Seattle Trades Nirvana & Ken Griffey for Burdensome New Independent Contractor Law

troll
The Fremont Troll, photo by Sue (CC BY 2.0) modified

Back in the 1990s, Seattle was known for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Ken Griffey Jr., Microsoft, Frasier (which I could never get into), the emergence of Amazon, and a lot fewer homeless people. The fewer homeless people may have been in part to the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot sculpture erected in 1990 under the Aurora Bridge, where it holds a crushed VW Beetle and would be scary as hell to sleep next to.

The troll’s still there, but Griffey and Frasier are gone and we all know what happened to Nirvana.

Having left the 90s behind, Seattle in 2022 apparently wants to be known instead as a city where it is pretty burdensome to retain independent contractors.

The Seattle City Council passed a law that requires immediate action from all companies that have solo independent contractors working in the city. The Independent Contractor Protections Ordinance, codified at SMC 14.34, took effect Sept. 1.

The rest of this article was originally published as a BakerHostetler Alert, here. Immediate action is needed for companies with solo contractors in Seattle, so read on. All the same helpful info is just below.

The law applies to solo independent contractors who perform any part of their work in Seattle for a commercial hiring entity if the contractor receives or is expected to receive at least $600 in total compensation from the hiring entity during a calendar year. If the hiring party knows or has reason to know that the work is being performed in Seattle, then the law applies, even if the hiring party has no preference as to where the work is performed.

Independent contractors are defined to include individuals and entities consisting of only one person. The law does not apply to workers being treated as employees by a staffing agency or consulting firm.

Commercial hiring entities are defined to include for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Modified rules apply to drivers for transportation network companies, such as ride-share services. There are also exceptions for lawyers and for contractors whose sole relationship to the hiring party is a property rental agreement.

Commercial hiring entities with independent contractors covered under the new law must:

  • Provide a written precontract disclosure to the contractor that includes at least 12 specified categories of information about the engagement. This disclosure must be in a single document in the contractor’s primary language. A model notice is available.
  • Provide written updates before making changes to any of the required information.
  • Provide timely payment consistent with the precontract disclosure terms or a later written contract. If no deadline for payment is specified, then the contractor must be paid no later than 30 days after the work is completed.
  • Provide an itemized, written payment disclosure accompanying each payment. The disclosure must be in a single document, such as a pay stub or invoice, and it must contain information in at least 12 specified categories.
  • Provide a written notice of the contractor’s rights under the new law. The notice must be in English and, if applicable, the contractor’s primary language. A model notice is available.
  • Maintain for three years records that demonstrate compliance with these requirements.
  • Refrain from retaliating against any contractor who asserts rights protected under the new law. Prohibited retaliation includes threatening to report that the contractor is an illegal immigrant. If any adverse action is taken within 90 days of a contractor’s exercise of rights, the law creates a rebuttable presumption that the action was retaliatory.

The precontract disclosure and disclosure of rights must be provided before work begins or, for contractors already providing services, by Sept. 30, 2022.

Penalties for violating this law may include payment of unpaid compensation, liquidated damages, civil penalties, other penalties payable to an aggrieved contractor, fines and interest. These penalties are in addition to any other relief available under any other law.

BakerHostetler’s Contingent Workforce team continues to monitor state and local developments affecting companies that retain independent contractors. Please reach out to your BakerHostetler contact or any member of the Contingent Workforce team for compliance assistance.

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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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Are Independent Contractors Entitled to Military Leave? Eggcellent question!

Worker protection laws are a bit different in China.

According to this report, a Chinese company forces its employees to eat raw eggs as punishment if their work does not meet expectations. When one intern complained, the HR Manager allegedly responded, “What law is preventing you from eating a raw egg?”

Even if the company’s motivational techniques could be challenged under Chinese labor law, Chinese legal experts caution that the intern is probably not the right person to complain. His unpaid internship apparently doesn’t make him an employee under Chinese law. And there it is: The age old question of Who Is My Employee? is a thing in China too.

Back in the U.S., we know that the employee vs. independent contractor question makes all the difference in whether several types of employment, tax, and benefits laws apply. But what about military leave law?

Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), employees are guaranteed reinstatement and other job protection rights after taking military leave. And employers must grant military leave when requested.

