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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Schrödinger’s Cat? Ninth Circuit Disrupts Trucking Industry with Contractor Misclassification Ruling

Have you heard of Schrödinger’s cat? It’s not a real cat, like Felix or Brian Setzer. It’s a hypothetical, seemingly impossible cat that exists only in the world of quantum physics. Schrödinger’s cat refers to a thought experiment in which a cat in a box is simultaneously alive and dead, until you open the box and observe the cat. Then, stubborn as cats are, it will be only one or the other, and that’s when you realize you prefer dogs anyway.

In a ruling last week, the Ninth Circuit has tried to give the trucking industry Schrödinger’s cat.

The issue was whether California’s infamous ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. The answer now is both yes and no, depending on where you look.

If you’re in California, the Ninth Circuit says yes, the ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. Under the ABC Test, now part of California’s Labor Code, most workers are classified as employees, not independent contractors, unless the work they perform is “outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.” (There’s more to the ABC Test, but that’s Part B, the hardest part to meet.)

In the trucking industry, it’s hard to argue that owner-operator truckers retained by a trucking company are performing work that is “outside the usual course” of the trucking company’s business. The ABC Test would likely reclassify most owner-operators as employees. The California Trucking Association brought a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA) preempts this California law from being applied to trucking. The FAAAA preempts state laws “relating to a price, route or service of any motor carrier … with respect to the transportation of property.” Cal Trucking argued that applying the ABC Test and reclassifying owner-operators as employees would affect the prices, routes, and services provided.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the ABC Test is a “generally applicable” law that does not sufficiently affect prices, routes, or service to be preempted. California’s ABC Test therefore applies to trucking and is not preempted by the FAAAA.

Now remember the cat – both alive and dead?

If you’re in Massachusetts, the answer to the same question is no, the ABC Test does not apply to trucking. In 2016, the First Circuit ruled that the FAAAA preempts Massachusetts’ ABC Test (which is the same as California’s) because of its effect on prices, routes, and service, when applied to trucking.

So what happens now? How can one federal law simultaneously mean two different things?

There are three ways this can play out:

  • The full Ninth Circuit might rehear the case and could reverse its ruling (which was a 2-1 split) to conform with the First Circuit’s view;
  • The ruling might stay as it is, meaning that the interpretation of a federal law (the FAAAA) is different in California and Massachusetts, even though their state ABC Tests are the same; or
  • The Supreme Court will take the case and resolve the circuit split.

I grew up in Miami where they had greyhound racing, which you can bet on. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can go and bet on cats. But if I were a betting man on this one, I’d wager that the Supreme Court weighs in at some point.

The owner-operator model in the trucking industry is so well-established and has been permitted for so long under federal law that it seems impossible for the Supreme Court to allow the FAAAA to mean two different things in two different states.

And what about the rest of the country?

The Third and Seventh Circuits have ruled that the FAAAA does not preempt state wage and hour laws when applied to trucking, but those courts were not considering strict ABC Tests like those reviewed by the First and Ninth Circuits. The ABC Test aims to reclassify most contractors as employees; it is no ordinary wage and hour law. More states are considering adopting strict ABC Tests and, in those states, we don’t know whether the FAAAA would preempt state classification law for truckers or not.

In other words, for most of the country, the cat is both alive and dead, and we won’t know which it is until we look. Unfortunately for tens of thousands of truckers, this is not a mere thought experiment. The disruption to the industry is massive, and the sooner we get a clear answer, the better it will be for everyone. Except maybe the cat.

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

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A Million Dollar Bill? Be Careful Before Relying on the Direct Seller Exemption for Contractor Status

All this cash is available on Amazon for just $13.67!

A Tennessee woman was recently busted for trying to use a $1 million bill to buy a cartful of personal items at a dollar store. The clerk reported the woman to Blount County police, who issued a no trespass order.

That really had no chance of working. Did the woman really think the register at a dollar store had $999,900 or so in change? She did not think that one through too carefully.

Thinking things through is important in all walks of life, including when classifying sales personnel as contractors or employees.

You may have heard that the Internal Revenue Service treats a “direct seller” as an independent contractor, not an employee. But don’t assume all directs sellers are contractors, not employees. Here are two important notes of caution:

First, the definition of “direct seller” is narrow. Here’s what it means, according to IRS Guidance on Direct Sellers:

Direct sellers include any of the following:

  • A person who sells consumer products in the home or a place of business other than a permanent retail establishment,
  • A person who sells consumer products on a deposit or commission basis, or to other persons who will sell the products in the home or place of business,
  • A person who delivers and/or distributes newspapers or shopping guides.

