent contractor misclassification lawsuit for $46.5 million. That deal covered 300,000 independent contractor delivery drivers.
In 2021, San Francisco reached agreement on another delivery driver misclassification lawsuit, settling for $5.3 million to cover 4,500 local drivers.
The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake The children of the sun begin to awake (watch out)
States are following a similar playbook, as we recently saw when New Jersey obtained a $100 million settlement, alleging that a rideshare app company failed to pay into the state unemployment insurance fund for independent contractor drivers.
It seems that the wrath of the gods got a punch on the nose And it's startin' to flow, I think I might be sinkin'
Government-initiated lawsuits can be particularly dangerous because arbitration agreements and class action waivers are ineffective. The governments are fighting for funds they think are rightfully theirs.
They also have political motives driving their prosecutions. Officials facing re-election want to be able to show their constituents they’re making a difference and fighting for workers’ rights (and ignoring, as usual, the fact that most IC drivers want to remain ICs).
Throw me a line, if I reach it in time I'll meet you up there where the path runs straight and high
The trend of government-backed compliance efforts is going to continue and will likely increase. Companies making widespread use of independent contractors should be proactive in evaluating these relationships, the contracts, and the local laws to build a comprehensive defense strategy — before getting sued.
There’s an island in Quebec that’s larger in area than the lake in which it sits. René-Levasseur Island was supposedly formed by the impact of a meteorite 214 million years ago, although eyewitness accounts differ. The land mass became an island in 1970, when the Manicougan reservoir was flooded, merging two crescent shaped lakes that surrounded the area.
I like fun geography facts, and an island larger than the lake in which it sits is a fun fact. But feels a bit aggressive for the Canadians to merge two crescent shaped lakes to turn this land mass into an island. I’m sure they had their reasons. If nothing else, it looks good on a map.
The Department of Labor is also being aggressive, but they’re not flooding any reservoirs. Instead, they’re channeling their aggression toward independent contractor misclassification.
In a news release this month, the DOL announced that it had obtained a consent judgment for $5.6 million against a national auto parts distributor and an Arizona logistics firm for allegedly misclassifying 1,398 drivers as independent contractors. The award included back wages and liquidated damages.
The DOL had alleged that, by misclassifying the drivers, the companies failed to meet minimum wage requirements, failed to pay overtime rates, and failed to keep required timekeeping records. These failures each were violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The award covered an eight-year period between April 2012 and March 2020.
I see three takeaways here:
First, the DOL is being aggressive in filing lawsuits when it thinks independent contractors have been misclassified. This consent judgment shows how expensive these claims can be for companies that improperly classify workers. Companies using independent contractors needs to be proactive in evaluating their risks and taking steps to minimize those risks. There are lots of ways to reduce risk if you plan ahead, before you’ve been sued or investigated.
Second, this case is a reminder that companies who classify delivery drivers as independent contractors are at heightened risk. Federal and state agencies and the plaintiffs’ bar seem to be filing a disproportionate number of claims involving delivery drivers. If your business uses delivery drivers who are classified as independent contractors, you may be at an increased risk of an audit or lawsuit.
Third, remember the DOL’s proposed new rule for independent contractor classification under the FLSA? (Read more here, here, and here.) The DOL wants to change the current test for who is an employee under the FLSA, replacing a regulation adopted by the Trump Administration in 2020. But cases like this one show that the current regulation is not impairing the DOL’s ability to enforce what it perceives as misclassification. The DOL’s many recent successes — as posted in DOL news releases — show that the DOL is doing just fine under the current rule when it comes to misclassification enforcement. The new rule is a solution without a problem.
Large judgments like this one seem shocking, but they are a reminder of the substantial dangers of misclassification.
Learn more by joining me at the 10th Annual 2023 BakerHostetler Labor Relations and Employment Law Master Class, all virtual, one hour every Tuesday starting February 7, 2023. My program on Contingent Workforce issues will be on March 7, 2023. Registration is free.
Christian Encarnacion-Strand presents an unusual problem for the Cincinnati Reds. His name is too long to fit horizontally across the back of his uniform. The Reds are taking an upside-down-horseshoe approach to this problem, and if this minor league third baseman makes the big league club this year, his 18-character surname (with hyphen) would win the award (there’s no award) for most characters in a major league surname.
The current honor lies with Simeon Woods Richardson, a pitcher for the Twins, whose unhyphenated surname stretches 16 characters (including the space). The Twins applied more of a 3/4 circle strategy, which I think is less visually appealing than the Reds’ approach.
