When The Rules Do Not Apply: Freelancers’ Lawsuit Challenges California’s New ABC Test

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I was headed to an appointment last week when I came upon this sign. Sometimes the people who make the rules just assume the rules don’t apply to them. Or sometimes people don’t even think about the rules and whether they make sense.

I was tempted to take the sign off the piano, in the interests of following the directive on the sign. But I just took a picture instead.

This post is about when the rules should apply.

Since California’s new ABC Test law (Assembly Bill 5) went into effect January 1st, the legal challenges have been rolling in. (See this post, for example.) The latest groups to challenge the new law are freelance writers and photographers.

Wanna know something absurd? Of course you. We all do. That’s why we read the internet on our phones during meetings. Under the new law, freelancers are exempt from the ABC Test — and can likely remain independent contractors — if they make 35 or fewer submissions to a publication in a year. But with the 36th submission, the ABC Test suddenly applies, meaning that same freelancer would more likely become an employee, retroactive to the first submission.

What is so special about the 36th submission that would convert a freelancer from an independent contractor to an employee? All together now: “Nothing!” This law is ridiculous. A newly filed lawsuit asks a court to invalidate that limit on the basis that it is arbitrary, which it absolutely is. The lawsuit alleges that the arbitrariness violates the freelancers’ Equal Protection and First Amendment Rights.

Freelancers don’t want to be employees for two reasons.

First, works created by contractors are owned by the contractors, who can license the works and earn a fee. That’s how they make money — and is the reason why freelance journalists are all so rich. (That’s for my daughter, who’s in journalism school and doesn’t eat ramen noodles. Yet.) In contrast, under the U.S. Copyright Act, works created by an employee are owned by the employer. That means the freelancer who created the work loses the rights to it. So, if we apply the new rule, that would mean Submission #36, which likely converts the freelancer to a retroactive employee, also converts ownership of Submissions #1-35 to the employer. No way that’s fair.

Second, for every action there’s a reaction. Publishers are not stupid. They don’t want freelancers to become their employees either. So what will they do once a freelancer hits the 35-submission limit? They won’t accept any more submissions. That hurts the publication and the freelancer. Or maybe they will want some freelancers to become their employees so they can commandeer ownership of Submissions #1-35. Either way, this is absurd.

If you’d like to read more, here’s a copy of the complaint. The lawsuit is pending in federal court in the Central District of California.

And please don’t place anything on top of the piano.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Voters Would Reject This Flight Option, But They Could Change Independent Contractor Law in California This November

Expensive flight

A few years back, I found myself headed to the Houston airport earlier than expected after a business trip. I decided to check my phone to see whether I could get on an earlier flight back home to Cleveland.

Turns out I could — for $52,270. For coach. There was also a first class seat available. For $69,570.

I declined and decided to wait the three hours for my originally scheduled departure. But for good measure, I took this screenshot because, hey, why not.

Taking the earlier flight would not have been a good use of my money. The real subject of this post is about five app-based companies who are making much better use of their money.

With app-based companies under constant attack through independent contractor misclassification claims, and with California’s new Assembly Bill 5 making it even harder to classify people as independent contractors, the major providers are fighting back.

They’ve pledged $110 million to support a ballot initiative in California that would redraw the lines in the Employee vs. Independent Contractor debate — at least for rideshare and delivery drivers.

Under current federal and state laws, a worker is either an independent contractor or an employee. It’s binary. Employees get lots of protections. Contractors get almost none. There’s no third category that would allow rideshare and delivery drivers to operate independently while receiving a minimum level of legal protection.

This proposed initiative would change that. The law would create new rules for app-based transportation providers and drivers in California.

