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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Misclassification settlement strips $6 million from Club Assets

IMG_1090When I was an undergrad at Michigan, any time I would drive to the airport or to Tiger Stadium, I’d see billboards for Deja Vu, a strip club with (apparently) lots of locations. I never visited (not into that sort of thing, thanks for asking), and I never thought much of it. I certainly did not expect to be writing about Deja Vu and independent contractor misclassification 25 years later. But here goes.

When patrons of these fine establishments partake in the traditional lap dance, it’s doubtful they’re thinking about whether these often-single-mom “entertainers” who are just trying to make a living have been properly classified under wage and hour law. More likely, they’re thinking about — never mind.

But that’s an important issue, as Deja Vu recently learned, when it was sued by a class of 28,177 dancers alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors, rather than paid as employees. The class alleged that the clubs intentionally misclassified them as contractors, failed to pay them minimum wage, unlawfully required them to split gratuities, and unlawfully deducted wages through rents, fines, and penalties.

After a fairness hearing in federal court in Detroit, the parties finalized a $6.55 million dollar settlement. In addition to cash compensation, the settlement includes an unusual provision allowing dancers to choose whether to be contractors or employees.

Dancers will receive between $443 and $6,007 each. Their lawyers will enjoy a payout of $1.2 million in fees, which could buy them a lot of — never mind.

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

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What Role Does the EEOC Play in Independent Contractor Misclassification?

IMG_1081The EEOC’s jurisdiction is limited to claims brought under certain federal anti-discrimination laws. The reach of these laws, however, is limited to employees. It is not a violation of Title VII, for example, to discriminate against an independent contractor.

So the EEOC has nothing to do with issues of independent contracor misclassification, right? Wrong.

Because the EEOC’s jurisdiction is limited to claims brought by employees, the Commission is incentivized to reclassify independent contractors as employees — especially when the Commission thinks that a company’s conduct was untoward.

In October 2016, shortly before the election, the EEOC published its Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2017-21. Lo and behold (is it ever just “lo”?), Priority #3 is “Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues,” among which the EEOC lists:

Clarifying the employment relationship and the application of workplace civil rights protections in light of the increasing complexity of employment relationships and structures, including temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, and the on-demand economy.

In other words, the EEOC wants a seat at the Independent Contractor Misclassification Table. It wants a chance to decide who is a contractor and who is an employee, because every chance to find misclassification is a chance to apply the laws that the Commission is charged with enforcing. No employment? No EEOC.

Am I cynical? You bet! But the EEOC has empirically interpreted its mission to include expanding employee protections. In this case, that means expanding who is an employee.

On January 25, 2017, President Trump named Commissioner Victoria A. Lipnic Acting Chair of the EEOC. She began her service as a Commissioner of the EEOC in April 2010, having been confirmed by the Senate for an initial term ending on July 1, 2015. In November 2015, she was confirmed by the Senate for a second term ending on July 1, 2020.

To date, there is no indication of any change in the Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2017-21.

Expect the EEOC to take a more active role in trying to determine who is an independent contractor and who is an employee.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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.

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

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.