Arbitration Agreements & Staffing Company Workers: Can They Take You Anywhere You Want to Go?

1956 chevy bel air Arbitration agreements staffing agency

1956 Chevy Bel Air. The Ides of March’s Vehicle was a ‘55.

I’m your vehicle baby. I can take you anywhere you want to go.

That may be true for Jim Peterik, vocalist and frontman for The Ides of March, who issued this bold proclamation in the band’s 1970 single, “Vehicle.” (It worked. See more below.)

It’s not true for arbitration agreements, though. They can’t take you anywhere you want to go unless you draft them very carefully. A recent decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us of this lesson, although the opinion disappointingly fails to quote the Ides of March.

In Hogan v. SPAR Group Inc., we have an independent contractor named Paradise Hogan (which seems like would have been a cool name for a rock band); a staffing company called SBS; and a retail services provider called SPAR.  SPAR contracted with the staffing company to use the services of its independent contractors, including Hogan.

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Supreme Court Ruling May Stop Enforcement of Some Contractors’ Arbitration Agreements

New Prime v Olivieri double decker bus

The year 1925 was a banner year for transportation. Walter Percy Chrysler founded the Chrysler Corporation, London introduced its first double decker bus, and Malcolm Campbell became the first person to exceed 150 mph in an aero-engined car, accomplishing the feat at Pendine Sands in Wales. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Meanwhile, back in the States, American courts had developed a habit of not enforcing arbitration agreements, and Congress was determined to change that. In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which is the law that allows parties to agree to arbitrate disputes and which tells courts to respect those agreements, subject to a few limited exceptions.

Those exceptions were at issue in the Supreme Court case of New Prime v. Olivieri, decided last week in an 8-0 decision. 

The Court ruled that:

(1) If there is a question about whether the FAA applies to an arbitration agreement, a court — not an arbitrator — decides whether the FAA protects the arbitration agreement. 

(2) The FAA’s exception — which says the FAA does not cover workers in the transportation industry — applies not just to employees in the transportation industry but also independent contractors. In other words, the FAA does not protect arbitration agreements entered into by independent contractors in the transportation industry.  

For business owners who wish to use arbitration agreements with their workers, what does this ruling mean?

I.  Who decides who decides?

Sometimes an arbitrator decides whether a dispute is subject to arbitration, and sometimes a court decides. Last month in the Henry Schein case, the Supreme Court held that an arbitrator can decide, in most instances, whether a dispute is covered under an arbitration agreement.

But last week’s New Prime case draws a distinction about who decides if the issue is whether the FAA applies to the dispute.

So, to simplify: On the issue of who decides whether a dispute is subject to an arbitration agreement, what’s the rule now? 

1. If the issue is whether the FAA protects the arbitration agreement, a court decides whether the FAA applies or not. (That’s the New Prime decision.)

2. If the FAA does apply and the issue is whether a particular dispute is subject to the agreement to arbitrate, then the arbitrator decides whether a dispute is subject to the agreement to arbitrate — assuming that the arbitration agreement has delegated to the arbitrator the ability to decide. (That’s the Henry Schein decision.)

The last sentence in Point 2 is the reason companies should consider adding a clause to their arbitration agreements saying that the arbitrator decides questions of arbitrability.

II.  How does the New Prime ruling apply to arbitration agreements with independent contractors? 

For independent contractors not in the transportation industry, this ruling does not apply. Arbitration agreements with independent contractors are generally enforceable and are protected by the FAA.

But how do we know the FAA doesn’t apply to all independent contractors in interstate commerce?

To answer that question, we need to head back to the Year 2001, a year after the electronic calendar shifted away from 19xx and technically-inclined doomsday prophets foretold of planes falling out of the sky. Shortly after mankind endured this potential calendar-caused calamity, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Circuit City Stores v. Adams.

The issue in Circuit City was whether the FAA applies to arbitration agreements between employers and employees. There is a carve out provision in the FAA, saying that the law favoring arbitration does not apply to “to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

The issue in Circuit City was whether the carve out for “contracts of employment” of “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” was intended to be broad and apply to all employees in interstate commerce or just those in the transportation industry. What was the intended meaning of “workers engaged in … interstate commerce”?

