No Laughing Matter: Here’s Why States Think Your Independent Contractors Are Misclassified

The best twitter account you’re not yet following is Depths of Wikipedia @depthsofwiki, which finds all the crazy fascinating stuff on Wikipedia that you wish you had time to look for.

Such as this gem from last week:

I didn’t know who Chrysippus was, but this is top shelf information. He died of laughter after witnessing a donkey eat his figs?!

That would make for one f***d-up game of Clue.

Here’s something that’s not a laughing matter.

Ever wondered why states seem so aggressive in fighting against companies that classify workers as independent contractors? Ok, yeah, there’s the crowd-pleasing pitch that they’re looking out for the little guy, and workers are being denied benefits, and companies are cheating the systems, etc.

But also comes down to money. State governments claim they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in unpaid taxes and unpaid contributions to unemployment and workers compensation funds. This policy brief by the National Employment Law Project cites to 30 state law studies with varying estimates of losses to state coffers.

Are these studies accurate, or are they merely self-serving reports designed to justify misclassification audits? Probably some of both, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. Whether motivated by workers’ rights or bolstering state coffers, states are doing two things to make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.

First, several pending state bills would make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.

Second, states are taking enforcement seriously. Through audits and lawsuits, the states are going after companies directly.

For companies, defending against state action can be a lot harder than defending against private lawsuits. State prosecutors and agencies claim to be fighting for the little guy, and they tend to get dug in with their positions. State prosecutors and agency enforcers get paid the same salary, win or lose, and it can be harder to persuade them that your company’s classifications are legitimate and that they should be spending their limited time and resources elsewhere.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers, on the other hand, are business people and are generally more open to business solutions that are driven by a cost-benefit analysis of how best to use their limited time and resources. A strong set of facts supporting independent contractor classification can lead to a victory in court or can create leverage for a favorable settlement with private litigants. Private settlements can also be reached with no admission of wrongdoing.

The lesson here is that enforcement efforts by state governments are no laughing matter. While a donkey trying to eat your figs may be drop-dead hilarious, an enforcement action by the state isn’t so funny. But it can still kill your business.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Don’t Get in Over Your Head: Set Up a Gatekeeper

Last month in Washington State, at a trailhead on the Olympic Peninsula, a woman dropped her cell phone in a pit latrine. Yes, that’s a flushless outhouse. The woman tried to retrieve the phone using a dog leash, then tried to use the dog leash to support herself as she reached down into the stinky muck. Dog leashes, however, are not meant for such endeavors, and — yes, this really happened — the leash failed. The woman fell head first into the latrine.

Making the best of a shitty situation, the woman found her phone, which she then used to call for help. The fire department rescued her, and the dispatch operator will be telling the story of that intake call forever.

The lesson here is: Know when to get help.

That lesson also applies to your company’s independent contractor relationships. Today’s tip is to set up a Gatekeeper System.

If your company is like most businesses, it’s simpler to contract with outside labor than to hire new employees. Operations managers or a procurement team are the people most likely to approve contracts for services. Because there are no employees being engaged in these contracts, the contracts don’t go to Human Resources, and they probably don’t get reviewed by Legal.

But every contract for services carries a risk that the individuals providing the services may be misclassified. Even if treated as independent contractors, those workers might be your employees under federal or state law. Or, if they’re being treated as employees of the business you contract with, they might be your joint employees. Both scenarios – independent contractor misclassification and joint employment – present legal risks.

But your operations managers or procurement team have not been trained to recognize those risks. They likely have never considered that the people providing those services might be deemed your company’s employees.

To protect against these risks, set up a Gatekeeper System. That would be a policy that says, anytime we retain non-employees to provide a service, there must be a written contract and it must be reviewed by a specific individual, the gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper will be trained to issue-spot and to recognize circumstances that may present an elevated risk of misclassification or joint employment. The gatekeeper can raise concerns with the legal department. Or maybe the gatekeeper is part of the legal team.

