Better Flow? Will New Bill Allow More Benefits for Independent Contractors — Without Risking Misclassification Claims?

toilet gig workers plumberA Sheboygan man was recently sentenced to 150 days in jail and probation for repeatedly clogging women’s toilets with plastic bottles. According to the Sheboygan Press, the serial toilet clogger told police he gets urges to do odd things, like look for bottles in the garbage to plug toilets.

I get urges to do odd things too, like scour local newspapers for stories like this one. But since I’m sharing this important knowledge with readers, I figure it’s for the greater good. (Repeat:) For the greater good. (See Hot Fuzz, my nominee for best movie ever.) 

Two recently introduced bills in Congress seek to protect the greater good when it comes to gig workers. In the current legal environment, digital marketplace companies are reluctant to do anything to provide assistance to independent contractors who use their platforms, since courts and agencies tend to use such good deeds as evidence that the contractors should really be classified as employees. For digital marketplace companies that rely on an independent contractor model, such a finding can cause serious damage to normal business operations — even worse than the mess caused by an overflowing bottle-clogged ladies’ toilet.

The Helping Gig Economy Workers Act of 2020 would permit digital marketplace companies to provide payments, health benefits, training, and PPE to users of the digital marketplace without these good deeds being used as evidence — in any federal, state, or local proceeding — that the company has misclassified its independent contractors or is acting as a joint employer. The bill would protect companies throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

The bill is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), with a companion bill sponsored by four Republicans in the Senate.

Historically, Democrats have opposed any legislation that would solidify independent contractor status for workers, instead advocating for bills that would convert more contractors to employees. Will the COVID-19 crisis be a turning point?

With independent contractor delivery services needed now more than ever, will there be a push to allow companies to provide greater protection for these workers without fear that their good deeds will be used against them in a misclassification claim?

That remains to be seen. If this bill gains any momentum, it could be the equivalent of pulling a bottle out of the clogged toilet of independent contractor misclassification laws. (I concede the analogy is a stretch, but I’m doing my best here.)  This bill could signal a shift toward a philosophy of promoting greater benefits for independent contractor gig workers, rather than aiming solely to convert them all to employees. I’m not sure it will, but it might. This is one to watch.

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

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Worried about ABC Tests? Here’s What You Have to Look Forward to.

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Recent coronavirus-related conversation in my house, after cancellation of planned spring break vacation, loss of kids’ summer internships, suspension of in-person college classes, and more than one day of snow in May:

Lisa: This is getting ridiculous. We need something to look forward to.

Me: 2021?

It may feel like there’s not much to look forward to lately, but if you’re into watching state bills on independent contractor misclassification, I’ve got some exciting news for you! Not really. No one’s into that. But I’m going to share anyway.

Seven states are currently considering bills that would adopt strict ABC Tests for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. What do I mean by “strict ABC Tests”? I mean the same test California recently adopted in Dynamex and under Assembly Bill 5. I mean the test where anyone performing services is presumed to be an employee unless all three of these things are proven, with part B being the hardest to meet:

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

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

(C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

So which states are vying for the title of Miss California? Here are the 7 states with bills currently pending that, if passed, would adopt a strict ABC Test:

  • Massachusetts – would expand test to unemployment
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey – switching from looser part B
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania – for gig-based platforms only
  • Rhode Island

I’ll continue to minor these bills, mainly because I know no one else wants to. But at least we all have something to look forward to.  Happy new year?

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

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Not Your Ordinary Haircut: Does Your Sexual Harassment Policy Prohibit Harassment by Contractors?

Harassment policy independent contractor

From the Library of Congress digital collection.

This photo came with the description: “One of a series of images of a man harassing a woman as he cuts her hair.” Tip: don’t try this at home.

There are (unfortunately) many ways to harass a woman, most without scissors. Harassment can be by supervisors or fellow employees, but sometimes it comes from independent contractors.

Your company has a sexual harassment policy. Does it prohibit harassment of employees by contractors and other non-employees?

It should. Federal law creates a claim for sexual harassment if the harassment is by another employee, especially a supervisor. But the path toward a sexual harassment claim against a company for conduct by its independent contractors is less obvious. A hostile work environment claim can be asserted if a company knows of — and permits — a work environment that includes harassment by contractors, but a company’s control over contractors and their actions is going to be more limited than its control over its employees.

Your policy should fill the gap.

By creating a policy that takes a stance against harassment by independent contractors and other third parties, your company enhances its position in the event of a claim. Plus, it’s the right thing to do. If you hear of such a claim, investigate it. You may need to do something about it. That may include terminating the relationship with the contractor.

The policy should also say that conduct may be in violation of company policy even if the conduct is not prohibited by law. In other words, you are not conceding that you can control what your contractors do, and you are not conceding that there’s a viable legal claim. But you are taking a position against harassing behavior as a matter of policy.

