Employee Benefits for Contractors? Don’t Overreact to New DOL Rule (or to Knife-Wielding Squirrels)

Terror in the backyard! Screen grab from @asdiamond on twitter

A knife-wielding squirrel was seen patrolling a backyard fence last week, according to this article in the Toronto Sun. Here’s the video evidence. Fortunately, no one took action and no one overreacted. The squirrel reportedly gnawed on the knife a bit, lost interest, and dropped it to pursue other squirrel-related passions. Everything turned out ok.

Not overreacting is important. Get all the facts, and look at the big picture before deciding whether to take action.

Same with the new DOL regulation on determining in dependent contractor status, first reported here.

This week I’ve seen two articles saying that, under the new rules, providing employee benefits to independent contractors does not tilt the scales in favor of employee status under the new rules. No, no, no! If you’ve seen that commentary, please disregard it. It is an overreaction, and if you provide traditional employee benefits to an independent contractor, that’s a sure sign of misclassification.

Now, let’s break that down a bit. Yes, it’s true that in the commentary to the new rule, the DOL indicated that providing some types of benefits to an independent contractor does not necessarily mean the contractor is misclassified. (As you will all undoubtedly recall from reading all 261 pages of the DOL commentary, that’s on pages 58-59.) But — and there’s a big but (one t) — it does not mean that you can freely start giving employee benefits to contractors.

First, let’s not overstate what the DOL is trying to say. The DOL is not saying you can provide traditional employee-type benefits to contractors, the same way you do for your employees. The DOL is saying that it’s not automatic misclassification under the FLSA if you provide a contractor with extra money for the contractor to help fund his/her own benefit plan, such as through the healthcare.gov exchanges.

Second, let’s not forget the very narrow scope of the DOL’s new rule. The new rule applies only to the FLSA. That is, it applies only for determining whether someone is owed overtime and a minimum wage. And here’s the important point: The FLSA and the new rule and the new test have nothing to do with determining independent contractor vs. employee status under federal tax and benefits law.

The test for determining whether someone is an employee under federal tax and employee benefit law is a Right to Control Test, not the FLSA Economic Realities Test addressed in the new rule. If you add your contractor to your regular employee benefit plan, you have almost certainly created an employment relationship under those laws. Or, perhaps worse, you could disqualify your plan by providing plan benefits to a non-employee.

Under either scenario, providing regular employee benefits to an independent contractor is a very bad idea under current federal law. In short, don’t do it.

Hopefully, federal law will eventually change to allow independent contractors better access to employee-type benefits without converting them to employees for all purposes. But we are a long way from there.

In the meantime, let’s not overreact. As for the new rule, Biden might invalidate it anyway before it is scheduled to take effect March 8.

As for knife-wielding squirrels, don’t confront them directly. You’ll just make them angry and more determined and–as you can see in this video–squirrels can be pretty darn creative when they are determined to get something.

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

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Snapshot or Long Exposure? Dep’t of Labor Approves New IC Test … For Now

Say cheese! Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
(Note: This post was updated on 1/6/21)

This octopus in New Zealand has been trained to take photos of visitors to the Sea Life Aquarium. That’s a pretty neat trick. I’m sure the visitors love it and will pay whatever exorbitant fee the aquarium charges to profit on the back of its cephalopod slave labor, but do the photos last? Do the visitors keep them, or do the pictures end up in the circular file at home?

Some photos are cherished and kept. Others, not so much.

So which category will the DOL’s new independent contractor test fall into — cherished and kept? Or not so much?

As reported here, in September 2020, the DOL published a new proposed rule for how to determine independent contractor vs. employee status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The DOL has been rushing to publish the new rule before Inauguration Day 2021, in case of a change in the Oval Office.

Now facing that change, the White House on Monday approved the proposed rule, and this morning the Department of Labor released the new rule. It takes effect on March 8, 2021–unless it doesn’t. The Biden administration’s incoming press secretary, Jen Psaki, has already said the new administration would try to kill this one in an early executive order. We’ll see how that plays out.

Meanwhile, whether the new rule goes into effect or not, the FLSA analysis for independent contractor vs. employee should not really change anyway. The new rule is essentially a repackaging of how the courts have already been applying the FLSA test. While Democrats have protested the new rule as an attempt to make it easier to classify someone as an independent contractor, I don’t see it that way. I see it as a clearer way to articulate the test that has been applied for years.