Do the same protections apply to independent contractors?

According to federal regulations, the answer is no — so long as the contractor is properly classified as a contractor.

Under USERRA, independent contractor status is evaluated using a Right to Control Test. The regulations say these six factors should be considered:

1.       The extent of the employer’s right to control the manner in which the individual’s work is to be performed;

2.       The opportunity for profit or loss that depends upon the individual’s managerial skill;

3.       Any investment in equipment or materials required for the individual’s tasks, or his or her employment of helpers;

4.       Whether the service the individual performs requires a special skill;

5.       The permanence of the individual’s working relationship; and,

6.       Whether the service the individual performs is an integral part of the employer’s business.

No single factor is controlling, but all are relevant for determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor.

As with so many other laws, it’s not enough just to assume USERRA doesn’t apply because a worker is classified as an independent contractor. The workers has to be properly classified as an independent contractor, according to the test that applies to that particular law.

Getting it wrong means failure to comply with military leave law. That sounds unpatriotic and unfair. And it could leave you with egg on your face.

[Note to self for future blog post idea: Can you require independent contractors to eat raw eggs in the U.S.?]

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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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How to Support Prong C of the ABC Test, and Why You Can’t Lie Down When Faced with an Audit

Zippy practices for the 13th Annual Lying Down Championships

Lying down in the face of a challenge is rarely a good strategy. I did, however, find one exception.

A man from Montenegro recently won the 12th Annual Lying Down Championships, beating out nine other competitors by remaining horizontal under a tree for 60 hours. As a reward for his (lack of) effort, he received 350 euros, lunch for two at a restaurant, a weekend stay at a local village, and a rafting trip.

Then things got weird. Local media reported that shortly after the competition, the winner was taken into police custody for (allegedly) physically attacking journalists and damaging the headquarters of a newspaper that called him “the biggest swindler in all of Montenegro.”

I suppose there’s a lesson in here somewhere: Offer a man an award and he’ll lie still for 60 hours, but call him a swindler and he won’t take that lying down.

But I digress. In this post, I want to share some tips gleaned from a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case involving prong C of the ABC Test. The case also serves as a reminder never to take a misclassification audit lying down.

The dispute involved East Bay, a drywall installation company that used independent contractor drywall installers for residential jobs. Until 2013, the company treated its installers as employees. It then switched to an independent contractor model. Risky move. This sparked an audit.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development wanted to know why this company, which was still active, suddenly lacked employees. The audit looked at the individuals who continued to install drywall and examined whether, under New Jersey’s ABC Test, they were independent contractors or employees.

You can guess what happened next. The Department found that 16 installers were misclassified, and it issued a hefty back assessment against the company for failing to pay into the state unemployment fund. The company appealed and lost.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion focused largely on what it takes to prove prong C of the ABC Test — that the individual “is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.” (You can read more about New Jersey’s ABC Test here, but otherwise I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the basic concept of the ABC Test.)

The drywall company put forth evidence that the independent contractors had registered business entities and certificates of insurance. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that wasn’t enough to satisfy prong C. This evidence wasn’t enough to prove that the individuals truly operated independently. Evidence in support of prong C should demonstrate that the independent contractor would not become unemployed if the work from this company went away.

The Court gave some examples of evidence that would have been more persuasive in satisfying prong C, including:

  • That the IC’s business will continue when this engagement ends;
  • That the IC’s business is stable and lasting, or other evidence of longevity;
  • That the IC has other customers;
  • That the IC has other sources of revenue, and the company being audited is not the primary source of income for the IC;
  • That the IC provides the tools, equipment, vehicles, and other resources needed to perform the work;
  • That the IC has telephone listings or business stationery;
  • That the IC advertises;
  • That the IC has its own employees;
  • That the IC maintains inventory;
  • That the IC bears the risk of loss;
  • That the IC benefits from the goodwill generated from a job well done;
  • That the IC is required to maintain educational and licensure requirements;
  • That the IC is permitted to obtain work from other businesses; and
  • That the IC in fact performs work for other businesses.

The court cited these as examples of the types of evidence that would have been helpful to prove prong C. This is not a mandatory list. The point here was just that business registrations and certificates of insurance were not enough. Strategically, there is other evidence that would be helpful too, and there are steps that can be taken when retaining ICs to help build a defense. I maintain a longer list but, hey, I can’t give away all the secrets here.