Direct sellers have certain things in common. Their compensation is related to sales rather than to the number of hours worked. Services are performed under a written contract between the seller and the person for whom the seller performs the services.

And the contracts involved provide that sellers are not treated as employees for federal tax purposes.

But wait, there’s more. The Internal Revenue Code also requires, for someone to be a “direct seller,” that:

(B) substantially all the remuneration (whether or not paid in cash) for the performance of the services described in subparagraph (A) is directly related to sales or other output (including the performance of services) rather than to the number of hours worked, and

(C) the services performed by the person are performed pursuant to a written contract between such person and the person for whom the services are performed and such contract provides that the person will not be treated as an employee with respect to such services for Federal tax purposes.

The full statute is here. Further IRS Guidance can be found here.

Second, even if someone is a “direct seller” under the Internal Revenue Code, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically independent contractors under other laws, including federal wage and hour laws state laws.

For example, the FLSA says that “outside sales” professionals are exempt from minimum wage and overtime requirements, but the requirements are different. DOL Fact Sheet #17 explains this exemption.

California’s ABC Test does not apply to “direct salespersons,” but only if those individuals meet the test in California’s unemployment law. Other states have different rules for sellers.

The bottom line when classifying direct sellers is to remember that different tests apply to different laws. Be thorough, and remember that a worker’s classification may be different under federal tax law than under wage and hour law or state law. You’ve got to think this all the way through.

Getting it wrong can be costly, especially for businesses that use lots of independent contractors, and — most important — novelty U.S. currency like million-dollar bills won’t cover those penalties or litigation damages. But, according to the seller of these bills on Amazon, these are the “million dollar bills that get the WOW response.” So there’s that.

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

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Island Politics: Which States Are Considering New ABC Tests?

On Victoria Island in Northern Canada there is a series of long finger lakes. In one of the lakes there’s an island. Inside that smaller island, there’s a smaller lake, which contains a still smaller island about a fifth of a mile long. It is the largest known island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island. You can see it here.

I like maps and islands. I like exclaves and enclaves and have lots of questions about islands.

One of my questions is why Rhode Island came to be called that, since it’s not an island. This was particularly confusing to me in elementary school but I have come to terms with it and no longer lose sleep over this.

But now Rhode Island is causing me to lose sleep again.

Why? ABC Tests.

There are bills pending in both Rhode Island and New York that, if passed, would adopt strict ABC Tests for determining who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. The tests would follow the California AB 5/Dynamex model and the Massachusetts model, meaning that a worker providing services would automatically be classified as an employee unless (all 3):

(A) the individual is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for performance of the work and in fact;

(B) the individual performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

(C) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

As discussed here, Part B is the killer B, the destroyer of most independent contractor relationships.

The bills have not yet passed either house, but both have popular support among legislatures that are heavily Democratic. Both bills seem to have a good chance at passing in 2021.

Keep an eye on these bills.

Meanwhile, Victoria Island is the eighth largest island in the world but has only about 2,100 people. I am not aware of any push among the mostly-Inuit inhabitants to reclassify independent contractors anywhere in Nunavut, but I also don’t feel like I have my finger on the pulse of Nunavut politics. It’s harder to track legislation there.

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

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West Virginia Adopts Pro-Business Independent Contractor Test

Three Fun Facts about West Virginia:

  1. The New River is actually one of the world’s oldest rivers and, unusually, flows south to north.
  2. The nickname and team mascot for Poca High School in Poca, WV is the Dots.
  3. West Virginia just adopted the most pro-business worker classification test in the nation.

While I would love to write about the Poca Dots, I’m going to focus on the state’s new worker classification test, enacted March 11, 2021. It takes effect 90 days later, on June 9, 2021.

The new test creates a safe harbor. If you comply with a list of requirements, including a written contract, your worker is automatically an independent contractor under WV wage and hour law, anti-discrimination law, workers’ compensation, and unemployment.

The bill nearly had a disastrous flaw. In its original form, passed by one chamber, if you failed to meet the safe harbor criteria, you’d automatically be deemed an employee. That would have had absurd unintended consequences, including that a worker would automatically be an employee if there was no written contract or if the contract did not include all required clauses.