Once Biden takes office, there are so many things he’ll want to undo, he’ll need more hands than an octopus has legs, so this one might not quite hit the top of the list. We’ll continue to monitor the status of this proposed new rule, including whether and when it actually takes effect.

In the meantime, if you can get to New Zealand anytime soon, there’s an octopus that would like to snap your picture. Happy New Year!

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

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Statue or Statute? When Defending a Misclassification Claim, Don’t Forget a Limitations Defense

I took this photo in Paris. Creepy, isn’t it?

When a New Zealand man was caught snooping around with a torch at a building where he didn’t belong, someone called the authorities. When the local police arrived, the man was still there but still as a stone. He was pretending to be a statue.

The ruse failed, and the man was taken into custody.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that elaborate ruses don’t make good excuses.

The same can be said for a group of movers who claimed that a moving company had misclassified them as independent contractors and denied them a minimum wage and overtime. The federal court hearing the case, however, threw it out because the movers filed too late. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the statute of limitations on federal minimum wage and overtime claims is two years — or three years, if willful. These plaintiffs filed well after the deadline had passed.

The plaintiffs didn’t go away quietly, however. Knowing they had missed the deadline, they first tried some creative arguments as to why the court should toll — or extend — their deadline to file.

First, they argued that they the moving company had tricked them into thinking they weren’t employees and had no FLSA rights, since the moving company told them they were independent contractors. Sorry, the court ruled. If that were an excuse, there would be no statute of limitations in misclassification cases. The deadline to file would get tolled every time, and that’s not gonna happen.

Second, they argued that the moving company failed to provide the required posters that notify employees of their rights. Again, no dice. Independent contractors aren’t entitled to employee notices, so if the company thought the workers were contractors, there obviously wouldn’t be notices. This too would apply in every misclassification case and cannot be grounds for tolling the filing deadline.

Finally, they argued that they were immigrants and shouldn’t be held responsible for not knowing the rights under US law. The judge wasn’t buying that one either. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, especially when the plaintiffs were basing their lawsuit on the very law they claimed to be ignorant of.

This case dealt with statutes not statues, and despite spellcheck’s frequent failure to see the difference, there is a difference. Anyway, the excuses by the statue guy and the movers were similarly unimpressive. The movers’ case was dismissed for failure to file within the statute of limitations, and the court never even considered whether the workers were actually misclassified.

Companies facing misclassification claims need to remember to review statutes of limitation. A claim filed too late is destined to fail, so long as the company raises that defense.

And I still can’t believe the New Zealand guy thought he could go unnoticed by holding really really still. I’d love to see the body cam footage from when the officers moved in and caught him. Swatting away the pigeons on his head probably gave him away.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Whaddaya Call It? DOL Proposes New Independent Contractor Test

Soda or pop? Pill bug or roly poly? What you call things depends on where you live. In 2014, the New York Times published this 25-question dialect quiz that will tell you, with startling accuracy, where you or your parents are from.

The test is fun, and you can see how words and dialects vary from region to region.

But some things should not vary from region to region — federal laws.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has one definition of “employ,” but when it comes to deciding who is an employee and who is an independent contractor, different courts in different states apply different standards.  The DOL is trying to fix that.

Under a proposed new rule, released on September 22, the same test would be used in all parts of the country, regardless of whether you call your lunch sandwich a hoagie, sub, or grinder.

Click here for the rest of the post, originally posted on BakerHostetler’s Employment Law Spotlight blog.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Joint Employment Test Gets Muddied Again: Federal Court Rejects New DOL Test

Muddy Waters is how you want your blues, not how you want your laws.

A federal district judge in New York last week kicked up a lot of mud in an area of the law that had finally seen some clarity – the definition of “joint employment.” Now we’re back in the muck.

Click here to read all about it, and let me know if you; like to subscribe to the BakerHostetler Employment Law Spotlight Blog, where I originally posted this week’s post.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Silver Linings? DOL Looks to Adopt New Independent Contractor Test Before Year End

canoe

The past few months have included many silver linings — more family time, a Lake Michigan vacation, and professional cornhole on TV. I’ve also learned new things — governors have more power than I thought, remote work is more doable than many of us thought, and there’s such a thing as professional cornhole.

