Can Independent Contractor Misclassification Automatically Violate Federal Labor Law? (Hint: Yes)

The past two weekends, we have seen NFL players link arms in solidarity. They protest mistreatment and injustice in society, not mistreatment and injustice by their employers. In fact, there have been several instances where owners and coaches have joined in.

Had the players been protesting actions by their employers — their teams — their actions likely would be considered “protected concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA grants employees the right to act collectively to protest terms or conditions of their employment. Employees have these rights even if there is no union.

NLRA rights apply only to employees, not to independent contractors. Independent contractors have no right under the NLRA to engage in collective behavior. In fact, antitrust laws can sometimes prohibit independent contractors from acting collectively — such as in price fixing.

So let’s get to the issue that is the focus of this blog — the issue of Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

Here’s the question of the day:

If independent contractors have no rights under the NLRA but employees do, can the mere act of misclassifying independent contractors be considered a denial of NLRA rights? 

Yes, said an Administrative Law Judge in a recent case involving couriers.

Here’s the judge’s reasoning: Employees have NLRA rights, allowing them to act collectively. An employer violates the NLRA by denying an employee the right to act collectively. Protected concerted activity can include discussing wages with co-workers, discussing discipline, speaking out against a supervisor, criticizing work conditions, and a broad range of other activities (many of which you probably never thought were protected).

Independent contractors do not have these rights because the NLRA applies only to employees. By misclassifying a worker as a contractor, the judge ruled, a business is essentially telling the worker — who is actually an employee — that he has none of these rights.

Telling an employee that he has no right to engage in protected concerted activity is pretty clearly a violation of the NLRA.

And there you go.

So what does that mean for businesses that use independent contractors? In other posts, we have discussed many of the negative consequences of independent contractor misclassification. A business that has misclassified workers as independent contractors (when they should really be deemed employees) can be liable for failure to pay employment taxes, failure to provide workers’ compensation and unemployment coverage, failure to follow hiring and paycheck laws, failure to provide employee benefits, and more.

Now add to that list a possible automatic violation of the National Labor Relations Act — at least according to this judge.

You can’t see me, but I am kneeling in protest.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Subcontractors Can Be Jointly Liable for Contractors’ Labor Law Violations

Otter: “He can’t do that to our pledges.”

Boon: “Only we can do that to our pledges.”

–Animal House, 1978

Subcontractors are like pledges in a way. They have to abide by the rules that apply to the primary contractor. If they fail to do so, they are responsible. Fairness isn’t really the issue.

A recent case shows how subcontractors can be held responsible when a primary contractor improperly fails to bargain with a union. In 2014, a contractor won a bid to take over a Job Corps Youth Training Center. The Center had been a union facility, and the contract was set to expire right around the same time the contractor took over operations. The contractor brought in a subcontractor, MJLM, to handle wellness, recreation,

The contractor initiated a new hire process, and some union employees were rehired while others were not. The contractor imposed new terms and conditions of employment, disregarding the progressive discipline and other procedures that had been negotiated into the prior union contract.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, alleging that the contractor engaged in various unfair labor practices, including making unilateral changes to terms of employment without bargaining and improperly discharging various union employees. The Board’s General Counsel amended the complaint to allege that MJLM was equally responsible for any violations as a joint employer.

MJLM fought back, claiming that it was along for the ride, but the NLRB — and ultimately the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — found otherwise. The Board and the Court found that MJLM was a joint employer because it was involved in the hiring process, had influence over wages, assisted in setting holiday schedules, and helped to operate the center.

MJLM, as a subcontractor, was found to be a joint employer and therefore equally responsible for any unfair labor practices committed by the contractor.

When I read the case, I assumed the case was decided under the controversial new Browning-Ferris standard that allows for a finding of joint employment if there was merely indirect control. I was wrong. The Board (and Court) ruled that even under the old standard requiring direct exercise of control, the subcontractor was a joint employer.

Businesses should remember that joint employment can result in liability for violations by others. A subcontractor can be held responsible for unfair labor practices by a contractor. In this case, both the contractor and subcontractor were required to recognize the union, undo their unilaterally imposed practices, commence bargaining, and reinstate and make whole the employees who were not rehired.

MJLM was just as responsible as the contractor. To paraphrase the Court’s decision, with apologies to Dean Wormer, “The time has come for someone to put his foot down, and that foot is me.”


© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Drivers Rack Up Misclassification Settlements, While GrubHub Fights Back

In 1984, the Cars released a sad-sounding song called Drive. I assume it was about a guy longing for a girl, but it’s too depressing to listen to the whole thing. Throughout the song, Ric Ocasek asks “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” (Why the long face, Ric? Kidding.)

If you use a ride hailing service, chances are it’s an independent contractor driver who’s gonna drive you home. But in several high profile lawsuits, drivers have challenged their independent contractor status. While these suits have been in the news for years, there have been a recent flurry of high dollar settlements. Earlier this year, Lyft agreed to pay $27 million to a class of 95,000 drivers in California and Door Dash agreed to pay $5 million. Just last week, Postmates agreed to pay $8.75 million.

Notably, none of these settlements resolved the issue of whether drivers for these companies are employees or independent contractors. The settlements involved payouts and agreed-upon changes in company policies, but none of the drivers were reclassified as employees.

GrubHub, on the other hand, has taken a misclassification case to trial. The case being tried is not a class action, and only about $600 is at issue. But the case may have significant ramifications for the status of independent contractor driviers, both at GrubHub and potentially elsewhere, and the case is being watched closely. (You can read more here and here.) As of this morning (9/18/17), the case is still in trial and there has been no verdict.

The point to remember is that companies who use an independent contractor model face a substantial risk of being sued. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are aggressive in recruiting contractors to file lawsuits that challenge their status as independent contractors, arguing that they should be paid as employees instead.

Companies using a contractor model should be proactive. Take steps to evaluate these relationships now. Adjust the facts and contract language to best position your business to defend against a misclassification challenge.

Independent contractor misclassification litigation is active and should be watched closely — unlike the Cars, who broke up in 1988 (for the most part, anyway; you can read more here in the unlikely event you care about the current status of the Cars).

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When to Embrace Joint Employment, and When to Run Like Hell (Pink Floyd, 1979)

Joint employment risks dangers choices joint employer IMG_1101Life is full of serious questions. For example, Should I stay or should I go? (The Clash, 1982). Or, Will you love me forever? (practically every song ever, but for now, we’ll go with Meatloaf in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, 1977).

When engaging non-employee workers, businesses must also confront a serious question: Embrace joint employment, or try to avoid it? (Frank Zappa confronted a different kind of serious question in Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?, 1979, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.)

Many of my posts have been geared toward strategies for trying to avoid joint employment. There is another way, though. Sometimes, it may be better to embrace joint employment. But know the pros and cons.

Here are some things to consider:

Pros:

So, you’re thinking of embracing joint employment? That’s certainly an option. If you go in this direction, you can exert all the control you want over your non-employee workers. Tell them how to do the work, supervise them, discipline them, make them follow all your rules. Let them have a company email address and fancy name badge. If the workers are going to be joint employees anyway, there’s no reason to hold back.

You still have the benefit of having another company handling the administrative burdens like payroll and onboarding. You avoid adding to employee headcount, and you probably maintain some extra flexibility in setting staffing levels if your business is experiencing ebbs and flows.

Cons:

The biggest downside to joint employment is the risk of joint liability for errors you didn’t make. Did the staffing agency underpay overtime? Or miscalculate hours worked? Or fail to pay for time worked off the clock? Or hire illegal aliens? Or fail to file proper tax forms?

You get the picture. If you are a joint employer, your business is equally responsible for the consequences of any of these errors, even though you had nothing to do with them.

Yes, you can include an indemnity provision in your contract, but that should provide only limited comfort. Is the staffing agency adequately insured? Will they stand behind their promise? Do you want the hassle of defending an audit or lawsuit, then trying to rely on a contract to recover your losses? (Read more on the dangers of joint employment here.)

Joint employment can still be full of nasty little surprises, even when you go into it with your eyes open to the risks.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Tip of the Day: Set Up a Gatekeeper

door-gate-entrance-gateway

What you don’t know can hurt you.

Claims of independent contractor misclassification can sneak up on companies that don’t even know they have a problem.

Businesses usually treat the retention of contractors as an expenditure, not an increase in headcount. Since no new employees are being hired, Human Resources Departments and Legal Departments often have no idea when operations managers have retained contractors–sometimes at distant locations.

Operations managers usually don’t know the risks of independent contractor misclassification. Why would they? They don’t know what to look for in contracts or what words to avoid. They need a job to be done, and they find someone to do it. End of story, right? No! It feels great if you can trust your operations managers to solve their own problems, but if this is what happens at your company, you may have hidden misclassification risks.

