Don’t Get Armboxed: Strict ABC Test Results in $100 Million Misclassification Liability

In Russia, a new variant on boxing involves chaining the two combatants to opposite sides of a podium, with one arm of each boxer immobilized. They then pound each other with the remaining good arm and, because they’re tied to the podium, they have nowhere to go.

The contests, called armboxing, last for three one minute rounds. If the fighters last two rounds, their arms are both freed up for round three, but the boxers remain chained to the podium.

Getting pummeled with nowhere to go is also a fair way to describe Uber’s most recent run-in with the New Jersey Department of Labor over unpaid unemployment contributions. The NJDOL claims that under the Strict ABC Test governing New Jersey unemployment law, rideshare drivers are employees, not independent contractors.

The NJDOL pursued Uber and a subsidiary for failing to pay into the state’s unemployment fund over a five-year period, 2014-2018.

Last week, the NJDOL announced a settlement with Uber to cover the unpaid assessments – for a cool $100 million. The amount was based on $78 million in unpaid contributions plus $22 million in interest. Uber has made the payment but did not concede there was any misclassification.

New Jersey uses a strict ABC Test to determine employee status for unemployment coverage, but uses a different version of the ABC Test for wage and hour law. The strict ABC Test used for unemployment law follows the same formula as the tests in Massachusetts and California. The danger in these tests, of course, lies in prong B, which requires that to be an independent contractor, the work being performed must be “outside the usual course” of the hiring party’s business.

State departments of labor are notoriously aggressive in pursuing misclassification, and courts often defer to their judgment, even if the facts could support independent contractor status. The NJDOL is among the most aggressive enforcers, as you might expect when its Labor Commissioner says this: “Let’s be clear: there is no reason temporary, or on-demand workers who work flexible hours, or even minutes at a time can’t be treated like other employees in New Jersey or any other state.”

For businesses using independent contractors, tools such as arbitration agreements with class action waivers can be effective in preventing class action litigation. But arbitration agreements can’t stop a state agency from conducting an audit and imposing its own penalties for noncompliance.

And that’s how Uber found itself tied to a podium with one arm immobilized as it got hit.

Businesses in states using strict ABC Tests need to be particularly careful when setting up their business plans, their contracts, and their external messaging. State audits can be random, or they can be initiated after a worker complaint.

Unemployment filings by independent contractors can be especially dangerous. State departments of labor will typically investigate those claims, assess whether the worker is misclassified and — most troubling of all — will find that if the one worker was misclassified, then all similarly situated workers were also misclassified. The state DOL may then issue back assessments based on its assumptions about how many workers are similarly situated and how many were therefore misclassified.

When an independent contractor files an unemployment claim, pay attention and be prepared to defend your classification decision. Merely denying that the worker was an employee may not be enough, and a full-fledged audit could follow. In a full-fledged audit, the stakes can be high, and it might not feel like a fair fight.

Be proactive, plan ahead, and don’t chain your business to a podium.

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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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Famed Miami Nightspot Gets Hit with $15 Misclassification Verdict

I grew up in Miami, but not this Miami. My weekends were Miami Jai-alai and Coconut Grove, certainly not the hip hop adult club scene.

But if I had grown up in that other world, I might have heard of the King of Diamonds, which I am now aware was the place to be seen if you are looking to spot celebrities at a famous adult entertainment venue. According to Miami newspaper archives, the original club went bankrupt in 2018 after failing to pay its mortgage and its rent. This came on the heels (high heels?) of being cited for serious safety code violations, including malfunctioning fire sprinklers.

Making matters worse, at about the same time, 27 of the club’s dancers sued, alleging wage and hour violations and that they had been illegally misclassified as independent contractors.

The case was delayed because of COVID-19, but it finally went to trial last fall, and the jury agreed that the dancers had been misclassified. Two weeks ago, the judge entered a final judgment, awarding the dancers more than $15 million. Some of the dancers’ individual awards exceeded $800,000.

The takeaway here is that independent contractor misclassification claims are big dollar claims. The defendants in this case drew more attention than usual because of the high profile of their club, but the legal risks apply to any business making widespread use of contractors.

Remember, it’s the law that decides whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. It doesn’t matter what the parties call the relationship or what the written contract says.