Now the Department of Labor wants us to learn something new too — about independent contractor status. (Too many long dashes so far? I’m flagging myself for excessive use.)

Last week the DOL published a notice that it intends to fast-track a new regulation covering the test for independent contractor vs employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

What would that test look like? The DOL gave no hints, but here is my educated guess.

The test for independent contractor status under the FLSA is an Economic Realities Test.  That is a court-created test, it’s well-established, and it’s not likely to change. If the DOL did try to change it, I don’t think the courts would follow the new regulation anyway. So the DOL is going to have to work more around the edges.

I expect the regulation to define more precisely the factors to be taken into account under the Economic Realities Test. Right now, different courts use different versions of it. Some uniformity would be helpful.

I also expect some examples to help illustrate how the factors should be applied. Look for sample fact patterns that seem like close calls but perhaps would be deemed supportive of independent contractor status under a new DOL interpretation.

We can expect the DOL will gently place its fingers on the scales, making it a bit easier to maintain independent contractor status under the FLSA. Don’t expect a full rewrite of the test.

The DOL will want to implement the new rule quickly, in case a new administration takes over in January. Look for a proposed regulation shortly, a quick public comment period, and a new regulation on the books late this year.

Hopefully by the time we see a final rule, we can watch real sports on TV and demote cornhole to livestream only. That way both people who care could still watch.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NSFW? Not Quite. But 18 States Say DOL’s New Joint Employment Rule Is Inappropriate.

Zippy Michigan

Zippy sunbathes in the nude.

Some things sound inappropriate, but they’re not. For example, I sometimes post naked pictures on my blog. But only of my dog. She’s immodest and doesn’t seem to mind. (Her fur coat doesn’t count.) So, you see, that’s not inappropriate.

What about the DOL’s new joint employment test, which went into effect in March? Was that inappropriate? Eighteen Democratic state attorneys general seem to think so, and they’ve filed a federal lawsuit to try to undo the rule. For those of you keeping score at home, they claim the new rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and is not consistent with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Last week, a federal judge in New York rejected the DOL’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, meaning the case moves forward. The DOL argued that the states lacked standing to challenge the new rule. Lack of standing means they can’t sue because they’re not harmed by the new rule.

But the judge found that the states “plausibly alleged” that they have standing to sue. He noted that the new rule could reduce the total amount of wages paid to employees in their states, which could lead to a reduction in tax revenues. The loss of tax revenues and the anticipated increased expense in enforcing state wage and hour laws would be enough. The states can proceed.

The ruling does not address whether the lawsuit has any merit, just that it may proceed.

While no one would claim the new rule is NSFW, these states argue that the content of the new rule and the way it was passed was inappropriate. But like the naked photo above, you need to see the full picture before drawing any conclusions about what’s proper and what’s not. 

For now, the DOL’s new rule remains in effect.  That means it’s more difficult to establish joint employment than it was before. It’s also difficult, by the way, to get a dog to wear a hat. But we did it. And Zippy looks ready for college football season. 

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When 500 Isn’t Necessarily 500: How to Count Employees Under the Families First Law

As you know by now, the Emergency FMLA and Emergency Paid Sick Leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act apply only to employers with fewer than 500 employees. But lots of questions have arisen about how to count.

For those who need help counting, here’s a helpful resource:

But for those of you counting employees instead of bats, let’s try this instead.

Question #1:  Do temps count? 

Answer:  Are we talking about feelings here? Because if we are, then everyone counts. You’re a winner! And you’re a winner! And you’re a winner!

Ah, but do they count toward the 500-employee threshold under Families First? Well that depends on whether they are joint employees of your business and the staffing firm.

As of last year, the answer for staffing agency temps was most often yes. But in January 2020, the DOL changed the test for how to determine whether someone is a joint employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). While there are different tests for determining joint employment, the one that matters for the Families First law is the FLSA test.

You can read more about the new DOL test here.

Question #2: Do part-timers count?

Answer: Yes. Count all part-time and full-time employees. Part-timers are people too. See, Feelings, Morris Albert (1975). Skip to 0:45 if you want to skip the instrumental intro.

Fun fact: In the late 80s, when you were arguing with your friends over which is the best Duran Duran song (answer: none), French songwriter Loulou Gaste successfully sued Albert for plagiarism, persuading a jury that Albert based the song on Gaste’s 1957 chart-topper “Pour Toi.”

