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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What is the Test for Joint Employment? It Depends.

Joint employment together

There are lots of ways to be together. Some are good, some less good.

Let’s compare:

  • By the end of the movie Grease, the graduates of Rydell High have decided that they “go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.” That, I think, is supposed to mean good.
  • In The Fox and Hound 2, a direct-to-video DisneyToon generally rated as “not terrible,” our four-legged heroes sing that they “go together like wet dog and smelly peanut butter jelly fleas on my belly.” That sounds less good.

In employment law, being together can be good or bad, depending on your perspective.

When a company retains someone else’s employees to perform work, it sometimes becomes necessary to decide whether the first company is a “joint employer” of the second company’s employees. Being a joint employer is not illegal, but it means that if the primary employer violates employment laws, a “joint employer” is liable too — even if it wasn’t primarily responisble for the unlawful act.

The test for joint employment varies depending on which law was violated and depending on the state you’re in. (Here’s a map that illustrates the madness.) For example…

In this post we discussed how you determine if someone is a joint employer under federal wage and hour law (the Fair Labor Standards Act) (FLSA).

In these posts, we discussed how you currently determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act) (NLRA). In this post, we discuss how and when that test is likely to change.

In today’s post, we’ll examine how you determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal employment discrimination and breach of contract law. For these laws, the test for joint employment looks to the common law of agency.

A recent decision by the federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reminds us that different tests apply to different laws. Applying the joint employment test for FLSA claims, the trial court had ruled that a citrus grower was the joint employer of migrant workers after the primary employer who hired them did not properly pay them.  (The farm-labor contractor who hired them allegedly demanded kickbacks from the migrant workers’ wages under threat of deportation. Today’s Tip: Don’t do that.)

The migrant workers had another claim too. They alleged breach of contract under federal law (the contract was part of the federal visa process), and it tried to sue both the farm-labor contractor who was demanding the kickbacks and the citrus grower at whose fields they picked delicious fruit.

For the breach of contract claim, the Court of Appeals ruled that the proper way to determine whether someone is a joint employer is to use a Right to Control Test.

There are different versions of Right to Control Tests, but they all try to determine whether a hiring party retains the right to control how the work is performed. If the answer is “yes they do,” then the hiring party is a joint employer under that law. If the answer is “no they don’t, they care about the achieving the result but not how the work is performed,” then the hiring party is not a joint employer.

This Court of Appeals decided that there are 7 factors that should be used to determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal breach of contract law. (The same test would generally apply to federal employment discrimination claims.) State laws may differ. Here are the 7 factors that this court used to determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal breach of contract law:

1. Does the alleged joint employer have the right to control how the work is performed?
2. Does the alleged joint employer provides the tools?
3. Is the work being performed at the worksite of the alleged joint employer?
4. Does the alleged joint employer provide employee benefits?
5. Does the alleged joint employer have the right to assign additional work?
6. Does the alleged joint employer have discretion over when and how long the workers work?
7. Is the work being performed a part of the alleged joint employer’s regular business?

In this case, applying the 7 factors, the Court of Appeals ruled that the citrus grower did not exert much control and therefore was not a joint employer for the breach of contract claim — even though it was a joint employer for the FLSA claim. (The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test, not a Right to Control Test, to determine whether someone is an employer.) That’s right — different tests, different results.

The citrus grower did not want to be a joint employer because it was not part of the alleged kickback scheme and did not want to be held jointly responsible. Nonetheless, it was found to be a joint employer under the FLSA but not under the breach of contract claim. Confusing stuff.

When making music, being together seems so much simpler, although much more prone to nonsense words. Just ask the Turtles, who in 1969 were “so happy together Ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba.”

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

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Free Smells! Jimmy John’s Avoids Franchisor Joint Liability

Joint employment jimmy john’s overtime litigation

The famous bank robber Willie Sutton supposedly once said that he robs banks “because that’s where the money is.” I doubt he said that since it seems rather incriminating. (“I’m sorry, your honor. What I meant is ‘If I did it…” See, Simpson, O.J.). But that’s the legend anyway. You can read more here on whether it’s true.

The strategy for plaintiffs in overtime cases is much the same. Sue the deepest pockets. That’s where the money is. When the deepest pocket is not your employer, allege joint employment.

That’s what happened in the recent overtime lawsuit against some Jimmy John’s franchise owners (the direct employers) and the franchisor (corporate Jimmy John’s). The lawsuit is cleverly titled In Re: Jimmy John’s Overtime Litigation. Like many lawsuits, the case has dragged on for four years. It has not been freaky fast.