I drafted a last-minute amendment that was adopted and inserted into the bill at the eleventh hour. The amendment said that if the safe harbor was not met, the worker would not automatically be an employee. Instead, the worker’s status would determined by using the 20-factor Right to Control Test in IRS Rev. Ruling 87-41. (The 20 factors are explained here in this PDF from the Texas Workforce Commission.)

The bill is very pro-business.

Businesses retaining contractors in WV should review the safe harbor provisions and be sure to comply. Compliance means a free pass for independent contractor status under state law (but not under federal law). Contracts may need to be adjusted to include the required clauses. Now is the time to do that.

Here is a link to the bill. The blue text contains the safe harbor. Read it closely and make sure these provisions are in your WV independent contractor agreements.

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© 2021 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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Beary Scary: Will UK Uber Decision Bite US Businesses?

We saw this fella in Yellowstone. (C) my wife. Used with permission after arms-length negotiation involving chocolate.

Sometimes trouble comes at you from an unexpected direction. One Alaska resident learned this the hard way when she sat on her outhouse toilet and was bitten by a bear — from below. Didn’t see that coming.

US law on Independent Contractor vs. Employee is based on federal and state statutes and common law, but a decision last week from overseas has US businesses concerned. Should they be?

On Thursday, the UK High Court ruled that Uber drivers were “workers” under UK law, not independent contractors, and were therefore protected by minimum wage and other laws.

But I don’t think this ruling will bite US businesses in the arse. There are important differences between US and UK law, and those differences drove the outcome here.

In the US, someone is either an employee or an independent contractor. Those are the only two options. But under UK employment law, there are three categories:

  • Those employed under a contract of employment (US: employee; UK: employee/worker);
  • Those self-employed people who are in business on their own account and undertake work for their clients or customers (US/UK: independent contractor);
  • and an intermediate class of workers who are self-employed but who provide their services as part of a profession or business undertaking carried on by someone else (UK: worker).

Some UK statutory rights, such as the right not to be unfairly dismissed, are limited to those employed under a contract of employment; but other rights, including those claimed in the UK case, apply to all “workers.”

The question in this case, therefore, was not whether the Uber drivers were employees, but merely whether they were “workers.” They were.

The decision also turned largely on a City of London requirement relating to licensing requirements for drivers for hire. The Uber drivers were under contract with Uber London, which had the required license.

The court considered elements of control, but this case was not decided under a US-style Right to Control Test, Economic Realities Test, or ABC Test. The rules we are used to seeing in the US don’t apply in the same way overseas.

In the end, this case is noteworthy in its result — that Uber drivers were protected by UK minimum wage law and other worker protections — but the legal basis for reaching that conclusion just doesn’t apply in the US.

We will continue to see increased pressure in the US for more worker protections, and we will continue to see challenges to worker classification. But US businesses don’t need to worry about the bite from this ruling from a few thousand miles east. Of more immediate concern, at least to Alaskans visiting the outhouse, is what might be waiting a few feet below.

© 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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Waiting for Something? Here’s What to Expect from the NLRB

Zippy accepts a package delivery.

Our Amazon delivery driver snapped this photo yesterday, when leaving a package at my door. There’s Zippy, waiting patiently and watching. Her dog treats arrived in a separate delivery yesterday, so this package is probably not for her.

What have you been waiting for? If not a special delivery, then maybe a change in federal labor laws? Oh, not quite as good, but very likely.

Here are three things to expect from the NLRB during the Biden Administration:

1. Joint employment, and a return to Browning-Ferris.

In 2015, the NLRB overturned 30 years of precedent to create a new test to determine when staffing agency workers are joint employees. That decision, known as Browning-Ferris, allowed for a finding of joint employment even if control was indirect, reserved, and related to nonessential terms.

The Browning-Ferris standard was later abandoned, but it will likely come back. Expect a new test that makes it easier to establish a joint employment relationship under federal labor law. You can read more about the Browning-Ferris test here.

2. Independent contractor misclassification, as an unfair labor practice.

Is independent contractor misclassification, by itself, an unfair labor practice? In 2019, the NLRB said no, it’s not necessarily a violation of the NLRA to misclassify an employee as a contractor. The Board’s rationale was that a business can express its legitimate belief that workers were contractors, even if that belief turned out to be wrong.

