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 Last week, the DOL delayed implementation until May, but the rule most likely will be rescinded completely.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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Watch This Rooster! PRO Act Would Change Definition of Employee Under Labor Law.

Who says the news is always negative? Not so in Alabama, where we were treated this headline on AL.com:

Teen reunited with pet rooster lost at Alabama Cracker Barrel after Civil War reenactment

It seems an 18-year old Civil Ward reenactor brought his Buff Orpington rooster, Peep, to a civil war reenactment in nearby Tennessee, then stopped for lunch afterward. Our hero dutifully put on Peep’s leash and secured him to the bed of his truck while dining at a nearby Cracker Barrel after the event. But when he returned, the rooster was gone.

Police and animal control were summoned to the scene. The parties were later reunited when Peep wandered back to the Cracker Barrel, and this story had a happy ending. This had been Peep’s third Civil War reenactment, although his role in the battle plan was unclear. Fortunately for Peep, further battles lie ahead.

Further battles lie ahead in Congress too, not for roosters but for businesses everywhere. Rep. Bobby Scott and 200 Democratic co-sponsors have re-introduced a massive labor bill that fulfills every wish of the unions.

The PRO Act – Protecting the Right to Organize – would bring a massive overhaul to the National Labor Relations Act. Two portions of the bill would affect independent contractor misclassification and joint employment.

First, the PRO Act would re-adopt the Browning-Ferris test for determining whether someone is a joint employee of two employers. This test had been adopted by the Obama Board but reversed by the Trump Board. The test would consider two entities to be joint employers if they “share or codetermine” control over workers’ terms of employment. The notion of control would be broad. It would include not just actual direct control, but reserved control or indirect control. Under the original Browning-Ferris test, control over the speed of an assembly line was considered sufficient control to make a business a joint employer.

Second, the PRO Act would adopt a nationwide strict ABC Test for determining whether someone is an employee or independent contractor. The new rule would require that all workers performing services be considered employees under the NLRA unless (all three):

(A) the individual is free from the employer’s control in connection with the performance of the service, both under the contract for the performance of service and in fact;
(B) the service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer; and
(C) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.

This is the same test adopted by California (recall Dynamex and AB 5) but without the exceptions. California lawmakers recognized this test wouldn’t work in all industries and adopted a long list of exceptions to this test.

The PRO Act would not have any exceptions.

It’s no surprise that the bill was reintroduced. A similar bill was passed by the House last year but never considered by the Senate.

While 60 votes in the Senate isn’t going to happen, this bill deserves a close and watchful eye. (Follow its progress here.)

That means really watching it, not just tying it to the bed of your truck and hoping it’s still there after you finish your Cracker Barrel omelet.

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

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Stop Making Sense: California Companies Can Be Liable for Not Following Rule That Did Not Yet Exist

Sometimes things stop making sense. And I’m not referring to the 1984 Talking Heads album, which included “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House,” and other songs least likely to be used in an episode of Sesame Street.

No, when I say things “stop making sense,” I’m thinking more like dogs climbing ladders, pigeon-eating catfish, or Nazi Russian goats. Seriously mind-bending facts. The stuff that makes you question what was in those brownies.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling today falls in that category. Remember the 2018 Dynamex decision? That’s the one where the Court invented a new ABC Test for deciding whether someone was an independent contractor or an employee under California wage and hour law. Ever since then, companies have been trying to figure out whether that made-up test would apply retroactively. In other words, would California hold companies liable before 2018 for not following a test that did not yet exist until 2018?

After today’s decision in Vazquez v. Jan-Pro, we now know the answer: Of course! It’s California. Even companies not in the fortune telling industry should have known what legal standard the justices were going to invent. And of course it’s fair to hold companies liable for failing to comply with a standard that, before 2018, did not exist anywhere in California law. If Johnny Carson could figure out what was in that envelope (“seersucker“), California business should have been able to figure out what legal test the California Supreme Court would make up in 2018.

The Court reasoned that it’s normal practice for a decision to apply retroactively and said it’s only fair for the decision to apply to everyone retroactively since Dynamex didn’t see it coming either. The Court rejected the common sense notion that it would be unfair to apply the test retroactively, even though courts across California had — for years — applied the multi-factor Borello balancing test when determining employee vs. independent contractor status.

One saving grace may be that the Dynamex decision is now almost three years old, so statutes of limitation for wage and hour claims are running out. Most wage and hour claims in California must be brought within three or four years of the violation, depending on the claim asserted.

I can’t say this decision is surprising. But I couldn’t say the knife-wielding squirrel featured in the last blog post was surprising either. It’s a crazy world out there, folks. Sometimes it’s best to just stay home and watch Veep, which once seemed too outlandish to be believable.

