New Rule May Clear Up ‘Employee vs Contractor’ Test under FLSA, But Not Quite Yet

DOL joint employment

New regulations may soon be proposed to redefine “employee” under federal wage and hour law. In a recent interview with Bloomberg BNA, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta hinted that the DOL is working on a new regulation that would more definitively speak to who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law governing minimum wage and overtime for employees, does not apply to independent contractors. That’s one of the reasons it matters whether someone is classified as an employee of a contractor. Contractors are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime under federal law.

The FLSA was passed in the 1930s and does not fit the modern gig economy. Secretary Acosta appears committed to modernizing the regulations, which would bring much needed clarity to the question of who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.

In terms of priorities, the DOL appears likely to address the definition of “joint employment” first.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has initiated formal rulemaking procedures that would result in a new regulation defining joint employment more narrowly under federal labor law.  The DOL has indicated it has plans to follow suit, using rulemaking procedures to seek a new regulation redefining “joint employment” under the FLSA. We can probably expect to see a new proposed FLSA regulation redefining “joint employment” by early 2019.

Based on Secretary Acosta’s comments to Bloomberg BNA, it seems likely that the DOL will turn it’s attention to the Independent Contractor vs Employee conundrum next.

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

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Is this weird trick the key to defeating independent contractor claims? (Hahahahahaha. No.)

Weird trick to defeat independent contractor claims Jani-King

As everyone with an internet connection now knows, articles promising “one weird trick” to solve some real-world problem are everywhere. These articles are annoying. (It’s called clickbait.) You open up the article, and the “weird trick” is usually something you already knew anyway. Or the weird trick just doesn’t work.

So what’s the “weird trick” here?

Requiring independent contractors to form corporate entities. Then you have a business-to-business contract, not employment. Right?

Ok, it’s not weird at all. Lots of companies use this approach.

But does it work? Not necessarily.

Let’s consider the issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA requires employees to be paid a minimum wage and overtime (unless there’s an exemption) and requires employers to keep certain kinds of pay records.

The test for determining whether someone is an employee under the FLSA is Ye Olde Economic Realities Test. 

Dear Reader, hold onto your seat, because we’re about to see this test in action!

Can you defeat independent contractor misclassification claims by requiring workers to form legal entities? Let’s see…

A federal appeals court recently considered a dispute involving Jani-King and its franchise model for providing janitorial services. Under Jani-King’s business model, the individuals who provide cleaning services are not treated by Jani-King as its employees. Rather, Jani-King requires that anyone who wants to provide janitorial services under the Jani-King name must form a legal entity, like an LLC. Then Jani-King enters into a franchise agreement with the LLC, and the LLC/franchisee provides the cleaning services. There is no job offer or employment agreement between Jani-King and the individuals performing the services. It’s all treated like a business-to-business, franchisor-franchisee relationship.

The Department of Labor (DOL) is questioning the legitimacy of this model.  The DOL began an investigation and then filed a lawsuit, claiming that Jani-King’s franchisees are really Jani-King’s employees under the FLSA, and Jani-King therefore had to comply with FLSA record-keeping requirements, as well as its overtime and minimum wage rules.

The reason Jani-King’s “one weird trick” doesn’t necessarily work is because to determine whether someone is an employee under the FLSA, it doesn’t matter what you call the worker. You can call the worker a contractor or a franchisee, but using that tag doesn’t mean the worker is not an employee under the FLSA. That’s a legal determination made using the Economic Realities Test.

In this case, the trial court judge in Oklahoma had dismissed the DOL’s case, ruling that Jani-King’s contracts were with entities, not individuals, so there could not be an employment relationship. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said that’s not true. 

The Court of Appeals ruled that a six-part Economic Realities Test must be used to determine whether the individual franchisees who performed the janitorial work should be considered employees under the FLSA. Under the Economic Realities Test, a court must examine the economic realities of the relationship, not merely rely on the parties’ labels. 

