Hold Your Fyre: Five Tips For Avoiding Misclassification When Using Social Media Influencers

In 2017, the Fyre Festival failed spectacularly after all sorts of social media influencers touted it as the must-attend party of the year. Documentaries on Hulu and Netflix tell the story in all its gory detail, and you can see the videos that hyped the event that wasn’t.

Despite that epic fail, the use of social medial influencers continues to be a powerful form of marketing. But when contracting with a social media influencer, beware. There are legal traps for the unwary.

For those of you who missed the social media influencer webcast on September 28, here are five tips to help prevent your social media influencer from being misclassified as your employee.

1. Whenever possible, contract with the influencers’ loan out company instead of the influencer as an individual. This is especially important if the influencer is a member of SAG-AFTRA and union pension and health contributions may be in play.

2. Limit control over things you don’t need to control. Yes, you can put parameters around the influencer’s messaging to protect the brand, and it’s ok to require the influencer to follow the FTC Guides, to avoid use of nudity or profanity, to avoid discriminatory or harassing language, and similar reasonable guardrails. But don’t get sloppy and start requiring the influencer to use your equipment or work from your facility. Be careful about open-ended contracts that are terminable at will. Don’t overreach in exerting control over when and where the. work is performed. Consider all of the Right to Control Test factors.

3. Remember that the law decides whether it’s employment, regardless of what the parties agree. And the Right to Control Test is not the only game in town. The Economic Realities Test will apply for determining worker status under federal wage and hour law and some state laws. More troubling, ABC Tests in California, Massachusetts, and other locations raise the bar significantly and make it much harder to maintain an independent contractor relationship. If the law says that it’s employment, then it’s employment. The labels you put in your contract don’t matter.

4. Avoid terminology that sounds like employment. “Retain” the influencer, not “hire.” “Terminate the contract,” instead of “fire.” Pay a “fee,” not a “wage.”

5. Pay by the project, not by the hour, whenever possible. Method of pay is a factor in many of the classification tests, and payment by the hour is one factor that’s suggestive of an employment relationship.

For more tips about how to properly engage a social media influencer, including how to make sure you follow advertising laws and avoid misclassification risks, tune in to the webcast.

You can watch it here on YouTube.

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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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Nowhere to Run: New Case Serves as Reminder That FLSA Misclassification Settlements are Very Public

I just got back from running in a 200-mile relay, Muskegon to Traverse City, with a group of college friends. I ran three legs of 4, 4, and 5 miles. I had the easiest set of three legs among the 12 runners, but I’m happy just to have finished. It was great to see everyone, and I was able to disconnect from work life for a few days.

So, what I’m saying here is, I had a better weekend than the guys I’m about to write about. And for them, there’s no running away from their problems.

In yet another exotic dancer case to hit the news, the performers at King’s Inn Premier Gentlemen’s Club in Massachusetts are about to score a $292,000 settlement in a claim that they were misclassified as independent contractors. A hearing to approve the settlement is scheduled for this week.

There seem to be a lot of exotic dancer cases in the annals of independent contractor misclassification, and the clubs seem to lose their fair share of these cases. This case, like most of the dancer cases, is a wage and hour case. The dancers claimed they were denied a minimum wage and overtime pay, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The club claimed the dancers were independent contractors and therefore were not covered under the FLSA.

But why do you care about a strip club exotic dancers case? Two reasons:

  • First, the Economic Realities Test is alive and well, and it applies to all industries.
  • Second, any settlement of an FLSA lawsuit must be approved, and it becomes public record.

You can read more about the first point here, in a collection of posts about this test and how it is used to determine whether someone is an employee.

The second point deserves a bit more attention, though. Most types of litigation can be settled in a private settlement agreement. An FLSA case cannot be. The law requires the settlement of an FLSA case to be approved by a judge, and there is a public hearing at which the settlement terms are considered.

Once you get sued for an FLSA violation, it’s very hard to get out of it with anything resembling confidentiality. This is the kind of claim you want to avoid in the first place.

How do you avoid an FLSA claim when you have independent contractors?

  • Be proactive. Evaluate your relationships using the Economic Realities Test and see if they hold up.
  • Review your contracts and see if they can be adjusted to better memorialize the facts that support independent contractor status.
  • Consider obtaining representations from the contractors up front to determine whether they really do operate independently.