Other observations from the New Jersey Supreme Court decision:

1. How to invite an audit. Switching from an employee model to an independent contractor model is, by itself, enough to prompt an audit.

2. An ominous footnote about prong B. There was also a dispute in this case over the meaning of prong B. Remember, New Jersey has a standard ABC Test, which allows prong B to be satisfied by showing either the work is outside the hiring party’s usual course of business or the work is performed outside of the places of business of the hiring party. (This is different than the California version of the ABC Test.) All drywall installation work was performed at customers’ residences. After the audit, the Commissioner of Labor found (inexplicably) that prong B was not satisfied. It is unclear from the opinion whether that was based on a conclusion that the customers’ residences were East Bay’s places of business or was based on some other fact, such as some kind of work being done at East Bay’s place of business. If the Commissioner believed customer’s residences to be East Bay’s places of business, then it is hard to see how the latter part of prong B could ever be satisfied. But the NJ Supreme Court did not consider prong B in its decision. The Court ruled that prong C was not satisfied, and so it chose not to wade into the morass of prong B.

But there is an ominous footnote. When the Court declined to consider prong B, it noted that in its prior decisions, the place of business meant locations where the hiring party had a “physical plant or conducts an integral part of its business.” That’s consistent with common sense and would exclude a customer’s residence. The Court then, however, invited the Department of Labor to issue regulations explaining how the Department thinks prong B should be interpreted. Yikes!

3. You need to fight unemployment claims by ICs at the initial audit level; you can’t expect a court to save you on appeal. Courts will defer to the findings of an agency if its factual findings have any support in the record, no matter how flimsy. In other words, the agency can be wrong in its overall weighing of the factors, but a court is supposed to affirm the agency’s decision if there’s evidence to support it. Not “a preponderance of evidence” or “ample evidence” or even “sufficient evidence.” Just “evidence.” Folks, the reason we have trials is because there’s almost always at least some evidence on both sides, even if the preponderance of the evidence leans the other way. You shouldn’t have to pitch a shutout to win the game.

I have seen the same deference standard applied to unemployment decisions in New York and Ohio. The courts defer to the agencies. It is unfair. The result can be that the agency’s decision gets affirmed, even if it made the objectively wrong decision.

This unfair standard highlights how important it is to win at the earliest stages in an unemployment claim, if independent contractor status is being challenged. The initial investigation is your best chance to defend independent contractor status. If you wait, it’s too late. Provide the auditor your best evidence on every factor, and don’t hold back.

Remember the consequences too. If one contractor is misclassified, the agency will likely deem all other similarly situated contractors to be misclassified, and you’ll be on the hook for unpaid assessments for all of them. The stakes are high. Companies using independent contractors should spend the time and money to mount a full defense of their contractor’s status at the audit stage. It’s worth the investment, especially because the state courts will generally defer to the agency’s findings, even if the agency is wrong.

Here’s the ultimate takeaway: If you’ve entered a Lying Down Competition, it’s ok to lie down for as long as you want. But if you’re faced with a worker classification audit, or a 1099 audit, or an unemployment claim by a former independent contractor, do not take that lying down.

You need to fight hard in the audit, producing evidence to support independent contractor status. You’ll have the right to appeal if you lose, but don’t expect a fair chance to prove your case. You’ve got to do your best to win any classification dispute at the initial audit. That’s the time to retain counsel and invest time and resources. If you lose the audit and bring an appeal, you’re fighting a steep uphill climb.

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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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Garbage Bird? Don’t Get Poisoned By A Double Hit of Misclassification and Joint Employment

Photo: Benjamin Freeman/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

The natives of Papua New Guinea call the hooded pitohui a “garbage bird,” and they don’t eat it or touch it. As Westerners learned more recently, there’s a good reason for the islanders’ hostility.

The hooded pitohui is the first bird confirmed to be poisonous. The bird‘s feathers emit batrachotoxins, which causes numbness and burning in low concentrations. A heavier does can cause paralysis, cardiac arrest and death. In other words, there’s good reason for keeping the hooded pitohui off the menu.

