Nothing on TV? Read Your Contract to See If There’s a COVID-19 Exception

covid-19 force majeure

Now that everything fun is banned and workplaces are sending people home, I’m planning to spend next week getting hernia repair surgery on Wednesday. Then I’ll take it easy watching baseball NCAA basketball the NBA tennis Netflix the second part of the week.

Or so I thought. Yesterday I learned that all non-essential surgeries are likely going to be cancelled. So it may be back to work. Or home to work. Or some variation of work. I think the hernia and I will continue our relationship for a while longer.

Where does this leave you with independent contractors and staffing agency contracts?

COVID-19 is creating conditions we never anticipated, and the work to be performed by contractors or staffing agency workers may be unnecessary — or impossible.

Are you still on the hook to pay them? The answer lies within your contract. There are a few ways performance may be excused.

  1. Force majeure or impossibility clauses. Force majeure is French legalese that means, literally, “Bad stuff happens if people eat bats and pangolins.” I’m not real good at French, so I could be off slightly. But it’s close. These are the boilerplate provisions most people never read. It’s time to read them. We now have states of emergency declared, pandemic status, CDC Level 2 and 3 travel restrictions, and mandatory quarantines in various parts of the world. Any of these events may be sufficient to trigger the force majeure or impossibility clause in your contract, if there is such a clause. Most of these clauses will not be so specific as to address pandemics, but terms like “Acts of God” or similar language might suffice. These clauses generally aren’t expected to list every contingency that would trigger excusing performance. A global pandemic seems likely to fit — if the conditions make performance impossible. A general business downturn that results from the virus might not be enough.
  2. Termination without cause. A force majeure clause is probably unnecessary if performance can be cancelled without cause, either at will or after a short notice period. This may be the time to issue notice.
  3. Modification or renegotiation. Your contractor or staffing agency may be as unprepared or as unwilling to perform as you are. It’s time to have a discussion — preferably by phone or while maintaining social distancing. A side letter in which both sides agree to modify the contract may be in order.
  4. No obligation to perform. If your contract is a master services agreement, performance might not be required. Check your work orders, and maybe all you need to do is modify or terminate those.

In the meantime, consider opening that bottle of wine you’ve been saving and starting a good book. We all need to make the best of a bad situation, and Cabernet can help.

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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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Who Pays for Reasonable Accommodations to Staffing Agency Workers? Ask Shorty.

Limb lengthening reasoable accommodation

Suppose you’ve got a staffing agency worker (we’ll call him Shorty) who’s a bit vertically challenged and is self-conscious about it. He tells you he’s gonna need some time off because he found this:

A limb-lengthening clinic in Las Vegas claims it can make you a few inches taller through minimally invasivce surgery. According to this article on OddityCentral.com, here’s how it works:

“We cut the leg bones – either femur (upper leg bone) or tibia (lower leg bone) – and insert a device that slowly stretches them out which makes you taller permanently.”

“I insert a device that responds to an external remote control that the patient will control at home. Once the device is set, I place screws at the top and bottom of the device to lock into position. This is done on each leg.”

The doc says you then just press a button at home and you’ll stretch by 1 mm a day. Just like nature intended.

So, back to Shorty. Suppose he has this surgery one weekend and comes back to work a bit achy from all the stretching. He wants some extra breaks to get him off his feet. Or he wants you to provide him a stool so he can rest more often from his station on the assembly line. Do you have a reasonable accommodation obligation?

If you’re in HR, you know that weird stuff happens, so maybe you hadn’t considered limb-lengthening, but let’s use this as an excuse to think about relationships with staffing agency workers and what your obligations might be for medical issues.

This is unlikely to be a disability situation, unless Shorty’s stature is due to a medical condition. But you’ll undoubtedly have staffing agency workers who do have disabilities and who do need reasonable accommodations.

That brings us to today’s Tip of the Day:

Consider adding to your staffing agency contracts a clause requiring the agency to pay the expenses for any reasonable accommodations provided to qualified staffing agency employees to allow them to perform their job functions.

Accomodations can sometimes be expensive, and it’s not unforeseeable that staffing agency workers will need accommodations at some point. Plan ahead, and build this contingency into the contract.

A clause like that may lengthen your contract a bit, but this lengthening can be done in a sentence or two — with no surgical intervention, no cuts in your femur or tibia, and no insertion of a stretch button in your leg. That’s the kind of lengthening I’d be much more inclined to try. I’ll leave my limbs just the way they are.