Question #3: Do you aggregate employees across multiple subsidiaries?

Answer: Generally no. The default is that each subsidiary is its own employer. Divisions of a single subsidiary are aggregated.

But there are some situations when subsidiaries are aggregated. A conglomerate consisting of several different subsidiaries can a “single integrated employer,” in which case, you add the numbers together. We determine “single integrated employer” status by looking at four main factors:

  • Common management;
  • Common ownership;
  • Centralized control over labor relations and personnel; and
  • Interrelation of operations.

The more there exists common control, there more likely there is a single employer. There are many subfactors that also go into the analysis, and the most important factor tends to be centralized control over labor relations and personnel.

This is a difficult analysis, and there can be consequences to being a single integrated employer that go beyond Families First. If you think this applies to your company, proceed cautiously and seek legal advice.

Question#4: If I’m stuck home because of coronavirus, where can I find more helpful videos featuring The Count?

Answer: Ummm … this is where I sign off.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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How Does the Families First Act Apply to Independent Contractors?

Families First Act Independent Contractors

Hungry for more COVID-19 info? I can help with that, but if your hunger pangs are for something more exotic — say, deep-fried bull testicles — I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck. Deerfield (Mich.) American Legion Post 392 has cancelled its 19th annual Testicle Festival, leaving festival supplier Dennis Gerth with 330 pounds of bull testicles in his freezer. That’s my 2020 submission if anyone is giving out awards for Sentences I Never Thought I’d Write.

Yes, the coronavirus is affecting society in ways we never imagined. Last week, Congress offered some relief to workers affected by the virus. While the new law doesn’t help Gerth or his ball-filled freezer, it does provide paid leave for employees of most small businesses.

But what about independent contractors?

The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act provides up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for employees unable to work (or telework) for childcare reasons and up to 80 hours of paid sick time to employees unable to work (or telework) for six specified reasons.

Trying to apply the Act raises a lot of questions. Many are addressed here, in a conversational tone that acknowledges this is awfully confusing. But this post will focus on how the Act applies to independent contractors.

Do Independent Contractors Get the Benefits of the Act?

No. The Act provides paid sick leave and expanded Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave only to employees, and only if their employer has fewer than 500 employees.

How Does the Act Differentiate Between an Employee and an Independent Contractor?

Ah yes, the age old question of Who Is My Employee? The Act uses the definitions of “employee” in the FMLA and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FMLA uses the FLSA definition, so let’s focus on that.

The test for whether an independent contractor is really an employee under the FLSA is determined by using an economic realities test. This is a different test than the ones used for determining whether someone is an employee under tax, unemployment, workers compensation, and many other federal and state laws.

The economic realities test generally looks at these factors:

  1. The extent to which the services rendered are an integral part of the principal’s business.
  2. The permanency of the relationship.
  3. The amount of the alleged contractor’s investment in facilities and equipment.
  4. The nature and degree of control by the principal.
  5. The alleged contractor’s opportunities for profit and loss.
  6. The amount of initiative, judgment, or foresight in open market competition with others required for the success of the claimed independent contractor.
  7. The degree of independent business organization and operation.

This list is from DOL Fact Sheet #13, but it’s worth noting that different courts define the factors differently. Know your jurisdiction. Another commonly used listing of the factors can be found here.

The more independent the worker is from the business retaining his/her services, the more likely the worker is properly classified as an independent contractor.

How Could this Issue Arise?

With the economy in a cornoravirus-induced tailspin, lots of employees are losing their jobs, and lots of independent contractors are losing their engagements. When the income stream stops flowing, people look for a way to reopen the faucet.

Independent contractors might file unemployment claims. We’ve discuss the dangers of that here. They might also be tempted to file lawsuits claiming they’ve been misclassified. A successful claim could mean they’re entitled not only to the benefits of the Families First Act, but also potentially to unpaid overtime and other benefits that employees can receive.

Times are tough, and livelihoods are at stake. As contractors lose more work, we’re likely to see an increase in independent contractor misclassification claims. And that’s no bull.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What Is Joint Employment? New DOL Rules Take Effect in 60 Days

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This week’s post is Family Feud Style. Name Three Things That Sound Like They Would Be “Joint Employment” But Are Not:

  1. Long-haired, easy-going product tester at the local wacky tobacky dispensary
  2. Note taker at an orthopedist’s office
  3. The guy on radio ads for non-approved supplements claiming to relieve joint pain who says, really really fast, “These statements not approved or validated by the FDA.”

