When an Employee Double-Dips On a Paycheck, Who Pays?

Remember this?

Suppose the chip is a check, and the employee tries to cash it twice? Who would you rather be, Costanza or Timmy?

Staffing agency clients are increasingly pointing to a fraud committed by disloyal short-term employees. They cash a paycheck on their mobile app, then deposit the paper check a second time for duplicate payment. The check clears twice. Who must pay?

While this problem can arise in many scenarios, including with regular W-2 employees, it seems to be occurring more frequently with staffing agency employees, PEOs, temps, and other short-term workers. So let’s take a look.

I found a few good blog posts covering this subject (for those wanting more detail, try here or here), but here’s the bottom line:

The Check 21 Act, passed in 2004, addresses what happens when a bank allows its customers access to a mobile deposit app. When a customer electronically deposits a check, the bank creates an electronic image of that check, called a “substitute check.” This is what you sometimes see when you view your statement online. It’s negotiable, like a live check.

The original live check, however, still exists too. A fraudster who acts quickly enough can sometimes cash both. Under the Check 21 Act, the bank that creates the “substitute check” — the bank that allowed its customer access to the mobile check cashing app — is the bank that bears responsibility for any loss from the twice-cashed check.

This makes sense. Because that bank’s customer is the fraudster who double dipped, that bank is also in the best position to recoup the funds from the double-dipper.

Staffing agencies, payroll agencies, or PEOs who issue a twice-cashed check are sometimes asked to make good on the same payment twice. They shouldn’t be. If the double dipping occurred through an electronic “substitute check,”, they can point to the Check 21 Act, specifically 12 USC §5004, and argue that the double-dipper’s bank is properly accountable.

Note:  The Check 21 Act only applies to electronic double dipping. If an employee claims to have lost an original live check and obtains a substitute, then cashes both checks, different rules apply.

Joint Employment Is Like Taking Steroids By Accident

athlete-joint employment - staffing agency - 1840437_1920It seems like every month another professional athlete is caught using a prohibited substance. The typical script (after getting caught) is to blame the maker of a supplement. “I should have more carefully checked the label,” or “I had no way of knowing what was in that synthetic elephant urine.”

Fair or unfair, every athlete knows that he/she is responsible for what goes into the athlete’s body, whether the juicing was intentional or not.

The same rule applies to companies who use staffing agencies.

When workers are deemed to be joint employees, both the staffing agency and the company that benefits from the services are responsible for failures to follow employment law. It doesn’t matter who made the mistake.

Under the FLSA, for example, employers must pay non-exempt employees a minimum wage, must pay for all hours worked, must pay overtime, and must properly calculate overtime rates. Sometimes this is hard. Two traps that ensnare even the most sophisticated employers are the challenge of accounting for off-the-clock work (checking email by cell phone, for example), and calculating the base hourly rate when there are bonuses and other forms of compensation provided.

Joint employment means joint liability. If the staffing agency responsible for paying employees makes an error, both companies are on the hook. That means a company can be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages  — including back pay, attorneys’ fees, and liquidated damages — for errors it had no control over.

When the potential exists for a finding of joint employment, be careful when selecting  vendors who supply workers. Here are three tips:

  1. Be sure any vendors who supply workers are reputable, competent, professional, and reliable. (Four tips in one! you’ll thank me later)
  2. Be sure they stand behind their obligations with a suitable (and specific) indemnity clause.
  3. Be sure they are sufficiently insured.

Remember, under the FLSA (and many other laws), your company may be jointly liable for a staffing agency’s mistakes — even if you had no control over their pay practices.

Using staffing agency workers is like taking a performance supplement. It may enhance the bottom line and improve overall performance, but any funny business is your responsibility.

It doesn’t matter who put the horse steroid in your protein powder. If you ingest it, you are responsible for it.

Franchises Continue to Fight Joint Employment Claims

IMG_1074.JPGAre franchisors responsible for the wage and hour violations of their individually owned franchisees?

This question continues to vex the courts. (Vex! Great Scrabble word!) Despite the promise of more pro-business policies from the current administration, lawsuits filed by employees against franchisors show no signs of slowing down. Here’s why.

When employees allege wage and hour violations against individually owned franchisees (your local store), such as a failure to properly pay overtime, the employees usually try to convert that lawsuit into a class action.

For plaintiffs’ law firms bringing these lawsuits, the bigger the class, the better. Storewide is good; statewide is better; nationwide is best. If we colonize Mars, interplanetary class actions are sure to follow.

In an effort to find the deepe$t pocket$ and create the largest possible class, plaintiffs’ firms often sue not only the individual stores that had the allegedly unlawful practice, but also the national franchisor — even if the franchisor had little or no control over local pay practices.

Court are then asked to evaluate the role that franchisors play in the day-to-day operations of individually owned franchised locations.

Franchisors argue that they are allowed to establish and enforce brand standards to ensure consistency of products across the country. A roast beef sub in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico should taste the same as a roast beef sub in Walla Walla, Washington.

Plaintiffs, on the other hand, generally point to franchisors’ corporate manuals and national standards as evidence of an employer-employee relationship between the national franchisor and employees of the individually owned store.

