Are Santa’s Elves Employees or Independent Contractors?

elves independent contractors or employeesFor roughly 200 years, Santa has been retaining seasonal help at his Arctic Circle workshop. His undersized non-union workers toil in an icy land that sits beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. employment laws, a wise move by Mr. Claus and his attorneys.

While children around the world ask silly questions like, Can I visit the elves? and What do elves eat? and How do they work so fast?this blog asks the serious question that all adult businesspeople want to know: Are elves employees or independent contractors?

Spoiler alert for the children: The answers are No, Caribou, and Amphetamines.

The adult question takes some analysis. Let’s peek behind the wintry curtain.

We know the elves are seasonal workers. The last few months of every year, they work their tiny asses off, manufacturing a few billion toys in a well-hidden workshop. Some small businesses make the mistake of thinking that short-term work means the worker can be classified as an independent contractor, but employment can be short-term too. If the other facts show control, economic reliance, etc., the elves will be employees. Doesn’t matter if the elves go back on the dole every January 1 for lack of work.

What about control? We know Santa gets a long list of demands from children, and many of these are detailed. Kids aren’t making vague requests for any old cell phone. They want the iPhone X with 256 GB of storage and an unlimited data plan. Santa needs to make sure the toys are build to spec. The elves cannot freestyle here. Santa supervises his staff, maintaining the right to control how they do their work.

Looking at other factors in the Right to Control Test, it’s really not a close call. The elves are told where to work (at Santa’s 10 billion sf workshop), when to work (23 hours a day, plus one hour in the yard for exercise), and they’re monitored every step of the way (little known fact: Mrs. C spends most of December knitting in front of a wall of security monitors). If Pete the Elf puts the wrong wheel on Little Johnny’s tricycle, you think Santa would stand for that? Heck no. The elves have no discretion. They work hard and are closely monitored. The only reason Santa’s workshop is not considered a sweatshop is that it’s in the Arctic.

Fortunately for the jolly taskmaster, U.S. wage and hour law doesn’t apply to enterprises at the earth’s geographic poles. Elves would surely be considered employees, not independent contractors, if the Fair Labor Standards Act applied. The Economic Realities Test determines whether elves are employees or contractors for minimum wage and overtime law, and this is an easy call. Elves are economically reliant on St. Nick to earn a living. You don’t see elves earning extra cash selling rasta beads at Jamaican resorts in February, do you? No. Elves earn all their green making toys up north.

Elves are employees, not independent contractors, even though they perform all their work in a few short months. The rest of the year they drink tiny cocktails and surf tiny waves in the tropics.

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

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Time to Dance? Momentum Builds for Proposed New Joint Employment Law

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.47.09 AM

Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy is a low-quality youtube video that has somehow amassed more than a million hits. In the video, a lone (possibly intoxicated) festival goer starts dancing in a field. After a minute or so, momentum builds and others join him, showing off their terrible dance moves in a video you’ll wish you hadn’t wasted three minutes watching. (Just speaking from experience here.)

Several weeks ago, the House began considering a bill that would rewrite the definition of “joint employment” under federal wage and hour law (Fair Labor Standards Act) and federal labor law (National Labor Relations Act). The Save Local Business Act would require “direct” and “significant” control over “essential terms” of employment before a business could be considered a joint employer of a worker employed by another business (such as a staffing agency or a subcontractor). Read more here and here.

Originally sponsored by Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama (you might think of Rep. Byrne as the original dancer in the Leadership video, but dressed as a conservative Southern gentleman), the bill now has 112 co-sponsors, including a few Democrats. Dance party!

The bill continues to gain momentum. On October 4, in celebration of  International Toot Your Flute Day, a House committee voted to advance the bill to a vote by the full House.

The business community has been active and vocal in supporting its passage. On October 26 (National Mincemeat Day!), as part of a coordinated effort by the International Franchise Association, franchise owners from 19 states sent letters to Congressional leaders urging passage of the Act. Other coordinated campaigns in support of the Act have been organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), National Waste and Recycling Association, and other pro-business groups.