Setting up a Gatekeeper System is easy. It’s just a policy requiring a specific layer of review whenever non-employees are retained to perform a service. Make sure everyone authorized to enter into contracts for the business knows of the policy. Then train your gatekeeper to issue spot and to escalate for further analysis when necessary.

The point is that someone needs to know to look out for these risks. You can only protect yourself against the risks you have identified. Once you get sued or hit with an audit, it’s too late.

Just like it was too late for our friend the Washington hiker, who should have asked for help a bit earlier — before getting in over her head.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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It’s a Mistake? Too Bad. NLRB Might Soon Make Misclassification an Automatic Unfair Labor Practice

Cover art from the single, released on Epic Records

In the early 80s, I had two cassettes by the Australian band Men at Work — Business as Usual, released in 1981, and Cargo two years later.

Cargo includes the single, “It’s a Mistake,” a satirically upbeat Cold War-inspired song in which a soldier tries to figure out whether the Cold War is about to turn hot. The video features too-short shorts, bad lip syncing, and old ladies hitting the band members with umbrellas on the battlefield, all of which leads to an accidental nuclear launch, triggered when an officer tries to stub out his cigar in an ashtray but hits the wrong button.

All in all — a good song, a mediocre video, and a strong commentary on the politics of the day.

A recent move by the NLRB’s General Counsel revives the “It’s a Mistake” narrative, this time in the context of independent contractor misclassification. There are no accidental nukes involved, but the move is definitely politically motivated.

If the General Counsel has her way, the Board will rule that independent contractor misclassification is an automatic unfair labor practice (ULP), even if it’s a mistake.

To reach that conclusion, the Board would have to overturn its 2019 decision in Velox Express, in which the Republican-controlled Board ruled that misclassifying a worker, by itself, is not automatically a ULP.

The GC’s actions are no surprise. In mid-2021, she issued a strategy memo announcing that one of her strategic (political) priorities was to get Velox Express overturned during her tenure. With the NLRB now featuring a 3-2 Democratic majority, she’s likely to prevail.

What does this mean for companies that use independent contractors?

It means the stakes are higher. If Velox Express is overturned, misclassification of independent contractors would likely become an automatic ULP, even if the classification was well-intentioned. Essentially, there would be strict liability for misclassification.

Traditional remedies for ULPs include back pay and reinstatement, which could mean forced reclassification as employees. The GC has been pushing to further expand the scope of available remedies because, hey, why not.

If your business is hit with a ULP and forced to reclassify workers under the NLRA, good luck trying to maintain independent contractor status under wage and hour laws or other laws.

A reversal of Velox Express, therefore, may have sweeping ramifications, making it much harder to maintain independent contractor status across a broad range of federal and state laws.

The consequences of this expected reversal will be serious — not quite on the scale of nuclear devastation, but worse than old ladies hitting you on the head with an umbrella.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Hold Your Horses! A Court of Appeals May Have Granted Independent Contractors the Right to Strike and Organize

On June 4, 1923, jockey Frank Hayes rode 20-1 long shot Sweet Kiss to victory at Belmont Park. While that seems impressive, what made the win even more memorable is that at some point during the race, poor Frank died. He somehow stayed on the horse and ended up in the winner’s circle. Or six feet under it. It was his first (and last) win as a jockey.

Jockeys are in the news again, and we’ve got another surprise finish. But this one has implications far beyond the racetrack.

Click here for the rest of the story, originally posted yesterday on the BakerHostetler blog, Employment Law Spotlight.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Upside Down? U.S. Companies Can Learn from Australian High Court Ruling on Independent Contractors

Source: Hema Maps

There’s no reason our maps are oriented the way they are, with Australia at the bottom and Canada near the top. There’s no right side up in space, and we could just as easily think of the world with Australia on top, in the middle.

Same with our way of deciding Who Is My Employee? The process for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor doesn’t have to be the way Americans conduct that analysis.

Two High Court decisions this month in Australia highlight a key difference between the American approach and what is now the new Australian approach.

