Watch for New Joint Employer Rule This Week

Who’s the white robed fella? I ask because it looks here like Ric didnt know this guy would be in his video.

While cleaning out the garage Saturday, I heard the Cars’ song “Magic,” which contains this nifty lyric: “Summer, It’s like a merry go round.” I then went down the rabbit hole of looking for the video, which features a collection of bizzaro characters at Rik Ocasek’s freakish pool party, including this probable leader of a religious cult.

The lyric stood out, though, because this summer is like a merry go round for joint employment. The rules are about to change again to make it much easier to establish joint employment under the FLSA.

I’ll keep this post short for two reasons:

  1. It’s beautiful outside and so I should not be inside on my laptop, and
  2. The real news on joint employment is coming sometime this week, but it’s not out yet as of Sunday midday when I am writing this.

Here’s what we know:

In March 2021, the Biden Administration indicated it would be rescinding the Trump joint employer rule, which made it hard to establish joint employment.

Last week, the White House announced that it had concluded its review of the new joint employer rule, which will be published imminently.

After it’s released, I’ll write more about it, quite possibly with another screenshot from a Cars video. Or “You Might Think I’ll screenshot another video. Maybe not. Like you, I am on the edge of my seat. But unlike you, that’s because I’m getting up to go outside. I’ll post more when we see the final rule.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Like Being Thrown on a Trotting Horse? This Company is Trying Rideshare without Independent Contractors

In 18th Century Europe, common methods for trying to revive drowning victims included throwing the victim onto a trotting horse, dunking in freezing water (ironic?), and my personal favorite, blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum.

These were creative ideas and sometimes they actually worked. The bouncing motion from being on a trotting horse could force air in and out of the lungs, like modern CPR. Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, which causes the brain to release epinephrine, which helps to stimulate the heart to contract.

It’s fun now to look back at how people tried to solve problems when they didn’t know what would happen.

The biggest unknown in the world of independent contractor misclassification is what would happen if rideshare and delivery companies were forced to reclassify all drivers as employees. A well-funded startup in Dallas is attempting to find out.

As reported here, a new rideshare service called Alto just completed a $45 million round of Series B funding. Alto’s model is to use all W-2 drivers and company-owned vehicles. The service currently operates only in Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles, and has announced plans to switch to all-electric vehicles.

Will it work? Who knows.

Is it a viable business model? Who knows.

But in some ways, it’s a test case to see how an industry dominated by the independent contractor model might operate if forced to use all W2 workers. Yes, I know the taxi industry is another comparable. But it hasn’t exactly thrived since the emergence of rideshare. I’m pretty sure that’s not the model that rideshare would look to if force to pivot.

As the old proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. For those keeping score at home, Mothers of Invention was also the name of an experimental rock band in California once fronted by Frank Zappa and which featured tracks such as “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” But that’s for another day.

For now, the rideshare industry continues to operate with its independent contractor model under siege. Widespread conversion of driver contractors to employees would be difficult and would introduce massive disruption in the industry. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s continue to innovate. Sometimes, even being thrown on a trotting horse can be helpful.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Biden Plan: Independent Contractor Misclassification Will Be An Enforcement Priority

Money
Get away
You get a good job with good pay and you’re okay
Money
It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Pink Floyd just gets it. When I was a young lawyer, someone described civil litigation to me as just moving piles of money from one party to another. But that cynical view tells only part of the story. It excludes the emotion, frustration, stress, and workload involved in defending disputes and in dealing with the consequences, which can include destroying an entire business model.

For businesses making widespread use of independent contractors, all of these concerns are about to get worse.

President Biden’s proposed FY2022 budget includes expanding resources to combat independent contractor misclassification. The Administration’s “commitment” to combatting misclassification is spelled out pretty unambiguously on page 15:

The Administration is also committed to ending the abusive practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors, which deprives these workers of critical protections and benefits. In addition to including funding in the Budget for stronger enforcement, the Administration intends to work with the Congress to develop comprehensive legislation to strengthen and extend protections against misclassification across appropriate Federal statutes.

The President’s proposal includes $14.2 billion for DOL enforcement efforts, including to “address the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.” This represents a $1.7 billion increase from 2021.

