In Russia, a new variant on boxing involves chaining the two combatants to opposite sides of a podium, with one arm of each boxer immobilized. They then pound each other with the remaining good arm and, because they’re tied to the podium, they have nowhere to go.
The contests, called armboxing, last for three one minute rounds. If the fighters last two rounds, their arms are both freed up for round three, but the boxers remain chained to the podium.
Getting pummeled with nowhere to go is also a fair way to describe Uber’s most recent run-in with the New Jersey Department of Labor over unpaid unemployment contributions. The NJDOL claims that under the Strict ABC Test governing New Jersey unemployment law, rideshare drivers are employees, not independent contractors.
The NJDOL pursued Uber and a subsidiary for failing to pay into the state’s unemployment fund over a five-year period, 2014-2018.
Last week, the NJDOL announced a settlement with Uber to cover the unpaid assessments – for a cool $100 million. The amount was based on $78 million in unpaid contributions plus $22 million in interest. Uber has made the payment but did not concede there was any misclassification.
New Jersey uses a strict ABC Test to determine employee status for unemployment coverage, but uses a different version of the ABC Test for wage and hour law. The strict ABC Test used for unemployment law follows the same formula as the tests in Massachusetts and California. The danger in these tests, of course, lies in prong B, which requires that to be an independent contractor, the work being performed must be “outside the usual course” of the hiring party’s business.
State departments of labor are notoriously aggressive in pursuing misclassification, and courts often defer to their judgment, even if the facts could support independent contractor status. The NJDOL is among the most aggressive enforcers, as you might expect when its Labor Commissioner says this: “Let’s be clear: there is no reason temporary, or on-demand workers who work flexible hours, or even minutes at a time can’t be treated like other employees in New Jersey or any other state.”
For businesses using independent contractors, tools such as arbitration agreements with class action waivers can be effective in preventing class action litigation. But arbitration agreements can’t stop a state agency from conducting an audit and imposing its own penalties for noncompliance.
And that’s how Uber found itself tied to a podium with one arm immobilized as it got hit.
Businesses in states using strict ABC Tests need to be particularly careful when setting up their business plans, their contracts, and their external messaging. State audits can be random, or they can be initiated after a worker complaint.
Unemployment filings by independent contractors can be especially dangerous. State departments of labor will typically investigate those claims, assess whether the worker is misclassified and — most troubling of all — will find that if the one worker was misclassified, then all similarly situated workers were also misclassified. The state DOL may then issue back assessments based on its assumptions about how many workers are similarly situated and how many were therefore misclassified.
When an independent contractor files an unemployment claim, pay attention and be prepared to defend your classification decision. Merely denying that the worker was an employee may not be enough, and a full-fledged audit could follow. In a full-fledged audit, the stakes can be high, and it might not feel like a fair fight.
Be proactive, plan ahead, and don’t chain your business to a podium.
© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.