In Circuit City, the Court ruled that:

(1) the FAA generally does apply to arbitration agreements between employers and employees, but

(2) the FAA does not apply to workers in the transportation industry.

The Court decided that the phrase “workers engaged in … interstate commerce” was intended to refer only to workers in the transportation industry, not all workers. Arbitration agreements with employees in industries other than transportation would be enforceable under the FAA.

But that decision left open an important issue: What about independent contractors in the transportation industry? Do they have “contracts of employment”? Does the FAA apply to their arbitration agreements or not?

Fast forward to last week’s New Prime case.

The Supreme Court ruled that when the FAA was written in 1925, the phrase “contracts of employment” was understood to mean all work engagements, not just employer-employee relationships. Our understanding of the word “employment” has changed over time and, if that phrase were used in a statute today, it would likely refer only to true employer-employee relationships. But in 1925, it meant all work.

The Court therefore ruled that the FAA’s carve out applies to all workers in the transportation industry, regardless of whether such workers are employees or independent contractors. This means that arbitration agreements signed by employees or independent contractors in the transportation industry are not covered by the FAA, and therefore their agreements to arbitrate disputes are not protected by the FAA. Those disputes might have to go to court.

So what happens now?

First, the ruling is narrower than it may seem. The Court ruled only that the FAA did not apply to independent contractors’ arbitration agreements in the transportation industry.  It did not rule that these arbitration agreements were automatically void.

Many states have their own statutes that protect arbitration as a means for resolving disputes. Companies with workers in the transportation industry should check whether there is a state law that can be applied to protect these arbitration agreements.  If it would be reasonable to apply that state’s law, then companies should consider choosing that state’s law in the arbitration agreement’s Choice of Law provision. The right state’s law might still be able to save the arbitration agreement. We can expect further litigation on this subject, but here’s a tip for now. Try to pick a state with a favorable arbitration statute if your workers are in the transportation industry.

Second, we can expect the next battle to be over the meaning of the phrase, “transportation industry.” Does the “transportation industry” include only workers who transport goods across state lines? Or does the “transportation industry” include independent contractor drivers who transport passengers across town (such as ride share) or who deliver your pizza?

In Circuit City, the Supreme Court looked favorably on other court decisions that had defined the “transportation industry” to mean those workers “actually engaged in the movement of goods in interstate commerce.” If that holds true, then local drivers of passengers and late-night food cravings should be considered not part of the “transportation industry.” The FAA, therefore, would still apply to those workers.

But we can expect the plaintiffs’ bar to argue for a broad interpretation of the “transportation industry.” We can now expect to see arguments that rideshare drivers and local delivery drivers are in the “transportation industry” and that their arbitration agreements are not protected by the FAA. I think that argument is incorrect, but I do expect to see it.

I would expect Courts of Appeal (and perhaps eventually the Supreme Court) to adopt a narrow view of the “transportation industry,” meaning that the FAA still applies to independent contractors who transport people or make local deliveries. I expect the courts to rule that the carve out from the FAA exempts only those workers (employees and contractors) who routinely transport goods across state lines.

For now, here’s what you need to know:

  • Arbitration agreements with independent contractors in the “transportation industry” are not protected by the FAA. It may be more difficult to enforce those arbitration agreements unless they are governed by the law of a state with its own arbitration statute.
  • Arbitration agreements with independent contractors outside of the transportation industry should remain enforceable under the FAA.

And the bottom line for me is that maybe it’s time for self-driving cars.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Will New Bill Finally Allow Independent Contractors to Receive “Employee” Benefits?

Employee benefits for independent contractors

In 1983, Journey released the album Frontiers which, as you all know, is not as good as Escape but way better than Raised on Radio. The third song on Frontiers is After the Fall (youtube 80s refresher here), not to be confused with the later-formed Australian rock band, After the Fall (which is not to be confused with the much earlier British post-punk band The Fall, which came before After the Fall, but I digress). The Australian band, After the Fall, featured a drummer named Mark Warner, not to be confused with the Democratic Senator from Virginia, who, incidentally, is not related to John Warner, who was also once a Senator from Virginia.

Mark Warner the Senator recently introduced a bill that relates to the subject of this blog, and so for that, I am grateful, especially since it allowed me to mention the album Escape, which I really liked very much.

