Breaking News? DOL Rescinds Independent Contractor Rule That Never Took Effect

Remember when TV news was on at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. and that was it? Every once in a while, there would be a Breaking News! alert, and it was always something really important. They wouldn’t interrupt Diff’rent Strokes for just anything. (Bonus points if you remembered there was an apostrophe in the title instead of the first ‘e.’)

But now, with 24-hour news on a dozen stations, everything is Breaking News! – even this story about a New Mexico man who went grocery shopping, then returned to his car to find 15,000 bees in the back seat. (Man walks back into store, returns jar of honey.)

The Breaking News! you’re reading about today is the Department of Labor’s (DOL) latest announcement, rescinding its proposed rule for determining independent contractor status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Click here for the rest, posted by me on Friday on the BakerHostetler Employment Law Spotlight blog.

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

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Macaques & The Guess Who: Why the New Independent Contractor Rule Won’t Take Effect March 8

Photo by Hectonichus and, yes, this fella is sticking his tongue out at you (but he can’t remember why).

A Swedish study concluded that baboons, pig-tailed macaques, and squirrel monkeys have some of the worst short-term memories in the animal kingdom, barely exceeding that of bees. The point is, never ask a pig-tailed macaque where you left your car keys.

Having a short memory can be a problem in some situations, but not it’s not an issue if you’re just trying to recall the latest Department of Labor test for independent contractor misclassification. Everything you recall from six weeks ago is being undone anyway. (Or Undun, if you’re a fan of the spelling-impaired Canadian band The Guess Who.)

Remember the new rule issued by the DOL in January 2021 for determining employee vs. independent contractor status? It was going to modify the Economic Realities Test to focus on two core factors: (1) the nature and degree of the worker’s control over the work, and (2) the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss based on personal initiative or investment. The new rule was to take effect March 8. The test would apply only to claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

No more. Last week, the DOL delayed implementation until May, but the rule most likely will be rescinded completely. Undun.

This decision comes on the heels of the DOL rescinding two opinion letters that were also issued in January. Undun. The letters provided guidance on determining independent contractor status in a few particular situations.

The Economic Realities Test remains the test used to determine who is an employee under the FLSA. It’s a multi-factor balancing test.

So if you’ve been relying on recent DOL guidance for how to apply that test, channel your inner pig-tailed macaque. Whatever you recall from January can be forgotten. And where did I put my car keys?

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

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(Just Like) Starting Over: Biden Salutes John Lennon on Joint Employer Policy

The 1980 Double Fantasy album is meh, featuring alternating tracks by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. But there’s at least on gem on that album, and it’s the very first track: “(Just Like) Starting Over.” The song was originally titled “Starting Over” but the parenthetical was a late addition, reportedly inserted to make sure listeners knew this wasn’t Dolly Parton’s country music chart topper from the same year, “Starting Over Again.” Not that anyone has ever confused John Lennon with Dolly Parton, but I get it.

President Biden’s policy on joint employment is already embracing the same theme, even before Marty Walsh gets confirmed as Secretary of Labor. The DOL ain’t wastin time no more. (And speaking of the Allman Brothers, if you haven’t yet seen the documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock N’ Roll President, it’s worth 96 minutes of your time.)

Late last week, the DOL announced it has submitted a new proposed rule for determining joint employer status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The text of the proposed rule has not yet been released, but here’s what we know:

1. The new rule would replace the regulations enacted by the Trump DOL in March 2020. The March 2020 regulation required actual control for a finding of joint employment and focused the joint employer analysis on four factors — right to hire/fire, supervision of work conditions or schedules, rate/method of pay, and control of personnel files. That test made it tougher to establish joint employment.

The March 2020 regulations are already the subject of litigation, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing a case to decide whether the new rules are valid. That means the March 2020 rule could be on the chopping block no matter, with either the Second Circuit or the Biden DOL doing the chopping.

2. The new rule will be (just like) starting over. It will re-adopt an Obama-era joint employment test. But which one?

Option A:

Before the March 2020 rule requiring actual control, all that was need to be a joint employer was the right to control certain aspects of the relationship.

When using a staffing agency for staff augmentation, for example, there was a pretty high likelihood that would be joint employment, even if the staffing agency had exclusive control over the four factors highlighted in the March 2020 test — setting wages, setting schedules, controlling pay, and maintaining personnel files. At a minimum, the new rule will go back to that standard.

Option B:

But there’s a worse option that could be in the cards. Five states are bound by a 2017 federal appeals ruling that adopts a much broader interpretation of joint employment. In a case called Salinas, the Fourth Circuit ruled that two businesses are joint employers unless they are “completely disassociated” from one another. The Fourth Circuit covers MD, NC, SC, VA, and WV. That decision suggests that every borrowed labor situation might automatically be joint employment, since the two companies have a contractual “association” with each other.

The Salinas decision was based on an old regulation, on the books since 1958, that the March 2020 regulation eliminated and replaced.

Which version of joint employment will the new Biden rule seek to adopt? Or will the DOL come up with a new test entirely?

Either way, we know that the test for joint employment will change in 2021 or 22, and the new rule will make it much more likely that staffing agency relationships and other borrowed labor arrangements create joint employment.

While the specifics of the new test are not yet known, we know enough already to start to plan. Staffing agency agreements should be checked and revised to protect against joint employment liability. This post provides a few of my favorite tips.

There are plenty of steps that can be taken to protect against joint employment, so long as businesses plan ahead and draft their contracts carefully. Change is coming, but we’ve been down this road before. It’s (just like) starting over.

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

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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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