In the U.S., courts look past the written contract and analyze a worker’s status based on the actual facts of the relationship.

The Australian High Court says the U.S. approach is upside down.

In two highly publicized decisions, the Australian court ruled that the contract establishes the rules of the relationship and therefore also determines the worker’s status. In one case, the agreement said the work would be controlled by the hiring party. By contractually reserving the right to control the work, the hiring party inadvertently made the worker an employee. The court still looked past the fact that the parties called the worker an independent contractor, but the court said the contractual requirements of the relationship — the terms and conditions — controlled the outcome.

The other High Court case involved two truck drivers. Their contracts exhaustively set forth terms preserving their flexibility to work for others and to control how their work was performed. Their contracts also called for the drivers to use their own equipment, which involved a significant investment by the drivers. The court overruled a lower court decision that deemed the workers to be employees. The lower court focused on actual control exerted by the hiring party. But the High Court said the contract controls and, in this case, the contract established requirements consistent with independent contractor status. It is up to the parties to follow the contract, but the contract establishes the independent contractor relationship.

There are lessons for American companies here too.

While under U.S. law, the actual facts of the relationship control whether the worker is an employee, the independent contractor agreement is an opportunity to memorialize the helpful facts. That’s why off-the-shelf templates in the U.S. are of no value. (Hot tip: Google & Bing is not a law firm.) See related posts here and here, including how to discomfit a bear.

An independent contractor agreement in the U.S. should be drafted with the particular facts of the relationship in mind. Does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done? If so, put that in the contract. The worker controls when and where the work is performed, and the hiring party has no right to control when and where.

If the worker’s status is challenged, you want the contract to be a helpful piece of evidence. You want to be able to say to a court: Not only does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done (or insert other factor), but the contract forbids us from controlling that.

In the U.S., contract terms like that will be persuasive evidence, but only if the actual facts align. In Australia, the contract sets the rules, and the parties are in breach if they fail to follow the rules established in the contract.

But no matter where you sit, and no matter which way your map is aligned, companies should view independent contractor agreements as an opportunity to build the case that an independent contractor is properly classified.

By planning ahead and drafting carefully, you can maximize your chances of coming out on top.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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That’ll Cost You 96 Camels: Court Headlocks Staffing Agency with $7.2M Misclassification Judgment

Mom feeding a non-wrestling camel, May 2010

If you weren’t in Turkey last month, you missed the annual Selçuk Efes Camel Wrestling Festival, which featured 162 competitors in four categories.

The camels are paired by weight and skill, and their techniques include tripping their opponents with foot tricks or applying headlocks then sitting on their opponents. Some just push until the other camel gives up. A winner is declared when one camel scares away the other, making him scream or collapse. The camels are muzzled so there is no biting.

Among those missing the spectacle were the owners of Steadfast Medical Staffing, a Virginia-based firm that maintains a database of nurses and pairs them with healthcare facilities. That’s because they were in federal court, defending against a lawsuit by the Department of Labor. The DOL alleged that they had misclassified the nurses as independent contractors in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

After a bench trial, the judge agreed with the DOL and ruled that the nurses — which included CNAs, LPNs and RNs — were employees of the staffing agency. The Court applied the Economic Realities Test, which is the proper test for determining who is an employee under the FLSA.

The Court considered all relevant factors, then applied camel-style headlocks while sitting on the defendant, causing the staffing agency to either scream or collapse (unclear from the opinion). The Court ruled that the staffing agency failed to pay overtime and failed to comply with FLSA record keeping requirements. The agency will be liable for approximately $3.6M in back wages plus another $3.6M in liquidated damages.

Following the judgment, the DOL issued a statement with quotes from the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, and the Solicitor of Labor, Seema Nanda, that the DOL was sending an “unequivocal message” to Steadfast and other staffing companies that the DOL is serious about pursing independent contractor misclassification.

Staffing agencies that treat workers as independent contractors are on notice that the DOL is serious about enforcement. Remember, the facts of the relationship determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, not how the parties choose to characterize the relationship.

