It’s That Time Again! Our 10th Annual Master Class Starts Feb. 7th.

Please join me and my colleagues for the 10th Annual Master Class Series on Labor Relations and Employment Law. The 2023 program will be offered virtually on Tuesdays from Feb. 7 through April 11, 2023. Sessions are one hour, 2-3pm ET.

This years’s topics include:

  • The New Employment Laws: Out with the Old and In with the Unknown
  • Remote Work in Transition: Trends and Compliance Considerations
  • The New Union Organizing Model: The Force of Gen Z
  • Debriefing the Dobbs Decision: Unpacking What Employers Face in the Aftermath of the Overturning of Roe v. Wade
  • Contingent Workforce Update: The Gamemakers Are At It Again
  • Workplace Privacy: The Ever-Increasing Risks of Breaches and Maintaining Data and Information
  • Back to the Future Part II: The NLRB and the Uncertain State of Labor Law
  • Take the Target Off Your Back: Avoiding Common Wage and Hour Practices That May Lead to Litigation
  • Federal Agencies Are Talking About You – and You Can’t Just Ignore It Anymore
  • Unique Issues in Workplace Investigations: Not Your Typical ‘How To’

I will be presenting on March 7, 2023:

Contingent Workforce Update: The Gamemakers Are At It Again

In The Hunger Games, Seneca Crane and Plutarch Heavensbee make up
the rules for the games as they go along. The players never quite know what they’re getting into. While companies in the contingent workforce space don’t face literal death upon a misclassification or joint employment finding, the ramifications can be pretty harsh. Taking their cue from the gamemakers, the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board keep changing the rules of the game. The states are updating their tests too. Learn what’s changing in 2023, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Register here as my guest, or paste this link into your browser: www.bakerlaw.com/masterclass2023

There is no charge to attend. All sessions are virtual.

Feel free to invite your colleagues or other connections, including outside of your organization. When you register, please include my name as your BakerHostetler contact.

I look forward to seeing you then!

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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DOL Gets Aggressive with $5.6 Million Consent Judgment on Independent Contractor Misclassification

There’s an island in Quebec that’s larger in area than the lake in which it sits. René-Levasseur Island was supposedly formed by the impact of a meteorite 214 million years ago, although eyewitness accounts differ. The land mass became an island in 1970, when the Manicougan reservoir was flooded, merging two crescent shaped lakes that surrounded the area.

I like fun geography facts, and an island larger than the lake in which it sits is a fun fact. But feels a bit aggressive for the Canadians to merge two crescent shaped lakes to turn this land mass into an island. I’m sure they had their reasons. If nothing else, it looks good on a map.

The Department of Labor is also being aggressive, but they’re not flooding any reservoirs. Instead, they’re channeling their aggression toward independent contractor misclassification.

In a news release this month, the DOL announced that it had obtained a consent judgment for $5.6 million against a national auto parts distributor and an Arizona logistics firm for allegedly misclassifying 1,398 drivers as independent contractors. The award included back wages and liquidated damages.

The DOL had alleged that, by misclassifying the drivers, the companies failed to meet minimum wage requirements, failed to pay overtime rates, and failed to keep required timekeeping records. These failures each were violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The award covered an eight-year period between April 2012 and March 2020.

I see three takeaways here:

First, the DOL is being aggressive in filing lawsuits when it thinks independent contractors have been misclassified. This consent judgment shows how expensive these claims can be for companies that improperly classify workers. Companies using independent contractors needs to be proactive in evaluating their risks and taking steps to minimize those risks. There are lots of ways to reduce risk if you plan ahead, before you’ve been sued or investigated.

Second, this case is a reminder that companies who classify delivery drivers as independent contractors are at heightened risk. Federal and state agencies and the plaintiffs’ bar seem to be filing a disproportionate number of claims involving delivery drivers. If your business uses delivery drivers who are classified as independent contractors, you may be at an increased risk of an audit or lawsuit.

Third, remember the DOL’s proposed new rule for independent contractor classification under the FLSA? (Read more here, here, and here.) The DOL wants to change the current test for who is an employee under the FLSA, replacing a regulation adopted by the Trump Administration in 2020. But cases like this one show that the current regulation is not impairing the DOL’s ability to enforce what it perceives as misclassification. The DOL’s many recent successes — as posted in DOL news releases — show that the DOL is doing just fine under the current rule when it comes to misclassification enforcement. The new rule is a solution without a problem.

