Like Being Thrown on a Trotting Horse? This Company is Trying Rideshare without Independent Contractors

In 18th Century Europe, common methods for trying to revive drowning victims included throwing the victim onto a trotting horse, dunking in freezing water (ironic?), and my personal favorite, blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum.

These were creative ideas and sometimes they actually worked. The bouncing motion from being on a trotting horse could force air in and out of the lungs, like modern CPR. Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, which causes the brain to release epinephrine, which helps to stimulate the heart to contract.

It’s fun now to look back at how people tried to solve problems when they didn’t know what would happen.

The biggest unknown in the world of independent contractor misclassification is what would happen if rideshare and delivery companies were forced to reclassify all drivers as employees. A well-funded startup in Dallas is attempting to find out.

As reported here, a new rideshare service called Alto just completed a $45 million round of Series B funding. Alto’s model is to use all W-2 drivers and company-owned vehicles. The service currently operates only in Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles, and has announced plans to switch to all-electric vehicles.

Will it work? Who knows.

Is it a viable business model? Who knows.

But in some ways, it’s a test case to see how an industry dominated by the independent contractor model might operate if forced to use all W2 workers. Yes, I know the taxi industry is another comparable. But it hasn’t exactly thrived since the emergence of rideshare. I’m pretty sure that’s not the model that rideshare would look to if force to pivot.

As the old proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. For those keeping score at home, Mothers of Invention was also the name of an experimental rock band in California once fronted by Frank Zappa and which featured tracks such as “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” But that’s for another day.

For now, the rideshare industry continues to operate with its independent contractor model under siege. Widespread conversion of driver contractors to employees would be difficult and would introduce massive disruption in the industry. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s continue to innovate. Sometimes, even being thrown on a trotting horse can be helpful.

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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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Biden Plan: Independent Contractor Misclassification Will Be An Enforcement Priority

Money
Get away
You get a good job with good pay and you’re okay
Money
It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Pink Floyd just gets it. When I was a young lawyer, someone described civil litigation to me as just moving piles of money from one party to another. But that cynical view tells only part of the story. It excludes the emotion, frustration, stress, and workload involved in defending disputes and in dealing with the consequences, which can include destroying an entire business model.

For businesses making widespread use of independent contractors, all of these concerns are about to get worse.

President Biden’s proposed FY2022 budget includes expanding resources to combat independent contractor misclassification. The Administration’s “commitment” to combatting misclassification is spelled out pretty unambiguously on page 15:

The Administration is also committed to ending the abusive practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors, which deprives these workers of critical protections and benefits. In addition to including funding in the Budget for stronger enforcement, the Administration intends to work with the Congress to develop comprehensive legislation to strengthen and extend protections against misclassification across appropriate Federal statutes.

The President’s proposal includes $14.2 billion for DOL enforcement efforts, including to “address the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.” This represents a $1.7 billion increase from 2021.

Expect the Department of Labor to place much greater scrutiny on independent contractor relationships than during the Trump Administration. The nomination of David Weil to head up the Wage and Hour Division signals that the President is serious about this enforcement priority. Weil served in the same role under Obama, and he made independent contractor misclassification a focal point of his enforcement efforts.

If your independent contractor arrangements have not been closely examined recently, it’s time for a check up. $14.2 billion for enforcement efforts is a lot of money. I think I’d buy me a football team.

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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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What Are “Contract Workers”? You’ll Need Some Clarification First.

Did you know that Monaco’s flag looks the same as the flag of Indonesia? The differences are subtle. The Indonesian flag is wider, with a width-to-length ratio of 2:3, compared to Monaco’s 4:5; and Monaco flies a slightly darker shade of red. The flag above is Monaco’s. Fans of Indonesia, don’t be fooled by that pushy sales clerk at the flag store.

Now take your screen and flip it 180 degrees. That’s the flag of Poland. Its proportions are 5:8.

Sometimes, things look the same, even when they’re not. True with flags. Also true with “contract workers.”

When a client starts talking about its “contract workers,” the first thing I want to know is what they mean. Are you talking about 1099 independent contractors? Staffing agency workers employed by a staffing agency? Or your own W2 employees with contracts to work for specific period of time?