More than 1,100 nurses will share in the award, with a healthy-but-to-be-determined amount of fees headed to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

A prized wrestling camel can be sold for more than a million Turkish lira. That’s about $75,000. Large awards like this for systemic misclassification are not surprising. This one will cost the staffing firm about 96 wrestling camels.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Keep Litigation Far Away: Tips for Nonprofits so Volunteers Won’t Be Considered Employees

Jonathan photographed in April 2021. (Photo: Xben911 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jonathan turns 190 this year, but you won’t see his mug on the cover of People. That’s because Jonathan lives a solitary life in St. Helena, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Once a week, he is hand-fed cabbages, cucumbers, carrots, and apples to boost his nutritional intake. Jonathan is a giant tortoise, and he is believed to be the oldest living land animal.

You could volunteer to help feed Jonathan, but St. Helena is hard to get to. The island is 1,200 miles west of Africa, and commercial air service is limited. Sea transport is available on the RMS St. Helena, but it takes five days to get there from Cape Town.

If you want to volunteer closer to home, however, opportunities abound. Nonprofits thrive on the services of volunteers. But every once in a while, we hear of a volunteer who later claims to be an employee and who wants to be paid.

A recent case against the American Film Institute serves as a good reminder that expectations should be clearly established when working with volunteers.

When engaging volunteers, consider asking all volunteers to sign a short acknowledgement. Consider including these types of representations in the acknowledgement, customized to fit the specific project and organization:

  • That this is volunteer work and is purely optional;
  • That the decision to work is made freely, without pressure or coercion;
  • That the volunteer does not expect to be paid; and
  • That the work is being performed to support a nonprofit organization, and is being performed for [insert] objective [e.g., public service / religious / charitable / humanitarian / civic / some other similar non-commercial].

If the work could result in physical injury or damage to the individuals’s clothing or other property, consider adding that the individual acknowledges the risks (e.g., bodily injury, damage to personal property), knowingly assumes these risks, and will not hold the nonprofit responsible if those things occur.

Please don’t use the exact language above. This is not legal advice or a template. I’m just giving you ideas here — for the greater good. Work with counsel to draft an appropriate agreement.

Be sure the volunteer work is really voluntary. The voluntariness of the work was at issue in “the Lord’s Buffet” case a few years back, which has quite the backstory.

Volunteer service is important, and nonprofits unfortunately need to protect themselves against the occasional ungrateful troublemaker.

A simple acknowledgement can go a long way toward keeping litigation far away — like St. Helena and Jonathan, 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Low-Hanging Fruit? DOL and NLRB Join Forces to Fight Misclassification

Much has been written about the phrase low-hanging fruit. The metaphor’s origins are fairly obvious, referring to obtaining quick wins through minimal effort.

But how good is the metaphor? For harvesters, starting with the lowest hanging fruit is not the best strategy. Fruit near the top of a tree is generally riper and ready to eat, due to better sun exposure. Fruit can also be heavy, and harvesters who start at the top of the tree can work their way down as their bags grow heavier. Then there’s this insightful warning from one author’s mother, who cautioned that the blackberries near the bottom of the bush are the ones most likely to have been peed on by an animal.

Pee notwithstanding, the Department of Labor and the NLRB have seized on the low-hanging fruit strategy as a way to go after companies that misclassify independent contractors.

Last month the two agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to share information and better coordinate investigations when they suspect there have been violations of the law.

While the DOL and NLRB apply different tests to determine Who Is My Employee?, it’s likely that a relationship failing one test also fails the other. Violators of one law are the low-hanging fruit.

What does that mean for businesses? It means that if the NLRB believes your company misclassified its independent contractors, they’ll share that information with the DOL, which would be pleased to piggyback on the NLRB’s finding and tag you with wage and hour violations as well. And vice versa.

The information sharing arrangement raises the stakes for alleged violators. Companies found to be in violation of one law are more likely to be found in violation of multiple laws. And that means more fines, more assessments, and more disruption to your business.