Sen. Warner has been trying for some time to gain traction on a bill that would promote portable employee benefits for gig workers. I am solidly behind this idea, as it would provide much more flexibility for independent contractors to carve out their own career paths without forfeiting employee benefits. I never understood why we tie health insurance to employment in this country, but that’s for another day.

Warner’s bill has never gone anywhere but, to his credit, he is trying again.

Last week, he introduced an amendment to a massive appropriations package. The amendment would set up a system to award grants for state and local governments and non-profits. The grants would support the creation of programs to allow portable benefits for gig workers, including health insurance, workers compensation, disability coverage, and retirement savings plans.

I hope the program succeeds. The current legal framework, which recognizes independent contractors and employees but no third option, is not consistent with how the modern gig economy works. If benefits can be de-coupled from employment, as they should be, we may eventually see a 21st century system that allows gig workers to receive insurance, workers comp, and other protections, without having to be reclassified as employees.

Thank you, Sen. Warner. I won’t stop believin.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When Is a Referral Service an Employer?

Hamburger

Retired prison guard Don Gorske claims to have eaten two McDonald’s Big Macs every day for the past 46 years. That’s 30,000 Big Macs.  If you are looking to hire a retired prison guard whose arteries laugh at the common man’s battle with cholesterol, Don is your man.

Referral services are business that serve as matchmakers. They could find you someone like Don if that’s what your company needs.

But when are referral services considered employers (or joint employers) of the workers they place? That is the question explored in a recent Bulletin posted by the Wage & Hour Division of the DOL.

The Bulletin looks specifically at home health care registries, but the analysis and factors should be applicable when trying to answer this question for any business whose primary service is matchmaking for workers.

Unlike home health care agencies, registries don’t provide actual home healthcare services. they just find qualified providers and match them with individuals in need, who then presumably become the caregivers’ employers.

Under federal wage and hour law (the Fair Labor Standards Act), an Economic Realities Test is used to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists.

In the context of health care referral services, here are the factors that the WHD says are most relevant:

  1. Background Checks & References. Objective data collection does not suggest employment, but interviews that result in subjective judgments and recommendations may suggest an employment relationship.
  2. Hire and Fire. Hiring and firing are suggestive of employment. A referral service should be introducing candidates, not making hiring decisions.
  3. Scheduling and Assigning Work. Also indicative of employment. A referral service should not be involved in this.
  4. Controlling Caregiver’s Work. Control suggests employment. A matchmaker should not be involved in the actual work being performed.
  5. Setting Pay Rate. This is up to the employer (the individual) and the employee. A referral agency should not be setting pay rates.
  6. Receiving Continuous Payment for Services (Instead of Fee-Based). When the a registry receives a referral fee, that does not suggest an employment relationship. But if the agency’s pay varies by the number of hours worked by the caregiver, an argument can be made that the worker’s pay is affected by the hours worked and the cut given to the agency, which may weigh in favor of an employment relationship. This seems like a minor factor though.
  7. Paying Wages. If the registry pays the caregiver’s wages, that weighs in favor of an employment relationship.
  8. Tracking Hours. The employer, not the agency, should be responsible for tracking hours in compliance with worker pay and recordkeeping requirements.
  9. Purchasing Equipment and Supplies. The caregiver or the recipient should be doing this, not the agency.

As long as we’re talking health care, I’m going to limit my Big Mac intake to under two a day. Not that I’m judging, Don.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Misled: Gov’t Study Claims Contingent Workforce is Shrinking. False.

Contingent workforce study resultsDespite what you might think from having attended myriad weddings, bar mitzvahs, or other parties, Kool & the Gang has songs other than “Celebration.” (I had to look this up to verify.) One such song is called “Misled.” It includes lyrics like, “She’s as heavy as a Chevy” and “So enticing, he’s sure to take a bite.”

The video hilariously begins with our hero washing his face in the sink – a surefire way, if there ever was one, to heighten suspense and draw the audience in.

Also to draw you in, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) headlined its just-released study on the contingent workforce by concluding that the number of contingent workers is declining compared to 2005. Whah?

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What is California’s new ABC Test, and What Does It Mean for Businesses?