The caption at the bottom of the photo above is small, but it says, “Getting his hair banged.”  I haven’t the slightest idea what that means, but it sounds bad. I would prohibit that too.

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

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“Who Was That Masked Man?” It Could be Your Independent Contractor.

who was that masked manFrom 1949 to 1957, The Lone Ranger ruled the airwaves. As recounted in the all-knowing wikipedia: “At the end of each episode, mission completed, one of the characters would always ask the sheriff or other authority, ‘Who was that masked man?’ When it was explained, ‘Oh, he’s the Lone Ranger!,’ the Ranger and Tonto would be seen galloping off with the cry, ‘Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!’ catching the attention of one of the townspeople crossing the street.”

Today, the answer to “Who was that masked man?” is likely to be, “Oh, he’s the lone maintenance guy on third shift” or “Oh, that’s Wilbur, our accountant.”

With many states now requiring employees and customers to wear face coverings, should the same be required of your company’s independent contractors? If you require contractors to wear face coverings, is that the type of control that could weigh in favor of employee status?

The practical answer is that, as the nation tries to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good practice to require everyone who works onsite — employees, customers, and independent contractors — to wear face coverings. The use of face coverings can be made mandatory as a condition of entering your facility. That is a site safety measure, not evidence of control that would convert your contractor to an employee.

But what about when the contractor works remotely, perhaps interacting with customers or working independently offsite? In that case, follow common sense and any applicable state and local law. For independent contractors who work on their own or in their homes, it’s probably not necessary to impose any specific face covering requirement. But that doesn’t mean they should freely expose their titillating chins and lips to the adoring masses. In your contracts with independent contractors, it is always wise to require that they comply with all applicable laws when performing any part of the services. That catch-all requirement is going to capture whatever face covering rule applies in that state at that time. The contractor should be required to do whatever the state or local law requires. Different states have different requirements.

What about staffing agency workers who work onsite? Can you safely impose the same face covering requirements on them as with your W-2 employees? Yes, and you should. Anyone working in your facility needs to comply with the applicable state and local work rules. That includes staffing agency workers at your location.

When the popular show’s run ended, Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger, used to make public appearances in his distinctive mask. But in 1979, the Wrather Corp., which owned the rights to the character, sued Moore to make him stop wearing the mask in public. Moore reverted to wearing green-tinted sunglasses with his cowboy outfit, hardly an acceptable substitute for our heroic roughrider.

In 1985, the Wrather Corp. relented and allowed Moore to again don the mask. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985, “Playing the Lone Ranger made me more considerate of my fellow man.”

In today’s COVID-19 climate, you can follow the Lone Ranger’s ethos and require face coverings. It’s a small gesture that will make you more considerate of your fellow man.

Hi-yo!

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

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Did a State Supreme Court Just Rewrite a Key Definition in Independent Contractor Misclassification Law?

knowtherulesFor businesses using independent contractors and concerned about misclassification claims, there hasn’t been too much to get mad about lately. As of last week, I’m just mad about saffron. (She’s just mad about me.)

But a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may change that. The PA Supreme Court just took a commonly used phrase in Employee vs. Independent Contractor tests and gave it a new meaning. (Fun fact about change: If you change your name, you probably can’t include a numeral or punctuation.”)

Under PA unemployment law, anyone receiving pay is an employee for unemployment insurance purposes, unless the individual is (a) free from control and direction, and (b) customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business. Traditionally, that’s a test that’s been considered pretty easy to meet. Maybe not anymore.

Addressing part (b), the PA Supreme Court ruled that to be “customarily engaged in” an independent business, the individual must — right now — “actually be involved, as opposed to merely having the ability to be involved, in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.”

The Court looked to see whether the contractor actually operated his/her own business. Merely being allowed to do so wasn’t enough. It may still be enough if the contractor advertises his/her services to the public, even if a contractor doesn’t have other customers at that particular time. But the contractor needs to take some affirmative steps that show that the contractor is — at that time — “actually involved” in an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business” at the same time the contractor is being paid by whatever company doesn’t think that worker is its employee.

If this “actually engaged” standard is applied in other states, it may make it harder in other states to maintain independent contractor status. States that have a similar “customarily engaged in” requirement in one or more of their misclassification tests include:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii (apostrophe before the last i or no? I never know.)
  • Indiana
  • Lousiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Yikes. In most of these states, the “customarily engaged in” language is in the statutes covering who is an employee for unemployment insurance, but some of the states also include this as part of their test for other laws.

In California and Massachusetts, for example, that language is part C of the dreaded ABC Test that addresses other aspects of the employer-employee relationship.

To be safe, companies should consider requiring independent contractors to provide some proof that they are “actually engaged in” an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.” The proof might consist of evidence that they advertise for other customers or that they have other clients. What’s considered sufficient in one state might not be good enough in another.