Large judgments like this one seem shocking, but they are a reminder of the substantial dangers of misclassification.

Learn more by joining me at the 10th Annual 2023 BakerHostetler Labor Relations and Employment Law Master Class, all virtual, one hour every Tuesday starting February 7, 2023. My program on Contingent Workforce issues will be on March 7, 2023. Registration is free.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Dead or Alive? Contractor Dispute Leads to Important Ohio Decision on Agency Deference

An author of romance novels died in 2020, committing suicide after online bullying. Or so it seemed. But a few days ago, Susan Meachen posted on Facebook to say she was back. Not in a risen-from-the-grave sort of way. She says she faked her own death and is very much alive. The story has been covered by CNN and BBC, and I don’t know whether anyone has yet figured out whether Meachen died or someone is now posting under her name.

One thing that seems more clearly dead, though, is the legal principle of agency deference in Ohio. This important decision arose out of a contractor dispute.

In a 7-0 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that under Ohio law, the judiciary is never [italics in original] required to defer to an administrative agency’s interpretation of the law, even if the statute is ambiguous. Only the judiciary has the authority to interpret the law for purposes of a judicial proceeding.

The Court held that an agency’s interpretation of the law is merely one view that a court may consider. The Court also stressed that an agency’s interpretation of common words is entirely irrelevant since courts are well equipped to interpret common words. Deference to an agency’s interpretation will depend on how persuasive a court finds the agency’s interpretation to be. A court might be more likely to defer if there is an ambiguity over a technical matter over which the agency has expertise, but even then, deference is never required.

I have attached an annotated copy of the opinion.

Here are some excerpts. These are quotes:

  • The judicial branch is never required to defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law. As we explain, an agency interpretation is simply one consideration a court may sometimes take into account in rendering the court’s own independent judgment as to what the law is.
  • First, it is never mandatory for a court to defer to the judgment of an administrative agency. Under our system of separation of powers, it is not appropriate for a court to turn over its interpretative authority to an administrative agency..
  • Now assume that a court does find ambiguity and determines to consider an administrative interpretation along with other tools of interpretation. The weight, if any, the court assigns to the administrative interpretation should depend on the persuasive power of the agency’s interpretation and not on the mere fact that it is being offered by an administrative agency. A court may find agency input informative; or the court may find the agency position unconvincing. What a court may not do is outsource the interpretive project to a coordinate branch of government.

The case arose when an engineering firm applied for an engineering license in Ohio. Seems uneventful, except the firm listed an independent contractor as its full-time manager. Ohio law requires a firm to identify a responsible full-time manager to receive a license. The Ohio Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors denied the license on the grounds that a full-time manager could not be an independent contractor. The Board said that a manager had to be a W2 employee.

But the statute requires only that there be a full-time manager. It doesn’t say who can be a manager. The Board determined that an independent contractor could not be a “full-time manager” because independent contractors (if properly classified) are not controlled by their client. In other words, how could the firm be managed by someone it cannot control?

That’s a great question from a practical standpoint. If the contractor is properly classified, it might be a terrible idea to designate an independent contractor as your firm’s full-time manager. But that doesn’t mean it’s prohibited by the licensing statute.

The Ohio Supreme Court explained that the statute requires the Board (“shall”) to grant a license when a firm identifies a full-time manager and meets the other criteria. The Court ruled that the Board, as an administrative agency, has no right to impose additional requirements that are not in the statute, such as that the full-time manager cannot be an independent contractor.

The Court used this dispute to lay down a marker on an important issue of law — When must a court defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law? In Ohio, the answer is never.

This issue comes up often at the federal level too, and you’ll hear a lot more about this issue following the recent announcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it plans to pass a regulation making non-compete agreements illegal. The FTC probably does not have the legal authority to do that. A law to prohibit non-competes would almost definitely have to come from the legislature, not an executive agency. If the FTC goes through with its plan, the issue is likely to end up in front of a federal court, which is likely to rule that the FTC does not have this authority. The US Supreme Court’s conservative majority has sent signals that it will be less inclined to defer to agencies than in the past, and it would not be surprising to see the US Supreme Court issue a ruling at some point that looks a lot like this Ohio decision.

