Nowhere to Run: New Case Serves as Reminder That FLSA Misclassification Settlements are Very Public

I just got back from running in a 200-mile relay, Muskegon to Traverse City, with a group of college friends. I ran three legs of 4, 4, and 5 miles. I had the easiest set of three legs among the 12 runners, but I’m happy just to have finished. It was great to see everyone, and I was able to disconnect from work life for a few days.

So, what I’m saying here is, I had a better weekend than the guys I’m about to write about. And for them, there’s no running away from their problems.

In yet another exotic dancer case to hit the news, the performers at King’s Inn Premier Gentlemen’s Club in Massachusetts are about to score a $292,000 settlement in a claim that they were misclassified as independent contractors. A hearing to approve the settlement is scheduled for this week.

There seem to be a lot of exotic dancer cases in the annals of independent contractor misclassification, and the clubs seem to lose their fair share of these cases. This case, like most of the dancer cases, is a wage and hour case. The dancers claimed they were denied a minimum wage and overtime pay, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The club claimed the dancers were independent contractors and therefore were not covered under the FLSA.

But why do you care about a strip club exotic dancers case? Two reasons:

  • First, the Economic Realities Test is alive and well, and it applies to all industries.
  • Second, any settlement of an FLSA lawsuit must be approved, and it becomes public record.

You can read more about the first point here, in a collection of posts about this test and how it is used to determine whether someone is an employee.

The second point deserves a bit more attention, though. Most types of litigation can be settled in a private settlement agreement. An FLSA case cannot be. The law requires the settlement of an FLSA case to be approved by a judge, and there is a public hearing at which the settlement terms are considered.

Once you get sued for an FLSA violation, it’s very hard to get out of it with anything resembling confidentiality. This is the kind of claim you want to avoid in the first place.

How do you avoid an FLSA claim when you have independent contractors?

  • Be proactive. Evaluate your relationships using the Economic Realities Test and see if they hold up.
  • Review your contracts and see if they can be adjusted to better memorialize the facts that support independent contractor status.
  • Consider obtaining representations from the contractors up front to determine whether they really do operate independently.

Don’t wait until its too late to take action. You can’t just run away from an FLSA case.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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How to Avoid Liability for an Independent Contractor’s Injuries (Hint: Don’t Throw Stones)

“The Wound was Bound,” 1912. From NYPL Collection.

Sometimes injuries can be reasonably expected, sometimes not.

A good example of when injuries can be expected is the annual Bagwal festival in northern India. This year’s festival was described by Indian media as “a low-key affair” with only 77 of the 300 participants sustaining injuries. Wait, what?

At Bagwal, participants divide into four clans and hurl stones at each other to please a deity. According to this report, “The fight continues until a priest determines that enough blood has been shed in honor of the goddess Maa Barahi and demands to stop the fight.”

A good example of when injuries are not expected is when you retain an independent contractor to perform some sort of work on your property. Sometimes there are known hazards on the property. Sometimes there are no reasonable safety precautions that can be taken to minimize the hazard. For example, suppose you retain a contractor to fix a known safety risk.

The question: When an independent contractor gets injured by one of those known hazards, who is liable?

The California Supreme Court recently addressed this question in a case with significant ramifications for business owners, property owners, and independent contractors.

The answer: The contractor is liable, not the property owner — but this assumes the contractor is properly classified as an independent contractor.

The rationale: Like in many states, California law presumes “that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety.” This doctrine, known in California as the Privette doctrine, means that a hirer is typically not responsible for injuries suffered by an independent contractor.

The Privette doctrine makes sense. It arose out based on four basic assumptions:

  1. Hirers have no right to control an independent contractor’s work.
  2. Contractors can factor in the cost of safety precautions and insurance in the contract price.
  3. Contractors are able to obtain workers’ compensation coverage to cover any on-the-job injuries.
  4. Contractors are typically hired for their expertise, which includes knowing how to perform the contracted work safely.