On October 27, the Congressional Budget Office issued its report on the Act, finding that the Act would not affect direct spending, revenues, or the federal budget.

Chances of passage in the House appear strong, but no floor vote is scheduled. Businesses should follow the status of this bill, which may have profound effects on federal interpretation of the joint employment doctrine.

If the bill passes, businesses might join Mike Myers in celebration, proclaiming “Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!

[Update 11/8/17:  The House of Representatives approved the bill yesterday by a vote of  242-181, with 8 Democrats voting yes. Passage in the Senate, however, will be far more difficult.]

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

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Court Rules That Shadowing Dad at Work Might Require Payment

Shadow - Trainee or Employee  death-2577486_1280In the 1930s, the popular radio program The Shadow featured an invisible avenger who possessed “the mysterious power to cloud men’s minds, so they could not see him.” (He supposedly picked up this power in East Asia, which must have seemed mysterious in an era before Kung Pao Chicken was widely available.)

Eighty years later, “shadowing” has a different meaning. An unpaid trainee follows around a more experienced employee as a way to learn the business. Few trainees have mastered the power of invisibility [Note: only the best ones have, and they’re hard to find … ba-dum-bum], and often the nature of being a trainee involves getting in the way of the real work.

Scott Axel was a trainee who shadowed his father at an automobile wholesaler in Florida. He had no expectation of pay, and the business said it would not hire him. As a favor to his dad, the business let him learn the business by shadowing his dad.

Returning the favor, Scott then sued the wholesaler, claiming it failed to pay him minimum wage.

Dumb claim, right? Loser! (The claim, I mean, ahem.)

Anyway, a federal court of appeals was not so sure and ruled that it was a close call whether he was an employee or an unpaid trainee. Scott, apparently, had the mysterious power to cloud judges’ minds.

For much of the time, Scott just did work that his dad was doing, under his dad’s supervision. If that was all he did, though, the case probably would have been tossed out.

The company’s mistake was allowing Scott to do some wholesaling work that his father did not do, which arguably displaced a worker who would have performed the work if it were not for our hero. Scott posted vehicles on eBay and Craigslist, working under the direction of others, and he received a disciplinary warning for spending too much money on the listings. Scott testified that he spent more time on these tasks than on shadowing his dad.

The Appeals Court evaluated the case using a test for whether an unpaid trainee should be paid. The test is meant for educational internships and did not neatly fit the circumstances, so the court admittedly struggled with the analysis.

Ultimately, the Court decided it needed more information about how much time Scott spent performing the various tasks. The case was sent back to the lower court.

The lesson here for businesses who allow shadowing is to remember what a shadow is.  A shadow follows someone around.  A shadow does not do independent, productive work. (Except here.)

While there were several factors in this case that supported Scott being an unpaid trainee, too much gray area remained.

So what happens next?  The lower court might allow further briefing or might send the case to trial. Did the business do anything wrong? The ultimate question brings to mind the introduction from the radio program of long ago: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

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

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Would You Like Some Pepperoni with Your (Oops) Joint Employment?

Joint employment pizza 31E83EC5-E554-428A-A5D6-37F13905C3B9According to pizza.com, “There are approximately 61,269 pizzerias in the United States.” That number seems pretty precise to me, not an approximation, but who am I to question something I read on the internet?

Approximately 4 of the 61,269 pizzerias are owned by a New Yorker named Paola P., who runs each of the 4 under a different LLC. Paola’s employees can be assigned to any of the 4 pizzerias on their workdays. Seems boring so far, but stay with me. Now say this three times fast:

Paola’s practice prompted problems since Paola P’s pizzerias were impermissibly positioning personnel to prevent paying overtime. 

Pity.

Workers were being assigned to work roughly 50 hours a week, but they would work at two or three locations, less than 40 hours at each site. They received paychecks from the various LLCs (remember, each pizzeria was run as a separate company), which by itself is ok, but Paola’s mistake was that she failed to aggregate the hours from the 4 locations and failed to pay overtime when any individual exceeded 40 hours of total work.