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

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

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California’s New Anti-Arbitration Law: A Hotbed of Problems

California continues to be a hotbed of activity, which got me wondering: what is a hotbed? So I looked it up.

Hotbed – noun – hot·bed |  \ ˈhät-ˌbed

/a bed of soil enclosed in glass, heated especially by fermenting manure, and used for forcing or for raising seedlings/

And now you can decide which is more useful- knowing what a hotbed is or keeping up with the latest legislation in California that makes things harder for businesses.

The latest is AB51, which bans mandatory employee arbitration agreements if they are made a condition of employment. Voluntary arbitration agreements are still permitted.

So let’s just include an opt-out provision, right? That way there’s a choice, so it’s not mandatory. That would seem to make sense. Not so fast. The law says that if you include an opt-out provision, it still counts as mandatory. Huh? That’s contrary to the meaning of opt-out.

Opt – verb \ ˈäpt

/to make a choice/

If the option to opt-in is voluntary, then the option to opt-out is voluntary. Grammarians needed in California please.

The law is also probably illegal, except maybe for jobs in the transportation industry. According to the Supreme Court, the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) prohibits states from enacting laws that treat agreements to arbitrate differently than other agreements. If the parties agree to arbitrate, there’s an enforceable contract, and the states need to get out of the way. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. The FAA doesn’t apply to portions of the interstate transportation industry though, so the California law might be enforceable only as to that small segment of jobs. The enforceability of this law will be tested in the courts.

The law also creates a chicken-and-egg problem for independent contractor misclassification disputes. You can still require in an independent contractor agreement that an independent contractor must arbitrate disputes. And in that arbitration agreement, you can grant the arbitrator the authority to rule on any questions about enforceability of the arbitration agreement.

But what if the dispute is over whether the independent contractor is an employee? If the California law stands, then the agreement to arbitrate the dispute is enforceable only if the arbitrator rules that the contractor is properly classified as a contractor, but the agreement to arbitrate is unenforceable if the arbitrator rules that the contractor is misclassified and should really be an employee. But if the arbitrator rules that contractor was really an employee, then under California law the agreement granting the arbitrator the right to make that decision is void. You’d have to decide the ultimate issue — independent contractor s employee — before determining who decides whether the worker is a contractor or an employee.

Is your head spinning? Good. Just in time for Halloween.

Thanks California. You give me lots to write about.

This new law applies to employee arbitration agreements entered into after January 1, 2020– unless it’s not enforceable at all. We’ll see.

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

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

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The Monster with Three Eyes Can Help You Avoid Claims of Joint Employment

Some monsters are scary. There’s Godzilla, who terrorized Tokyo and whose name in Japanese translates roughly to gorilla-whale. (Thanks, wikipedia!) There’s Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula (also Count Chocula), and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was filmed in terrorizingly implausible black and white 3-D.

But on the other hand, some monsters are friendly and educational, like Cookie Monster, E.T., or, dare I say, Elmo. (“Kids look at these crayons… Kids look at these crayons.”)

This post is about a friendly and educational monster: The Monster with Three Eyes.

If you want to help your business avoid claims of joint employment, remember the Monster with Three Eyes when drafting contracts with staffing agencies or other vendors that supply labor.

Confession: The “three eyes” really should be the letter I three times, but when I try to write that out, it looks like “three is,” which is neither memorable nor a suitable name for a monster, even a friendly and educational one. So we go with three eyes. When I say it aloud — making sure first that no one is listening because why would a person say something like that aloud for seemingly no reason? — it sounds the same.

Here are the three main ingredients you’ll want to include in each contract with a vendor that supplies labor:

1. Identify the sole responsibilities of the vendor with respect to its employees. List these responsibilities. List the various obligations of an employer — things like properly recording all hours worked, paying overtime, paying a minimum wage, handling payroll, reimbursing expenses, providing meal and rest breaks, stuff like that. List these responsibilities specifically in the contract. Don’t just say the agency agrees it is the sole employer. Remember, joint employment is a legal doctrine that holds your business responsible if the vendor failed to do something it’s supposed to do. If your found to be legally liable, you want to be able to point to a specific contractual obligation the vendor failed to satisfy.