Don’t wait until its too late to take action. You can’t just run away from an FLSA case.

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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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Make Sure Your Social Media Influencer Isn’t Deemed To Be Your Employee (and Other Legal Tips) — Free Webinar on Sep. 28

More than 67% of US marketers will use some form of social media influencer marketing this year, according to emarketer.com. While I can’t vouch for the numbers, I do believe that putting numbers in my attention-grabbing lede makes you want to keep reading and, besides, we all know it’s a lot so does the exact number really matter anyway?

While top social media influencers include Cristiano Ronaldo, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande, there are also niche social medial influencers with more targeted audiences, such as the gluten-free or plant-based foods crowd.

Whatever your social media marketing strategy, engaging a social media influencer involves legal risks. Some of these risks are pretty intuitive, such as laws relating to testimonials. You need to learn those rules and follow them. Other risks are a bit more hidden, and that’s where I come in.

While your relationship with a social media influencer is intended to be an independent contractor relationship, you need to avoid exerting so much control that you risk the influencer being deemed your employee. Yes, the Right to Control Test applies here too.

You need to protect your brand, and your contract with a social media influencer should do that. But where do you draw the line? You need to install guardrails to protect the integrity of your brand, but if you exert too much control, it’s possible to convert your social medial influencer to your employee, entirely by accident.

Join me and Linda Goldstein, co-leader of BakerHostetler’s Advertising, Marketing and Digital Media team for our webinar on September 28, Influencer Marketing: A 360 Degree View of the Legal Risks.

We’ll discuss:

  • Recent industry trends in Influencer Marketing
  • Current regulatory risks and trends
  • Independent contractor misclassification risks

You can register here for free. 1.0 CLE credit is available.

Free Useless Tip: One surefire way to avoid independent contractor misclassification is to use a social media influencer that’s not human, and there are several. Dogs, cats, and even a South Korean avatar have all built loyal social media followings. In the webinar we’ll be focusing on the use of human influencers, but you’re welcome.

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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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How to Avoid Liability for an Independent Contractor’s Injuries (Hint: Don’t Throw Stones)

“The Wound was Bound,” 1912. From NYPL Collection.

Sometimes injuries can be reasonably expected, sometimes not.

A good example of when injuries can be expected is the annual Bagwal festival in northern India. This year’s festival was described by Indian media as “a low-key affair” with only 77 of the 300 participants sustaining injuries. Wait, what?

At Bagwal, participants divide into four clans and hurl stones at each other to please a deity. According to this report, “The fight continues until a priest determines that enough blood has been shed in honor of the goddess Maa Barahi and demands to stop the fight.”

A good example of when injuries are not expected is when you retain an independent contractor to perform some sort of work on your property. Sometimes there are known hazards on the property. Sometimes there are no reasonable safety precautions that can be taken to minimize the hazard. For example, suppose you retain a contractor to fix a known safety risk.

The question: When an independent contractor gets injured by one of those known hazards, who is liable?

The California Supreme Court recently addressed this question in a case with significant ramifications for business owners, property owners, and independent contractors.

The answer: The contractor is liable, not the property owner — but this assumes the contractor is properly classified as an independent contractor.

The rationale: Like in many states, California law presumes “that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety.” This doctrine, known in California as the Privette doctrine, means that a hirer is typically not responsible for injuries suffered by an independent contractor.

The Privette doctrine makes sense. It arose out based on four basic assumptions:

  1. Hirers have no right to control an independent contractor’s work.
  2. Contractors can factor in the cost of safety precautions and insurance in the contract price.
  3. Contractors are able to obtain workers’ compensation coverage to cover any on-the-job injuries.
  4. Contractors are typically hired for their expertise, which includes knowing how to perform the contracted work safely.

There are two exceptions:

  1. A hirer may be liable when it exercises control over any part of the contractor’s work and negligently exercises that control in a way that contributes to the injury.
  2. A landowner who hires an independent contractor may be liable if the landowner knew, or should have known, of a concealed hazard on the property that the contractor did not know of and could not have reasonably discovered, and the landowner failed to warn the contractor of the hazard.

In Gonzalez v. Mathis, the court was asked whether a third exception should be recognized when injuries “result from a known hazard on the premises where there were no reasonable safety precautions it could have adopted to avoid or minimize the hazard.”