Because the pizzerias shared ownership, management, and commingled employees, the workers were considered joint employees of the four companies. For those keeping score at home, that’s what we call “horizontal joint employment.”

Paola’s companies were liable for failure to pay overtime to each worker in any week when an employee worked more than 40 hours in the aggregate, even if no worker reached 40 hours at any individual location.

A federal court determined that the violation was flagrant and imposed the three-year statute of limitations, instead of the ordinary two-year statute.

This was a $360,000 mistake, half of which was for liquidated (double) damages.

According to our friends at Guinness, the world’s most expensive pizza can be ordered for $2,700 at Industry Kitchen in New York. This magical pie contains stilton (it’s a cheese, I had to look it up too), foie gras, caviar, truffle, and 24K gold leaves. Paola could have ordered 133 of these and still had some money left for dessert.

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

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For the Greater Good: When Do You Have to Pay Volunteers?

One of my favorite movies is Hot Fuzz, the story of an overzealous London policeman (Simon Pegg), who transfers to a small town where things are not as they seem. Throughout the movie, various characters declare that something is being done “for the greater good.” Watch the movie. I won’t play spoiler. After you watch, go to imdb.com and read more about all the subtleties you may have missed. Trust me on this one.

Anyway, this is the part of the blog post where I segue from a totally unrelated pop culture reference to something related to employment.

Today we’ll talk about volunteers — you know, those who perform work “for the greater good” (nailed it!).

Where is the line between volunteers and employees, and when must volunteers be paid?

The Department of Labor (DOL) is pretty tough when it comes to determining Who Is My Employee?  As explained here, a worker not in business for himself/herself is usually presumed to be an employee under the Economic Realities Test.

The DOL, however, recognizes an exception for work that is truly volunteer work — so long as it’s not wink wink nod nod really employment.

What’s the difference?

The key components of true volunteer work are:

  • Voluntary service
  • Offered freely, without pressure or coercion, direct or implied, from an employer
  • When so motivated
  • For civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons
  • Without promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation
  • Service is not provided to a for-profit private entity

When these factors are met, the work is being performed for the greater good. It’s most likely volunteer work, not employment, and therefore not compensable.

If all of these factors are not met, be careful. The work might be compensable employment.

It’s never a bad idea to have volunteers sign a Volunteer Agreement in which they agree to all of these items, especially that they have no expectation of compensation for what they are doing.

Now go and watch the movie.

© 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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Joint Employment Legislation Needs to Be Expansive — If It’s to Be Effective

IMG_1093On Monday, we wrote about the Save Local Business Act — proposed legislation that, if passed, would create a new definition for joint employment under the NLRA and FLSA. But would that law go far enough?

No. Not at all.

On the bright side for businesses, the law would provide some predictability in that staffing agency workers would most likely be excluded from bargaining units. It would also remedy the current unfairness that results when a staffing agency makes payroll and overtime miscalculations but the company using the workers is held responsible as a joint employer.

But much more needs to be done to provide real clarity and predictability for business owners.

First, the law fails to address who is a joint employer under other federal employment laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Vast uncertainty in these areas would remain.

Second, the law does nothing to address the patchwork of standards under state and local laws. Businesses are subject to those laws too, and it’s fairly common that state and local standards for determining joint employment differ from state-to-state and law-to-law.

Businesses that operate in multiple locations would still be subject to different standards under different laws in different locations. The HR Policy Association has recommended that any legislation intended to clear up the messy patchwork of joint employment standards should include federal preemption or a safe harbor provision — something to ensure that businesses can rely on one set of rules to know whether they are a joint employer or not. That would make much more sense.

The newly proposed legislation has a long way to go. It might never even get to a vote. Let’s hope, however, that the introduction of this bill is just a first step, and that through the amendment process or through a Senate bill, its shortfalls will be addressed.

Business deserve the certainty that would come from a more comprehensive piece of legislation.

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

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