The bottom line here is that the era of agencies making new law through regulation may be coming to an end. Agencies can interpret ambiguities in statutes, and they can provide more detail about legal requirements when authorized to do so. But they cannot impose new requirements when not specifically authorized to do so. The path taken by the Ohio Supreme Court may be a sign of similar things to come at the federal level.

In terms of typical independent contractor issues, this post is a bit off topic. But the issue is an important one, and it arose out of a contractor dispute, so I just decided to just go for it and write this post, whether it’s what you were expecting or not.

Kind of like Susan Meachen did recently when she posted on Facebook. Or didn’t post. We still don’t really know.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When They Get Around To It: Update on the DOL’s Independent Contractor Rulemaking

In Denbighshire, Wales, the Howatson family lives in a small house that sits… wait for it… in the middle of a roundabout.

In the early 1980s, after the family had been in the house for 20 years, local authorities told them their property sat smack in the middle of where a roundabout was to be built. The family refused to sell, and they now have lovely 360-degree views of people driving around their house all day and night.

The Department of Labor is taking is a more direct approach in its effort to update the worker classification test under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But it’s a slow process, and it will be several more months before we see a final rule.

But this post will provide a status update. Long story short, we’ll see a new rule when the DOL gets around to it.

In October 2022, the DOL released its proposed new test for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The proposed rule generated more than 50,000 comments in response. I posted some initial reactions to the proposed rule in this article here.

The proposed rule identifies seven factors to consider when determining whether an independent contractor has been misclassified under the FLSA:

1. Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill;

2. Investments by the worker and the employer;

3. Degree of permanence of the work relationship;

4. Nature and degree of control;

5. Extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business;

6. Skill and initiative; and

7. Additional factors.

Under federal law, the rulemaking process involves three main steps. First, the agency posts a proposed new regulation. That’s what the DOL did in October.

Second, there is a public comment period, in which anyone can submit a comment to the DOL. The most effective comments tend to assist the agency in evaluating its proposed rule, such as explaining likely unintended consequences or identifying concerns with how it is written. Comments can also offer legal arguments as to why the agency’s proposed rule is not consistent with the law it is supposed to be interpreting.

Finally, after reviewing the comments, the agency will publish a final rule. The final rule might differ from the proposed rule, or it could be the same. Or the agency can jettison the proposed rule entirely and do nothing. Here that last option is unlikely. The DOL will almost certainly issue a new rule.

On December 13, I submitted a lengthy comment on behalf of Flex, the trade organization representing app-based rideshare and delivery platforms. The full comment is available here, and I thought it might be helpful to summarize the main points for this audience.

The comment included two parts.

Part One argues that the DOL should not abandon the current rule (the 2021 Rule), which was passed less than two years ago. The 2021 Rule was adopted after a thorough rulemaking process and comment period, and the rule was developed based on a detailed analysis by the DOL of decades of case law. The 2021 Rule focused on two core factors, rather than offering a multitude of factors that have no pre-assigned weight. The 2021 Rule offered more predictability for businesses and contractors, and predictability in the law is — to put it bluntly — good. A regulation should add clarity, and the 2021 Rule added clarity.

Part One also pointed out that the 2021 Rule had done little to damper the DOL’s efforts at combatting misclassification. The DOL has published a long list of successes in obtaining settlements and judgments in the last three months alone.

Abandoning the 2021 Rule would also be arbitrary and capricious, meaning it might not survive a legal challenge, and we urged the DOL not to make a change.

Part Two argues that even if the DOL decides to abandon the 2021 Rule, the proposed new rule needs some work. Part Two focused on seven aspects of the proposed new rule that the DOL should change.

The key thing to remember is that the DOL wants to go back to a multi-factor test. Multi-factor tests have been around for a long time, but the devil here is in the details. If you read the DOL’s description of each factor and how it should be applied, the DOL is putting its fingers on the scale, taking every close call (and some that aren’t close) and resolving them in favor of employee status.

I will list the seven arguments below to provide a general sense of the key points. But, since this is supposed to be a quick read format, I’m not going to wade into the details. You can read the full comment if you like.