If the initiative passes, the new ABC Test would not apply to workers in the app-based rideshare and delivery business. Instead, those workers could stay classified as independent contractors, but the app-based companies must ensure that the drivers receive a predetermined level of compensation and benefits, including:

  • Earnings Minimum. The measure would require app-based companies to pay at least 120 percent of the minimum wage for each hour a driver spends driving—but not time spent waiting for requests.
  • Health Insurance Stipend. The measure would require rideshare and delivery companies to provide a health insurance stipend of about $400 per month to drivers who regularly work more than 25 hours per week (not including waiting time). Drivers who average 15 driving hours per week but less than 25 driving hours would receive half as much.
  • Medical Expenses and Disability Insurance. The measure would require that companies buy insurance to cover driver medical expenses and provide disability pay when a driver is injured while driving.
  • Rest Policy. The measure would prohibit drivers from working more than 12 hours in a 24 hour period for a single rideshare or delivery company.
  • Other. The measure would require that rideshare and delivery companies have sexual harassment prevention policies and conduct criminal background checks and safety training for all drivers. It also would prohibit discrimination in hiring and firing.

The measure would also prevent cities and counties from passing further restrictions on driver classification.

The initiative needs 625,000 signatures to appear on the November 2020 ballot in California. I expect they’ll get the signatures, and then the media campaign will kick into high gear. Expect TV and radio ads, billboards, and a heavy social media push to garner support.

If the ballot measure passes, that will have been money well spent — a much wiser use of resources than for some dodo to pay $52,270 to take an earlier flight home from Houston. The proposed law would create a fairer and more predictable set of rules for drivers and companies, and it should substantially reduce the rampant misclassification lawsuits in the rideshare and delivery driver area.

I’ll be watching for similar proposed legislation in other states. And I’ll be watching airfares too, before I switch any future flights.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What Is Joint Employment? New DOL Rules Take Effect in 60 Days

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This week’s post is Family Feud Style. Name Three Things That Sound Like They Would Be “Joint Employment” But Are Not:

  1. Long-haired, easy-going product tester at the local wacky tobacky dispensary
  2. Note taker at an orthopedist’s office
  3. The guy on radio ads for non-approved supplements claiming to relieve joint pain who says, really really fast, “These statements not approved or validated by the FDA.”

Each of those jobs has something to do with joints, but that’s not what the Department of Labor (DOL) means when it addresses “joint employment.”

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), more than one person can be an employee’s employer, and when there’s joint employment, both employers are fully liable for any minimum wage or overtime owed to the employee. So, when is a person a joint employer?

On Sunday, the DOL issued new rules for determining when someone is a joint employer under the FLSA. The new rules take effect in 60 days. Here’s what you need to know.

Four-Part Balancing Test

When an employee’s work is for the benefit of both the W-2 employer (such as a staffing agency) and another business, the determination of whether the second business is a “joint employer” is made by evaluating whether the second business:

  1. Hires or fires the employee;
  2. Supervises and controls the employee’s work schedule or conditions of employment to a substantial degree;
  3. Determines the employee’s rate and method of payment; and
  4. Maintains the employee’s employment records.

It’s a balancing test, and no single factor is dispositive.

Actual Control Is Required; Reserved Control Is Not Enough

The new regulations focus on actual control, not merely the right to exert control. This is different from the common law test.

Under the new regulations, the potential joint employer must actually exercise control. Merely reserving control can be relevant, but only if the business actually exercises control in at least one of the four ways. Standard contract language reserving a right to act is not sufficient to demonstrate joint employment.

Different Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee

The test for joint employment will now be different from the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee. To determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under the FLSA, the key question is whether the worker is economically dependent on the potential employer. But according to the new regulations, once the worker is someone’s employee, economic dependence is not relevant to determining whether there is a second “joint” employer.

Ordinary Sound Business Practices Are Not Evidence of Joint Employment

The regulations also provide assurance to businesses that wish to impose rules to preserve brand standards, ensure compliance with the law, or instill sound business practices. Those types of actions, according to the DOL, are not evidence of joint employment.