Each is as different as Monaco and Indonesia.

If discussing 1099 independent contractors, we’re talking about workers that no one is treating as an employee. The legal risk here is independent contractor misclassification. In other words, are laws being broken by not treating these workers as employees?

If discussing staffing agency workers, we’re talking about someone else’s W2 employees. The issue here is not whether these workers are anyone’s employees. We already know they’re the staffing agency’s employees. The legal issue here is whether these workers are joint employees. In other words, are they employees of both the staffing agency and your company?

If discussing your own W2 employees with contracts for a definite period, we’re probably discussing contract terms and we’ll probably need to see the contract. These are employees but not employees at-will.

The flags of Monaco and Indonesia may look the same, but the countries and their laws are very different. Same thing here. These three types of “contract workers” are as different as a European principality with a population of less than 40,000 and a Southeast Asian chain of islands with a population larger than every country on earth except China, India, and the United States.

Yes, Indonesia really does have the world’s fourth largest population. Fun fact! (And one of the world’s most common flags, tied with Monaco and Poland, as you now know.)

If you’re asked about “contract workers,” be sure you know what you’re being asked about. Any of these three types of worker can be called “contract workers,” but they’re very different, and the legal issues involved are very different too.

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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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Independent Contractors May Have a Weil Problem On Their Hands

Crash Test Dummies is a band from Winnipeg that I really like — especially the 1993 album, God Shuffled His Feet. It’s full of thoughtful questions asked in a booming deep voice. The song In the Days of the Caveman takes a look back, with some keen observations added for good measure:

In the days of the caveman
And mammoths and glaciers
Bugs and trees were your food then
No pajamas or doctors

See, that’s all true and probably not something you had thought about before.

President Biden has given us another reason to look back and reconsider some things you hadn’t thought about in a while. Last week, Biden nominated David Weil to serve as Wage and Hour Administrator. Weil served in the same role under Obama, so we’ve seen that movie too.

Here are some highlights from Weil’s last stint as W&H Administrator:

  • Administrator’s Interpretation 2016-1: Joint Employment under the FLSA, which I wrote about here when it was issued. Weil embraces the broadest possible view of joint employment. The Trump Administration’s DOL rescinded this guidance in 2017.
  • Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1: Applying the FLSA’s “Suffer or Permit” Standard to Independent Contractor Classification, which I wrote about here. Weil advocates an expansive view of employment, declaring that “most workers are employees under the FLSA’s board definitions.”

Here’s what we can expect from Weil 2.0:

  • Increased enforcement activity by the DOL against companies using independent contractors.

Right now, claims generally arise through lawsuits, and class/collective actions present the most danger. The risk of class claims can be limited with arbitration agreements and class waivers. But arbitration agreements provide no defense against a DOL action. Those agreements don’t bind the government. Expect the DOL to go after companies that make extensive use of independent contractors.

  • Increased enforcement activity by the DOL on joint employment claims.

Remember, unlike independent contractor misclassification, joint employment is not illegal. Joint employment is a problem when a primary employer (such as a staffing agency or vendor/subcontractor) fails to comply with some aspect of the FLSA and its wage payment rules. Under a broad theory of joint employment, the company benefitting from the services is going to be liable for the errors of the primary employer, even though the alleged joint employer had no control over the primary employer’s wage practices.

  • New regulations on independent contractor classification and joint employment.

The standards and test keep changing, depending on who holds the White House. One step the Wage and Hour Division can take to try to make its views more permanent is to adopt its views as formal regulations, not just Administrator’s Interpretations. This is what the Trump DOL tried to do for both independent contractor misclassification and joint employment. Expect a strong push by the DOL to adopt new regulations that make it harder to maintain independent contractor status and easier to find joint employment.

The bottom line is that we’re going back in time. Maybe not so far back that bugs and trees were your food then, but back to 2015 and 2016 interpretations of the FLSA. Expect no pajamas or doctors.

What to do about it? Businesses that rely on independent contractors should tighten their agreements now. Businesses that engage staffing agencies should review those contracts now.