When it comes to horizontal challenges, placing letters on a uniform falls in the category of very low risk. The twitter community may have strong opinions, but there’s no real implication to either approach.
But when it comes to horizontal relationships among companies competing for talent, it’s much more important to get things right. No poaching agreements can lead to criminal charges — as we can see from a case making its way through the federal district court in Connecticut.
In the pending case, Company A outsourced engineering projects to companies B through F, all of whom compete for engineering talent. Companies B through F also compete with each other for projects from Company A.
Between 2011 and 2019, Companies A through F allegedly agreed to restrict the hiring and recruiting of engineers and other skilled-labor employees between them. All of the companies allegedly agreed to (1) not hire employees of Companies B through F and (2) not proactively contact, interview, and recruit applicants who were employed by another one of the companies. Company A allegedly policed and enforced the agreement.
This arrangement led to a criminal indictment, charging that these no-poaching agreements were a conspiracy in restrain of trade, in violation of the Sherman Act. The indictment alleges that the companies engaged in illegal market allocation, which suppressed competition for talent and wages.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. Because this issue potentially affects staffing and franchise relationships, the American Staffing Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, and others filed amicus briefs in support of the motion to dismiss.
On December 2, 2022, the district court denied the motion to dismiss. The opinion evaluates the arguments on both sides and considers how this arrangement compares to others where no-poach agreements have been held to be permitted. For example, the court considered whether the agreed-upon restraint was “ancillary to a legitimate business collaboration.” If yes, that could support an exception to the legal prohibition on restraints of trade. But the court ruled that the relationship here was competitive, not collaborative, because Companies B through F were competing for outsourcing work from Company A.
From a procedural standpoint, this decision does not make any findings about whether the arrangement actually did violate the law. This ruling is just the denial of a motion to dismiss, which means the case can move forward.
But the opinion should provide a wake up call to the staffing industry, the franchise industry, and other organizations where a small identifiable number of companies are competing for talent and for engagements.
The federal government has made it a priority to minimize restraints of trade and has shown a willingness to issue criminal indictments against companies (and individuals) who enter into unlawful agreements that restrict labor mobility.
That is not to say that all no-poach agreements are unlawful. In many situations they are appropriate. But companies in horizontal competition with each other need to tread very carefully, and any no-poach agreement among horizontal competitors may create significant legal problems, including potential criminal liability.
For baseball uniforms, horizontal challenges can be addressed with the upside-down horseshoe or 3/4 circle strategy (preferably the former!). But these simple solutions are not available in the business world, where companies compete for talent and engagements. As of now, there is no upside-down horseshoe exception to the Sherman Act.
If you have a beard at least 8 inches long, here’s an opportunity you might not have considered. At a bar in Casper, Wyoming, a group of bewhiskered patrons tied their beards together to take the world’s record for Longest Beard Chain.
How long? 150 feet, shattering the previous record of 62 feet, set by a shaggy German crew in 2007.
But that wasn’t even the hairiest highlight of the weekend. Down the street was the National Beard and Moustache Championships, a visual delight featuring moustache categories such as best handlebar, Dali, freestyle, and uber-stache, and partial beard categories including best friendly sideburns, goatee freestyle, musketeer, and Fu Manchu.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the west, a different sort of hairy situation was nearing conclusion for several operators of gentleman’s clubs or nightclubs or strip joints, depending on your preferred terminology.
Last week, a federal district court in San Francisco approved a settlement that combined multiple class action claims of independent contractor misclassification brought by exotic dancers. The settlement covered more than 8,000 dancers and included a total payout of $6.5 million.
The cases were complicated by a number of legal issues, including the fact that — because of the timing of the lawsuit — the question of whether the dancers were contractors or employees was to be determined using different tests for different claims. The dancers’ classification for their California wage order claims would be determined using an ABC Test, but their classification under other Labor Code claims would be determined using the Borello balancing test, which is a California hybrid of Right to Control and Economic Realities Tests.
The class period covered 2010 through 2018, so the Dynamex decision applied to the wage claims, but AB5 had not yet been enacted, which left the Borello test to govern the Labor Code claims. This post explains the complicated situation that existed at the time. Had the class covered the period from January 2020 forward, the ABC Test likely would have been used to determine classification under all of the California claims.
But there were also Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) claims. The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine a worker’s classification, but that test is fluid too. The Economic Realities Test used by most courts is different from the test that was written into the current FLSA regulations in 2020, which is different from the test the DOL recently proposed to enact in a new set of regulations currently under consideration.
So for these class members, there were at least three different tests that would determine whether they were employees or independent contractors under different laws. That’s kind of like trying to determine who had the best musketeer or Fu Manchu but with everyone’s facial hair tied together in a 150-foot beard chain.