Numbness and burning may also describe the impact of a recent DOL enforcement action on two contractors in Louisiana. They were dealt a double hit—the DOL found independent contractor misclassification and joint employment.

After an investigation, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division found that hundreds of painters and drywall workers had been misclassified as independent contractors. The company that retained the workers, PL Construction, failed to pay overtime and failed to maintain accurate time records, both violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Adding to the pain, the DOL found that a higher tier contractor, Lanehart, was the workers’ joint employer. That meant Lanehart was jointly liable for the violations—even though it had no control over PL Construction’s pay practices.

The DOL recovered more than $240,000 in overtime back wages for 306 workers.

There are several lessons here, both for companies that retain independent contractors directly and for higher tier contractors that engage subcontractors that use ICs.

1. The DOL considers independent contractor misclassification an enforcement priority. The agency is actively looking for violations.

2. The DOL publishes its wins. That means you can expect a press release naming and shaming your company if the DOL finds that there’s a practice of misclassifying workers. Have you heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? It’s not true.

3. Higher tier contractors are taking a risk if they put their head in the sand and disregard misclassification by their lower tier subs—especially if they plan to direct the work of the lower tier sub’s workers.

Here, the DOL found that Lanehart, the higher tier contractor, supervised PL’s workers and maintained records of who worked when. Lanehart’s supervision and direction made it a joint employer of PL’s workers. Under the FLSA, a joint employer is fully liable for wage and hour violations, even where it had no control over how the lower tier sub paid its workers.

4. A lawsuit is not the only way misclassification claims arise. Federal and state agencies can initiate investigations too. And while arbitration agreements with class action waivers can prevent class action litigation, they can’t stop a federal agency from pursuing claims on its own.

The DOL made its position pretty clear in its press release: “Our investigation shows the costly consequences employers face when they or their subcontractors fail to comply with the law. When we determine a joint employment relationship exists, the Wage and Hour Division will hold all responsible employers accountable for the violations.”

Misclassification hurts. Joint employment doubles the pain. The DOL can inflict an uncomfortable burning sensation, even without sending a a hooded pitohui your way.

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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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Yes, This Applies to You: Why Non-Union Employers Should Be Concerned with the NLRB’s View On Worker Misclassification

Good news for old passengers traveling to New York!

The caption above may be too small to read, but it’s from a recent New York Times article about updates to the airport. The caption says, “An old passenger walkway in the process of being demolished at La Guardia Airport.”

You might not think this applies to you, but I say it’s about time! The idea of a walkway for old passengers doesn’t seem right, and old passengers should be allowed to use the same walkway as everyone else.

Another area where I sometimes hear “this doesn’t apply to me” is when we talk about the National Labor Relations Board’s views on independent contractor misclassification. But even if your business is union-free (meaning no union, not that the union is complimentary), the NLRB’s position on independent contractor misclassification matters. (Also, how is it that we intuitively know caffeine free means there’s no caffeine, rather than there’s lots of it and there’s no extra charge?)

The NLRB wants to make it harder to maintain independent contractor status under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Here are four reasons your non-union business should care about the NLRB’s views on independent contractor misclassification:

  1. The NLRB’s General Counsel has issued a policy memo indicated that she intends to have independent contractor misclassification declared to be an automatic unfair labor practice (ULP). This spring, the Board issued a complaint in a case that may help it achieve this policy goal. If misclassification becomes an automatic ULP, that would overturn the Board’s 2019 decision in Velox Express, when the Board said it was reasonable for a company to express its opinion that a worker was a contractor, not an employee, even if the company turned out to be wrong.
  2. If the NLRB rules that your contractors are employees, you can hang up a welcome shingle for your favorite union. (Aside: I don’t think anyone would welcome shingles, but you can buy welcome shingles on amazon.) Such a ruling would empower the unions to try to organize your newly-declared employees. If some independent contractors were already feeling mistreated enough to seek employee status, they’ll likely welcome union representation to help them fight back against The Man.
  3. The protections granted to employees under the NLRA apply to non-union employees too. But the NLRA doesn’t apply to independent contractors. Non-union employees have the right to engage in protected, concerted activity without fear of retaliation or reprisal. Contractors don’t. Protected, concerted activity can include more than you might think. Any time two employees get together to object to a business practice, that’s potentially protected, concerted activity. If two contractors jointly complain, the NLRA doesn’t apply.
  4. The NLRB has an information sharing agreement with the Department of Labor (DOL). If the NLRB thinks your contractors are misclassified, they’re probably gonna tell on you. The DOL may then starts its own investigation, viewing your company as an easy target for misclassification, even though the tests for employee status are different under the NLRA and the federal wage and hour laws administered by the DOL.

