Silver Linings? DOL Looks to Adopt New Independent Contractor Test Before Year End

canoe

The past few months have included many silver linings — more family time, a Lake Michigan vacation, and professional cornhole on TV. I’ve also learned new things — governors have more power than I thought, remote work is more doable than many of us thought, and there’s such a thing as professional cornhole.

Now the Department of Labor wants us to learn something new too — about independent contractor status. (Too many long dashes so far? I’m flagging myself for excessive use.)

Last week the DOL published a notice that it intends to fast-track a new regulation covering the test for independent contractor vs employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

What would that test look like? The DOL gave no hints, but here is my educated guess.

The test for independent contractor status under the FLSA is an Economic Realities Test.  That is a court-created test, it’s well-established, and it’s not likely to change. If the DOL did try to change it, I don’t think the courts would follow the new regulation anyway. So the DOL is going to have to work more around the edges.

I expect the regulation to define more precisely the factors to be taken into account under the Economic Realities Test. Right now, different courts use different versions of it. Some uniformity would be helpful.

I also expect some examples to help illustrate how the factors should be applied. Look for sample fact patterns that seem like close calls but perhaps would be deemed supportive of independent contractor status under a new DOL interpretation.

We can expect the DOL will gently place its fingers on the scales, making it a bit easier to maintain independent contractor status under the FLSA. Don’t expect a full rewrite of the test.

The DOL will want to implement the new rule quickly, in case a new administration takes over in January. Look for a proposed regulation shortly, a quick public comment period, and a new regulation on the books late this year.

Hopefully by the time we see a final rule, we can watch real sports on TV and demote cornhole to livestream only. That way both people who care could still watch.

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

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New Seattle Sick Pay Law for Gig Workers: Squishy or Full of Venom?

jellyfish

Horrifying images not intended to scare children. Thanks, PBS Learning.

I learned this week that a species of jellyfish found off the coast of China, Japan, and Korea can weigh up to 440 pounds. There’s a video here, and the size of this thing is terrifying.

In Finding Nemo, I learned that you can bounce on the fleshy heads of jellyfish without getting stung, and this creature has an abundantly fleshy head. The tentacles, though, are a different story. There are a lot of them. So the lesson here is that when approaching a Nomura’s Jellyfish, as they are called, be thoughtful in how you approach.

Which brings me to the City of Seattle. Seattle has been relentless in looking for ways to provide gig workers benefits of some kind, without getting caught up in the Independent Contractor vs. Employee question. The city has been aiming to grant gig workers certain rights, whether they are employees or not.

Seattle’s strategy is to aim for the jellyfish’s head, not wanting to get caught up in the tentacles of a dispute over whether the gig workers are employees or not.

In its latest head shot, Seattle has enacted an ordinance requiring transportation network companies and food delivery network companies (app based) to provide paid sick time to gig workers who perform services in Seattle. The requirement applies regardless of whether the workers are contractors or employees. The law was signed on June 12, 2020.

This move may signal a new strategy for states and localities that wish to provide benefits to gig workers. They can require benefits for gig workers, regardless of whether the workers are deemed employees.

This approach, if it works, may introduce other problems for app-based companies.

If companies start providing benefits such as paid sick leave to workers they consider to be independent contractors, that fact could be used against them as evidence the workers are being treated as employees.

In other words, this ordinance sets a trap. App-based companies will still be able to argue that they are providing sick leave only because they are required by local law, but surely the plaintiffs’ bar will argue that providing sick leave is evidence of employment status.

It’s a dangerous game, trying to bounce of the heads of the squishies while avoiding the sting. We’ll see how it plays out. In the meantime, obey beach hazard signs and try to avoid getting stung.

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

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NSFW? Not Quite. But 18 States Say DOL’s New Joint Employment Rule Is Inappropriate.

Zippy Michigan

Zippy sunbathes in the nude.

Some things sound inappropriate, but they’re not. For example, I sometimes post naked pictures on my blog. But only of my dog. She’s immodest and doesn’t seem to mind. (Her fur coat doesn’t count.) So, you see, that’s not inappropriate.

What about the DOL’s new joint employment test, which went into effect in March? Was that inappropriate? Eighteen Democratic state attorneys general seem to think so, and they’ve filed a federal lawsuit to try to undo the rule. For those of you keeping score at home, they claim the new rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and is not consistent with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Last week, a federal judge in New York rejected the DOL’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, meaning the case moves forward. The DOL argued that the states lacked standing to challenge the new rule. Lack of standing means they can’t sue because they’re not harmed by the new rule.