© 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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Buckle Up? Why The Gig Economy Should Love Biden’s HHS Pick

Back before seatbelts were a thing, Sears sold this handy Auto Strap for Front-Seat Tots. Tie your toddler to some part of the car, and drive carefree! What could go wrong?

Ok, things have changed a bit when it comes to driving. Seatbelts and airbags seem to have carried the day. Things have also changed quite a bit in the modern workforce, with the gig economy pushing aside traditional employer-employee work relationships.

Something important just happened to help California gig economy companies, and it’s gone under the radar. Biden named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his pick for Health & Human Services. Why should gig economy companies care who Biden’s HHS pick is? Because naming Becerra to HHS means Becerra will no longer be California’s Attorney General. And that’s good new because a key part of Becerra’s agenda as State AG had been to knock around gig economy companies as much as possible.

Becerra tried to sabotage Prop 22 by giving it a misleading description on the ballot, but voters saw through it and passed the measure anyway.

Becerra has been the driving force behind California’s lawsuits against ride share companies, trying to force them to reclassify drivers as employees.

But now, assuming he gets confirmed, someone else will take over as California AG. Hopefully it will be someone with less of an anti-gig economy agenda than Becerra. We’ll see. But for now, this pick seems to be good news. I don’t know what he’ll do as HHS Secretary, but I know what he won’t do as HHS Secretary, and that’s to pick fights with companies who help to keep the gig economy strong.

So strap in and let’s see what this new ride will bring. Just be sure to use a seatbelt, not a $1.88 standing harness.

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

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Election News: California Voters Adopt Prop 22; Kentucky Voters Elect Dog as Mayor

Zippy evaluates the candidates.

Some elections are more consequential than others. It can be tough to lose, but in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, the candidates for mayor are probably indifferent to the outcome. Even the winner probably doesn’t do a lot of mayoring.

That’s because the mayor of Rabbit Hash is a dog. Since 1988, the mayor has always been a dog. This year’s winner is a six-month old French bulldog named Wilbur Beast. Wilbur succeeds incumbent Brynneth Pawltro, a pit bull who has served since 2016.

Click here for an adorable photo of the winner.

In other election news (in case you were wondering whether there was anything else happening in the category of elections), voters in California passed Proposition 22. Prop 22 will allow ride share and delivery drivers in California to maintain independent contractor status, so long as the app companies provide a suite of predetermined benefits. Read more here.

That means the ABC Test in AB 5 will no longer apply to ride share or delivery drivers in California. The new exemption does not apply to other industries.

Look for intense lobbying from other industries to obtain similar treatment. Hopefully Prop 22 serves as model legislation and will adopted elsewhere throughout the country.

There was intense lobbying in the Rabbit Hash race too. Wilbur Beast’s owner, Amy Noland, told CNN that the dog had done a lot of campaigning and had hosted a lot of events.

According to the Rabbit Hash Historical Society, “The people of Rabbit Hash generally elect mayors based on the candidates’ willingness to have their belly scratched.” Based on my informal survey of other recent political races, this appears to be a anomaly.

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

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Signs of Trouble: California Ruling Raises Stakes for Ride Share

Please, no.

When governments try to help people, they don’t always get it right. The British Conservative party just wants to help. Or does it? This would be a rather sinister way to get rid of the homeless problem, don’t you think?

Same problem with the battle over whether ride share drivers are employees or independent contactors. Good intentions have unintended consequences. The California Attorney General claims to be helping drivers with his lawsuit against the ride share companies. But the state’s effort fails to recognize the massive unintended consequences.

In August, a California court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the major ride share companies to reclassify all California drivers as employees. The ruling was based on the California law (AB 5) and its ABC Test, which presumes that anyone performing services is an employee, unless three strict factors are met.

The August ruling was temporarily placed on hold while an appeals court reviewed it.

But on Thursday, the appeals court reviewed it and agreed that the ruling was proper. The stakes have been raised, and the future of ride share in California may now hinge on what happens with Prop 22, which is on the ballot right now in California.

Despite what the judges and the California Attorney General may think, ride share companies can’t just flip a switch and make all drivers employees. The logistics and expenses associated with making that change call into question whether the effort would even be worth it. When the initial court decision requiring reclassification came out in August, there were rumblings that ride share in California might shut down entirely, at least temporarily, while the companies re-evaluate and decide whether to re-tool.

The one saving grace would be Proposition 22.