Like La Guardia, the NLRB is trying to do a little remodeling, but the NLRB’s remodeling is not for the benefit of old passengers. Instead, the Board is trying to make it harder to classify a worker as an independent contractor. The Board also wants to declare worker misclassification to be an automatic ULP.

Whether your workforce is union or non-union, businesses should pay attention. This is a rebuild that’s worth watching.

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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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No Laughing Matter: Here’s Why States Think Your Independent Contractors Are Misclassified

The best twitter account you’re not yet following is Depths of Wikipedia @depthsofwiki, which finds all the crazy fascinating stuff on Wikipedia that you wish you had time to look for.

Such as this gem from last week:

I didn’t know who Chrysippus was, but this is top shelf information. He died of laughter after witnessing a donkey eat his figs?!

That would make for one f***d-up game of Clue.

Here’s something that’s not a laughing matter.

Ever wondered why states seem so aggressive in fighting against companies that classify workers as independent contractors? Ok, yeah, there’s the crowd-pleasing pitch that they’re looking out for the little guy, and workers are being denied benefits, and companies are cheating the systems, etc.

But also comes down to money. State governments claim they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in unpaid taxes and unpaid contributions to unemployment and workers compensation funds. This policy brief by the National Employment Law Project cites to 30 state law studies with varying estimates of losses to state coffers.

Are these studies accurate, or are they merely self-serving reports designed to justify misclassification audits? Probably some of both, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. Whether motivated by workers’ rights or bolstering state coffers, states are doing two things to make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.

First, several pending state bills would make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.

Second, states are taking enforcement seriously. Through audits and lawsuits, the states are going after companies directly.

For companies, defending against state action can be a lot harder than defending against private lawsuits. State prosecutors and agencies claim to be fighting for the little guy, and they tend to get dug in with their positions. State prosecutors and agency enforcers get paid the same salary, win or lose, and it can be harder to persuade them that your company’s classifications are legitimate and that they should be spending their limited time and resources elsewhere.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers, on the other hand, are business people and are generally more open to business solutions that are driven by a cost-benefit analysis of how best to use their limited time and resources. A strong set of facts supporting independent contractor classification can lead to a victory in court or can create leverage for a favorable settlement with private litigants. Private settlements can also be reached with no admission of wrongdoing.

The lesson here is that enforcement efforts by state governments are no laughing matter. While a donkey trying to eat your figs may be drop-dead hilarious, an enforcement action by the state isn’t so funny. But it can still kill your business.

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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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Beware of Snakes: Court of Appeals to Decide Whether Student-Athletes Are Employees under FLSA

Snakes have been in the news lately. A Maryland man was recently found dead in his home, killed by a venomous snake bite. This might seem surprising, until you learn that the same man kept 124 pet snakes in his house, including rattlesnakes, cobras, black mambas and a 14-foot-long Burmese python.

I also learned this week of a horrifying tourist attraction in Manitoba called the Snakes of Narcisse, where you can view “tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes as they slither to the surface from their winter dens.” Tourists can view the dens and the snakes’ “mating balls,” in which “one [unlucky] female is surrounded by up to one hundred males.” Brackets are mine, since this can’t be fun for the snakestress, no matter how many cocktails are involved.

According to Quizlet, six colleges and universities have snakes for mascots. I won’t spoil the surprise. You can click here for the big reveal.

For student-athletes at these six schools, plus those at every other non-snake-themed college, there’s a Third Circuit case that’s worth watching.

The Third Circuit has agreed to hear a case that poses the following question: “Whether NCAA Division I student athletes can be employees of the colleges and universities they attend for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act solely by virtue of their participation in interscholastic athletics.

If the Third Circuit says yes, student-athletes may be entitled to millions of dollars in back wages under the FLSA. A ‘yes’ ruling would be deadly venom to just about every non-major sports program, since schools have no budget to pay wages to student-athletes. Very few programs in very few sports actually make money.

