Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead! NLRB Overrules Browning-Ferris

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Remember the good old days, way back in 2014? You recall the time — back when David Letterman was still on the air and it was not yet illegal in New York to take a selfie with a tiger.

Yes, that was life before 2015, when the NLRB waved its magic wand, rewrote the definition of joint employment, and forced several of the planets to spin out of orbit. The Board’s decision in Browning-Ferris erased decades of precedent and caused bloggers everywhere to vomit profuse amounts of text and doomsday predictions.

For those of you who missed the news in 2015 (understandable if you spent the year focused on following the saga of Winston, the Aussie python who swallowed salad tongs), allow me to offer this quick refresher: The 2015 Browning-Ferris decision declared that, under federal labor law, a business would be considered a joint employer if it retained the right to exercise even a teeny tiny bit of control, and even if it never actually exercised that control.

Good news, citizens of earth! The planets realigned on Thursday, when the Board reversed its 2015 decision and reverted back to the old standard. The new standard is the old standard. (Got it?)

Effective December 14, 2017, here is the standard for determining joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act:

For all these reasons, we return today to pre-Browning-Ferris precedent. Thus, a finding of joint-employer status shall once again require proof that putative joint employer entities have exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having “reserved” the right to exercise control), the control must be “direct and immediate” (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is “limited and routine.”

From today forward (or at least until the next administration reconfigures the Board and they go back to the old-new-old Browning-Ferris standard), businesses will not be deemed joint employers under the NLRA unless (a) they actually exercise control, (b) the control they exercise is over essential employment terms, and (c) the control is direct and immediate. Here is the decision, titled Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors.

This is a practical, workable standard, just in time for the holidays. Thank you, Santa.

Now if only we could get Pluto back on the roster of planets.

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

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Can You Pay a Bonus to Your Independent Contractors?

“I want my money!” — Pearl, in The Landlord.

If you haven’t seen this Will Ferrell short video from 1997, take a look. Pretty funny.

Everyone wants their money. Method of payment is one of many factors used to evaluate whether an independent contractor is properly classified or instead is an employee.

Payment by the hour is permitted, but this method of payment more closely resembles employment. Payment by the project, regardless of time spent working, is most appropriate for an independent contractor relationship.

Other methods will do, though, and a fixed payment by the day, the week, or the month can be workable too. Method of payment is just one of many factors in the analysis of Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

Incentive pay for contractors is permitted too. Some examples of bonuses that may be appropriate include:

  • Incentive for early completion of a project;
  • Incentive for achieving certain project-based goals;
  • Incentive for accepting additional gigs.

The more closely the incentive can be tied to the project, the better. If properly classified, independent contractors are in business for themselves, and project-based retentions are most indicative of legitimate independent contractor relationships. Similarly, incentives should be project-based whenever possible.

One final tip: Terminology matters. “Bonus” sounds like something an employee would receive. Try offering “incentive payments” instead.

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

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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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Here’s a Tip a Cartoon Cat Would Love: Try This Edit to Your Independent Contractor Agreements

Independent contractor misclassification cat“Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!” Yes, boys and girls, I am talking about Felix the Cat, whose magical bag of tricks could be transformed to get him out of any treacherous situation. Don’t you wish you had one of those?

Well, I won’t share mine, but I can offer this tip, which may help you avoid a treacherous situation.

This weekend I was reading a California decision on independent contractor misclassification. (I do other, more fun things in my free time too, so don’t make fun. Ok, you should make fun a little.) While analyzing Right to Control factors, the court ruled that the worst fact for the business was that it could terminate the contractor at will. The ability to terminate a relationship at will, the court ruled, was the “ultimate” form of control! Really? I agree it’s a factor among many, but the “ultimate factor”? Come on.

Anyway, this problem is easily avoided with some creativity. Allow me to reach into my bag of tricks.

If your relationship with a contractor is for an indefinite time period and you rely on work orders to describe each project, consider a one-year term instead. No, not a one-year term with auto-renewals unless the parties give notice. That’s too close to an indefinite term. Allow the one year term to expire. But…

Add a provision that, after the one-year term expires, if you offer a new work order and if the contractor accepts a new work order, then acceptance of that new work order constitutes an agreement to renew the independent contractor agreement for another year.

This variation on the auto-renewal approach requires the parties to take an affirmative act to renew the agreement — the offer and acceptance of a new work order. And this approach also allows you to maintain that the relationship with the contractor is project-by-project (one work order at a time).

The main agreement does not have to be terminable at will. No need for that. If each project is defined by a work order and you’re not satisfied, then don’t offer any new work orders. The agreement itself does not have to be terminated.

If your independent contractor’s tasks are not defined by work orders, then this solution might not work for you. But if your contractor picks up work one work order at a time, this can be a helpful little maneuver.

No guarantees here, but I like this approach better than the indefinite agreement. Contracts of indefinite duration are definitely a negative factor in the Independent Contractor vs. Employee analysis, even though most courts would not be as fixated on that fact as this particular court was.

Now I am going to turn my bag of tricks into a helicopter.

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

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Are Prostitutes Employees or Independent Contractors?

D019E4C0-7B51-4597-BA1A-0C84C01105CF.jpegThere’s a headline I never expected to write. But apparently this is an issue in the Great State of Nevada.