The club (or, a club with essentially the same name) reopened in 2020 with new ownership. I don’t know whether they’ve changed the classification and pay structure of their performers, but that would seem like a good idea. They’ll want to keep the place up and running in case Floyd Mayweather comes back with his infamous Money Truck to drop $100,000 on an evening’s entertainment.

For some other wild tales at the old joint, you can read more here.

I was oblivious to that whole scene growing up, but I sure had some great times at Miami Jai Alai (video highlights from 1980s), rooting for Michelena, Benny, and Harretche, and hoping to hit on my trifecta. Good times.

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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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Zombie Copyrights: Tips for Preserving IC Status With Writers While Avoiding the Risk of Losing Copyright After 35 Years

In Return of the Living Dead, a warehouse owner accidentally reanimates some cadavers, who then become unkillable zombies. While not based on a true story, the 1985 film does have some parallels in real life (if you squint real hard and just go with it).

As discussed last week, copyright claims can also return from the dead when the author is an independent contractor. This week we discuss what can be done to avoid this zombie copyright scenario.

In the case of Horror Inc. v. Miller, the Second Circuit ruled that screenwriter Victor Miller could reclaim the copyright to Friday the 13th after 35 years, since he wrote the script as an independent contractor.

The case highlights a serious risk when retaining a writer as an independent contractor instead of as an employee. If a work is not a “work made for hire” under the U.S. Copyright Act, the author can reclaim a copyright 35 years after having transferred the rights away.

Horror, Inc. argued that Miller was an employee when he wrote the script, which made it a “work made for hire.” The court disagreed, but the rights holder should have had another argument in its back pocket – one that would have been much cleaner and could have changed the result of the case.

Employment is just one path for designating something a “work made for hire.” Another path toward the same designation is to have a “specially commissioned work.”

If Miller’s contract to write the movie had indicated that the movie was a specially commissioned work for use as part of a motion picture, it would not have mattered whether he was an employee or an independent contractor. The “specially commissioned work” designation would have made the work a “work made for hire” without getting into the messiness of employment, which would mean that Miller could not reclaim any rights after 35 years. This circular from the copyright office explains the “specially commissioned work” rule.

There are important lessons from this case for anyone seeking to engage a writer, whether it’s a freelancer or a script writer.

First, think through the implications of employee vs. independent contractor, not only in the context of employment law but also copyright law.

Second, consider a belt-and-suspenders approach. Even if the writer is your employee under labor law, the writer might not be your employee under U.S. Copyright Act — at least according to the Horror, Inc. case. Consider Plan B. You maybe able to designate the work a “specially commissioned work” or use one of the other definitions of a “work made for hire,” assuming that the facts fit within the definition.

But there are pitfalls to the second approach too. The California Labor Code says that if a work is a “work made for hire,” then the relationship between the writer and the acquirer is automatically employment, at least under certain provisions in the Labor Code. See Cal. Unemp. Ins. Code Section 686 and Cal. Lab. Code Section 3351.5(c).

If the California Economic Development Department (EDD) performs a misclassification audit, it will likely ask for all independent contractor agreements, and if a deliverable has been designated as a “work made for hire,” that may serve as conclusive proof of misclassification, with back assessments owed for failure to pay unemployment taxes.

You can get around the whole “work made for hire” issue by assigning the work, but that leaves the door open for the writer to reclaim the copyright after 35 years. And we’re right back where we started.

The independent contractor vs. employee decision has important implications in copyright law that are often overlooked. The Horror, Inc. case is a good reminder of some of the surprises that may arise many years later.

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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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Will Changes to the Tax Code Reduce Claims of Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Unicorn independent contractor misclassification

Ha ha. Wishful thinking.

By now, we’ve all heard that the new tax code provides a 20% tax deduction for many small businesses, including potentially independent contractors. (More info here.) As a result, some workers might prefer to be called contractors instead of employees to take advantage of the new deduction. Contractor status may be particularly appealing to workers who don’t need health insurance or other employee benefits. But, as we covered here, it doesn’t matter what a worker wants. The facts of the relationship determine a worker’s classification, no matter what the parties want it to be.

Don’t expect this change in the tax law to mean that independent contractor misclassification claims are going away. They’re not. Continue reading

NYC Freelancer Law & New Rules Now In Effect, But New Rules Could Violate Federal Law

new york city freelancer law new rulesIf you retain freelancers in New York City, pay attention.