For those who brought this suit and think they are advocating for the student, be careful what you wish for. If the Third Circuit rules that student-athletes are entitled to be paid, college sports are largely dead. Women’s sports would take the biggest hit, as would every other program that isn’t a top-tier college football or basketball program raking in the cash.

This is a case to watch closely. If student-athletes are entitled to be paid, there would no longer be any distinction between amateurs and professionals. The whole concept of the student-athlete — and almost all of college sports — would go the way of the Round Island Burrowing Boa. That’s an extinct snake that used to live in Mauritius, says wikipedia.

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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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Giving the Cold Shoulder: Court Denies ERISA Misclassification Claim Because Contractor Was “Not a Participant”

Mutton: Not the origin of the term.

The term cold shoulder originated with Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott in the early 19th century. A commonly repeated but incorrect origin story says that welcome houseguests were given a hot meal, but those who were not welcome would get a cold shoulder of mutton. But Scott’s use of the phrase had nothing to do with food. He described “shewing o’ the cauld shouther” as a physical gesture, turning the shoulder away from someone in a cold or indifferent manner.

No matter the origin, a federal judge in California recently showed some seriously cold shoulder to an independent contractor seeking ERISA benefits. The case shows the importance of a well drafted complaint in a misclassification lawsuit and highlights an important defense.

Tim Alders worked for YUM! Brands and Taco Bell for 25 years as an independent contractor. He then filed a lawsuit claiming he was misclassified.

He sued under ERISA, alleging that he should have been treated as an employee. He claimed that if he had been treated as an employee, he would have been a “participant” in YUM’s retirement plans, incentive plans, 401(k) plan, and executive income deferral program. Had he been a participant, he would have received financial benefits that he did not receive as a contractor.

Under ERISA, however, civil actions may only be brought by plan participants, beneficiaries, or the Secretary of Labor. ERISA defines a “participant” as “any employee or former employee of an employer . . . who is or may become eligible to receive a benefit of any type from an employee benefit plan which covers employees of such employer . . . or whose beneficiaries may be eligible to receive any such benefit.”

As YUM argued in its motion to dismiss, Alder could not sue under ERISA because he was not a “participant.” Judge Phillip Gutierrez, with a wink and a nod to Joseph Heller, agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff never got to argue whether he was misclassified or not.

The decision relied on past rulings, including this synopsis of ERISA law by a different California federal judge: “[U]nder Ninth Circuit authority, a claim that a former employee plaintiff should have been included in a plan, but actually was not included in a plan, does not give [the] plaintiff a ‘colorable claim to vested benefits’ for ERISA standing purposes.”

That’s some serious cauld shouther.

This case is a reminder that there are a lot of ways to defend a misclassification case. The “not a participant” defense is a valuable tool and should be used when appropriate.

But don’t be fooled. This ruling does not mean that a misclassified contractor can never sue for employee benefits. Remember too that this is unpublished case by one district court. Let’s not give it too much weight as precedent. There have been many class actions, some highly publicized, in which in which misclassified contractors took home lots of cash (many millions of dollars) as a result of being denied employee benefits.

One more thing before you go. There’s one easy step that companies should take now, before facing a misclassification lawsuit. Companies should check their plans to make sure the plan eligibility language protects specifically against misclassification claims. This post, featuring a reggae cucumber, provides the magic language you should be including in your plan documents.

If you plan properly, you too can give the cauld shouther.

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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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Twilight Zone? AFL-CIO Says “Not Now,” as NLRB Considers Redo of Independent Contractor Test

Raise your hand if you remember the 1982 song “Twilight Zone”? Seeing several hands raised, I will continue. The tune is catchy, but the lyrics are hard to understand. I heard the song this weekend and decided to finally check the lyrics. “There’s a storm on the loose, zarmines in my head” couldn’t be right, could it?

Raise your hand if you knew the chorus was this:

Help I’m steppin’ into the twilight zone
The place is a madhouse,
Feels like being cloned
My beacon’s been moved under moon and star
Where am I to go, now that I’ve gone too far?

Seeing no hands raised, I will continue.

It’s all very confusing to me, but it made sense once I read through it more carefully.