But the judge found that the states “plausibly alleged” that they have standing to sue. He noted that the new rule could reduce the total amount of wages paid to employees in their states, which could lead to a reduction in tax revenues. The loss of tax revenues and the anticipated increased expense in enforcing state wage and hour laws would be enough. The states can proceed.

The ruling does not address whether the lawsuit has any merit, just that it may proceed.

While no one would claim the new rule is NSFW, these states argue that the content of the new rule and the way it was passed was inappropriate. But like the naked photo above, you need to see the full picture before drawing any conclusions about what’s proper and what’s not. 

For now, the DOL’s new rule remains in effect.  That means it’s more difficult to establish joint employment than it was before. It’s also difficult, by the way, to get a dog to wear a hat. But we did it. And Zippy looks ready for college football season. 

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

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New Rules for Drivers? California’s ABC Test Could Change Again in 2021

Worst parking.jpg

Rebellious? Indifferent? Clueless? I’m still trying to understand how this car thought it was ok to take up FOUR parking spaces in the parking lot at a Walgreens near my house.

Any one of the spaces seems suitable for a car of ordinary proportions. I have parked in most of these four spots before, and my experiences were uniformly positive. I’d give four stars to each spot. Reliable, met expectations. Near enough to the store entrance. Picking just one of the four would be an excellent way to start your shopping experience.

When people don’t like the rules they’re expected to follow, one approach is to try to change the rules. That’s what ride share and delivery app companies are doing in California.

Late last month, these companies achieved an important milestone, reaching the 625,000 signature threshold for a November ballot initiative that, if passed, would change the test in California for determining Employee vs. Independent Contractor. The measure will now appear on California ballots, giving voters the chance to override A.B. 5 for ride share and delivery app companies.

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

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

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

I wrote more about this bill here, leading the post with a harrowing flight selection option offered on my United app.

So if you‘re reading this post from the Left Coast, get out and vote in November. You can make a meaningful change in the way that California approaches the question of Who Is My Employee? In the meantime, drive safe, wear your mask, and park within the lines.

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

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Better Flow? Will New Bill Allow More Benefits for Independent Contractors — Without Risking Misclassification Claims?

toilet gig workers plumberA Sheboygan man was recently sentenced to 150 days in jail and probation for repeatedly clogging women’s toilets with plastic bottles. According to the Sheboygan Press, the serial toilet clogger told police he gets urges to do odd things, like look for bottles in the garbage to plug toilets.

I get urges to do odd things too, like scour local newspapers for stories like this one. But since I’m sharing this important knowledge with readers, I figure it’s for the greater good. (Repeat:) For the greater good. (See Hot Fuzz, my nominee for best movie ever.) 

Two recently introduced bills in Congress seek to protect the greater good when it comes to gig workers. In the current legal environment, digital marketplace companies are reluctant to do anything to provide assistance to independent contractors who use their platforms, since courts and agencies tend to use such good deeds as evidence that the contractors should really be classified as employees. For digital marketplace companies that rely on an independent contractor model, such a finding can cause serious damage to normal business operations — even worse than the mess caused by an overflowing bottle-clogged ladies’ toilet.

The Helping Gig Economy Workers Act of 2020 would permit digital marketplace companies to provide payments, health benefits, training, and PPE to users of the digital marketplace without these good deeds being used as evidence — in any federal, state, or local proceeding — that the company has misclassified its independent contractors or is acting as a joint employer. The bill would protect companies throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

The bill is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), with a companion bill sponsored by four Republicans in the Senate.

Historically, Democrats have opposed any legislation that would solidify independent contractor status for workers, instead advocating for bills that would convert more contractors to employees. Will the COVID-19 crisis be a turning point?

With independent contractor delivery services needed now more than ever, will there be a push to allow companies to provide greater protection for these workers without fear that their good deeds will be used against them in a misclassification claim?

That remains to be seen. If this bill gains any momentum, it could be the equivalent of pulling a bottle out of the clogged toilet of independent contractor misclassification laws. (I concede the analogy is a stretch, but I’m doing my best here.)  This bill could signal a shift toward a philosophy of promoting greater benefits for independent contractor gig workers, rather than aiming solely to convert them all to employees. I’m not sure it will, but it might. This is one to watch.

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

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Worried about ABC Tests? Here’s What You Have to Look Forward to.

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Recent coronavirus-related conversation in my house, after cancellation of planned spring break vacation, loss of kids’ summer internships, suspension of in-person college classes, and more than one day of snow in May:

Lisa: This is getting ridiculous. We need something to look forward to.

Me: 2021?

It may feel like there’s not much to look forward to lately, but if you’re into watching state bills on independent contractor misclassification, I’ve got some exciting news for you! Not really. No one’s into that. But I’m going to share anyway.