From the Table of Contents to Part Two:

1) In Factor #1, the Commentary about “Managerial Skill” Should Be Deleted or Revised Because It Fails to Account for the Realities of 21st Century Work.

2) Factor #2 Should Be Substantially Revised to Remove Provisions That Are Illogical, Incompatible with Economic Realities, and Contrary to FLSA Case Law.

3) Factor #4 Should Remove the Commentary That Legally Required Control May Be Relevant Evidence of Control Because This Commentary Is Contrary to Controlling Case Law, Contrary to this Department’s Own Guidance, and Not Probative of the Economic Realities of a Relationship.

4) In Factor #4, Use of Technology to Supervise Should Not Be Referenced as a Relevant Control Factor.

5) Factor #5 Should Preserve the Current “Integrated Unit of Production” Analysis and Should Not Adopt a Flawed “Integral Part” Analysis That is Contrary to Case Law and Legally Unsupported.

6) Any Final Rule Should Preserve the Helpful Subregulatory Guidance in Fact Sheet #13, Clarifying That Certain Factors Are Not Relevant.

7) Any Final Rule Should Replace the Term “Employer” with “Principal” or a Similarly Neutral Term.

You can read the complete arguments here.

And now onto Step Three of the DOL’s rulemaking process. Last week, the Biden Administration published its overall regulatory agenda for 2023. It included a May 2023 placeholder for a proposed final rule. That’s just a best guess at this point, and with more than 50,000 comments for the DOL to review, the actual release date may be several months later. But the DOL, at least at present, appears prepared to move forward with a new rule to determine independent contractor vs. employee status under the FLSA.

We’ll continue to monitor developments, in a roundabout way.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What to Watch for in 2023: Big Changes May Be Coming for Independent Contractor and Joint Employment Laws

If you google “what to watch for 2023,” you’ll mostly get tips on soon-to-be-released movies and streaming video shows. You’ll get grammatically impossible generic hype like “movies we can’t wait to see” (except the whole point is that you have to wait to see them) and you’ll get grammatically impossible niche hype like “The most anticipated Korean dramas and movies we can’t wait to watch in 2023.”

We won’t peddle hype in this post, and you’ll literally have to wait for all of the things addressed below. But here are five important developments to watch for in 2023.

1. The test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is likely to change, at least under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Department of Labor proposed a new multi-factor test, and the period for public comment ended December 13. The DOL is likely to roll out a new test in 2023. It will replace the current core factors test described here.

2. The test for Joint Employment is likely to change, at least under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In September, the NLRB proposed a new test for determining when joint employment exists under the NLRA. You can read more here. The public comment period has closed, and we can expect a new test sometime in 2023.

3. The NLRB is likely to rule that independent contractor misclassification, by itself, is an unfair labor practice. The NLRB General Counsel has expressed an intent to reverse the Velox Express decision from 2019, in which the Board ruled that misclassification was not an automatic ULP. More information is here. Now that the Board majority has switched from Republican to Democrat, expect a decision in 2023 that creates an automatic ULP when there’s a finding of worker misclassification.

4. Expect state legislatures to keep changing the tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee. Some states will try to make it harder to maintain independent contractor status by passing ABC Tests, in either a standard or strict version. A few conservative states may go the other way and adopt the latest version of the Uniform Worker Classification Act proposed by ALEC. The law would create a safe harbor for independent contractor classification if certain requirements are followed, including having a written contract. Versions of this law have been passed in West Virginia and Louisiana. You can read more here. Expect Oklahoma to be next.

5. Expect significant rulings on California independent contractor law. Several important cases are pending. These include Olson v. State of California, which challenges the constitutionality of AB 5. Oral argument was held in the Ninth Circuit in July 2022. In another case, the California Court of Appeal is considering the legality of Prop 22, the successful ballot measure that helped to protect independent contractor status for rideshare and delivery drivers using app services. Oral argument in that case, Castellanos v. State of California, was held in December 2022.

The law regarding contingent workforce is constantly changing, and 2023 looks to be another year of significant transformation. As always, it will be a good idea to watch these new developments carefully, as they will likely have a significant impact on companies using independent contractors and other contingent workforce arrangements.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2023!