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Exotic Dance Marathon Ends with $4.5 Million Misclassification Award

Dollar independent contractor misclassification millionsThe Penthouse Club of Philadelphia was hit with a $4.5 million jury award for having misclassified its dancers as independent contractors. This case was filed in 2013, and the federal court just recently entered the judgment order.

For those of you seeking business lessons from stripper lawsuits, today is your lucky day!

The dancers had alleged that they were treated as employees but not paid as employees. For example, they alleged that the club required them to work a set number of hours and days each week, required them to comply with physical appearance guidelines, and took deductions from their tips for what we’ll call special kinds of dances.

The Club fought hard for five years but could not overcome the negative facts in the case. Remember, the determination of whether someone is an employee or a true independent contractor is not based on what the parties agree. It’s based on the facts of the relationship.

This was primarily a Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit, and so the Economic Realities Test is used. Other laws apply a Right to Control Test. Some states use a more difficult ABC Test.

Independent contractor misclassification lawsuits can be a tremendous liability, and businesses using contractors should be proactive and set up the relationship in a way that will withstand a challenge. When a business maintains control over hours, days of work, worker appearance, location of work, and other aspects of how the work is performed, the relationship starts to resemble employment.

In this case, the Club not only is on the hook for $4.5 million. They had to pay their attorneys’ fees, they’ll continue to pay their attorneys’ fees if they appeal, and they had to slog through six years of painful, time-consuming litigation that was undoubtedly a distraction from the business of running whatever type of classy joint they have going there. [Note to wife: I did not do any onsite investigation.]

We’ve seen lots of activity lately in the field of “exotic dancing.” I mean misclassification activity, and lawsuit activity, just to be clear on what I’ve been “seeing.” See other multi-million dollar misclassification awards here and here, all of which are SFW.

Businesses that use independent contractors need to evaluate the facts of the relationship and need to be proactive in setting up the facts to support true independent contractor status. Those who fail may get an extra long high-heeled kick in the rear.

© 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 New Killer Bee: How Should Businesses Deal with Part B of California’s New Independent Contractor Test?

California ABC test Dynamex Killer Part BAccording to pestworld.org, Africanized honey bees have been known to chase people for more than a quarter mile once they get excited and aggressive. This is why they earned the nickname “killer bee.”

In its recent Dynamex decision, the California Supreme has introduced its own Killer B into California wage and hour law. This new Killer B could make plaintiffs’ lawyers excited and aggressive, chasing down businesses that use independent contractors and filing lawsuits alleging they are really employees. Those lawsuits could really sting!

Today we look at two questions: What is the new Killer Part B, and what do businesses need to know about it?

What’s the Issue?

Several states now use ABC Tests to determine whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor, at least under certain state laws. California joined the party with its 4/30/18 Supreme Court decision (Dynamex), adopting an ABC Test to determine who is an employee under most of California’s wage and hour laws.

Part B of the new California test can be difficult to meet. To be a true independent contractor, the worker must be performing work that is outside the hiring party’s “usual course of business.” We’ll call this a Strict ABC Test.

Some states have a more forgiving version of an ABC Test, allowing Part B to be satisfied if the worker performs the services either outside the usual scope of business or off of the hiring party’s premises. New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut use the more forgiving test. We’ll call that version the Standard ABC Test.

What’s the Concern with Part B in California’s New Test?

Part B can be hard to meet.  Lots of workers who are otherwise independent contractors will be considered employees because of Part B — especially under a California-style Strict ABC Test. If the type of services being provided are within the hiring party’s “usual course of business,” the worker must be treated as an employee under California’s wage orders.

Although this Strict ABC Test is new to California employers, it’s not new to multi-state employers. Massachusetts has been using a Strict ABC Test for its wage and hour laws since 2004, when it passed the Massachusetts Independent Contractor Law. In 2008, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office issued an advisory memo on its interpretation of the law, especially Part B.

What Can We Learn From Massachusetts?

The key to success under Part B is establishing that the contractor’s services are outside of the “usual course” of your business. That means the contractor does something that your business doesn’t do.

Companies should consider taking steps to define more precisely its “usual business,” and then memorialize that in multiple ways — internally, externally (website: About Us page?), and contractually in agreements with independent contractors.  Keep in mind the importance of differentiating between the scope of what your business does and the scope of what the independent contractor will be doing.  If you want to satisfy Part B, these things should be different.

You may need to define the scope of your services more narrowly. For example, if your business sells appliances but retains independent contractors to install them, you might take steps to define the scope of your business as “selling appliances but not installing them.” Consider adding language to your contracts, website, and other documents to make this distinction clear.

This is just one of many strategies that businesses in California and Massachusetts should be prepared to implement. Being proactive is the key to avoiding claims of independent contractor misclassification. Evaluate and modify your independent contractor relationships and contracts now, not after you have been sued.

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

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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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