Seven states are currently considering bills that would adopt strict ABC Tests for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. What do I mean by “strict ABC Tests”? I mean the same test California recently adopted in Dynamex and under Assembly Bill 5. I mean the test where anyone performing services is presumed to be an employee unless all three of these things are proven, with part B being the hardest to meet:

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

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

(C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

So which states are vying for the title of Miss California? Here are the 7 states with bills currently pending that, if passed, would adopt a strict ABC Test:

  • Massachusetts – would expand test to unemployment
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey – switching from looser part B
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania – for gig-based platforms only
  • Rhode Island

I’ll continue to minor these bills, mainly because I know no one else wants to. But at least we all have something to look forward to.  Happy new year?

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

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Take a Hike? Not This Time. CARES Act Offers Unemployment Help for Gig Workers

61C63C40-A3B8-41A8-A458-1545EB3168E8While coyotes invade San Francisco and wild boars torment Barcelona, things are a bit quieter here in Cleveland.

Last weekend, I took a few hours off from the nonstop advising on all things COVID-19 and went on a hike with my family at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about half an hour from my house.

But then it was back to work, and back to keeping up on all the latest COVID-related legal developments, and there are a lot. One item of note for independent contractors and gig workers is the new CARES Act, passed earlier this week.

While unemployment insurance coverage traditionally has not been available for independent contractors, the CARES Act makes it possible for self-employed contractors to obtain coverage.

Hopefully this is a small first step toward allowing independent contractors to obtain more benefits without converting them to employees. The binary system we have — either you’re an employee or an independent contractor — generally means all or nothing. That’s why so many state legislators are trying to convert contractors to employees — so these workers can receive benefits and other protections that the law provides to employees but not to contractors.

There’s a better way, such as the path forward proposed by five gig economy companies in California, with a measure that hopefully will appear on the November 2020 ballot.  (You can read more here.)  We need a middle ground that allows self-employed contractors to remain contractors, while allowing them to obtain some of the benefits that employees receive.

The trail I went on last weekend was a loop. It ended right back where it started. Hopefully the CARES Act is a small step in a new direction, and we can move away from the binary legal choice we’ve been stuck with for decades.

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

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Bring Forth the Tiger-Dogs! Here’s a Quick Status Check on the Challenges to California’s New Independent Contractor Law

Tiger independent contractor dynamex california

Not an actual tiger. Or a dog.

When outside forces pose a threat to people’s livelihood, people will go to great lengths to fight back.

For example, when monkeys began ravaging the crops of a farmer in Karnataka, India, the imaginitive farmer painted his dog to look like a tiger, to scare away the pesky invaders. [Photo here.]

Business owners in California are taking more conventional measures to fight back againt the tyranny of Assembly Bill 5, the new California law that seeks to reclassify many of the state’s independent contractors as employee. Here’s a quick summary of the resistance:

  • Owner-operator truckers claim the new California law cannot be applied to them because of a federal law (FAAAA) that prohibits states from enacting their own laws that affect the “price, route, or service of any motor carrier with respect to the transportation of property.” They won a preliminary injunction last month, temporarily preventing the law from applying to them.
  • Freelance writers and photographers are challenging the law too. The law has an exception for freelancers, but the exemption goes away if freelancers submit 35 or more pieces to a single publication. In other words, they’re independent contractors for submissions #1 through #34, but they instantly become employees with submission #35. They argue that the exemption is arbitrary and violates their First Amendment and equal protection Rights.
  • Rideshare and food delivery apps filed their own lawsuit, alleging that the exemptions are arbitrary and violate their equal protection and due process rights.
  • Five gig economy app companies have contributed $110 million to a ballot measure that will be voted upon in the November 2020 election if the measure collects 625,000 signatures. The law would exempt app-based gig economy drivers from the new test if the companies provide workers with specific levels of pay, benefits, and rights, which are defined in the proposal.
  • Republican lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment (A.C.A. 19) called the “Right to Earn a Living Act,” which would overturn Assembly Bill 5 and enshrine in California law “the right to pursue a chosen business or profession free from arbitrary or excessive government interference.” The amendment would reinstate California’s S.G. Borello balancing test for determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee.

Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court is considering whether the 2018 Dynamex decision, which first imposed the ABC Test for wage and hour claims, applies retroactively. If it does, then businesses can be liable for failing to comply with a test that did not yet exist. Really.

That’s a lot of action, and we’ll continue to watch for new developments. Meanwhile, California businesses that use independent contractors should tread carefully, follow the status of legal challenges, and paint their dogs to look like tigers — just in case that turns out to be effective.

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

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

piano IMG_2111

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

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

This post is about when the rules should apply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expensive flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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