These battles continue to wage throughout the country, with large national franchisors being sued. Some courts have sided with franchisors, finding that the need to establish uniformity of product and appearance is the very nature of what a franchise is — rather than being evidence of joint employment. Other courts have been more sympathetic to plaintiffs and have allowed franchisors to be drawn into the fray.

Companies using a franchise model can proactively reduce the risks of joint employment by carefully deliniating what they can and cannot control, with respect to the operation of individually owned stores. Thoughtful planning can help franchisors to avoid lawsuits ot to mount a successful defense against class certification.

The franchise model remains under attack. Franchisors should plan accordingly and act preemptively to best position themselves to avoid or defend these types of claims.

Podcast: What You Need to Know About Independent Contractor Misclassification

IMG_1073This week, I am encouraging readers to tune in to this podcast from XpertHR, in which I discuss issues and hot topics related to independent contractor misclassification.

Topics covered include:

  • The attack on business models that rely on the use of independent contractors;
  • The future of misclassification claims;
  • Possible updates to the FLSA;
  • Industries that are most at risk for independent contractor misclassification claims; and
  • Common misconceptions.

I hope you enjoy this interview, and thank you to David Weisenfeld and Xpert HR.

Security Guards: Employees or Contractors?

security guard employee or independent contractorI never saw the movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop and almost certainly never will. (Do I really need explain that decision?)

The Independent Contractor vs. Employee question often arises in the context of security guards, though. I confess to not knowing how Paul Blart was classified but, for companies who retain security guards, the decision whether to hire them as employees or to contract with a security firm is an important one.

The main advantage of hiring security guards as employees is the ability to retain control over how an individual guard does the job. The company can select who it wants to work and when, and can provide as much supervision and direction as needed.

The biggest disadvantage to using employees for security work, however, is the risk of liability. The very purpose of the role is to guard against dangerous or threatening situations. Where a security guard overreacts, or where someone gets hurt by a guard acting in the normal course, lawsuits are sure to result. And the injuries are likely to involve more than hurt feelings.

A recent Texas case, Henderson v. CC-Parque View, illustrates the benefit of using contractors rather than employees to provide security services. In that case, a management company contracted with a security firm to provide guards at an apartment complex.

One night, an overzealous guard (we’ll call him Blart, because that truly is a great name for an overzealous guard) ordered Henderson (that’s Henderson’s real name), who was sitting in a parked car at the complex, to get out of his car. Henderson got out, but an argument ensued.

In an attempt to proclaim his invincibility, Henderson (I imagine this is how it went down) shouted, “I’m rubber and you’re glue and anything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

The guard, an avid fan of MythBusters, did not believe his antagonist’s impromptu physics lesson and shot him in the abdomen with a rubber bullet. It did not bounce. And it hurt.

Henderson sustained injuries. He sued the guard, the security company that employed the guard, and the management company of the apartment complex.

The suit against the guard and security company proceeded, but the management company successfully argued that the guard was not its employee and that it could not be liable for his actions.

The court ruled that the guard was a contractor, not an employee of the management company; and the management company was dismissed from the lawsuit.

Had the guard been hired directly by the management company as its employee, the outcome likely would have been very different, since employers are commonly held liable for the acts of their employees, when in the course of employment.

This case is a good reminder of the benefit of retaining an outside security firm, rather than hiring employees, to provide security services.

And did you hear there’s a Mall Cop 2? I also won’t watch that.

How Can There Be Misclassification When The Worker Prefers to Be an Independent Contractor?

Alan Hudock

Photo of Singer Dave Mason (We Just Disagree), by Alan Hurtock

Let’s start with this: Everyone is happy being an independent contractor until they’re not.

What do I mean by that? Right now, the relationship works. The contractor performs, and you pay for the work.

But what happens when things go south? As soon as you decide you no longer need those services, the contractor might stop being your BFF.

A disgruntled former contractor has some options, all of which involve some variation of this story: “Once upon a time, I was misclassified and should have been an employee.” None of the former contractor’s possible next steps are good for you: Continue reading

What is the IRS Voluntary Classification Settlement Program (VCSP)? How Can It Limit Misclassification Liability?

dollar-independent contractor misclassification-IRS-VCSP-1443244_1920The IRS offers a settlement option for companies that suspect they have been misclassifying their independent contractors and wish to reclassify them as employees.

The Voluntary Classification Settlement Program (VCSP) requires companies to meet certain eligibility criteria to participate but, in exchange, the IRS rewards participating companies with a steep discount off potential back taxes and penalties.

To participate in VCSP, a company:

  1. Must declare its intent to reclassify one or more independent contractors as employees;
  2. Must have consistently treated this class of workers as non-employees;
  3. Must have filed Forms 1099 for payments made to these employees; and
  4. Cannot be under a misclassification audit by the IRS, DOL, or a state government.

Benefits for participating companies include:

  1. Pay only 10 percent of the employment tax liability that would have been due on compensation paid to the workers for the most recent tax year, determined under the reduced rates of section 3509(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. See VCSP FAQ 15, for information on how payment under the VCSP is calculated. Also see Instructions to Form 8952;
  2. No liability for any interest and penalties on the amount; and
  3. No IRS employment tax audit with respect to the worker classification of the workers being reclassified under the VCSP for prior years.

The settlement process requires companies to sign a closing agreement with the IRS.

Is this a good deal? It can be, but it depends on the overall circumstances. Some factors to consider before applying include: Continue reading