Expect the Department of Labor to place much greater scrutiny on independent contractor relationships than during the Trump Administration. The nomination of David Weil to head up the Wage and Hour Division signals that the President is serious about this enforcement priority. Weil served in the same role under Obama, and he made independent contractor misclassification a focal point of his enforcement efforts.

If your independent contractor arrangements have not been closely examined recently, it’s time for a check up. $14.2 billion for enforcement efforts is a lot of money. I think I’d buy me a football team.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Independent Contractors May Have a Weil Problem On Their Hands

Crash Test Dummies is a band from Winnipeg that I really like — especially the 1993 album, God Shuffled His Feet. It’s full of thoughtful questions asked in a booming deep voice. The song In the Days of the Caveman takes a look back, with some keen observations added for good measure:

In the days of the caveman
And mammoths and glaciers
Bugs and trees were your food then
No pajamas or doctors

See, that’s all true and probably not something you had thought about before.

President Biden has given us another reason to look back and reconsider some things you hadn’t thought about in a while. Last week, Biden nominated David Weil to serve as Wage and Hour Administrator. Weil served in the same role under Obama, so we’ve seen that movie too.

Here are some highlights from Weil’s last stint as W&H Administrator:

  • Administrator’s Interpretation 2016-1: Joint Employment under the FLSA, which I wrote about here when it was issued. Weil embraces the broadest possible view of joint employment. The Trump Administration’s DOL rescinded this guidance in 2017.
  • Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1: Applying the FLSA’s “Suffer or Permit” Standard to Independent Contractor Classification, which I wrote about here. Weil advocates an expansive view of employment, declaring that “most workers are employees under the FLSA’s board definitions.”

Here’s what we can expect from Weil 2.0:

  • Increased enforcement activity by the DOL against companies using independent contractors.

Right now, claims generally arise through lawsuits, and class/collective actions present the most danger. The risk of class claims can be limited with arbitration agreements and class waivers. But arbitration agreements provide no defense against a DOL action. Those agreements don’t bind the government. Expect the DOL to go after companies that make extensive use of independent contractors.

  • Increased enforcement activity by the DOL on joint employment claims.

Remember, unlike independent contractor misclassification, joint employment is not illegal. Joint employment is a problem when a primary employer (such as a staffing agency or vendor/subcontractor) fails to comply with some aspect of the FLSA and its wage payment rules. Under a broad theory of joint employment, the company benefitting from the services is going to be liable for the errors of the primary employer, even though the alleged joint employer had no control over the primary employer’s wage practices.

  • New regulations on independent contractor classification and joint employment.

The standards and test keep changing, depending on who holds the White House. One step the Wage and Hour Division can take to try to make its views more permanent is to adopt its views as formal regulations, not just Administrator’s Interpretations. This is what the Trump DOL tried to do for both independent contractor misclassification and joint employment. Expect a strong push by the DOL to adopt new regulations that make it harder to maintain independent contractor status and easier to find joint employment.

The bottom line is that we’re going back in time. Maybe not so far back that bugs and trees were your food then, but back to 2015 and 2016 interpretations of the FLSA. Expect no pajamas or doctors.

What to do about it? Businesses that rely on independent contractors should tighten their agreements now. Businesses that engage staffing agencies should review those contracts now.

These posts contain a few of my favorite tips:

Good luck out there, and beware of mammoths and glaciers.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Schrödinger’s Cat? Ninth Circuit Disrupts Trucking Industry with Contractor Misclassification Ruling

Have you heard of Schrödinger’s cat? It’s not a real cat, like Felix or Brian Setzer. It’s a hypothetical, seemingly impossible cat that exists only in the world of quantum physics. Schrödinger’s cat refers to a thought experiment in which a cat in a box is simultaneously alive and dead, until you open the box and observe the cat. Then, stubborn as cats are, it will be only one or the other, and that’s when you realize you prefer dogs anyway.

In a ruling last week, the Ninth Circuit has tried to give the trucking industry Schrödinger’s cat.

The issue was whether California’s infamous ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. The answer now is both yes and no, depending on where you look.