As we wrote here, NYC’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act requires a written agreement when retaining an individual independent contractor, if the value of services is $800 or more. The law covers any individual non-employee, including nannies and babysitters. (Loyal readers, please read this earlier post for details.)

The law took effect May 15, 2017, but new rules — effective July 24, 2017 — create additional burdens.

The NYC Department of Consumer Affairs has published final rules implementing the Act. While the purpose of the rules is (supposedly) to clarify the Act, the Rules go much further and create new requirements — some of which may be contrary to federal law.

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Misclassification settlement strips $6 million from Club Assets

IMG_1090When I was an undergrad at Michigan, any time I would drive to the airport or to Tiger Stadium, I’d see billboards for Deja Vu, a strip club with (apparently) lots of locations. I never visited (not into that sort of thing, thanks for asking), and I never thought much of it. I certainly did not expect to be writing about Deja Vu and independent contractor misclassification 25 years later. But here goes.

When patrons of these fine establishments partake in the traditional lap dance, it’s doubtful they’re thinking about whether these often-single-mom “entertainers” who are just trying to make a living have been properly classified under wage and hour law. More likely, they’re thinking about — never mind.

But that’s an important issue, as Deja Vu recently learned, when it was sued by a class of 28,177 dancers alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors, rather than Continue reading

How Can There Be Misclassification When The Worker Prefers to Be an Independent Contractor?

Alan Hudock

Photo of Singer Dave Mason (We Just Disagree), by Alan Hurtock

Let’s start with this: Everyone is happy being an independent contractor until they’re not.

What do I mean by that? Right now, the relationship works. The contractor performs, and you pay for the work.

But what happens when things go south? As soon as you decide you no longer need those services, the contractor might stop being your BFF.

A disgruntled former contractor has some options, all of which involve some variation of this story: “Once upon a time, I was misclassified and should have been an employee.” None of the former contractor’s possible next steps are good for you: Continue reading

Four Ways to Give Up Control and Protect Independent Contractor Status

run

Retaining control over how independent contractors do their work can sink an otherwise legitimate independent contractor relationship.

Fortunately, steps can almost always be taken to give up aspects of control that do not hurt the business case for using a contractor instead of an employee. Companies need to be thoughtful and proactive, though, in evaluating and modifying these relationships — before they are challenged in a misclassification claim.

Here are four aspects of control you may be able to relinquish in your relationships with independent contractors: Continue reading

Avoid this Common But Disastrous Mistake in Staffing Agency Agreements

staffing services mistake-1966448_1920

A client once asked me to review the Employment Agreement of a candidate they were considering hiring. The candidate had recently been terminated but his Employment Agreement contained a 12-month non-compete, and my client’s job offer seemed pretty clearly to be for a competing job.

But the terminating employer made once huge mistake. When it meant to terminate employment, instead it terminated the agreement … and with it, the non-compete.  Oops!

I see the same mistake in Staffing Agreements and Professional Services Agreements all the time.

These agreement are usually intended to serve as Master Service Agreements (MSA), with additional work orders to govern the actual services to be provided. These MSAs contain very important clauses that are intended to survive, even after the services have stopped. Examples of clauses intended to survive the termination of services include indemnification, insurance coverage, preservation of confidential information, and right to audit.

The mistake I see over and over, however, is the inclusion of a termination clause that allows for termination of the agreement, not merely termination of services.

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Contractors Gone Wild! Are You Covered?

independent contractor vs. employee thieves-2012538_1280When an employee embezzles money, a company may look for insurance coverage under a crime policy, for employee theft. When an independent contractor steals money, a general commercial liability may cover the loss. But when an independent contractor acts like an employee, performs services typical of an employee, then steals money — neither coverage may apply.

That’s the harsh lesson recently learned by an Indiana company. Telamon Corporation retained an independent contractor to provide services through a series of consulting agreements. Eventually, the company made her a Vice President (please don’t name your independent contractors “Vice Presidents,” then claim they are not employees!) and put her in charge of recovering old telecommunications equipment to sell it to salvagers. She had other ideas, however. She recovered the equipment and sold it to salvagers, but she kept the money for herself. $5.2 million of it.

That eventually landed her in prison, where she won free use of an orange jumpsuit for five years. I know, she could have afforded a blinged-out $5 million jumpsuit, but she took the free one from the state.

Telamon, meanwhile, tapped its insurers to try to recover the cash.

Continue reading