For the DOL and NLRB, the information-sharing arrangement means they’ll go after each other’s targets and seek to double up on penalties. For companies whose independent contractors may resemble employees, it means you’re the blackberry that’s about to get peed on.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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New Year’s Resolutions: 5 Tips for Avoiding Trouble in 2022

Last spring in Poland, a menacing brown object appeared in a tree. Locals grew concerned about the mysterious beast and closed their windows. After a few days it was still there, and a call was placed to the local animal welfare society.

The authorities responded to the call and arrived on the scene to investigate. The citizens were relieved to learn it was not a bird of prey, a dangerous rabies-infested rodent, or a trapped pet. It was a croissant.

Somebody probably threw it into the tree while trying to feed birds.

The locals were likely embarrassed, but better safe than sorry. When in doubt, take steps to avoid problems. Be proactive.

Here are five tips to start off the new year the right way, with or without arboreal baked goods:

1. Review and revise your agreements with staffing agencies. Make sure you include The Monster with Three Eyes and these other clauses. Consider requiring all individual workers to sign arbitration agreements, and don’t forget the impact a choice of law clause may have.

3. Self-audit your use of independent contractors to determine whether these relationships are defensible. Here’s a tip for quickly identifying the riskiest relationships.

2. Review and revise your agreements with independent contractors. Add safe harbor clauses if you do business in WV or LA. Remember these rules, akin to discomfitting a bear.

4. Create a gatekeeper system so that managers and procurement team members cannot retain non-employee labor without first going through a designated individual. You can’t guard against the risks you don’t even know about.

5. Check your website for references to independent contractor relationships. Don’t refer to your contractors as “our whatevers” or “our team of whatevers.”

Remember, to those who say they haven’t been sued for misclassification, I say you haven’t been sued yet.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2022!

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Dole-Kemp ‘96? NLRB Announces Plan to Go Back to Old Rules on Joint Employment (But Not That Old)

The internet may be a playground and an encyclopedia, but it’s also a living graveyard. For those of you politically inspired, it’s not too late to join up with Dole-Kemp ‘96. Fans of the X-Files, who still await the next episode, can stay caught up at Inside the X. And anyone still looking to join the Heaven’s Gate cult can check out the group’s webpage here. The site is supposedly maintained by two of the only members who did not commit suicide in 1997, so leadership opportunities may be available.

The NLRB is hopping on the retro train too. Earlier this month, the Board announced its intent to adopt a new rule on joint employment. The new rule would displace the Trump-era regulation, which currently requires direct and substantial control over essential terms and conditions of employment before joint employment can be found.

The NLRB’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking follows the trail blazed by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the DOL, which in July rescinded the joint employment regulations passed during the Trump Administration. The WHD didn’t make a new rule; it just left a giant crater in the landscape, and now for Fair Labor Standards Act claims, there is no regulation at all.

The NLRB seems intent on adopting its own rule, not just rescinding the current regulation. There’s little doubt as to what the new rule will look like. Expect it to track the Browning-Ferris standard imposed by the Board in 2015. Under Browning-Ferris, when one company has the right to control aspects of the work, joint employment exists — regardless of whether control is actually exerted, and regardless of whether the control is over wages, hours, scheduling or anything else that fits within the meaning of essential terms and conditions.

Expect a substantial expansion in the scope of who a joint employer under the NLRA after the new rule is released. The impacts of joint employment under the NLRA can include being forced into bargaining with workers directly employed by a different company (a subcontractor, for example), being accused of a broader range of unfair labor practices, and being subjected to picketing that would be illegal secondary picketing if there were no joint employment relationship.

Back when Bob Dole was seeking the White House, actual control was required to be a joint employer under the NLRA. Since 2015, the standard has ping-ponged back and forth as the political winds have shifted. We’re about to see another major change sometime in mid-2022. If after the change you find yourself missing the good ol’ days, at least you can still cozy up with your Apple 2E and check out the Dole-Kemp campaign website.

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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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