When an Employee Double-Dips On a Paycheck, Who Pays?

Remember this?

Suppose the chip is a check, and the employee tries to cash it twice? Who would you rather be, Costanza or Timmy?

Staffing agency clients are increasingly pointing to a fraud committed by disloyal short-term employees. They cash a paycheck on their mobile app, then deposit the paper check a second time for duplicate payment. The check clears twice. Who must pay?

While this problem can arise in many scenarios, including with regular W-2 employees, it seems to be occurring more frequently with staffing agency employees, PEOs, temps, and other short-term workers. So let’s take a look.

I found a few good blog posts covering this subject (for those wanting more detail, try here or here), but here’s the bottom line:

The Check 21 Act, passed in 2004, addresses what happens when a bank allows its customers access to a mobile deposit app. When a customer electronically deposits a check, the bank creates an electronic image of that check, called a “substitute check.” This is what you sometimes see when you view your statement online. It’s negotiable, like a live check.

The original live check, however, still exists too. A fraudster who acts quickly enough can sometimes cash both. Under the Check 21 Act, the bank that creates the “substitute check” — the bank that allowed its customer access to the mobile check cashing app — is the bank that bears responsibility for any loss from the twice-cashed check.

This makes sense. Because that bank’s customer is the fraudster who double dipped, that bank is also in the best position to recoup the funds from the double-dipper.

Staffing agencies, payroll agencies, or PEOs who issue a twice-cashed check are sometimes asked to make good on the same payment twice. They shouldn’t be. If the double dipping occurred through an electronic “substitute check,”, they can point to the Check 21 Act, specifically 12 USC §5004, and argue that the double-dipper’s bank is properly accountable.

Note:  The Check 21 Act only applies to electronic double dipping. If an employee claims to have lost an original live check and obtains a substitute, then cashes both checks, different rules apply.

Joint Employment Is Like Taking Steroids By Accident

athlete-joint employment - staffing agency - 1840437_1920It seems like every month another professional athlete is caught using a prohibited substance. The typical script (after getting caught) is to blame the maker of a supplement. “I should have more carefully checked the label,” or “I had no way of knowing what was in that synthetic elephant urine.”

Fair or unfair, every athlete knows that he/she is responsible for what goes into the athlete’s body, whether the juicing was intentional or not.

The same rule applies to companies who use staffing agencies.

When workers are deemed to be joint employees, both the staffing agency and the company that benefits from the services are responsible for failures to follow employment law. It doesn’t matter who made the mistake.

Under the FLSA, for example, employers must pay non-exempt employees a minimum wage, must pay for all hours worked, must pay overtime, and must properly calculate overtime rates. Sometimes this is hard. Two traps that ensnare even the most sophisticated employers are the challenge of accounting for off-the-clock work (checking email by cell phone, for example), and calculating the base hourly rate when there are bonuses and other forms of compensation provided.

Joint employment means joint liability. If the staffing agency responsible for paying employees makes an error, both companies are on the hook. That means a company can be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages  — including back pay, attorneys’ fees, and liquidated damages — for errors it had no control over.

When the potential exists for a finding of joint employment, be careful when selecting  vendors who supply workers. Here are three tips:

  1. Be sure any vendors who supply workers are reputable, competent, professional, and reliable. (Four tips in one! you’ll thank me later)
  2. Be sure they stand behind their obligations with a suitable (and specific) indemnity clause.
  3. Be sure they are sufficiently insured.

Remember, under the FLSA (and many other laws), your company may be jointly liable for a staffing agency’s mistakes — even if you had no control over their pay practices.

Using staffing agency workers is like taking a performance supplement. It may enhance the bottom line and improve overall performance, but any funny business is your responsibility.

It doesn’t matter who put the horse steroid in your protein powder. If you ingest it, you are responsible for it.

Podcast: What You Need to Know About Independent Contractor Misclassification

IMG_1073This week, I am encouraging readers to tune in to this podcast from XpertHR, in which I discuss issues and hot topics related to independent contractor misclassification.

Topics covered include:

  • The attack on business models that rely on the use of independent contractors;
  • The future of misclassification claims;
  • Possible updates to the FLSA;
  • Industries that are most at risk for independent contractor misclassification claims; and
  • Common misconceptions.

I hope you enjoy this interview, and thank you to David Weisenfeld and Xpert HR.

Security Guards: Employees or Contractors?

security guard employee or independent contractorI never saw the movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop and almost certainly never will. (Do I really need explain that decision?)