2. Indemnify. The indemnification provision needs specificity. It should require the vendor to indemnify your business for any claims of joint employment and for any claims arising out of the vendor failing to comply with any of its contractual obligations. That’s why you’re listing the specific contractual obligations of the vendor. When seeking indemnification, you want to be able to point to a specific contractual obligation the vendor failed to meet, which triggers the indemnification requirement.

3. Insure. Insurance requirements are just as important as indemnity. The indemnity clause is of no value if the vendor goes out of business or is liable for more than it can pay. Vendors who supply labor should be able to demonstrate that they have sufficient insurance so that if there is a joint employment claim and your business seeks indemnity, someone (the insurer) has the ability to pay.

Because joint employment is a legal doctrine that can hold your business fully liable for the misdeeds of a vendor, the key to limiting your business’s exposure is a carefully drafted contract. Even if your business is jointly liable under the law, you want to have a contractual claim against the vendor that failed to do what it was supposed to do, along with indemnity and insurance so that your business can be made whole.

So remember the Monster with Three Eyes when drafting or reviewing your next contract with a vendor that is providing laborers. If the vendor fails to meet its legal obligations, a contract drafted with these lessons in mind will be the gorilla-whale you need to get out of paying for the vendor’s mistakes.

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

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

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Notification by Telex? Time to update your forms!

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Thank you Wikipedia, You know everything, making me feel so inadequate.

I recently edited a form agreement that allowed for notification “by facsimile or telex.” I deleted “telex” because, well, does telex even exist anymore? I then sent my edits back to the lawyer on the other side.

The other lawyer put it back in!

I then suggested he provide his client’s telex exchange and I asked if we could borrow his 50 baud modem and telex equipment to facilitate communications, because, um, our local antique store was fresh out of telex equipment. (I considered pushing back and insisting that all communications be in morse code but resisted. I admit to feeling pangs of regret that I didn’t push harder for the dashes and dots.)

People, update your forms!

If your independent contractor agreements and staffing agency agreements have not been reviewed since the widespread adoption of horseless carriages, it’s time for a fresh look. The risks of joint employment and independent contractor misclassification are real, and old forms almost definitely do not contain the types of clauses your business needs to protect itself.

For contracts with suppliers of labor, is your vendor accepting sole responsibility to do all of the things that employers must do, including hiring, firing, supervising, withholding taxes, tracking hours, and about a dozen other important tasks? Under many laws, you’re jointly liable if they fail, so you need robust contractual representations to shift liability.

Does your contract include sufficient insurance requirements and specific enough indemnity provisions to protect against a joint employment or misclassification claim?

Does your independent contractor agreement have specific descriptions of the types of control your business can and cannot exert? If you are not disclaiming the right to control a list of items, you’re missing a prime opportunity to turn the contract into strong evidence in your favor, in the event of a misclassification challenge.

For those of you, like me, who wouldn’t have the first clue how to telex someone, here’s what I learned on Wikipedia:

The telex network was a public switched network of teleprinters similar to a telephone network, for the purposes of sending text-based messages. Telex was a major method of sending written messages electronically between businesses in the post World War II period. Its usage went into decline as the fax machine grew in popularity in the 1980s.

The “telex” term refers to the network, not the teleprinters; point-to-point teleprinter systems had been in use long before telex exchanges were built in the 1930s. Teleprinters evolved from telegraph systems, and, like the telegraph, they used binary signals, which means that symbols were represented by the presence or absence of a pre-defined level of electric current. This is significantly different from the analog telephone system, which used varying voltages to encode frequency information. For this reason, telex exchanges were entirely separate from the telephone system, with their own signalling standards, exchanges and system of “telex numbers” (the counterpart of telephone numbers).

Telex provided the first common medium for international record communications using standard signalling techniques and operating criteria as specified by the International Telecommunication Union. Customers on any telex exchange could deliver messages to any other, around the world. To lower line usage, telex messages were normally first encoded onto paper tape and then read into the line as quickly as possible. The system normally delivered information at 50 baud or approximately 66 words per minute, encoded using the International Telegraph Alphabet No. 2. In the last days of the telex networks, end-user equipment was often replaced by modems and phone lines, reducing the telex network to what was effectively a directory service running on the phone network.