The court declined to recognize this exception, holding that in this situation, the contractor is liable, not the hirer. Rules may vary in other states.

What should businesses do to protect themselves, in light of this ruling?

  1. Make sure your contractors are properly classified as independent contractors under the applicable legal test. California uses an ABC Test for making this determination. Other California laws, such as Labor Code 2750.5 and 2810.3 complicate the analysis.
  2. Make sure your contractors are licensed and insured. Licensing by the Contractors State Licensing Board is required in California for anyone who contracts to perform work on a project that is valued at $500 or more for combined labor and materials costs.
  3. Do not exercise control over your contractors. Defer to their expertise.
  4. Disclose known hazards, especially those that are not readily visible.

And if you’re looking for repair work to be done at or near a Bagwal festival, don’t forget warn your contractor about the risk of flying stones.

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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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Now is the Time to Add These Safe Harbor Clauses to Your Independent Contractor Agreements

Image by Luca Falvo from Pixabay

I just finished reading The Longest Day, the 1959 book by Cornelius Ryan that tells the story of the D-Day landing from Allied, French, and German perspectives. The book covers June 6, 1944 and the days leading up to it, but it doesn’t get into what happened next. To facilitate supply lines into Europe right after D-Day, the British built two artificial harbors off the Normandy coast. Mulberry Harbours A and B allowed for the transport of up to 7,000 tons of vehicles and supplies to the mainland each day.

A harbor is a place where ships can seek shelter from the open ocean. Switching our focus to peacetime and the law, a “safe harbor” is the legal term for a provision that protects against liability if you meet certain conditions. No ships are required. Know the required conditions, and you can find shelter from a legal storm.

Two states recently passed laws that create safe harbors against claims of independent contractor misclassification.

Businesses using independent contractors in West Virginia and Louisiana should update their contracts immediately to take advantage of these new statutes.

Each state’s law provides a list of conditions that, if met, will make someone an independent contractor, providing a safe harbor against claims that these workers are misclassified and should be employees. The LA law creates a presumption of contractor status; the WV law is conclusive.

One of the conditions in WV, for example, is that the written contract “states…that the person understands” a list of five specific facts. The contract needs to “state” these five things. The WV law has other requirements too.

The LA law requires that 6 of a possible 11 conditions are met to fall within the safe harbor.

Other states are considering similar laws. Missouri and North Carolina are considering similar bills. Oklahoma was headed down the same road during the last legislative section but has not yet passed a bill.

Businesses using independent contractors in these states should amend their agreements to take advantage of these safe harbor opportunities.

At a time when the federal government is pledging to crack down further on independent contractor misclassification, it’s important to have contracts that are built to withstand classification challenges by any governmental body. Even under federal law, which doesn’t have these safe harbors, these recitations can be helpful when trying to meet the Right to Control and Economic Realities Tests used in federal law and in most states.

Your agreements with independent contractors provide an opportunity to build your defense against claims of misclassification. They should not be treated as a mere formality.

You want to be able to point to your agreements as Exhibit 1 in your defense against a misclassification claim. Play offense, not defense. Adding the WV and LA clauses — and even the proposed NC and MO clauses — can go a long way toward protecting your independent contractor relationships.

You might not be into reading books about World War II and that’s ok. But please read your contracts carefully. Now is a great time to amend and improve independent contractor agreements.

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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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Summer Cleaning: Three Easy Tips to Reduce Joint Employment Risks

Donate some, pitch some. That’s our third dumpster.

This month I have been focused on summer clean up. We moved back into our house after six months of unintentional reconstruction, thanks to failed plumbing supply line on the second floor that created an impromptu shower and bath throughout the first floor of our house. Welcome home from vacation, late December 2020.

But now I’m back and getting organized. Cleaning house. Moving forward.

Late summer can also be a good time to clean house and eliminate unnecessary legal risks. With the White House about to release a new rule on joint employment, now is the time to review your staffing agency agreements.

You’ll want to check for these three things:

  1. The Monster with Three Eyes. You need these three components to protect against joint employment claims, no matter what test applies.
  2. A clause like this one, to allow you to remove unwanted workers without exerting the type of control that would make you their employer.
  3. Awareness of FMLA risks. Know what to watch with temps-to-hire, and don’t forget about this often-overlooked rule.

