Opinion Piece Asks California Not to Be the Pigeon in this Photo

Pigeon head Tuileries - independent contractor misclassification Todd LebowitzI took this picture last week in Paris, walking through the Jardin des Tuileries with my family, just outside the Louvre.  

If you think of the statue as being ride-share giants Uber and Lyft, and if you think of the California state legislature as the pigeon, you’ll know why Uber and Lyft’s chief executives joined forces to write this opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

As we explained here, California seems likely to pass a bill that would rewrite California law in a way that will instantly convert many — perhaps most — independent contractors into employees.  The bill would take the ABC Test created last year in the Dynamex case and apply it to the entire California Labor Code, as well as to state unemployment law. (Currently, the ABC Test applies only to state wage and hour claims, and a more neutral balancing test applies to other state law claims.)

The law, if passed, would undoubtedly fuel new claims against Uber and Lyft, alleging that ride-share drivers are employees under state law.

In the opinion piece, the companies argue in favor of legal reform, but in a way that does not threaten to change drivers into employees.

The Uber-Lyft proposal would secure three new types of protections for ride-share drivers, while safeguarding their status as independent contractors. The proposal would:

  1. Set up a portable benefits system for gig workers, including retirement savings accounts, paid time off, and lifelong learning opportunities;
  2. Create a drivers’ association, in partnership with state lawmakers and labor groups, to represent drivers’ interests and administer benefits; and
  3. Establish a new driver pay system that includes greater earnings transparency for the work performed between accepting a ride and dropping off a passenger after accounting for reasonable expenses.

So why can’t Uber and Lyft just do these things on their own? Because if they did, the current legal system would likely treat those acts of goodwill as evidence that Uber and Lyft were treating the drivers as employees.

Current labor laws were not written with the gig economy in mind. The law right now is an all-or-nothing proposition — independent contractor or employee. The modern economy, though, requires a middle ground — an alternative that allows app companies to provide greater benefits and protections to drivers without running the risk that these well-meaning gestures could convert the drivers into employees.

Pigeons are going to poop on statues forever. Marble heads provide a comfortable spot for loosening the ol’ avian bowels, and we all know it’s hard to find a good public toilet these days. But some things should not be set in stone. Let’s hope the California assembly backs off of the fast track for A.B. 5 and instead tries something new. The system proposed in the joint Uber-Lyft opinion piece would help drivers and would help the gig economy continue to thrive. 

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

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A New Low for California’s Independent Contractors? ABC Test May Be Adopted for the Whole Labor Code

Death valley for independent contractors - california dynamexCalifornia is the home of both the highest and the lowest points in the continental U.S. — Mt. Whitney at 14,495 feet and Death Valley at -282 feet. As far apart as these two sites are on the altimeter, they’re less than 100 miles apart on the odometer.

That’s a lot of up and down. If you follow California’s developing law on Independent Contractor vs. Employee tests, you’ve also seen a lot of ups and downs recently. If a pending bill passes (as expected), businesses using independent contractors may be about to experience a new low.

Remember the Dynamex case? As explained here, that’s the California Supreme Court decision that enacted a strict ABC Test for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under California’s wage orders. As we discussed here, though, the ABC Test only applies to certain state law employment claims. Other less stringent tests still apply when analyzing whether a contractor should really be considered an employee under other state employment laws.

But that may be about to change.

Assembly Bill 5 would adopt the Dynamex ABC Test as the way to determine whether someone is an employee under all parts of the California Labor Code and under state unemployment law.

In its current form, the law would exempt certain licensed professions from being subject to the ABC Test. Extensive lobbying efforts are underway by various trade associations to carve other trades out of the law as well. For those professions excluded from the law’s reach, the test for determining whether a contractor is really an employee would be the S.G. Borello balancing test, a much less stringent standard than the Dynamex ABC Test.

The bill is now pending before the state senate. If it passes, it will become even harder to be a legitimate independent contractor in California. The state with one of North America’s highest peaks will become a virtual Death Valley for contractors trying to maintain their independent status.

We’ll continue to follow the status of this bill.

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

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Fun with Funerals? Cremation Company Settles Misclassification Case for $2.5 Million

Cannon cremation funeral Independent contractor misclassificationEveryone loves a fun funeral story, right? Apparently so. AARP.com posted this article about creative cremations. Available options for ashes include:

  • Being blasted out of a cannon to the tune of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” (Thank you, Hunter S. Thompson);
  • Being placed in an “environmentally safe, ball-shaped concrete memorial reef” and placed in the ocean to create a marine habitat, (giving a new and more literal meaning to “sleeps with the fishes”);
  • Being launched into space for an earth orbit; and
  • My personal favorite – being loaded into a five-foot biodegradable helium balloon and launched over the hills surrounding the deceased owner’s ranch so his buddies could shoot at the balloon until it burst, spreading the ashes over the surrounding foothills (so beautiful it almost makes me want to weep in my moonshine).