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Horizontal Risk: Criminal Case Moves Forward on No-Poach Agreement Among Competitors

Christian Encarnacion-Strand presents an unusual problem for the Cincinnati Reds. His name is too long to fit horizontally across the back of his uniform. The Reds are taking an upside-down-horseshoe approach to this problem, and if this minor league third baseman makes the big league club this year, his 18-character surname (with hyphen) would win the award (there’s no award) for most characters in a major league surname.

The current honor lies with Simeon Woods Richardson, a pitcher for the Twins, whose unhyphenated surname stretches 16 characters (including the space). The Twins applied more of a 3/4 circle strategy, which I think is less visually appealing than the Reds’ approach.

When it comes to horizontal challenges, placing letters on a uniform falls in the category of very low risk. The twitter community may have strong opinions, but there’s no real implication to either approach.

But when it comes to horizontal relationships among companies competing for talent, it’s much more important to get things right. No poaching agreements can lead to criminal charges — as we can see from a case making its way through the federal district court in Connecticut.

In the pending case, Company A outsourced engineering projects to companies B through F, all of whom compete for engineering talent. Companies B through F also compete with each other for projects from Company A.

Between 2011 and 2019, Companies A through F allegedly agreed to restrict the hiring and recruiting of engineers and other skilled-labor employees between them. All of the companies allegedly agreed to (1) not hire employees of Companies B through F and (2) not proactively contact, interview, and recruit applicants who were employed by another one of the companies. Company A allegedly policed and enforced the agreement.

This arrangement led to a criminal indictment, charging that these no-poaching agreements were a conspiracy in restrain of trade, in violation of the Sherman Act. The indictment alleges that the companies engaged in illegal market allocation, which suppressed competition for talent and wages.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. Because this issue potentially affects staffing and franchise relationships, the American Staffing Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, and others filed amicus briefs in support of the motion to dismiss.

On December 2, 2022, the district court denied the motion to dismiss. The opinion evaluates the arguments on both sides and considers how this arrangement compares to others where no-poach agreements have been held to be permitted. For example, the court considered whether the agreed-upon restraint was “ancillary to a legitimate business collaboration.” If yes, that could support an exception to the legal prohibition on restraints of trade. But the court ruled that the relationship here was competitive, not collaborative, because Companies B through F were competing for outsourcing work from Company A.

From a procedural standpoint, this decision does not make any findings about whether the arrangement actually did violate the law. This ruling is just the denial of a motion to dismiss, which means the case can move forward.

But the opinion should provide a wake up call to the staffing industry, the franchise industry, and other organizations where a small identifiable number of companies are competing for talent and for engagements.

The federal government has made it a priority to minimize restraints of trade and has shown a willingness to issue criminal indictments against companies (and individuals) who enter into unlawful agreements that restrict labor mobility.

That is not to say that all no-poach agreements are unlawful. In many situations they are appropriate. But companies in horizontal competition with each other need to tread very carefully, and any no-poach agreement among horizontal competitors may create significant legal problems, including potential criminal liability.

For baseball uniforms, horizontal challenges can be addressed with the upside-down horseshoe or 3/4 circle strategy (preferably the former!). But these simple solutions are not available in the business world, where companies compete for talent and engagements. As of now, there is no upside-down horseshoe exception to the Sherman Act.

Amicus briefs were file

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Don’t Be Like These Sheep: Check Your Contract Recitals to Avoid This Misclassification Mistake

In Inner Mongolia, these sheep have been walking in a circle for about two weeks, with a few sheep occasionally standing in the middle. Here’s video.

Various theories have been circulating to try to explain the odd behavior, including that it may be some sort of bacteria-induced delirium.

But I think I know the real reason. (And a hearty Mazel Tov! to the wooly couple!)

When drafting independent contractor agreements, it’s never a good idea to be unsure of why you’re doing something. Too often, businesses use generic agreements and don’t understand the impact or purpose of what they’ve written.

One common place I see mistakes is in the very beginning of contracts – the contractual recitals.

Recitals are often used to provide context for the reader. Recitals are also used for six-year old piano players to play chopsticks for grandma, but that’s for another day. For example, an off-the-shelf independent contractor agreement might start with something like this: We’re in the business of doing X, and we are retaining Contractor to do this part of X. Therefore, the parties agree to the following terms.

The problem with that innocent sounding recital is that it may be evidence the contractor is misclassified.