As explained here, a Yes vote on Prop 22 would allow ride share companies to continue to classify drivers as independent contractors so long as they provide a suite of benefits and guarantees described in the proposed law. These would include:

  • Earnings Minimum. The measure would require app-based companies to pay at least 120 percent of the minimum wage for each hour a driver spends driving—but not time spent waiting for requests.
  • Health Insurance Stipend. The measure would require rideshare and delivery companies to provide a health insurance stipend of about $400 per month to drivers who regularly work more than 25 hours per week (not including waiting time). Drivers who average 15 driving hours per week but less than 25 driving hours would receive half as much.
  • Medical Expenses and Disability Insurance. The measure would require that companies buy insurance to cover driver medical expenses and provide disability pay when a driver is injured while driving.
  • Rest Policy. The measure would prohibit drivers from working more than 12 hours in a 24 hour period for a single rideshare or delivery company.
  • Other. The measure would require that rideshare and delivery companies have sexual harassment prevention policies and conduct criminal background checks and safety training for all drivers. It also would prohibit discrimination in hiring and firing.

The measure would also prevent cities and counties from passing further restrictions on driver classification.

The core problem with the Independent Contractor vs. Employee question is that, under U.S. law, the choice is binary. You’re one or the other. And even if ride share companies wanted to provide more benefits for drivers (and they have said they do), they are constrained by the current laws. The more companies do for the drivers, the more likely it is that the law will view those well-intentioned efforts as evidence that the drivers are really employees. This dilemma fits squarely within the box of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Prop 22 offers a middle ground. Drivers would get more protection and benefits, and ride share companies would be protected from claims that providing those protections and benefits converts the drivers to employees. This type of law should serve as a model for how to deal with the Independent Contractor vs. Employee question–not just in California but nationwide. The choice should not be binary.

Thursday’s decision by the appeals court raises the stakes, and voters in California will decide the outcome in less than two weeks.

The homeless population in Britain thankfully has more time.

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

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Shout It Like a Helium-Filled Gator: Don’t Limit Your Arbitration Agreements to Work-Related Disputes

Fig. 3. Atmosphere exchange during the experimental procedure without handling the subject

A team of researchers studying the vocalizations of Chinese alligators have won an Ig Nobel Prize for their method. They put the gators in helium-filled tanks and observed variations in their calls.

Sign me up.

I want to write papers with sentences like this one: “High-energy frequency bands in the bellows of the Chinese alligator were shifted towards higher frequencies when the animal vocalized in the heliox condition.”

My writing, for better or worse, is more focused on agreements. Here’s something to remember when writing arbitration agreements.

One of the main benefits of an arbitration agreement is the ability to prohibit class action lawsuits. When using arbitration agreements with employees or independent contractors, don’t forget to include the class action waiver. (There are pros and cons to mandatory arbitration, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

Too often, the scope of arbitration agreements is too narrow. Many agreements require arbitration of work-related or employment-related claims only.

Go broader. Expand your range, but without using helium.

In this case, a group of drivers alleged that a rideshare app company mishandled a data security breach. The drivers tried to bring a class action.

The court instead required them to seek relief one-by-one, in individual arbitration actions. That’s because their agreements required them to arbitrate disputes with the company and prohibited class litigation. The arbitration agreement here was broad enough to cover data breach claims.

Quick side note on what the legal dispute was really about: The drivers argued that the agreements were unenforceable. They pointed to the transportation worker exception in the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA generally protects the enforcement of arbitration agreements, but it doesn’t apply to transportation workers in interstate commerce. The dispute was whether drivers who pick up passengers at airports for local rides are acting on interstate commerce because the passengers and their luggage flew in from other states. The district court said no, that these local drives are not interstate commerce, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

For our purposes, the lesson here is to be thoughtful about the scope of claims subject to arbitration. Go broader than just work-related claims. A data breach can be an expensive class action to defend if thousands of people are affected. Any single individual arbitration, however, is probably not worth the effort for a plaintiff’s lawyer. The damages for an individual arbitration will be too small to make it worth pursuing.

(The “go broad” concept has limits, and there are some claims that should be carved out of arbitration agreements, so I don’t want to overstate the point.)

Anyway, be creative and thoughtful when drafting agreements. Be sure the scope of covered claims is sufficiently broad. Careful planning can avoid class actions — or just maybe it can win you an Ig Nobel Prize.

Bonus track: Here’s audio of a helium-induced alligator bellow.

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

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California’s AB 5 Has Been Repealed, Sort Of.

Rain rain go away, come again another day.

When Zeus sends his thunderbolts into Cleveland, Zippy gets scared. The snow, wind, and rain don’t bother her, but the thunder and lightning cause her to shake. Usually she hides in the shower.

Seeking shelter from the storm (apologies to Robert Zimmerman) is what California businesses are doing too. Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), codifying the ABC Test for determining who is an employee, has been in effect since January 1, 2020.

On Friday, a new law repealed and replaced it. This new law, AB 2257, passed both chambers in the California legislature unanimously and was signed into law September 4 by Gov. Newsom. It contains an urgency clause, which means it takes immediate effect. So AB 5 is gone.

Great news for businesses, right? Not exactly.