Each of those jobs has something to do with joints, but that’s not what the Department of Labor (DOL) means when it addresses “joint employment.”

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), more than one person can be an employee’s employer, and when there’s joint employment, both employers are fully liable for any minimum wage or overtime owed to the employee. So, when is a person a joint employer?

On Sunday, the DOL issued new rules for determining when someone is a joint employer under the FLSA. The new rules take effect in 60 days. Here’s what you need to know.

Four-Part Balancing Test

When an employee’s work is for the benefit of both the W-2 employer (such as a staffing agency) and another business, the determination of whether the second business is a “joint employer” is made by evaluating whether the second business:

  1. Hires or fires the employee;
  2. Supervises and controls the employee’s work schedule or conditions of employment to a substantial degree;
  3. Determines the employee’s rate and method of payment; and
  4. Maintains the employee’s employment records.

It’s a balancing test, and no single factor is dispositive.

Actual Control Is Required; Reserved Control Is Not Enough

The new regulations focus on actual control, not merely the right to exert control. This is different from the common law test.

Under the new regulations, the potential joint employer must actually exercise control. Merely reserving control can be relevant, but only if the business actually exercises control in at least one of the four ways. Standard contract language reserving a right to act is not sufficient to demonstrate joint employment.

Different Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee

The test for joint employment will now be different from the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee. To determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under the FLSA, the key question is whether the worker is economically dependent on the potential employer. But according to the new regulations, once the worker is someone’s employee, economic dependence is not relevant to determining whether there is a second “joint” employer.

Ordinary Sound Business Practices Are Not Evidence of Joint Employment

The regulations also provide assurance to businesses that wish to impose rules to preserve brand standards, ensure compliance with the law, or instill sound business practices. Those types of actions, according to the DOL, are not evidence of joint employment.

For example, the following actions by a potential joint employer do not make a finding of joint employment more likely:

  • Operating as a franchisor or entering into a brand and supply agreement, or using a similar business model;
  • Requiring the primary employer to comply with specific legal obligations or to meet certain standards to protect the health or safety of its employees or the public;
  • Monitoring and enforcing contractual agreements with the primary employer, such as mandating that primary employers comply with their obligations under the FLSA or other similar laws;
  • Instituting sexual harassment policies;
  • Requiring background checks;
  • Requiring primary employers to establish workplace safety practices and protocols or to provide workers training in matters such as health, safety, or legal compliance;
  • Requiring the inclusion of certain standards, policies, or procedures in an employee handbook;
  • Requiring quality control standards to ensure the consistent quality of the work product, brand, or business reputation, or the monitoring and enforcement of such requirements, including specifying the size or scope of the work project, requiring the employer to meet quantity and quality standards, and imposing deadlines;  
  • Imposing morality clauses;
  • Requiring the use of standardized products, services, or advertising to maintain brand standards;
  • Providing the employer a sample employee handbook or other forms; 
  • Allowing the employer to operate a business on its premises (including “store within a store” arrangements); 
  • Offering an association health plan or association retirement plan to the primary employer or participating in such a plan with the primary employer; or 
  • Jointly participating in an apprenticeship program with the primary employer.

FLSA Only

The new regulations apply to the FLSA only. Other agencies may impose different standards. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is expected to issue its own regulations shortly to address when there is joint employment under federal labor law; and the Equal Employment Opportunity Agency (EEOC) is expected to consider issuing its own new standards for determining whether joint employment exists under federal anti-discrimination laws.

Standards issued by the NLRB or the EEOC maybe similar or may be materially different.

Reliance On The New Rules Provides a Defense

These new rules will apply to DOL investigations of FLSA compliance matters. It remains to be seen whether the federal courts will apply these rules too, but—importantly, the rules provide for Portal-to-Portal Act reliance.

That means employers are entitled to rely on these regulations as a defense to any joint employment claim. The regulations provide several examples of scenarios in which joint employment does and does not exist. Employers should review those scenarios and model their relationships accordingly.

More Information

Additional resources from the DOL can be found here:

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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