Dynamex ABC test california

What just happened?

Last week, we reported here on the California Supreme Court’s Dynamex decision. Today’s post takes a deeper dive.

In Dynamex, the California Supreme Court adopted one of the strictest tests in the nation for determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The new test is used to determine whether a worker is an “employee” under California’s Industrial Wage Commission (IWC) wage orders. The wage orders require “employees” to be paid minimum wage and overtime, and to receive meal and rest breaks (unless exempt). Under this new test, a lot of independent contractors might now be “employees.”

The new test is an ABC Test. Unlike the balancing tests that start with the scales set equally, the new Dynamex ABC Test begins with the presumption that any worker performing services for your business is your employee. Guilty until proven innocent.

To overcome that presumption, the business must meet all three prongs of the new ABC Test. To prove that the worker is an independent contractor (and that the California wage orders do not apply), the business must be able to show:

(A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact, and
(B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, and
(C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

If the business fails to meet all three prongs of this test, the worker is an employee for purposes of the wage orders. Case closed. Done deal. The other factors don’t even matter.

What does that mean? You must provide the worker a minimum wage, overtime, and meal and rest breaks (subject to exemptions, if applicable). It doesn’t matter that you have an Independent Contractor Agreement, and it doesn’t matter if the worker agrees to be an independent contractor status. (Here’s why.)

What was the basis for the California Supreme Court’s decision?

The Court’s decision was based on its analysis of the definition of “employ” under the IWC wage orders. The Court concluded that this definition was intended to cover a broader range of relationships than common law employer-employee relationships.

The wage orders define employ as “to engage, suffer, or permit to work.” This language originated in 1916, with the passage of state laws designed to prevent the exploitation of child laborers. The idea was that if you allow children to work for you, you are going to follow certain legal requirements. To prevent funny business, an intentionally broad definition of “employ” was used.

Those familiar with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) will recall that it too uses a broader definition of “employ” than most other federal laws. The FLSA definition of employ is “to suffer or permit to work.” That sure sounds a lot like the California definition, so shouldn’t California just apply the same Economic Realities Test as used to determine whether someone is an employee under the FLSA? Oh, my dear sweet naive friend, that would be too simple. And California doesn’t like simple.

The California Supreme Court went out of its way to point out that California came up with its language first and that it never intended to follow the FLSA test. Really, it says that. So there.

In Dynamex, the California Supreme Court concluded that where the definition of “employ” is “to engage, suffer, or permit to work,” the intent is to cover a broader range of individuals than common law employees and, from now on, the way to determine whether someone is an “employee” under the “engage, suffer, or permit to work” standard is to apply the new ABC Test. The IWC wage orders use this broad definition, and so the wage orders will now apply to any relationship where an individual provides services, unless all three prongs of the ABC Test are met.

But why change now?

If you are asking yourself why the test would change now — when that same definition has been in place for 102 years, when there has been no new law passed by the California legislature, and when no new regulations have been enacted — the answer is what you tell your kids when you’re too tired to explain why: Because I said so.

Really. The Court just said so. Nothing in the law has changed. The new, strict ABC Test did not come from a new law. It came from Massachusetts. Thank you, Massachusetts. Next time just send lobster rolls.

What about the other wacky California employment laws?

Most California employment laws use a more traditional definition of employee, not the broad “engage, suffer, or permit to work” definition. Under these other laws, therefore, the test for determining whether someone is an employee is (we think) unchanged. For the most part, the S.G. Borello test should continue to apply.

The S.G. Borello test stems from a 1989 California Supreme Court decision and is a hybrid Right to Control/Economic Realities balancing test.

Under S.G. Borello, the primary question is whether the hiring party retains the right to control the worker, both as to the work done and the manner and means in which it is performed. If yes, the worker is an employee. If it is unclear, then secondary factors are considered.

Secondary factors include:

1. Whether the person performing services is engaged in an occupation or business distinct from that of the principal;
2. Whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal or alleged employer;
3. Whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place for the person doing the work;
4. The alleged employee’s investment in the equipment or materials required by his or her task or his or her employment of helpers;
5. Whether the service rendered requires a special skill;
6. The kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;
7. The alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his or her managerial skill;
8. The length of time for which the services are to be performed;
9. The degree of permanence of the working relationship;
10. The method of payment, whether by time or by the job; and
11. Whether or not the parties believe they are creating an employer-employee relationship may have some bearing on the question, but is not determinative since this is a question of law based on objective tests.