Under a Strict ABC Test, if the work being performed by the contractor is within the hiring party’s usual course of business, the contractor is automatically considered an employee. That fact fails prong B of a strict ABC Test.

Under an Economic Realities Test or a Right to Control Test, one of the factors often considered is often whether the work being performed is “an integral part” of the business, or some variation on that theme. Unlike ABC Tests, these tests are balancing tests and so one factor will not necessarily determine a worker’s classification, but there’s no reason to give the factor away, especially in a contract recital.

In a misclassification challenge, every fact and contract term will be subject to scrutiny.

If you’re unsure whether the term is needed, then question whether to include it. Recitals generally aren’t needed at all, and I often omit them from my independent contractor agreements. Don’t include off-the-shelf terms if you don’t understand their effect.

Unexplainable behavior makes for good blog posts and tweets, but not good contracts.

Which is why I never ask unfamiliar sheep to help me draft contracts.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Settling Misclassification Lawsuits Is Sometimes the Right Call, But It Might Make You Feel Dirty

Say cheese!

The world’s dirtiest man died last month at the (ripe) age of 94, having reportedly going 60 years without bathing. Covered in soot and living in a cinder-block shack, the Iranian hermit was known for eating roadkill, smoking a pipe filled with animal excrement, and believing that cleanliness would make him ill.

The newest dirtiest man alive may be this guy in India, who as of 2009 hadn’t bathed in a mere 35 years. Instead of water, this man of the people opts for a “fire bath,” in which he lights a bonfire, smokes marijuna and stands on a leg praying to Lord Shiva. The man told a reporter from the Hindustan Times, “Fire bath helps kill all the germs and infections in the body.” Of course it does.

Sometimes when we settle lawsuits, we also feel dirty. Maybe not that dirty, but at least icky. It feels wrong to pay money to a plaintiff when we feel the other party doesn’t deserve it. But settlements are often driven by factors other than the merits of a claim, such as business conditions or considerations other than purely financial.

In independent contractor misclassification cases, a settlement is sometimes the only way to ensure that a lawsuit does not result in forced reclassification of workers. In a settlement, the parties can agree upon terms, including financial payments, without conceding that anyone was misclassified and without requiring a reclassification going forward.

That is what happened in a recent case involving A Place for Rover, which is an app-based gig economy company that connects dog walkers with dog owners.

In May 2021, the app company won summary judgment in a misclassification dispute. The company argued that dog walkers were independent contractors, not employees, even under California law. The company argued that it could satisfy each prong of the ABC Test and that, regardless, it was a referral service under California law, which would exempt it from the ABC Test usually used in California to determine whether a worker is an employee. The company urged the court instead to analyze the classification dispute using the S.G. Borello balancing test, not an ABC Test.

The district court did not reach a conclusion on whether the company was a referral service and instead determined that the ABC Test was satisfied. The court ruled that dog walkers controlled their own work, routes, and prices, making them legitimate independent contractors.

But the plaintiff appealed, and the company may have feared that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would revive the case and send it to trial. Instead of taking a chance on a bad outcome, the company settled.

By settling, the company pays money to avoid the risk of a judgment that the dog walkers were employees, an outcome that would likely render the company’s business model no longer viable. The company’s decision makers probably felt a little dirty, paying any money at all after having won at the district court level. That is not a surprising outcome, even if they felt strongly about their case. Because the stakes are so high in misclassification litigation, that’s often how these cases conclude. Icky but sometimes necessary.

But at least in litigation, afterwards you can take a bath.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Green or Yellow: What’s the Difference Between Co-Employment and Joint Employment?

There’s an ongoing debate in my family over whether tennis balls are green or yellow. I sit firmly in the green camp and can’t see the yellow. My family thinks I am an idiot.

Turns out we’re both right. (Read into that as you wish.)

Tennis balls are officially Optic Yellow, but on the color wheel, that’s the same color as Electric Lime. There’s been some serious investigative journalism devoted to this topic, and the debate rages on. See here and here.

While Optic Yellow and Electric Lime may be the same, co-employment and joint employment are definitely not the same. Here’s today’s explainer.

In both co-employment and joint employment, there are two employers. For our purposes, the secondary employer is the one that benefits from the workers’ services. The primary employer is the one that pays them.