If you’re in California, the Ninth Circuit says yes, the ABC Test applies to the trucking industry. Under the ABC Test, now part of California’s Labor Code, most workers are classified as employees, not independent contractors, unless the work they perform is “outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.” (There’s more to the ABC Test, but that’s Part B, the hardest part to meet.)

In the trucking industry, it’s hard to argue that owner-operator truckers retained by a trucking company are performing work that is “outside the usual course” of the trucking company’s business. The ABC Test would likely reclassify most owner-operators as employees. The California Trucking Association brought a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA) preempts this California law from being applied to trucking. The FAAAA preempts state laws “relating to a price, route or service of any motor carrier … with respect to the transportation of property.” Cal Trucking argued that applying the ABC Test and reclassifying owner-operators as employees would affect the prices, routes, and services provided.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the ABC Test is a “generally applicable” law that does not sufficiently affect prices, routes, or service to be preempted. California’s ABC Test therefore applies to trucking and is not preempted by the FAAAA.

Now remember the cat – both alive and dead?

If you’re in Massachusetts, the answer to the same question is no, the ABC Test does not apply to trucking. In 2016, the First Circuit ruled that the FAAAA preempts Massachusetts’ ABC Test (which is the same as California’s) because of its effect on prices, routes, and service, when applied to trucking.

So what happens now? How can one federal law simultaneously mean two different things?

There are three ways this can play out:

  • The full Ninth Circuit might rehear the case and could reverse its ruling (which was a 2-1 split) to conform with the First Circuit’s view;
  • The ruling might stay as it is, meaning that the interpretation of a federal law (the FAAAA) is different in California and Massachusetts, even though their state ABC Tests are the same; or
  • The Supreme Court will take the case and resolve the circuit split.

I grew up in Miami where they had greyhound racing, which you can bet on. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can go and bet on cats. But if I were a betting man on this one, I’d wager that the Supreme Court weighs in at some point.

The owner-operator model in the trucking industry is so well-established and has been permitted for so long under federal law that it seems impossible for the Supreme Court to allow the FAAAA to mean two different things in two different states.

And what about the rest of the country?

The Third and Seventh Circuits have ruled that the FAAAA does not preempt state wage and hour laws when applied to trucking, but those courts were not considering strict ABC Tests like those reviewed by the First and Ninth Circuits. The ABC Test aims to reclassify most contractors as employees; it is no ordinary wage and hour law. More states are considering adopting strict ABC Tests and, in those states, we don’t know whether the FAAAA would preempt state classification law for truckers or not.

In other words, for most of the country, the cat is both alive and dead, and we won’t know which it is until we look. Unfortunately for tens of thousands of truckers, this is not a mere thought experiment. The disruption to the industry is massive, and the sooner we get a clear answer, the better it will be for everyone. Except maybe the cat.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Island Politics: Which States Are Considering New ABC Tests?

On Victoria Island in Northern Canada there is a series of long finger lakes. In one of the lakes there’s an island. Inside that smaller island, there’s a smaller lake, which contains a still smaller island about a fifth of a mile long. It is the largest known island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island. You can see it here.

I like maps and islands. I like exclaves and enclaves and have lots of questions about islands.

One of my questions is why Rhode Island came to be called that, since it’s not an island. This was particularly confusing to me in elementary school but I have come to terms with it and no longer lose sleep over this.

But now Rhode Island is causing me to lose sleep again.

Why? ABC Tests.

There are bills pending in both Rhode Island and New York that, if passed, would adopt strict ABC Tests for determining who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. The tests would follow the California AB 5/Dynamex model and the Massachusetts model, meaning that a worker providing services would automatically be classified as an employee unless (all 3):

(A) the individual is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for performance of the work and in fact;

(B) the individual performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

(C) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

As discussed here, Part B is the killer B, the destroyer of most independent contractor relationships.

The bills have not yet passed either house, but both have popular support among legislatures that are heavily Democratic. Both bills seem to have a good chance at passing in 2021.

Keep an eye on these bills.

Meanwhile, Victoria Island is the eighth largest island in the world but has only about 2,100 people. I am not aware of any push among the mostly-Inuit inhabitants to reclassify independent contractors anywhere in Nunavut, but I also don’t feel like I have my finger on the pulse of Nunavut politics. It’s harder to track legislation there.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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

Please hold. The past is calling. Source: LOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DOL will be publishing model notices by April 10.