I had the same reaction after seeing an amicus brief that the AFL-CIO recently filed with the NLRB. The brief was filed in a case that may — yet again — change the test for independent contractor status.

In Atlanta Opera, the Regional Director for Region 10 ruled that a proposed unit of makeup artists and hairstylists were employees, not independent contractors, and that an election could proceed.

The NLRB then issued a notice asking the parties and the public for briefs addressing whether the Board should reconsider the test for determining whether workers are independent contractors or employees. It seems inevitable that the Board will rewrite the test to make it harder for a worker to be deemed a contractor. But is Atlanta Opera the right case to use for rewriting the test?

The AFL-CIO, somewhat surprisingly, said no. Like the lyrics to “Twilight Zone,” that was confusing to me at first, but it makes sense when I read through it more carefully.

Undoubtedly the unions want a rewrite of the test to make it as hard as possible for someone to maintain contractor status. But the AFL-CIO urged the NLRB to wait, arguing this isn’t the right set of facts to make a sweeping change.

The AFL-CIO’s brief argued that, even under the existing test, it was pretty clear the makeup artists and stylists were employees. It would be more impactful to wait for a closer case to rewrite the test. Ah, so that’s their angle — wait til later then really shake things up.

Eventually, the NLRB is going to change the test. The current test, explained in SuperShuttle DFW (discussed here), examines ten Right to Control factors.

At a minimum, it seems clear that the Board would like to go back to the FedEx Home Delivery test. The FedEx test asked whether the worker was “in fact, rendering services as part of an independent business” and essentially adopted an Economic Realities Test, rather than the Right to Control Test that had always been applied.

When the Board revises the test, it could go back to FedEx or it could try to adopt a new, more stringent test, like an ABC Test. (The courts probably would not allow the Board to adopt an ABC Test without Congressional action, but that’s for another day.)

And the Board will revise the test. It’s just a question of when and to what. The Board will make it harder to be an independent contractor under federal labor law. That means it will become easier for unions to file election petitions and try to organize groups of workers that might now be operating as independent contractors.

Yeah there’s a storm on the loose, sirens in my head.

Oh. That makes more sense.

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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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That’ll Cost You 96 Camels: Court Headlocks Staffing Agency with $7.2M Misclassification Judgment

Mom feeding a non-wrestling camel, May 2010

If you weren’t in Turkey last month, you missed the annual Selçuk Efes Camel Wrestling Festival, which featured 162 competitors in four categories.

The camels are paired by weight and skill, and their techniques include tripping their opponents with foot tricks or applying headlocks then sitting on their opponents. Some just push until the other camel gives up. A winner is declared when one camel scares away the other, making him scream or collapse. The camels are muzzled so there is no biting.

Among those missing the spectacle were the owners of Steadfast Medical Staffing, a Virginia-based firm that maintains a database of nurses and pairs them with healthcare facilities. That’s because they were in federal court, defending against a lawsuit by the Department of Labor. The DOL alleged that they had misclassified the nurses as independent contractors in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

After a bench trial, the judge agreed with the DOL and ruled that the nurses — which included CNAs, LPNs and RNs — were employees of the staffing agency. The Court applied the Economic Realities Test, which is the proper test for determining who is an employee under the FLSA.

The Court considered all relevant factors, then applied camel-style headlocks while sitting on the defendant, causing the staffing agency to either scream or collapse (unclear from the opinion). The Court ruled that the staffing agency failed to pay overtime and failed to comply with FLSA record keeping requirements. The agency will be liable for approximately $3.6M in back wages plus another $3.6M in liquidated damages.

Following the judgment, the DOL issued a statement with quotes from the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, and the Solicitor of Labor, Seema Nanda, that the DOL was sending an “unequivocal message” to Steadfast and other staffing companies that the DOL is serious about pursing independent contractor misclassification.

Staffing agencies that treat workers as independent contractors are on notice that the DOL is serious about enforcement. Remember, the facts of the relationship determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, not how the parties choose to characterize the relationship.

More than 1,100 nurses will share in the award, with a healthy-but-to-be-determined amount of fees headed to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

A prized wrestling camel can be sold for more than a million Turkish lira. That’s about $75,000. Large awards like this for systemic misclassification are not surprising. This one will cost the staffing firm about 96 wrestling camels.

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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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