Still looking for more places to click? Here are Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment.

The rules and the tests will keep changing, but the joint employment issue is here to stay. The risks of joint employment will only increase over the next few years.

It’s time for some summer cleaning. You can work magic with a few adjustments to your contracts, and you shouldn’t need a dumpster to complete this clean up exercise.

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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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West Virginia Adopts Pro-Business Independent Contractor Test

Three Fun Facts about West Virginia:

  1. The New River is actually one of the world’s oldest rivers and, unusually, flows south to north.
  2. The nickname and team mascot for Poca High School in Poca, WV is the Dots.
  3. West Virginia just adopted the most pro-business worker classification test in the nation.

While I would love to write about the Poca Dots, I’m going to focus on the state’s new worker classification test, enacted March 11, 2021. It takes effect 90 days later, on June 9, 2021.

The new test creates a safe harbor. If you comply with a list of requirements, including a written contract, your worker is automatically an independent contractor under WV wage and hour law, anti-discrimination law, workers’ compensation, and unemployment.

The bill nearly had a disastrous flaw. In its original form, passed by one chamber, if you failed to meet the safe harbor criteria, you’d automatically be deemed an employee. That would have had absurd unintended consequences, including that a worker would automatically be an employee if there was no written contract or if the contract did not include all required clauses.

I drafted a last-minute amendment that was adopted and inserted into the bill at the eleventh hour. The amendment said that if the safe harbor was not met, the worker would not automatically be an employee. Instead, the worker’s status would determined by using the 20-factor Right to Control Test in IRS Rev. Ruling 87-41. (The 20 factors are explained here in this PDF from the Texas Workforce Commission.)

The bill is very pro-business.

Businesses retaining contractors in WV should review the safe harbor provisions and be sure to comply. Compliance means a free pass for independent contractor status under state law (but not under federal law). Contracts may need to be adjusted to include the required clauses. Now is the time to do that.

Here is a link to the bill. The blue text contains the safe harbor. Read it closely and make sure these provisions are in your WV independent contractor agreements.

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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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Who WAS My Employee? Companies Must Provide This Notice to Former Employees By May 31.

Please hold. The past is calling. Source: LOC

This weekend I watched The Call, a South Korean horror film (yes, subtitles) about a woman who receives a call from 20 years earlier. The past and present keep changing as the two callers interact over time. Oddly there were two movies released in 2020 named The Call. It’s this one.

The past can affect the present, but not usually the way it did in the movie.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) imposes new COBRA-related obligations on employers, including notice requirements to former employees. In this blog, we usually ask Who Is My Employee?, but this week’s post is about Who Was My Employee?

ARPA changes the COBRA rules for April 1 through September 30, 2021. Employees who are involuntary terminated or become COBRA-eligible due to a reduction in hours are entitled to a 100% subsidy on their COBRA premiums for six months, April 1 to September 30. The company must pay the premiums, which are then reimbursed by the government through payroll tax credits.

ARPA extends this subsidy opportunity to former employees too, even those who did not sign up for COBRA when they were terminated. Under ARPA, those individuals get a second chance to sign up if they became COBRA-eligible less than 18 months ago.

Employers must send new COBRA notices to individuals who were involuntarily terminated (or who became COBRA-eligible due to a reduction in hours) within the last 18 months, including those who did not choose coverage at the time. These individuals can take advantage of the subsidized premiums from April through September, unless their 18-month COBRA eligibility period ends earlier or they become ineligible for another reason. Eligibility ends if the individual becomes eligible for other healthcare coverage or Medicare.

The DOL will be publishing model notices by April 10.

Employers must send this notice by May 31.

There’s more that employers need to know about changes to COBRA. The changes mean that your template severance agreements probably need to be revised too. There are new COBRA notice requirements for departing employees and new notices that must be sent when the subsidies are about to end.

I drafted a post addressing these subjects for BakerHostetler’s Employment Law Spotlight blog, which you can read here.

Reaching back 18 months to send notices to departed employees is an unusual requirement, but employers will have to make reasonable efforts to track these people down. Fortunately, unlike in The Call, employers don’t need to worry about anything that happened 20 years ago. The 18-month lookback is plenty to worry about.

© 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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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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