For example, the following actions by a potential joint employer do not make a finding of joint employment more likely:

  • Operating as a franchisor or entering into a brand and supply agreement, or using a similar business model;
  • Requiring the primary employer to comply with specific legal obligations or to meet certain standards to protect the health or safety of its employees or the public;
  • Monitoring and enforcing contractual agreements with the primary employer, such as mandating that primary employers comply with their obligations under the FLSA or other similar laws;
  • Instituting sexual harassment policies;
  • Requiring background checks;
  • Requiring primary employers to establish workplace safety practices and protocols or to provide workers training in matters such as health, safety, or legal compliance;
  • Requiring the inclusion of certain standards, policies, or procedures in an employee handbook;
  • Requiring quality control standards to ensure the consistent quality of the work product, brand, or business reputation, or the monitoring and enforcement of such requirements, including specifying the size or scope of the work project, requiring the employer to meet quantity and quality standards, and imposing deadlines;  
  • Imposing morality clauses;
  • Requiring the use of standardized products, services, or advertising to maintain brand standards;
  • Providing the employer a sample employee handbook or other forms; 
  • Allowing the employer to operate a business on its premises (including “store within a store” arrangements); 
  • Offering an association health plan or association retirement plan to the primary employer or participating in such a plan with the primary employer; or 
  • Jointly participating in an apprenticeship program with the primary employer.

FLSA Only

The new regulations apply to the FLSA only. Other agencies may impose different standards. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is expected to issue its own regulations shortly to address when there is joint employment under federal labor law; and the Equal Employment Opportunity Agency (EEOC) is expected to consider issuing its own new standards for determining whether joint employment exists under federal anti-discrimination laws.

Standards issued by the NLRB or the EEOC maybe similar or may be materially different.

Reliance On The New Rules Provides a Defense

These new rules will apply to DOL investigations of FLSA compliance matters. It remains to be seen whether the federal courts will apply these rules too, but—importantly, the rules provide for Portal-to-Portal Act reliance.

That means employers are entitled to rely on these regulations as a defense to any joint employment claim. The regulations provide several examples of scenarios in which joint employment does and does not exist. Employers should review those scenarios and model their relationships accordingly.

More Information

Additional resources from the DOL can be found here:

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Dead or Not Dead? Schreiber Lives On, But California’s New ABC Test Is Temporarily Killed for Owner-Operator Truckers

Prison dead independent contractor ABC TestWhen Benjamin Schreiber was sentenced to life in prison for clubbing a man to death with the wooden handle of a pickaxe, he probably expected to die in prison. But then fate intervened. Or did it?

In 2015, Schreiber fell severely ill in the Iowa State Penitentiary and had to be resuscitated five times. Schreiber then filed for post-conviction relief. He argued that he did, in fact, die in prison. Since he had to be resuscitated, he must have died, which means that he had successfully completed his “life sentence” — just before being resuscitated.

The argument failed. The judge ruled, “Schreiber is either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot.”

The decision did not say how many points Schreiber was awarded for creativity.

Two time zones west of Iowa, the California Truckers Association had better luck in its effort to kill California’s new ABC Test for independent contractor misclassification, at least as far the law applies to owner-operator truckers.

On December 31, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, preventing California from applying the new ABC Test to owner-operator truckers.  That means, for now, the question of whether an owner-operator trucker is an employee or an independent contractor must still be determined under the S.G. Borello balancing test in California, not the strict new ABC Test.

This is just a preliminary injunction, not a final ruling, so it is subject to further review even at the district court level, before the inevitable appeal.

The winning argument (for now) is that the law imposing the new ABC Test, Assembly Bill 5, is preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA).  The FAAAA preempts state law that affects the price, route, or service of any motor carrier with respect to the transportation of property.

The federal circuit courts of appeals are split on whether the FAAAA preempts state independent contractor laws as they relate to owner-operators in the transportation industry.  The 7th and 3rd Circuits have held that there is no preemption.  The 1st Circuit has held that there is preemption.

Ultimately, the question is likely to be settled by the Supreme Court.

For right now, the balancing test has been resuscitated for owner-operator truckers, but only a little bit like Mr. Schreiber’s resuscitation.

Hopefully, the stay will remain in effect until the case makes its way up the appellate ladder. And hopefully, dead is dead when it comes to the ABC Test and owner-operators.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Join Me for the 2020 Master Class Series, Featuring Songs By The Who

MC2020 pic

Please join me for the 2020 Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment. We’ll be holding three sessions:

  • New York City, Jan. 22, 2020
  • Los Angeles, Feb. 25, 2020
  • San Francisco, Feb. 27, 2020

My session this year is called Employee vs. Independent Contractor: “Who Are You?”; Explaining the Jumbled State of the Law Using Songs by The Who.