Employers must send this notice by May 31.

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

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

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

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Watch This Rooster! PRO Act Would Change Definition of Employee Under Labor Law.

Who says the news is always negative? Not so in Alabama, where we were treated this headline on AL.com:

Teen reunited with pet rooster lost at Alabama Cracker Barrel after Civil War reenactment

It seems an 18-year old Civil Ward reenactor brought his Buff Orpington rooster, Peep, to a civil war reenactment in nearby Tennessee, then stopped for lunch afterward. Our hero dutifully put on Peep’s leash and secured him to the bed of his truck while dining at a nearby Cracker Barrel after the event. But when he returned, the rooster was gone.

Police and animal control were summoned to the scene. The parties were later reunited when Peep wandered back to the Cracker Barrel, and this story had a happy ending. This had been Peep’s third Civil War reenactment, although his role in the battle plan was unclear. Fortunately for Peep, further battles lie ahead.

Further battles lie ahead in Congress too, not for roosters but for businesses everywhere. Rep. Bobby Scott and 200 Democratic co-sponsors have re-introduced a massive labor bill that fulfills every wish of the unions.

The PRO Act – Protecting the Right to Organize – would bring a massive overhaul to the National Labor Relations Act. Two portions of the bill would affect independent contractor misclassification and joint employment.

First, the PRO Act would re-adopt the Browning-Ferris test for determining whether someone is a joint employee of two employers. This test had been adopted by the Obama Board but reversed by the Trump Board. The test would consider two entities to be joint employers if they “share or codetermine” control over workers’ terms of employment. The notion of control would be broad. It would include not just actual direct control, but reserved control or indirect control. Under the original Browning-Ferris test, control over the speed of an assembly line was considered sufficient control to make a business a joint employer.

Second, the PRO Act would adopt a nationwide strict ABC Test for determining whether someone is an employee or independent contractor. The new rule would require that all workers performing services be considered employees under the NLRA unless (all three):

(A) the individual is free from the employer’s control in connection with the performance of the service, both under the contract for the performance of service and in fact;
(B) the service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer; and
(C) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.

This is the same test adopted by California (recall Dynamex and AB 5) but without the exceptions. California lawmakers recognized this test wouldn’t work in all industries and adopted a long list of exceptions to this test.

The PRO Act would not have any exceptions.

It’s no surprise that the bill was reintroduced. A similar bill was passed by the House last year but never considered by the Senate.

While 60 votes in the Senate isn’t going to happen, this bill deserves a close and watchful eye. (Follow its progress here.)

That means really watching it, not just tying it to the bed of your truck and hoping it’s still there after you finish your Cracker Barrel omelet.

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Waiting for Something? Here’s What to Expect from the NLRB

Zippy accepts a package delivery.

Our Amazon delivery driver snapped this photo yesterday, when leaving a package at my door. There’s Zippy, waiting patiently and watching. Her dog treats arrived in a separate delivery yesterday, so this package is probably not for her.

What have you been waiting for? If not a special delivery, then maybe a change in federal labor laws? Oh, not quite as good, but very likely.

Here are three things to expect from the NLRB during the Biden Administration:

1. Joint employment, and a return to Browning-Ferris.

In 2015, the NLRB overturned 30 years of precedent to create a new test to determine when staffing agency workers are joint employees. That decision, known as Browning-Ferris, allowed for a finding of joint employment even if control was indirect, reserved, and related to nonessential terms.

The Browning-Ferris standard was later abandoned, but it will likely come back. Expect a new test that makes it easier to establish a joint employment relationship under federal labor law. You can read more about the Browning-Ferris test here.

2. Independent contractor misclassification, as an unfair labor practice.

Is independent contractor misclassification, by itself, an unfair labor practice? In 2019, the NLRB said no, it’s not necessarily a violation of the NLRA to misclassify an employee as a contractor. The Board’s rationale was that a business can express its legitimate belief that workers were contractors, even if that belief turned out to be wrong.