There are two exceptions:

  1. A hirer may be liable when it exercises control over any part of the contractor’s work and negligently exercises that control in a way that contributes to the injury.
  2. A landowner who hires an independent contractor may be liable if the landowner knew, or should have known, of a concealed hazard on the property that the contractor did not know of and could not have reasonably discovered, and the landowner failed to warn the contractor of the hazard.

In Gonzalez v. Mathis, the court was asked whether a third exception should be recognized when injuries “result from a known hazard on the premises where there were no reasonable safety precautions it could have adopted to avoid or minimize the hazard.”

The court declined to recognize this exception, holding that in this situation, the contractor is liable, not the hirer. Rules may vary in other states.

What should businesses do to protect themselves, in light of this ruling?

  1. Make sure your contractors are properly classified as independent contractors under the applicable legal test. California uses an ABC Test for making this determination. Other California laws, such as Labor Code 2750.5 and 2810.3 complicate the analysis.
  2. Make sure your contractors are licensed and insured. Licensing by the Contractors State Licensing Board is required in California for anyone who contracts to perform work on a project that is valued at $500 or more for combined labor and materials costs.
  3. Do not exercise control over your contractors. Defer to their expertise.
  4. Disclose known hazards, especially those that are not readily visible.

And if you’re looking for repair work to be done at or near a Bagwal festival, don’t forget warn your contractor about the risk of flying stones.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Like Being Thrown on a Trotting Horse? This Company is Trying Rideshare without Independent Contractors

In 18th Century Europe, common methods for trying to revive drowning victims included throwing the victim onto a trotting horse, dunking in freezing water (ironic?), and my personal favorite, blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum.

These were creative ideas and sometimes they actually worked. The bouncing motion from being on a trotting horse could force air in and out of the lungs, like modern CPR. Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, which causes the brain to release epinephrine, which helps to stimulate the heart to contract.

It’s fun now to look back at how people tried to solve problems when they didn’t know what would happen.

The biggest unknown in the world of independent contractor misclassification is what would happen if rideshare and delivery companies were forced to reclassify all drivers as employees. A well-funded startup in Dallas is attempting to find out.

As reported here, a new rideshare service called Alto just completed a $45 million round of Series B funding. Alto’s model is to use all W-2 drivers and company-owned vehicles. The service currently operates only in Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles, and has announced plans to switch to all-electric vehicles.

Will it work? Who knows.

Is it a viable business model? Who knows.

But in some ways, it’s a test case to see how an industry dominated by the independent contractor model might operate if forced to use all W2 workers. Yes, I know the taxi industry is another comparable. But it hasn’t exactly thrived since the emergence of rideshare. I’m pretty sure that’s not the model that rideshare would look to if force to pivot.

As the old proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. For those keeping score at home, Mothers of Invention was also the name of an experimental rock band in California once fronted by Frank Zappa and which featured tracks such as “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” But that’s for another day.

For now, the rideshare industry continues to operate with its independent contractor model under siege. Widespread conversion of driver contractors to employees would be difficult and would introduce massive disruption in the industry. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s continue to innovate. Sometimes, even being thrown on a trotting horse can be helpful.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Biden Plan: Independent Contractor Misclassification Will Be An Enforcement Priority

Money
Get away
You get a good job with good pay and you’re okay
Money
It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Pink Floyd just gets it. When I was a young lawyer, someone described civil litigation to me as just moving piles of money from one party to another. But that cynical view tells only part of the story. It excludes the emotion, frustration, stress, and workload involved in defending disputes and in dealing with the consequences, which can include destroying an entire business model.

For businesses making widespread use of independent contractors, all of these concerns are about to get worse.

President Biden’s proposed FY2022 budget includes expanding resources to combat independent contractor misclassification. The Administration’s “commitment” to combatting misclassification is spelled out pretty unambiguously on page 15:

The Administration is also committed to ending the abusive practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors, which deprives these workers of critical protections and benefits. In addition to including funding in the Budget for stronger enforcement, the Administration intends to work with the Congress to develop comprehensive legislation to strengthen and extend protections against misclassification across appropriate Federal statutes.