I have a running list of songs I’m planning to use. Some of the titles certain to make the cut are “I Can’t Explain,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “The Real Me.”

Attendees will choose six classes from a menu of 12, and everyone will receive a customized schedule so you can attend the sessions that interest you the most.

I hope to see you all there.  Let me know if you are planning to attend, and I will have your registration fee waived.  (“I’m Free!”)

Click here for more details.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Octopus vs. Bald Eagle: Postmates to Defend 5,225 Individual Arbitration Claims

Bald eagle octopus postmates

The best laid plans can sometimes take an unexpected turn for the worse. Just ask this octupus.

Earlier this month, off the coast of Vancouver Island, an octopus was settling down for a meal consisting of one whole bald eagle, freshly caught but still alive. A team of nearby salmon fishermen heard the bald eagle’s screams and, having been trained in speaking eagle, immediately recognized the distress call. The salmon fishermen sprang into action. They poked the soft-bodied mollusc with a pole until it released the bird. The eagle survived, and the fishermen got some footage that made it onto CNN’s website.

While I love octopi (delicious when grilled), I like to think that I too would have favored the eagle when interfering with a battle sponsored by mother nature.

The delivery app company Postmates is also dealing with an unexpected turn of events, but this one involves no sea creatures or birds of prey. In defending a claim of independent contractor misclassification brought by thousands of delivery drivers, Postmates prevailed in showing that the drivers were bound by arbitration agreements with class action waivers. If the drivers wanted to proceed, they would have to arbitrate their claims one-by-one, all 5,225 of them.

Guess what happened next.

The plaintiffs’ firm representing the drivers filed 5,225 individual arbitration claims with AAA.

Faced with having to pay $10 million in arbitration filing fees, Postmates has been trying to figure out how that would work. Can AAA even handle 5,225 simultaneous arbitrations? After Postmates missed an initial AAA payment deadline, the plaintiffs’ firm filed a motion to hold Postmates in contempt for not paying the AAA fees.

Postmates is now defending the contempt motion and trying to figure out, logistically, how to proceed.

Arbitration agreements can be helpful to businesses that have lots of independent contractors, mainly because the agreements can include class action waivers. But this dispute shows the potential downside of class action waivers. A sophisticated plaintiffs’ class action firm can file thousands of simultaneous arbitration demands, flooding the system and leaving the company on the hook for millions of dollars in filing fees alone — before even getting to the merits or defense of a claim.

We’ll see how this one plays out. It’s an unexpected turn of events, much like the octopus getting poked by an eagle-defending salmon fisherman at dinner time.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Is Another Strict ABC Test About to Muddy the Independent Contractor Waters?

NJ ABC Test independent contractorAccording to this article about the Garden State, New Jersey is about more than just the Sopranos and Snooki. Here are three fun facts about NJ:

1. Considered the “Diner Capital of the Country,” NJ has an estimated 525 diners. (I’m assuming from context that more than 525 New Jerseyans dine out, that “diners” here means those breakfast-themed restaurants that often look like rail cars, and that Uber Eats isn’t quite yet so dominant that the other 9 million NJ-ers eat at home every night.)

2. The first modern submarine ride was taken in NJ’s Passaic River. (I find this hard to believe but, if true, I’m sure the scenery was lovely.)

3. NJ was home to the first intercollegiate football game, Rutgers vs. Princeton. (The game is still in a scoreless tie.)

Another less fun fact about NJ is that its legislature may be about to adopt one of the strictest tests for independent contractor misclassification in the country. A recently proposed bill would model the state’s test for independent contractor vs. employee on the new California ABC Test.

New Jersey already uses a type of ABC Test for its wage and hour laws, but the bill would make Part B of the test much harder to meet — like California’s new law, Assembly Bill 5.

It’s no lock that the proposed law will pass, but if I am a betting man — and, fun fact, sports wagering is now legal in NJ — I would bet this one will become law sometime in 2020.

Until then, at least we can all enjoy the diner and submarine scene.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

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