These posts contain a few of my favorite tips:

Good luck out there, and beware of mammoths and glaciers.

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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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What Are the I-9 Requirements for Independent Contractors?

The Munker-White Illusion, image by David Novick (UTEP)

This is one of my favorite optical illusions. The spheres here are all beige. They are not red, green, or purple. Look closely and you’ll see. David Novick, a professor of engineering at UTEP, explains the illusion here.

It’s fun to be fooled with optical illusions. But it’s not fun to be fooled with federal immigration law.

Companies retaining independent contractors should remember these key points for I-9s and immigration law compliance:

1. Properly classified independent contractors do not need to complete I-9 forms.

2. Misclassified independent contractor — that is, those who are really employees under federal law — are employees and should have a completed I-9. A multi-factor test is used to make this determination. According to federal regulations, these factors should be considered:

  • Who supplies tools or materials;
  • Whether the worker makes services available to the general public;
  • Whether the worker works for a number of clients at the same time;
  • Worker’s opportunity for profit or loss as a result of labor or services provided;
  • Worker’s investment in facilities for work;
  • Who directs the order or sequence in which the work is to be done; and
  • Who determines the hours during which the work is to be done.

3. Federal law prohibits individuals or businesses from contracting with an independent contractor to provide services in the U.S., knowing that the contractor is not authorized to work in the U.S. [8 U.S.C. 1324a(a)(4)]

4. Staffing agency temps employed by the staffing agency must complete I-9s as employees of the staffing agency. Contracts with staffing agencies should make clear the staffing agency accepts this obligation. If an agency sends a bunch of undocumented temps to your worksite, you might get an unscheduled visit from ICE, which is not a good look.

For those keeping a list at home (wait, that’s just me?), you can add immigration law noncompliance to the list of Things That Can Go Badly When Independent Contractors are Misclassified.

And that’s no illusion.

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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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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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Kick Back or Kickback? Using Independent Contractors in This Situation is a Felony

With summer coming, you’re probably ready to kick back, to relax. Vacation rentals invite you to kick back and relax. Meditation music invites you to kick back and relax.

But remove the little space between “kick” and “back,” and that’s not something you want at all.

The federal Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a crime to “knowingly and willfully” offer, pay, solicit, or receive any remuneration to induce referrals of items or services reimbursable by Federal health care programs. 42 U.S.C. § 1320a–7b(b).

That means you cannot retain an independent contractor sales agent to refer customers to buy items or services that are reimbursable by Federal health care programs. Paying commissions or any other thing of value for these referrals is illegal. (There are some limited exceptions.)

Violations are a felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison and massive fines. Violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute are also automatic violations of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729.

The risk of prosecution is real. One recent decision upheld damages and penalties of more then $100 million against a blood testing lab that had retained independent contractor sales agents to provide referrals.

But employees can provide these referrals, even when independent contractors cannot. The Anti-Kickback Statute says it is not a violation when the remuneration is paid to an employee providing services in the course of employment. 42 U.S.C. § 1320a–7b(b)(3)(B). To avoid violating the Anti-Kickback Statute, these sales agents should be classified as employees, not independent contractors.

There are other safe harbors too. Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services adopted a new rule describing these safe harbors, but they are narrow and all conditions must be met. There is a Personal Services Arrangements Safe Harbor that, under some circumstances, will permit payments to an independent contractor agent. You can read more about the new rule here.

Tread very carefully. The penalties for violating the Anti-Kickback Statute are serious. But if you get it right, maybe you can kick back and relax after all.

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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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Managing a Large Contingent Workforce: What are MSP, VMS, and FMS?

When something important has to get done, you’ll do whatever it takes. And you’re not alone. This ten-year old, for example, stole his parents’ car to drive to the grocery store to buy Cheerios when he found they had run out at home.

I’d start hiding the car keys. There are better ways to replenish the Cheerios.

Replenishing your workforce can be a tougher job. When building a contingent workforce management program, there are lots of options and lots of acronyms.

Here’s a high level cheat sheet of the key options, along with the acronyms you’ll hear:

MSP = Managed Service Provider.  Third party that oversees the selection of service providers. An MSP negotiates contracts with staffing agencies and works with suppliers, usually not working directly with individual talent. Uses VMS, possibly FMS.