I subscribe to a service that alerts me when new lawsuits are filed involving independent contractor misclassification disputes. This gem arrived in my inbox last week:

Sierra National Corp. dba The Love Ranch is suing the Nevada unemployment department. Apparently the State ruled that the Love Ranch’s lovely ladies were employees, not independent contractors. The Ranchers filed a lawsuit asking the State to open its files and show how it reached that conclusion. Here’s the description of the case:

Mandamus and public records. Petitioner, which operates a legal brothel, seeks to compel respondent to provide public records relating to respondent’s investigation and decision that the brothel’s prostitutes are employees, not independent contractors. Respondent agency’s blanket denial of the petitioner’s public-records request violates the state public records law.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall listening to that dispute. I imagine it went something like this:

State: Your prostitutes are employees, not independent contractors.

Love Ranch: Why?

State: Well, you know, the Right to Control Test.

Love Ranch: Seriously?! We do NOT tell them how to… Never mind.

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

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Don’t Wear Pajamas to Work: Be Careful Using “Statutory Minimum” Workers Comp Clauses in Subcontractor Agreements

Pajamas - Independent Contractor Agreements and Workers Compensation ClausesHave you ever had the dream where you show up at work or school in your pajamas or underwear? You’re exposed and embarrassed in the dream, and you can’t figure out why you forgot to put on regular clothes, right? (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s had this dream. Please?)

You may be living this dream inadvertently in your vendor or subcontractor agreements. (And this is not what people mean when they say, “I’m living the dream!”)

Here’s the problem:

It’s commonplace in vendor and subcontractor agreements to include a section requiring insurance. You might require $1 million in commercial liability coverage, for example. Insurance clauses usually (and should) require the vendor or subcontractor to carry workers’ compensation coverage too. But sometimes these clauses are written in a way that may leave you exposed. Here’s an example:

“Subcontractor agrees to provide workers’ compensation coverage to its workers in the minimum amount required by law.”

You’re good, right? Depends on the state — and the circumstances.

The “minimum amount required by law” may be none.

First, if the worker retained by your vendor or subcontractor is its independent contractor (and not its employee), then there is probably no coverage required at all. State laws impose standards for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee, but usually there is no requirement to provide any coverage to a true independent contractor.

Second, even if the worker is your vendor’s employee, the “minimum amount required by law” in the state might be none:

In Texas, for example, workers’ compensation coverage is generally optional. The minimum amount required by law is none.

Several states do not require employers to carry coverage unless they have a minimum number of employees. According to this chart from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), an advocacy organization for small businesses, the following states require employers to provide workers’ compensation coverage only if they have at least this number of employees:

VA – required if 2 or more
GA, NC, WI – required if 3 or more
RI, SC – required if 4 or more
MS, MO – required if 5 or more

Some states have different requirements for construction and non-construction businesses:

NM – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 3 or more
FL – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 4 or more
TN – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 5 or more

In some states, such as Ohio and New York, workers’ compensation might not be required for sole proprietors who have no employees other than themselves.

So what does all this mean for your agreements?

1. Depending on how your contract is written, you might be wearing pajamas to work. In other words, your agreement might leave you exposed, inadvertently, since the minimum amount of required workers’ compensation coverage for your vendor or subcontractor’s employees might be “none.”

2. Please don’t rely on the thresholds I have listed above. I have not examined the workers’ compensation laws state-by-state and I am merely listing state law summaries from the web. I have not checked these for accuracy. Check the laws in your state and check with legal counsel.

The point here is that the state-minimum required amount of coverage might be “none.” Things can go south for your business in a hurry if your vendor or subcontractor has insufficient coverage. If one of their workers is severely injured, the worker may bring a lawsuit against your business as an alleged joint employer. If the injury is severe enough and there is no workers’ compensation coverage, liability could be in the millions.

Keep this risk in mind when drafting the insurance sections of your vendor and subcontractor agreements. Draft carefully, and be sure you are fully covered.

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

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Beware of Sinkholes When Running Background Checks on Independent Contractors

Sinkholes are terrifying. One minute you’re slowly and cautiously riding along a city street. Then the road buckles and disappears. I feel bad for this guy in the video!

A similar danger may lurk for businesses who perform background checks on independent contractors. You proceed cautiously, following the various legal requirements, then – BAM! – someone claims that by following those requirements, you’re treating the contractor like an employee. Whaaaaat?

Background check laws are full of technicalities and traps for the unwary. For pre-employment background checks, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires:

  • a stand-alone disclosure form, disclosing that a background check may be run,
  • consent, and
  • pre- and post-adverse action notices (if adverse action may be taken).

Several states and localities impose additional requirements on pre-employment background checks.

Many of the more technical background check requirements, however, apply only to employees. For example, your stand-alone disclosure forms for pre-employment background checks almost certainly disclose that a background check may be performed “for employment purposes.” That language comes from the Act. Check your forms. It’s in there for pre-employment background checks (or it should be).

But what if you give that same form to an independent contractor?

The form says the background check is being performed “for employment purposes.” Is that phrase evidence that your business is treating the worker as an employee?

Not necessarily, but why open yourself up to that argument?

I say, “not necessarily” because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued guidance saying that the “for employment purposes” language can be applied to independent contractors. See here, page 32. It would probably be reasonable for a business to rely on the FTC guidance. Using the “for employment purposes” forms should not, therefore, be considered evidence that the contractor is being treated like an employee.

But why even open that door? If I’m defending against a claim of independent contractor misclassification, I’d prefer not to have to explain that away.

An alternative approach is to add language to the background check disclosure form being used for independent contractors, indicating that a background check may be run for employment purposes “or for purposes of retention as an independent contractor.” Or use a separate set of forms for independent contractors.

Following the pre-employment background check requirements seems prudent but, like a sinkhole, may cause unexpected troubles. Proceed with caution. And don’t fall off your scooter.

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

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