Expect that to change. A more union-friendly Board is likely to rule that when a business incorrectly tells workers they are contractors, the business is interfering with workers’ rights. Expect independent contractor misclassification to become an automatic violation of the NLRA.  

3. Independent contractor misclassification, and a tougher test for proving contractor status.

In 2019, the Board updated the test for determining Who Is My Employee?, making it easier to prove independent contractor status under the NLRA.

From 2014 to 2018, the Board had taken the position that to be an independent contractor, you must be “in fact, rendering services as part of an independent business.” That test was abandoned in 2019, in a case called SuperShuttle DFW, when the Board said that you can be an independent contractor if you are permitted to run your own business, whether you actually do so or not. The 2019 ruling reinstated the Right to Control Test as the proper way to decide employee vs. independent contractor status.

Expect a return to the 2014 test, which would mean that to be an independent contractor, you’d need to actually operate as an independent business.

When might all this happen?

Some in 2021, some in 2022.

Biden has already removed Peter Robb as the NLRB’s General Counsel, replacing him with Peter Sung Ohr as Acting GC. The GC acts as the Board’s chief prosecutor, setting the administration’s priorities on what it considers to be a violation of the NLRA. We are already starting to see changes in Board policy, but the composition of the five-member Board will not shift to majority Democratic-control until after William Emanuel’s term expires in August 2021.

In 2021, we can expect changes in policy that are more pro-worker. In 2022, we can expect to start seeing 3-2 rulings in NLRB decisions that are more pro-worker. The Democrats will take a majority of Board seats in late 2021.

Businesses should anticipate these changes and plan accordingly. This package is going to be delivered. It’s just a matter of time.

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Stop Licking My Face? DOL Rescinds Independent Contractor Guidance

Tasty! Image by Roman Michael Gottfried from Pixabay

In this issue of Science Focus Magazine, the BBC tackles the difficult question of Why Do Dogs Lick People?

Says Dr Emily Blackwell, a lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Bristol, “It’s a greeting and can be taken as a compliment.”

Ok then. That’s a nice gesture.

But that’s not going to be the case with the new administration’s Department of Labor, apparently. Steps are already being taken to remove helpful guidance on whether workers qualify as employees or independent contractors.

That’s not a nice gesture. There will be no lovable face licking by the new DOL.

On January 19th, the Trump DOL issued two opinion letters addressing whether certain kinds of workers are employees are independent contractors and the appropriate test for making that determination.

But last week, under direction from the Biden Administration, the DOL rescinded the guidance. Here’s what the two letters covered:

  • FLSA2021-8: Addressing whether certain distributors of a manufacturer’s food products are employees or independent contractors under the FLSA.
  • FLSA2021-9: Addressing whether requiring tractor-trailer truck drivers to implement safety measures required by law constitutes control by the motor carrier for purposes of their status as employees or independent contractors under the FLSA, and whether certain owner-operators are properly classified as independent contractors.

Under the Trump administration, the DOL had committed to publishing more opinion letters. These letters help the public understand the DOL’s interpretation of the law. They apply general rules to more specific situations. They answer questions. That’s good, right? Doesn’t the government want compliance? From the perspective of the business community, compliance is easier if we know what the DOL is thinking.

Fast forward to last week. Even though Marty Walsh has not yet been confirmed as Secretary of Labor, the DOL is already undoing what the DOL had recently done.

Looking ahead, we can expect to see fewer opinion letters, or maybe none. The Biden Administration has indicated that these types of unofficial guidance documents should not be issued. The Administration feels that it ties the hands of the DOL. During the Obama Administration, the DOL entirely discontinued the practice of publishing opinion letters on wage and hour issues, so a plunge back into the darkness seems likely to happen again under a Biden Administration DOL.

This is a bad trend for businesses trying to understand and comply with the law.

So my advice today? If you want some love and attention when trying to unravel the independent contractor versus employee conundrum, don’t look to the DOL for help. Instead, go get a puppy. It might lick your nose, which could be nice.

 

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Sign up now for the BakerHostetler 2021 Master Class on The State of Labor Relations and Employment Law. Twelve sessions, one hour every Tuesday, 2 pm ET, all virtual, no cost. Click here for more information. List me as your BakerHostetler contact so I know you’ve registered. 

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