Co-employment is a voluntary arrangement in which one entity (often a Professional Employer Organization, or PEO) agrees to perform administrative/HR tasks for another entity, usually including providing benefits, HR services, and taking on the obligations of an employer in each jurisdiction where the workers will be.

The company that will benefit from the workers’ services selects them, determines their pay, determines their schedules, terminates them, and generally decides on all terms and conditions of employment. The company then sends them to the co-employer (PEO) to be hired and onboarded for the sole purpose of providing services to the secondary employer.

Unlike an employee leasing or staffing agency relationship, when a co-employment relations ends, the employees stay with the secondary employer. They don’t go back into a pool.

In co-employment, the employees and all parties acknowledge up front that this is a co-employment relationship, with the terms and conditions of employment dictated by the secondary employer. The offer letter and employee handbook will generally explain to the new hire the nature of the co-employment relationship.

No one worries about being deemed in a co-employment relationship because co-employment is an intentional choice. It’s not something that a court declares.

Joint employment, on the other hand, is a legal conclusion, often not a relationship that is acknowledged by the parties. The most common scenario for joint employment is when a staffing agency provides workers for staff augmentation, with the workers fully integrated into the secondary employer’s workforce and supervised by the secondary employer’s managers.

Joint employment can arise when labor services are provided by a staffing agency, a subcontractor, or a consulting firm. In a joint employment situation, there are two distinct employers. The staffing agency, subcontractor, or consulting firm is the primary employer and, if there’s not joint employment, then it’s the sole employer.

The primary employer determines wages and benefits and often selects the workers to be hired. Those workers often provide services for multiple companies, either sequentially or simultaneously.

If a secondary employer terminates a worker’s assignment, the worker stays with the primary employer. The primary employer can reassign the worker to another job site or make its own determination whether to keep the worker employed. You’ll want your staffing agency agreement to make clear that you can end a worker’s assignment but that you have no right to control the worker’s employment status with the agency.

There is a contractual relationship between the two companies that one will provide services for the other. But joint employment is not a foregone conclusion. Joint employment can exist, for example, if the secondary company makes decisions about the workers’ wages, working conditions, schedules, training, etc. To oversimplify a bit, joint employment is somewhat likely in a staffing services situation; less likely when retaining professional outside consultants.

Unlike with co-employment, joint employment does not involve a trilateral understanding among the worker and the two companies that the worker is employed by both.

Generally, the secondary company will argue that it does not control wages and working conditions, is therefore not a joint employer, and is therefore is not liable for any employment-related errors by the primary employer. The determination of whether joint employment exists is a legal determination, not based on an agreement among the parties and the worker.

What you’re worried about, therefore, is a finding of joint employment. Joint employment is not unlawful, but it creates unplanned risks and liabilities for the secondary employer. For example, if a staffing agency fails to pay its employees as required by law, the secondary employer is fully liable for the underpayment and the other legal consequences, even though it had no control over the primary employer’s payroll practices.

For more fun facts about joint employment, choose the Joint Employment category of posts in the blog. But be mindful of the date of the post. In the world of joint employment and determine when joint employment exists, the rules are always changing. So that’s fun, right?

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Silly Old Moo: Watch What You Say When Trying to Preserve Independent Contractor Status

The parliament of New Zealand maintains a list of words and phrases that are considered unbecoming to say about another member and are therefore banned from use during parliamentary debates. These include:

  • His brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides.
  • Energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral.
  • Could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in.
  • Silly old moo.

Words matter when trying to preserve a worker’s independent contractor classification too. Avoid possessives when referring to independent contractors, who are not “your” anything. The terminology you use should be consistent with the concept that the contractors are in business for themselves.

Check your company’s website and public facing materials and try to avoid phrases like this:

  • Our technicians [or representatives or whatever]
  • Our team of [whatevers]
  • We install/repair/other verb

Other words and phrases can also suggest employment and should be avoided when referring to contractors:

  • Hire (instead, retain)
  • Wages (instead, compensation)
  • Assignment (instead, project or engagement)
  • Duties (instead, services)

Using terminology that does not sound like employment will help when trying to show a court of agency that the relationship is not employment.

And never, ever tell anyone that your independent contractor’s brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides. That’s just unbecoming.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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