There are a few takeaways here for the rest of us.
First, misclassification claims by exotic dancers remain common. The business model needs some internal review. But that’s probably not your concern.
Second, the settlement is a good reminder of how complicated it can be to determine a worker’s classification when multiple laws apply. Different tests apply to different laws, even within the same state. The dancers, had they gone to trial, might have been employees under some laws and contractors under other laws.
Third, there are significant costs in reclassifying contractors to employees. The settlement required the clubs to reclassify their dancers to employees, which means the dancers would become eligible for unemployment, workers’ comp coverage, and protection under the anti-discrimination and leave laws that apply to employees.
Regardless of your business, it’s always a good idea to proactively review independent contractor relationships to see how well they would withstand a classification challenge in court. Misclassification cases are high stakes and can take many twists and turns. Sort of like the facial hair in the Full Beard Freestyle category. (Photos here.)
In Inner Mongolia, these sheep have been walking in a circle for about two weeks, with a few sheep occasionally standing in the middle. Here’s video.
Various theories have been circulating to try to explain the odd behavior, including that it may be some sort of bacteria-induced delirium.
But I think I know the real reason. (And a hearty Mazel Tov! to the wooly couple!)
When drafting independent contractor agreements, it’s never a good idea to be unsure of why you’re doing something. Too often, businesses use generic agreements and don’t understand the impact or purpose of what they’ve written.
One common place I see mistakes is in the very beginning of contracts – the contractual recitals.
Recitals are often used to provide context for the reader. Recitals are also used for six-year old piano players to play chopsticks for grandma, but that’s for another day. For example, an off-the-shelf independent contractor agreement might start with something like this: We’re in the business of doing X, and we are retaining Contractor to do this part of X. Therefore, the parties agree to the following terms.
The problem with that innocent sounding recital is that it may be evidence the contractor is misclassified.
Under a Strict ABC Test, if the work being performed by the contractor is within the hiring party’s usual course of business, the contractor is automatically considered an employee. That fact fails prong B of a strict ABC Test.
Under an Economic Realities Test or a Right to Control Test, one of the factors often considered is often whether the work being performed is “an integral part” of the business, or some variation on that theme. Unlike ABC Tests, these tests are balancing tests and so one factor will not necessarily determine a worker’s classification, but there’s no reason to give the factor away, especially in a contract recital.
In a misclassification challenge, every fact and contract term will be subject to scrutiny.
If you’re unsure whether the term is needed, then question whether to include it. Recitals generally aren’t needed at all, and I often omit them from my independent contractor agreements. Don’t include off-the-shelf terms if you don’t understand their effect.
Unexplainable behavior makes for good blog posts and tweets, but not good contracts.
Which is why I never ask unfamiliar sheep to help me draft contracts.
The history of the Middle Ages is filled with tales of unusual and unexpected deaths. In 1016, for example, Edmund Ironside, King of England, was allegedly stabbed while on a toilet by an assassin hiding underneath. In 1131, Crown Prince Philip of France died while riding his horse in Paris after the animal tripped over a black pig that was running out of a dung heap. In 1135, Henry I of England supposedly died after eating too many lampreys, against his physician’s advice. A lamprey, for those keeping score, is a long, jawless fish with a funnel-like sucking mouth. (“Doctor, how many of these delicious-looking sea creatures may I ingest for dinner?”)
While Henry I might have fared better had he listened to medical advice, Edmund and Philip seem to have just found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This can happen to businesses too when retaining non-employee laborers.
But the cautionary tale in today’s post is different from those I usually write about. We often discuss here how businesses can take steps to avoid being deemed a joint employer. Today’s post, however, is about an unexpected bad outcome that can arise from not being a joint employer.
The culprit here is not a dung-covered black pig or a toilet assassin. The culprit here is workers’ compensation law.
As we all know, workers’ compensation law covers employees only. When workers’ compensation law applies, it is the only course of recovery for a worker injured on the job. There’s no suing for negligence, no tort claims, and no personal injury lawsuits.
Being a joint employer, in other words, can limit your liability when a worker is injured on the job.
A recent Texas case illustrates the point.
King Aerospace is a military contractor. It often relied on another company, ATG, to find maintenance specialists. ATG would identify and hire the specialists, who would then go work for King. ATG treated the workers as its employees and reported their pay on a Form W-2.
One of the workers supplied by ATG fell off a ladder while working on a project for King. He filed a personal injury suit against King Aerospace, alleging that King was negligent in causing his injuries. King responded by arguing that it was the man’s joint employer, meaning that the injuries would subject to Texas workers’ compensation law. When workers’ compensation law applies, workers’ compensation law provides the only available remedy for a workplace injury. There’s no separate personal injury suit.