The Independent Contractor vs. Employee question often arises in the context of security guards, though. I confess to not knowing how Paul Blart was classified but, for companies who retain security guards, the decision whether to hire them as employees or to contract with a security firm is an important one.

The main advantage of hiring security guards as employees is the ability to retain control over how an individual guard does the job. The company can select who it wants to work and when, and can provide as much supervision and direction as needed.

The biggest disadvantage to using employees for security work, however, is the risk of liability. The very purpose of the role is to guard against dangerous or threatening situations. Where a security guard overreacts, or where someone gets hurt by a guard acting in the normal course, lawsuits are sure to result. And the injuries are likely to involve more than hurt feelings.

A recent Texas case, Henderson v. CC-Parque View, illustrates the benefit of using contractors rather than employees to provide security services. In that case, a management company contracted with a security firm to provide guards at an apartment complex.

One night, an overzealous guard (we’ll call him Blart, because that truly is a great name for an overzealous guard) ordered Henderson (that’s Henderson’s real name), who was sitting in a parked car at the complex, to get out of his car. Henderson got out, but an argument ensued.

In an attempt to proclaim his invincibility, Henderson (I imagine this is how it went down) shouted, “I’m rubber and you’re glue and anything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

The guard, an avid fan of MythBusters, did not believe his antagonist’s impromptu physics lesson and shot him in the abdomen with a rubber bullet. It did not bounce. And it hurt.

Henderson sustained injuries. He sued the guard, the security company that employed the guard, and the management company of the apartment complex.

The suit against the guard and security company proceeded, but the management company successfully argued that the guard was not its employee and that it could not be liable for his actions.

The court ruled that the guard was a contractor, not an employee of the management company; and the management company was dismissed from the lawsuit.

Had the guard been hired directly by the management company as its employee, the outcome likely would have been very different, since employers are commonly held liable for the acts of their employees, when in the course of employment.

This case is a good reminder of the benefit of retaining an outside security firm, rather than hiring employees, to provide security services.

And did you hear there’s a Mall Cop 2? I also won’t watch that.

The Myth of “Temporary Employees”

IMG_1067What is a “temporary employee”? I have practiced employment law for 20 years (Note to self: Keep practicing; someday you’ll get good at it.) and I can’t tell you. It’s a state secret. All lawyers have been sworn to secrecy forever.

Either that or, if you really want to know and say “pretty please” (with or without sugar on top, but no artificial sweetener please), that term has no legal significance. Usually the term is used to mean one of two things:

  1. your employee, hired on a trial basis with some sort of probationary period; or
  2. a staffing agency worker, retained to augment staff levels on a temporary basis.

Under option 1, the “temp” is a regular W-2 employee of yours, probably employed at will like your other employees, but whether you call that person “temp” or “permanent” or “regular” or “irregular” (?), none of it matters. A temp worker who is your employee, paid subject to deductions, is your employee.  Temp time counts toward FMLA eligibility. Continue reading

Avoid this ADA Trap When Using Staffing Agency Workers

ADA staffing agency reasonable accommodation ambulance-2166079_1280ADA Quick Quiz: Your company uses staffing agency workers. A staffing agency worker discloses a medical need and asks for a reasonable accommodation — maybe a computer screen reading program, or an ergonomic chair, or a modified work schedule.

1. Which company must have the interactive conversation to determine what reasonable accommodation is appropriate?

(A) Your company
(B) The staffing agency
(C) Both

2. Which company is obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation?

(A) Your company
(B) The staffing agency
(C) Both

3. Which company is obligated today for the reasonable accommodation?

(A) Your company
(B) The staffing agency
(C) Both

Answers: Continue reading

Avoid this Common But Disastrous Mistake in Staffing Agency Agreements

staffing services mistake-1966448_1920

A client once asked me to review the Employment Agreement of a candidate they were considering hiring. The candidate had recently been terminated but his Employment Agreement contained a 12-month non-compete, and my client’s job offer seemed pretty clearly to be for a competing job.

But the terminating employer made once huge mistake. When it meant to terminate employment, instead it terminated the agreement … and with it, the non-compete.  Oops!

I see the same mistake in Staffing Agreements and Professional Services Agreements all the time.

These agreement are usually intended to serve as Master Service Agreements (MSA), with additional work orders to govern the actual services to be provided. These MSAs contain very important clauses that are intended to survive, even after the services have stopped. Examples of clauses intended to survive the termination of services include indemnification, insurance coverage, preservation of confidential information, and right to audit.

The mistake I see over and over, however, is the inclusion of a termination clause that allows for termination of the agreement, not merely termination of services.

Continue reading