While coronavirus seems to be dominating the news cycle, let’s not lose sight of the fact that independent contractor relationships are still under attack. Companies should do what they can to be proactive. Now it a good time to evaluate your relationships with contractors to make sure they can withstand a challenge.

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

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Take a Hike? Not This Time. CARES Act Offers Unemployment Help for Gig Workers

61C63C40-A3B8-41A8-A458-1545EB3168E8While coyotes invade San Francisco and wild boars torment Barcelona, things are a bit quieter here in Cleveland.

Last weekend, I took a few hours off from the nonstop advising on all things COVID-19 and went on a hike with my family at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about half an hour from my house.

But then it was back to work, and back to keeping up on all the latest COVID-related legal developments, and there are a lot. One item of note for independent contractors and gig workers is the new CARES Act, passed earlier this week.

While unemployment insurance coverage traditionally has not been available for independent contractors, the CARES Act makes it possible for self-employed contractors to obtain coverage.

Hopefully this is a small first step toward allowing independent contractors to obtain more benefits without converting them to employees. The binary system we have — either you’re an employee or an independent contractor — generally means all or nothing. That’s why so many state legislators are trying to convert contractors to employees — so these workers can receive benefits and other protections that the law provides to employees but not to contractors.

There’s a better way, such as the path forward proposed by five gig economy companies in California, with a measure that hopefully will appear on the November 2020 ballot.  (You can read more here.)  We need a middle ground that allows self-employed contractors to remain contractors, while allowing them to obtain some of the benefits that employees receive.

The trail I went on last weekend was a loop. It ended right back where it started. Hopefully the CARES Act is a small step in a new direction, and we can move away from the binary legal choice we’ve been stuck with for decades.

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

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How Does the Families First Act Apply to Independent Contractors?

Families First Act Independent Contractors

Hungry for more COVID-19 info? I can help with that, but if your hunger pangs are for something more exotic — say, deep-fried bull testicles — I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck. Deerfield (Mich.) American Legion Post 392 has cancelled its 19th annual Testicle Festival, leaving festival supplier Dennis Gerth with 330 pounds of bull testicles in his freezer. That’s my 2020 submission if anyone is giving out awards for Sentences I Never Thought I’d Write.

Yes, the coronavirus is affecting society in ways we never imagined. Last week, Congress offered some relief to workers affected by the virus. While the new law doesn’t help Gerth or his ball-filled freezer, it does provide paid leave for employees of most small businesses.

But what about independent contractors?

The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act provides up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for employees unable to work (or telework) for childcare reasons and up to 80 hours of paid sick time to employees unable to work (or telework) for six specified reasons.

Trying to apply the Act raises a lot of questions. Many are addressed here, in a conversational tone that acknowledges this is awfully confusing. But this post will focus on how the Act applies to independent contractors.

Do Independent Contractors Get the Benefits of the Act?

No. The Act provides paid sick leave and expanded Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave only to employees, and only if their employer has fewer than 500 employees.

How Does the Act Differentiate Between an Employee and an Independent Contractor?

Ah yes, the age old question of Who Is My Employee? The Act uses the definitions of “employee” in the FMLA and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FMLA uses the FLSA definition, so let’s focus on that.

The test for whether an independent contractor is really an employee under the FLSA is determined by using an economic realities test. This is a different test than the ones used for determining whether someone is an employee under tax, unemployment, workers compensation, and many other federal and state laws.

The economic realities test generally looks at these factors:

  1. The extent to which the services rendered are an integral part of the principal’s business.
  2. The permanency of the relationship.
  3. The amount of the alleged contractor’s investment in facilities and equipment.
  4. The nature and degree of control by the principal.
  5. The alleged contractor’s opportunities for profit and loss.
  6. The amount of initiative, judgment, or foresight in open market competition with others required for the success of the claimed independent contractor.
  7. The degree of independent business organization and operation.

This list is from DOL Fact Sheet #13, but it’s worth noting that different courts define the factors differently. Know your jurisdiction. Another commonly used listing of the factors can be found here.

The more independent the worker is from the business retaining his/her services, the more likely the worker is properly classified as an independent contractor.

How Could this Issue Arise?

With the economy in a cornoravirus-induced tailspin, lots of employees are losing their jobs, and lots of independent contractors are losing their engagements. When the income stream stops flowing, people look for a way to reopen the faucet.

Independent contractors might file unemployment claims. We’ve discuss the dangers of that here. They might also be tempted to file lawsuits claiming they’ve been misclassified. A successful claim could mean they’re entitled not only to the benefits of the Families First Act, but also potentially to unpaid overtime and other benefits that employees can receive.

Times are tough, and livelihoods are at stake. As contractors lose more work, we’re likely to see an increase in independent contractor misclassification claims. And that’s no bull.

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

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