In the Tenth Circuit (which covers Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming), here are the factors to consider under the Economic Realities Test:

1) The degree of control exerted by the alleged employer over the worker; 

2) The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; 

3) The worker’s investment in the business; 

4) The permanence of the working relationship; 

5) The degree of skill required to perform the work; and 

6) The extent to which the work is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

The not-so-weird trick of requiring workers to set up a legal entity does not necessarily work. It can be helpful, but only if the facts show that the entity is not economically reliant on the other party. The facts matter, not the labels.

This case is headed back to the trial court for some fact-finding to determine how these six factors play out.

In the meantime, remember that “one weird trick” to solve some real-world problem is probably not weird at all, and it may or may not work. But it may arouse your curiosity and cause you read the article. Here, Jani-King’s one weird trick aroused the DOL’s curiosity, which is not something a business should want to do.

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

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Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment

Everyone knows that two’s company but three’s a crowd. Except, of course, for Three’s Company with Jack, Janet, and Chrissy (or Cindy or Terri). But how many of you recall that one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do? Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one. I know this because of Three Dog Night.

For musical tastes, the number four can mean Tops, Seasons, or Non Blondes.

But today’s number is FIVE.  Here are Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment.  (click here to download the PDF.)

Five things You Should Know About Joint employment - page 1 screenshot

Five things You Should Know About Joint employment - page 1 screenshot

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

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Dept of Labor May Redefine Joint Employment with New Rule, Hints Labor Sec’y

DOL may issue new rule for joint employment

Rules are important for avoiding chaos, as I am reminded daily by one of my favorite twitter accounts, @CrimeADay. That’s where I learned that it’s a federal crime to operate a manned (or unmanned) submersible in national park waters without a permit, thereby ruining my weekend plans. (18 USC 1865 & 36 CFR 3.19). I also learned it is a federal crime to bring a child to a cockfight before his or her 16th birthday, thereby ruining my winter plans for father-daughter bonding activities. (7 USC §2156(a)(2)(B) & 18 USC §49(c).)

The Department of Labor (DOL) thinks rules are important too. Taking a page from the NLRB, which last week issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to redefine “joint employment” under federal labor law, the DOL may be about to follow suit.

In a speech to members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta disclosed that the DOL is working on a proposal to redefine joint employment, presumably under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires the payment of overtime and a minimum wage.

Joint employment is a hot button issue in the hospitality business, where outsourcing functions like housekeeping is commonplace, and where joint employment can mean the hotel operator is liable for for wage and hour violations by other entities who are supplying labor.

As we have discussed in previous posts, the tests for joint employment are different depending on which law is being applied. That means that even if the NLRB revises the definition of joint employment, that new test would not apply to the FLSA. The DOL would need to write a separate rule that would define joint employment under the FLSA.

According to Acosta, that new rule may soon be on the way.

Until then, remember that it is illegal to take a fishing boat into the danger zone of the Potomac near the Naval Surface Warfare Center while they’re firing guns, aerial bombing, using directed energy, or other hazardous operations, unless the patrol boats let you in. (33 USC §3 & 33 CFR §334.230(a)(2).)

Thanks, @CrimeADay!

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

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DOL: Association Health Plans Are Not Evidence of Joint Employment

451DCB77-A195-4A4F-A846-E9E47C59AA02

For some conditions, medical treatment will not help. For example, in 1979, Robert Palmer had “a bad case of lovin’ you” and no pill was gonna cure his ill. It is unknown whether this condition ever cleared up. At last report, Palmer had become addicted to love.

For those with conditions where pills can cure ills, or for those (like Huey Lewis?) who just want a new drug, medical coverage can be important. A new DOL rule allows small businesses to participate in Association Health Plans without exposing themselves to joint employer liability.

An Association Health Plan (AHP) is a group health plan that allows small employers to band together to purchase the types of coverage that are available to large employers, which can be less expensive and better tailored to the needs of their employees. AHPs can be formed based on common geography or based on a common industry or trade group.