The President’s proposal includes $14.2 billion for DOL enforcement efforts, including to “address the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.” This represents a $1.7 billion increase from 2021.

Expect the Department of Labor to place much greater scrutiny on independent contractor relationships than during the Trump Administration. The nomination of David Weil to head up the Wage and Hour Division signals that the President is serious about this enforcement priority. Weil served in the same role under Obama, and he made independent contractor misclassification a focal point of his enforcement efforts.

If your independent contractor arrangements have not been closely examined recently, it’s time for a check up. $14.2 billion for enforcement efforts is a lot of money. I think I’d buy me a football team.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What Are the I-9 Requirements for Independent Contractors?

The Munker-White Illusion, image by David Novick (UTEP)

This is one of my favorite optical illusions. The spheres here are all beige. They are not red, green, or purple. Look closely and you’ll see. David Novick, a professor of engineering at UTEP, explains the illusion here.

It’s fun to be fooled with optical illusions. But it’s not fun to be fooled with federal immigration law.

Companies retaining independent contractors should remember these key points for I-9s and immigration law compliance:

1. Properly classified independent contractors do not need to complete I-9 forms.

2. Misclassified independent contractor — that is, those who are really employees under federal law — are employees and should have a completed I-9. A multi-factor test is used to make this determination. According to federal regulations, these factors should be considered:

  • Who supplies tools or materials;
  • Whether the worker makes services available to the general public;
  • Whether the worker works for a number of clients at the same time;
  • Worker’s opportunity for profit or loss as a result of labor or services provided;
  • Worker’s investment in facilities for work;
  • Who directs the order or sequence in which the work is to be done; and
  • Who determines the hours during which the work is to be done.

3. Federal law prohibits individuals or businesses from contracting with an independent contractor to provide services in the U.S., knowing that the contractor is not authorized to work in the U.S. [8 U.S.C. 1324a(a)(4)]

4. Staffing agency temps employed by the staffing agency must complete I-9s as employees of the staffing agency. Contracts with staffing agencies should make clear the staffing agency accepts this obligation. If an agency sends a bunch of undocumented temps to your worksite, you might get an unscheduled visit from ICE, which is not a good look.

For those keeping a list at home (wait, that’s just me?), you can add immigration law noncompliance to the list of Things That Can Go Badly When Independent Contractors are Misclassified.

And that’s no illusion.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Kick Back or Kickback? Using Independent Contractors in This Situation is a Felony

With summer coming, you’re probably ready to kick back, to relax. Vacation rentals invite you to kick back and relax. Meditation music invites you to kick back and relax.

But remove the little space between “kick” and “back,” and that’s not something you want at all.

The federal Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a crime to “knowingly and willfully” offer, pay, solicit, or receive any remuneration to induce referrals of items or services reimbursable by Federal health care programs. 42 U.S.C. § 1320a–7b(b).

That means you cannot retain an independent contractor sales agent to refer customers to buy items or services that are reimbursable by Federal health care programs. Paying commissions or any other thing of value for these referrals is illegal. (There are some limited exceptions.)

Violations are a felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison and massive fines. Violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute are also automatic violations of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729.

The risk of prosecution is real. One recent decision upheld damages and penalties of more then $100 million against a blood testing lab that had retained independent contractor sales agents to provide referrals.

But employees can provide these referrals, even when independent contractors cannot. The Anti-Kickback Statute says it is not a violation when the remuneration is paid to an employee providing services in the course of employment. 42 U.S.C. § 1320a–7b(b)(3)(B). To avoid violating the Anti-Kickback Statute, these sales agents should be classified as employees, not independent contractors.

There are other safe harbors too. Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services adopted a new rule describing these safe harbors, but they are narrow and all conditions must be met. There is a Personal Services Arrangements Safe Harbor that, under some circumstances, will permit payments to an independent contractor agent. You can read more about the new rule here.

Tread very carefully. The penalties for violating the Anti-Kickback Statute are serious. But if you get it right, maybe you can kick back and relax after all.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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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.

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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.

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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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