AB 2257 moves the ABC test to a different part of the California Labor Code– new Sections 2775 through 2787–and cleans up some of the confusing and poorly considered language in AB 5. It does not, however, provide relief from the ABC Test for most large businesses.

The revisions make it easier for entertainers, freelance writers and photographers, and digital content aggregators to maintain independent contractor status. It scraps the arbitrary 35-article limit for freelance writers to maintain independent contractor status. It allows entertainers to perform single event gigs without becoming employees. It cleans up some other language too, but it does not make substantial changes that would excuse large businesses from the ABC test.

For example, subsection 2750.3(f) of AB 5 addressed whether an exception applies for work requiring a license from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). The exception, with its multi-part test, is unchanged. It just moves to a new section of the Labor Code, new Section 2781.

One small glimmer of hope comes from some clarifying language for the business-to-business exception. That exception still does not apply for work that requires a CSLB license. To fall within that exception (meaning that the ABC Test would not apply), one of the requirements is that the work must be performed for the benefit of the contracting business, not its customers. Under the revised law, that requirement goes away if “the business service provider’s employees are solely performing the services under the contract under the name of the business service provider and the business service provider regularly contracts with other businesses.” For grammarians who despise double negatives, this is an exception to the exception. You’re welcome. What it means is if your subcontractor has its own employees, operates as its own business, and performs work not requiring a CSLB license, it may be easier to meet the business-to-business exception, thereby avoiding the ABC test.

So where does that leave us? On one hand, the fact that the bill passed both chambers unanimously shows a recognition that AB 5 had some serious flaws. But on the other hand, the fixes that both chambers thought were appropriate are of minimal help to large businesses. It’s like unleashing a horrible lab-created supermonster, then deciding that its eyelashes should be less curly. The largely-superficial changes in AB 2257 are mainly designed to help maintain independent contractor status for individuals who truly run their own businesses, particularly in the entertainment, journalism, and digital content fields.

This new law obliterates AB 5 in name, but not in function.

Like the blanket I gave Zippy, this move by the California legislature is not likely to provide any shelter from the storm. The ABC Test in California remains alive and well. Whether you grab a blanket or hide in the shower, the ABC Test is here to stay.

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

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Never Surrender: Appeals Court Grants Reprieve for Ride Share App Companies; Focus Turns to Prop 22.

Album cover: Boy in the Box.
Label: Aquarius in Canada, EMI America in the U.S.
Sleeves: Definitely rolled up if you could see them.

Thank you to Canadian singer Corey Hart for providing the theme to this week’s post. The Number 3 song this week in 1985 opens with, “Just a little more time is all we’re asking for.” The song, of course, is Never Surrender.

Last week we wrote about the preliminary injunction granted by a California Superior Court, preventing ride share app companies statewide from continuing to classify drivers as independent contractors. We called that ruling “Act I” because the matter was headed to appeal.

As expected, the matter was immediately appealed. Now it’s time to queue up Canada’s Juno Award winner for 1985 “Single of the Year“:

Just a little more time is all we’re asking for.

‘Cause just a little more time could open closing doors.

In a more musical world, those would have been the opening lines to the Motion for Stay in the Court of Appeals. Regardless, the motion was granted, and the ride share app companies are not going to reclassify anyone quite yet.

If the stay was not granted, the ride share app companies had threatened to shut down in California.

Oral arguments are scheduled for mid-October, which means a decision is months away. As we expected in last week’s post, the real action is on Proposition 22, on the ballot this November.

If Proposition 22 passes, the new ABC Test in Assembly Bill 5 (which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020) would not apply to workers in the app-based rideshare and delivery business. Instead, those workers could stay classified as independent contractors, but the app-based companies must ensure that the drivers receive a predetermined level of compensation and benefits, including:

  • Earnings Minimum. The measure would require app-based companies to pay at least 120 percent of the minimum wage for each hour a driver spends driving—but not time spent waiting for requests.
  • Health Insurance Stipend. The measure would require rideshare and delivery companies to provide a health insurance stipend of about $400 per month to drivers who regularly work more than 25 hours per week (not including waiting time). Drivers who average 15 driving hours per week but less than 25 driving hours would receive half as much.
  • Medical Expenses and Disability Insurance. The measure would require that companies buy insurance to cover driver medical expenses and provide disability pay when a driver is injured while driving.
  • Rest Policy. The measure would prohibit drivers from working more than 12 hours in a 24 hour period for a single rideshare or delivery company.
  • Other. The measure would require that rideshare and delivery companies have sexual harassment prevention policies and conduct criminal background checks and safety training for all drivers. It also would prohibit discrimination in hiring and firing.

The measure would also prevent cities and counties from passing further restrictions on driver classification.

Here’s the webpage for Yes on 22. Keep a close eye on the results of the vote because it will probably determine the future of ride share in California.

And don’t forget to wear your sunglasses at night.

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

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