The Department of Labor recently issued FAQs and a lengthy rule about AHPs, but for our purposes, one of the important pro-business features is that participation in an AHP cannot be used as evidence that the participant employers are joint employers under federal wage and hour law or employee benefits law.

The rule also recognizes that businesses may contract with individuals as independent contractors and that jointly participating in an AHP with these independent contractors does not make the business an employer or the contractor an employee.  The inclusion of independent contractors in an AHP is not evidence of misclassification.

The rule takes effect August 20, 2018.

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

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When Sharks Talk to Bears: Beware of Cross-Agency Communications When Defending Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Shark independent contractor misclassification information sharing agreements

According to National Geographic, A 20-year old Colorado man has been bitten by a shark, a bear, and a snake.

Either the animal kingdom hates this guy, or he simply tastes delicious.

Formal information sharing across species is probably unusual, but within government agencies, it’s a thing. Businesses need to be aware of cross-agency information sharing when defending audits and defending agency enforcement actions related to independent contractor misclassification.

Federal and state agencies are particularly focused on sharing information about independent contractor misclassification. The Wage and Hour Division of the DOL has signed information sharing agreements with 27 states. The IRS and the DOL have a Memorandum of Understanding. Tax agencies share information too.

This network of cooperation can spell trouble for businesses undergoing 1099 audits or other agency investigations related to potential independent contractor misclassification.

A small assessment by a state agency may not seem like it’s worth fighting, but beware. Information sharing agreements may cause the assessment to multiply. Adverse findings might also be discoverable in litigation if there’s a civil lawsuit.

In other words, you could be viewed as an easy target, having been found already to be in violation.

A finding of independent contractor misclassification by one state agency may feel like a minor snake bite (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a minor snake bite, but stay with me here).  The snake, however, may share information with the shark, who will tell the bear, and before you know it, you’re that guy in Colorado who’s been bitten by all three.

Ouch!

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

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Selling Hot Dogs: Why the DOL Thinks It’s 2008 Again

Dol wage and hour guidance hot dogs

The year 2008 doesn’t seem that long ago. Flo Rida was atop the Billboard charts, No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Episode 1 of the 2008 season of Celebrity Apprentice (titled, “Selling Hot Dogs” [yes, really]) featured the judging panel of Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Ivanka Trump. More on Episode 1 below.

The DOL must be longing for the good old days. Earlier this month, the Wage & Hour Division quietly withdrew its 2014 Fact Sheet advising businesses how to differentiate employees from independent contractors under the FLSA.

Instead, they reposted the 2008 version. In practical terms, there’s probably no real effect. The statute and the regulations that would govern the analysis haven’t changed between 2008 and 2014. But the 2014 version (cached copy here) also included some Obama-DOL commentary, advising that “most workers” are employees under the proper analysis. The old/new 2008 version doesn’t say that.

In any event, what businesses need to know is that courts apply an Economic Realities Test when deciding Who Is My Employee? under the FLSA.

The FLSA is the federal statute requiring non-exempt employees to be paid minimum wage and overtime. It does not apply to independent contractors, which is one reason why misclassification matters. If you thought your worker was properly classified as an independent contractor, then the minimum wage and overtime requirements did not apply. If the worker was misclassified and was really an employee, your business may be held liable for failing to pay minimum wage and overtime.

And for those of you who read all the way to the end of this post hoping to be rewarded with more information about the outcome of Episode 1: Selling Hot Dogs, there’s this from Wikipedia:

Winning team: Hydra, with total sales of $52,286.
Reasons for win: Hydra used their celebrity status to drastically up-sell the hot dogs and Gene Simmons used his contacts to put impressive numbers. Piers Morgan also came up with an idea whereby anyone who paid $100 or more for a hot dog would get to have their picture taken with one of the celebrities, encouraging passers-by to make more substantial donations.

Good job, Piers. You should be proud.

For more information on independent contractor issues and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2018, join me in Cincinnati on March 28 for the 2018 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: A Time for Change. Attendance is complimentary, but advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com, and list my name in your RSVP so I can be sure to look for you.

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