One way to prevent these unforeseen risks is to create an internal gatekeeping process. Require approval by a point person before any manager can retain an independent contractor. The same rules would  apply for outsourcing any work to a consultant or an agency. This gatekeeper would be trained to spot potential misclassification risks.

The gatekeeper could approve or disapprove requests to retain contractors and could guide managers on best practices for overseeing contractors’ work without exerting too much control.

Summary:  Large organizations can benefit from designating a gatekeeper who must approve all requests to retain independent contractors. The gatekeeper process can help to ensure that misclassification risks are evaluated and controlled proactively.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Tip for Master Services Agreements: Protect Your Business Opportunities

Master servbice agreement protect business opportunities non-circumvention clause staffing agency agreement IMG_1095If you google “Quotes about Opportunity,” you’ll find 1273 quotes on Goodreads.com. Everyone’s interested in opportunities. But when it comes to business relationships, don’t let others take yours.

When servicing a customer, businesses often call upon use subcontractors for help. That can be a win-win, so long as the subcontractor does not try to poach the relationship once that deal is done.

Consider protecting the opportunities you present to subcontractors with a non-circumvention clause. The concept here is that when your business has introduced a subcontractor to a customer to work on a project, the subcontractor should not be allowed to circumvent your business and provide the same service directly to that customer, effectively cutting you out.

Non-circumvention clauses should be drafted carefully and narrowly. The prohibition should be limited in scope to (a) services your business can provide directly and (b) services that the subcontracor provided through your arrangement, as a result of your introduction. Don’t overreach. The prohibition should be limited in time, as well.

Protect the opportunities you create. Or the 1274th quote might be about opportunities lost. (Goodreads.com also has 903 quotes about regret.)

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Stop the Leaks! What if White House Staffers Were Independent Contractors?

Sessions stop the leaks independent contractorsTrump and Sessions wants to prosecute the leakers. As we’ve seen before, stopping leaks can become a Presidential obsession. In Nixon’s White House, the Plumbers were tasked with stopping leaks of classified information, such as the Pentagon Papers. Through the Committee to Re-Elect the President (fittingly, CREEP), members of the Plumbers broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Some of you may have heard about what happened next.

Presidential aides and White House staffers routinely have access to information that is intended to remain confidential. Businesses face the same issue. A company’s employees often have access to confidential or trade secret information that would be harmful in the hands of competitors, or that could damage the business if released to the general public.

It’s commonplace to require employees in such positions to sign Nondisclosure Agreements (NDAs).  NDAs typically define the scope of confidential information and require employees to refrain from using or disclosing any of it outside of work.

But what about independent contractors? Non-employees like specialists or consultants are often retained to work on sensitive company projects. In the course of that work, they are often granted access to confidential information.

Should independent contractors sign NDAs too? You bet! If they will be granted access to confidential or trade secret information, NDAs are important.

They can be used in a stand-alone agreement or as part of a broader independent contractor agreement containing other terms.

It is arguably even more important to have a contractor sign an NDA than it is for an employee to be required to sign one. Why?

Employees, by their nature, are agents of the company and are presumed to be acting to further the employer’s interests. NDAs are a useful reminder to employees of their obligations to the employer, and NDAs can expand — by contract — the scope of protection offered by trade secret laws.

Independent contractors, in contrast, are in business for themselves. They are generally not agents of the business, and any obligation they have to preserve confidential information will stem mainly from contractual obligations, rather than from trade secret law.

In fact, trade secret laws generally require a company to prove that it takes steps to safeguard the privacy of trade secret information — that is, steps to prevent other people from accessing it. By sharing trade secrets with a non-employee contractor, the company may — through that act alone — risk losing trade secret protection for their confidential business information.  They’ve shared it outside the company.

That is where NDAs come in. If a contractor is required to sign an NDA as a condition of the retention, then the employer can much more confidently share confidential and trade secret information with the contractor.

The NDA not only creates a contractual obligation on the contractor to preserve the secrecy of the information, but it also bolsters the company’s ability to show that it takes active steps to protect its confidential information. In other words, the NDA helps the business show that it does not tell an outsider its trade secrets without first obtaining a signed NDA.

The lesson here is simple. If your independent contractor will be granted access to confidential information — even incidentally or accidentally — NDAs can provide important protections to the business.

If the contractor leaks the information anyway, you can always find some goons to break into the office of the contractor’s psychiatrist to get some dirt on him.  (That was a joke. Don’t do that!) Legal remedies are available. Don’t break into anyone’s office. Please.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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