A jury was asked to determine whether the man was King’s employee at the time of the injury, and the jury said he was not. King was therefore exposed to the full range of damages available in a negligence lawsuit. Hey, watch out for that black pig.
King appealed the decision, arguing that it was a joint employer as a matter of law. The Texas Court of Appeals, however, ruled that there were issues of fact and the jury was entitled to find that there was no joint employment relationship. The case now goes back to the trial court, where King Aerospace will face tort liability under personal injury laws.
Businesses are usually looking to avoid joint employer status. But as this case shows, when there’s a serious workplace injury involved, joint employer status can actually be beneficial.
The decision does not address whether ATG had workers’ compensation coverage for the worker. Presumably it did not. The case is also a good reminder to make sure that in agreements with companies supplying labor to your business (such as staffing agencies), the supplier company should agree to provide workers’ compensation coverage.
An agreement like that between King and ATG that could have prevented King’s bad outcome here. Or King could have taken more direct steps to establish itself as the man’s joint employer, even if that move seems counter intuitive.
On the other hand, I have no idea what could have saved poor Martin of Aragon, who supposedly died in 1410 from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughing. Martin apparently was suffering from indigestion after eating an entire goose when his favorite jester, Borra, entered the king’s bedroom. Martin asked Borra where he had been, and Borra replied, “Out of the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.” This joke caused the king to die from laughter.
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.
Getting properly aligned is important. That’s true not only when using a dog bed, but also when using independent sales reps.
Sales reps generally receive commissions. When commissions systems are unclear, disputes arise. We don’t want disputes. You may think your commission system is clear, whether by tradition or otherwise. But it’s probably not as clear as you think. Unclear commission plans lead to lawsuits, especially after the relationship with a sales rep ends.
Here are ten tips for avoiding commission disputes. These tips are helpful whether your sales rep is an independent contractor or an employee.
1. Put the commission plan in writing, and get the rep to sign it. Many states require written, signed commission plans for employees. (California, I’m looking at you!) But even when not required by law, a clearly drafted and accepted plan is the best way to avoid disputes.
2. Define what constitutes a sale. Is a sale complete when the customer pays for the good? When the good is delivered? When it’s accepted? When some period for returns has expired? Whatever you decide, state it clearly.
3. Define when a commission is earned. Usually there are several things that have to happen before a commission is earned. List them all, and make clear that a commission is not earned until all of these things have occurred.
4. Specify the timing of when commission payments are due. For employee sales reps, you might have less flexibility than with contractors, since state laws often require that employees are paid at certain intervals. But you can also create some space for yourself in your definition of when a commission is considered “earned.”
5. Clarify whether the sales rep must still be employed (or still under contract) to earn a commission. This term will be viewed in tandem with your explanation of when a commission is considered “earned.” Some states (hey there, California!) require that the commission has been paid if the employee has basically done everything needed to earn the commission, even if employment has ended. Calling the rep a contractor won’t necessarily get around that, since as we know, California does not grant a lot of deference to classifying workers as contractors instead of employees.
6. Explain how the commission amount is calculated. The formula might be A times B times C. Whatever it is, write it out.
7. Clarify the relevant time period. If the commission plan is for 2022 only, say so. If the commission plan overrides all prior year plans, say that too.
8. What about charge backs? Are there circumstances when a commission might be paid but you’d have to recoup some of the payment through a charge back? Describe when chargebacks are permitted, if at all.
9. Don’t assume. Spell everything out. Just because there haven’t been commission disputes in the past doesn’t mean they won’t happen in the future. A recently departed sales rep is going to be more aggressive about a commission dispute than one who is still happily engaged, especially if the rep just closed a big deal was separated before the company received payment from the customer. Without a clearly drafted plan, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
10. Write for the jury. A stranger reading your commission plan should be able to tell whether a commission is earned or not, how much the commission should be, and when the commission is due. It needs to be that clear. If there’s ambiguity, expect that the disputed term will be interpreted in favor of the sales rep. After all, you wrote the plan, not the rep.
Bonus 11th Tip: Don’t forget state law. State law may contain requirements for commission plans. Know where your salespeople are working and where they are selling. If multiple states are involved, consider adding a choice of law clause.
Getting aligned on commissions before there’s a dispute can go a long way toward preventing a dispute. Getting misaligned on a dog bed may lead to back pain or a funny picture, but getting misaligned on commissions can lead to expensive litigation.