Keep your telex handy, my friends. You never know when you might need one — by contract.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Epic Ruling Clears Path: Arbitration Agreements Can Save Millions in Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Arbitration agreements for independent contractorsToday in the Epic Systems case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that in employer-employee relationships, mandatory arbitration agreements with class action waivers are lawful.

A class action waiver means that employees cannot file class actions. They must instead bring any claim individually to arbitration, one person at a time, even if there are a lot of others in the same situation.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the employers could require employees to sign these agreements.

  • The argument for allowing the agreements was that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) favors arbitration as a way to resolve disputes and says that most attempts to invalidate arbitration agreements are against the law. But there are narrow exceptions.
  • The argument against allowing the agreements was that the NLRA grants workers the right to engage in protected concerted activity, and filing class actions (they argue) is a type of protected concerted activity.

The court had to decide whether the NLRA’s right to engage in protected concerted activity created an exception to the FAA’s rule favoring arbitration. As expected, the conservative court held that mandatory employee arbitration agreements — including class action waivers — are lawfulIn other words, businesses may require their employees to sign away their right to bring class actions. Read that again slowly. It’s important.

What does this mean for independent contractor agreements?

The decision does not directly address independent contractor agreements, but the decision does say that the Supreme Court has rejected every other challenge to the FAA’s policy favoring arbitration.

It seems pretty safe, then, to assume that the Court would allow mandatory arbitration agreements, with class action waivers, in independent contractor agreements.

Should businesses include mandatory arbitration provisions in independent contractor agreements?

There are pros and cons to arbitration, and the answer depends largely on how reliant your business is on independent contractor relationships as part of the business model. In other words, are you at risk of a class action?

If yes you are, then yes you probably should. (But please consult counsel.)

Businesses that may be at risk of a widespread finding of independent contractor misclassification can use these agreements to prevent class actions from being filed. If contractors who claim misclassification have to bring their claims individually, there is a lot less money at stake and, strategically, the incentive for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take these cases is greatly diminished. Few lawyers will take a case that may be worth a few thousand dollars (or often less). Most lawyers would love a case that may be worth a few million dollars. The difference is in the numbers. Class action waivers can greatly reduce your company’s risk of a large misclassification verdict.

Other advantages of arbitration include:

  • The results of individual arbitrations can be kept confidential, unlike court decisions. That means a finding against you will not hit the social media feeds or trade publications;
  • The parties select the arbitrator, which means you can ensure that your fact finder is a lawyer or has a background in the industry or type of dispute involved;
  • There’s no risk of a runaway jury, populated by regular folks who might have an axe to grind and no sense of the value of money;
  • The dispute gets resolved quickly, with finality, and with no right to appeal (except in very limited circumstances)

But there are potential downsides to arbitrations too:

  • Filing fees can be expensive;
  • Arbitrators can be expensive too. They get paid by the hour, unlike a judge who is not being paid by either side (we hope);
  • The barrier for employees to bring a claim is lower. They don’t need an attorney, and they can initiate a claim with ease, which could mean that more individual claims would be filed than if employees had to go to court;
  • There is no right to appeal (except in limited circumstances). This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on whether you win!

Arbitration agreements have pros and cons, but for businesses that make substantial use of independent contractors, an arbitration agreement with a class action waiver can be critically important in avoiding a large claim.

One final reminder: If you use an mandatory arbitration agreement, remember to include a class action waiver. That’s one of the main benefits of these agreements.

Please consult with your employment lawyer to decide whether arbitration agreements are right for your business.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Is Your Independent Contractor Agreement Like an Emotional Support Peacock?

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Image from The Jet Set

My favorite news story from last week was United Airlines’ decision not to allow a woman to fly with her emotional support peacock. Peacocks are pretty, strutting their feathery stuff to attract the smokin’ hot peafowl ladies, but they’re not cuddly, and they don’t belong in the tight quarters of commercial aircraft.

I did my research here, and I can confirm they’re not even good house pets. According to an Information Leaflet published by the Wrexham County (U.K.) Borough Council, peafowl have not taken well to modern methods of human transport. The Leaflet warns potential peafowl pet owners, “Peafowl for some reason are fond of cars and enjoy standing on them. They will also attack their reflection in cars and cause damage by scratching and pecking them.” They also have a “very loud high-pitched meow like call.”

None of this sounds like what I want in a seatmate on a commuter flight out of Newark.

Anyway, the point here is that looking pretty isn’t enough. Continue reading