VMS = Vendor Management System.  Web-based application that allows organization to secure and manage staffing services on a temporary, permanent, or contract basis. Features include job requisitions and staff ordering. Centralizes and handles the administrative process of multiple vendors for invoicing and payments.

FMS = Freelance Management System.  Technology platform used to match opportunities with talent. May include a talent pool; may include public marketplace and a private talent pool. Helps ICs find opportunities.

VOP = Vendor on premise. Preferred staffing agency, onsite.

Your company can use a VMS directly or can retain an MSP (which will use its own VMS) to manage the talent acquisition process. Here’s my weak attempt at a flow chart:

          MSP

        /       \

     VMS    FMS   

       |            |

Staffing       ICs

Agencies

     |

Temps, ICs

Here’s what I’m trying to show: If you retain an MSP, the MSP will likely use a VMS to work with staffing agencies, and the staffing agency will identify temps or ICs. Or, the MSP may use a FSP to directly retain ICs.

If you do not retain an MSP, you can handle the talent search process in house, using a VMS to oversee the relationship with staffing agencies, who will procure temps or ICs. Or you can use a FMS to match qualified ICs with your project-based needs.

This is a vast oversimplification, but hopefully it’s helpful at a high level. Best wishes for a terrific week, and don’t forget to maintain an adequate supply of Cheerios.

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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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Use a Sea Slug’s Secret Superpower When Drafting IC Arbitration Clauses

Witness: The severed head of a sea slug. Image by Sakaya Mitoh, who performed this awesome experiment.

Did you know that sea slugs have superpowers?

According to researchers at the Nara Women’s University in Japan, if you sever the head of a certain type of slug, the slug can grow a new body, organs and all. I like that as the basis for a new Marvel character. Or maybe the slug is a distant cousin to Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.

The moral of the story is that when a slug loses its head, all is not lost. (This is how sea slugs survived the French revolution.) The same may be true in the context of arbitration agreements for independent contractors. (Come on, that’s a really good segue, isn’t it?)

For independent contractors in the transportation industry, arbitration agreements may be unenforceable under federal law. But all is not lost. In some states, state arbitration law can save the day. That means it’s important to know your state laws and to draft choice of law clauses carefully.

Here’s what I mean:

For companies that work extensively with independent contractors, there are lots of good reasons to require that disputes are resolved in arbitration, not in court. One of the biggest advantages of arbitration is the ability to include a class action waiver, requiring any claimant to bring a case on an individual basis only. No class actions. Class claims are the sexiest of all claims to plaintiff’s lawyers. Individual claims are not nearly as lucrative. Or sexy.

The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) embraces arbitration as an enforceable way to resolve disputes. But there’s a big exception to the FAA. It doesn’t apply to transportation workers “engaged in … interstate commerce.” The meaning of that phrase is unclear, and there are lots of lawyers fighting about its scope. Different courts have come to different conclusions, especially regarding last mile delivery drivers and rideshare. Eventually, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on exactly what this phrase means.

But in the meantime, what if your contractors are arguably “engaged in … interstate commerce”? Are you stuck with a lengthy legal battle over whether your arbitration agreement is enforceable under the FAA?

Not necessarily. Don’t forget about state law. Several states have their own laws embracing arbitration as an enforceable way to resolve disputes, and these state laws generally do not have exceptions for transportation workers.

New York is a good example. Courts in New York have upheld arbitration agreements, even when the workers were arguably transportation workers not covered by the FAA.

Choose your state law carefully, especially if your arbitration agreement might be subject to the FAA’s exception for transportation workers. It’s common to include a “choice of law” clause in contracts, but those clauses are often dropped into contracts without anyone thinking about why a certain state’s law should apply. Those clauses really do matter, and the choice of law section should be carefully considered.

When it comes to arbitration agreements, the choice of law clauses should not be viewed as a boilerplate clause to toss in without careful thought.

The ability to choose a particular state’s law is a real superpower. Use it like a sea slug!

© 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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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.

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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