The court or agency then mixes all of these factors into a witch’s cauldron, blends them together, sprinkles in a pinch of eye of newt, waits for the smoke to clear, and then declares that, based on an analysis of the multiple factors, the worker must be an … (insert answer here). The S.G. Borello test is a balancing test, subject to interpretation. It’s gray.

California does have some other strict tests. The Dynamex ABC Test is not the only one. For example, strict tests apply in the construction industry and for the performance of work where a license is required but not obtained. Under those scenarios, like under IWC wage orders, it’s much harder to maintain independent contractor status than it is under a law that applies the S.G. Borello test.

What about federal laws? Do those still apply too?

Hahahahahahaha! You bet they do! Employers in California are still required to follow the FLSA, which determines whether someone is an employee by using an Economic Realities Test. Yes, lucky California business owners, this means your worker could be an employee under the strict ABC Test imposed by Dynamex and therefore subject to California minimum wage and overtime rules; but, at the same time, the same worker might be a legitimate independent contractor under the Economic Realities Test and therefore not subject to federal minimum wage and overtime law. Well that’s confusing.

Right to Control Tests govern the determination of whether someone is an employee under federal tax law, anti-discrimination law, and employee benefits law. As we discussed here, it’s certainly possible to be an employee under one law but an independent contractor under another law.

With the introduction of the strict Dynamex ABC Test, that will happen more often, ensuring full employment for lawyers like me.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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California’s Top Court Creates New Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee, Re-Interprets 102-Year Old Definition

horse race dynamexA three-way horse race can be exciting. As the finish line gets closer, each horse seems to dig deeper and find a little extra something to try to pull ahead. (Or gets whipped. Whatever. Stay with me here.)

It’s been a nail-biter over the past several years, with California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts competing to see which state could create the most difficult test for maintaining independent contractor status in wage and hour cases. For years, courts have used an Economic Realities balancing test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee status under federal wage and hour law. Most states apply a variant of that test or apply a Right to Control Test for determining Who Is My Employee? under their wage and hour laws.

In 2004, however, the Plymouth Rockers surged ahead, passing a law that used an ABC Test to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under Massachusetts’ minimum wage and overtime laws. ABC Tests make it harder to prove that a worker is truly an independent contractor (and not an employee), as we’ll see in more detail below. In 2015, the Home of Bruce Springsteen pushed forward, with the New Jersey Supreme Court requiring businesses to Prove It All Night and adopting an ABC Test for its state wage and hour laws.

Poor California was left behind. (No Surrender?) The state that birthed the Eagles and Hotel California did not rewrite its wage and hour laws and did not adopt an ABC Test. Finding no help from the legislature, the California Supreme Court took it upon itself April 30th to whip the Golden State forward, creating a new ABC Test in its 82-page Dynamex decision.

Let’s be clear about what just happened:

  • There’s no new law.
  • There’s no new regulation.
  • There’s no new executive order.

In fact, the definition of “employ” that this decision is based upon has been the same since Year 4 of the Woodrow Wilson presidency.

But now, despite none of those things changing, there’s a new test — at least for wage and hour claims that are covered under California IWC wage orders.

An ABC Test sets a higher bar than a Right to Control Test or an Economic Realities Test. It also sets a higher bar than California’s S.G. Borello test, which is a hybrid Right to Control/Economic Realities Test that has been in place since 1989.

California’s new ABC Test starts with the presumption that, for claims covered under California wage orders, every worker is an employee. Then, to prove otherwise, the business retaining that worker must prove (all 3):

(A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact, and 

(B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, and 

(C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

Fail just one part, and the worker is an employee under California wage and hour law. This new test is even stricter than most other states’ ABC Tests, which usually include two ways that Part B can be satisfied.

The new Dynamex test applies only to claims brought under California wage orders. These claims generally include minimum wage, overtime, and meal and rest break claims. This test does not apply to claims such as failure to reimburse expenses or failure to provide employee benefits.

Good luck out there!

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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