Expect that to change. A more union-friendly Board is likely to rule that when a business incorrectly tells workers they are contractors, the business is interfering with workers’ rights. Expect independent contractor misclassification to become an automatic violation of the NLRA.  

3. Independent contractor misclassification, and a tougher test for proving contractor status.

In 2019, the Board updated the test for determining Who Is My Employee?, making it easier to prove independent contractor status under the NLRA.

From 2014 to 2018, the Board had taken the position that to be an independent contractor, you must be “in fact, rendering services as part of an independent business.” That test was abandoned in 2019, in a case called SuperShuttle DFW, when the Board said that you can be an independent contractor if you are permitted to run your own business, whether you actually do so or not. The 2019 ruling reinstated the Right to Control Test as the proper way to decide employee vs. independent contractor status.

Expect a return to the 2014 test, which would mean that to be an independent contractor, you’d need to actually operate as an independent business.

When might all this happen?

Some in 2021, some in 2022.

Biden has already removed Peter Robb as the NLRB’s General Counsel, replacing him with Peter Sung Ohr as Acting GC. The GC acts as the Board’s chief prosecutor, setting the administration’s priorities on what it considers to be a violation of the NLRA. We are already starting to see changes in Board policy, but the composition of the five-member Board will not shift to majority Democratic-control until after William Emanuel’s term expires in August 2021.

In 2021, we can expect changes in policy that are more pro-worker. In 2022, we can expect to start seeing 3-2 rulings in NLRB decisions that are more pro-worker. The Democrats will take a majority of Board seats in late 2021.

Businesses should anticipate these changes and plan accordingly. This package is going to be delivered. It’s just a matter of time.

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

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Stop Licking My Face? DOL Rescinds Independent Contractor Guidance

Tasty! Image by Roman Michael Gottfried from Pixabay

In this issue of Science Focus Magazine, the BBC tackles the difficult question of Why Do Dogs Lick People?

Says Dr Emily Blackwell, a lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Bristol, “It’s a greeting and can be taken as a compliment.”

Ok then. That’s a nice gesture.

But that’s not going to be the case with the new administration’s Department of Labor, apparently. Steps are already being taken to remove helpful guidance on whether workers qualify as employees or independent contractors.

That’s not a nice gesture. There will be no lovable face licking by the new DOL.

On January 19th, the Trump DOL issued two opinion letters addressing whether certain kinds of workers are employees are independent contractors and the appropriate test for making that determination.

But last week, under direction from the Biden Administration, the DOL rescinded the guidance. Here’s what the two letters covered:

  • FLSA2021-8: Addressing whether certain distributors of a manufacturer’s food products are employees or independent contractors under the FLSA.
  • FLSA2021-9: Addressing whether requiring tractor-trailer truck drivers to implement safety measures required by law constitutes control by the motor carrier for purposes of their status as employees or independent contractors under the FLSA, and whether certain owner-operators are properly classified as independent contractors.

Under the Trump administration, the DOL had committed to publishing more opinion letters. These letters help the public understand the DOL’s interpretation of the law. They apply general rules to more specific situations. They answer questions. That’s good, right? Doesn’t the government want compliance? From the perspective of the business community, compliance is easier if we know what the DOL is thinking.

Fast forward to last week. Even though Marty Walsh has not yet been confirmed as Secretary of Labor, the DOL is already undoing what the DOL had recently done.

Looking ahead, we can expect to see fewer opinion letters, or maybe none. The Biden Administration has indicated that these types of unofficial guidance documents should not be issued. The Administration feels that it ties the hands of the DOL. During the Obama Administration, the DOL entirely discontinued the practice of publishing opinion letters on wage and hour issues, so a plunge back into the darkness seems likely to happen again under a Biden Administration DOL.

This is a bad trend for businesses trying to understand and comply with the law.

So my advice today? If you want some love and attention when trying to unravel the independent contractor versus employee conundrum, don’t look to the DOL for help. Instead, go get a puppy. It might lick your nose, which could be nice.

 

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

Sign up now for the BakerHostetler 2021 Master Class on The State of Labor Relations and Employment Law. Twelve sessions, one hour every Tuesday, 2 pm ET, all virtual, no cost. Click here for more information. List me as your BakerHostetler contact so I know you’ve registered. 

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