A cremation company had a less fun time last month, when a judge approved a $2.5 million settlement for independent contractor misclassification. The settlement included $1.65 million to a class of independent sales representatives and $825,000 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The company’s independent sales representatives had claimed that they were really employees, despite having signed an Independent Contractor Agreement in which they agreed they were contractors.

As we’ve noted many times before, though, it’s the facts of the relationship that matter, not what the parties call themselves. According to the plaintiffs, the cremation company told them when to work and where to work, paid them an hourly non-negotiable rate, required frequent reports, supervised their work, and provided them a handbook instructing them how to conduct themselves and how to perform their work. These are all facts that weigh in favor of employment status.

The sales reps’ lawsuit alleged that, when assessing the facts of the relationship, they were really employees and not independent contractors. They alleged violations of several laws that apply only to employees, including violations of California’s overtime, meal and rest break, waiting time, recordkeeping, and business expense reimbursement laws; and violations of the federal FLSA overtime rules.

The parties settled the dispute, and a federal judge approved the settlement.

There’s nothing suprising here, but the settlement should remind us that:

  • The facts of the relationship are what matter, even if the parties agree to call the workers “independent contractors” and they sign an Independent Contractor Agreement;
  • Different tests apply to different laws; here, there were claims that would have to be evaluated under:
  • Independent contractor misclassification remains a real and potentially costly risk.

The settlement did not say whether any of these sales representatives sold cannon, reef, space, or skeet shooting funerals along with cremation services. But I sure hope they did.

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

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Which Claims Are Covered by the Dynamex ABC Test? Here’s a Chart for California. (Time to Give Up on Positive Thinking?)

Chart Dynamex which claims does the ABC Test cover in California

Cook before eating?

A Mongolian couple died from the bubonic plague earlier this month after eating raw marmot meat. An official from the World Health Organization told the BBC that the couple ate the rodent because they believed it would bring them good health. It didn’t.

Positive thinking can be powerful, but not as powerful as bubonic plague.

California businesses that use independent contractors should be similarly cautious about any positive thinking. After a series of court decisions and a new opinion letter from the California Labor Commissioner, use of the Dynamex ABC Test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee is expanding.

Which claims now use the Dynamex test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee? Here’s the latest list — at least according to the California Labor Commissioner and my reading of recent court decisions:

Dynamex ABC Test applies:

  • Overtime;
  • Minimum wage;
  • Reporting time pay;
  • Record keeping (including itemized pay stub obligations);
  • Business expense reimbursement for cash shortages, breakage, or loss of equipment;
  • Business expense reimbursement for required uniforms, tools, and equipment; and
  • Meal and rest periods.

It depends:

To determine Independent Contractor vs. Employee for these claims, the Labor Commissioner and a California Court of Appeal instruct that the Dynamex ABC Test applies if the claim is focused on enforcing payment of minimum wage, overtime, and other obligations set forth in the Wage Orders. If not, then the ABC Test does not apply.

The general rule, according to the opinion letter, is that the Dynamex ABC Test applies to any claims that seek to enforce obligations described in one of the Industrial Wage Orders

The opinion letter does not carry the weight that a court decision does, and it makes some assumptions that the California Supreme Court did not make when it adopted the ABC Test in Dynamex. So there’s always a chance that the California Supreme Court might rule that the scope of the Dynamex test is supposed to be limited to a narrower range of claims. But this is California, so that does not seem likely. In other words, don’t sample that marmot meat.

Dynamex does not apply (we think):

  • Workers’ compensation claims;
  • Unemployment claims;
  • Wrongful termination;
  • Discrimination, harassment, or retaliation;
  • Tax obligations; and
  • Employee benefit obligations.

For these claims, either the S.G. Borello balancing test should apply if the claims are asserted under California law. For tax and employee benefit claims asserted under federal law, the Right to Control Test will apply. Read more here to understand how one California Court of Appeals determined which test applies to which claim. (Including entirely unnecessary references to G-L-O-R-I-A Gloooooria!)

One of the reasons independent contractor misclassification claims can be so challenging to defend is because different tests apply to different claims. This is not just a California problem.

The same problem exists under federal law, with one test applying to federal wage and hour claims (FLSA), another test applying to tax, benefits, and discrimination claims, and a moving target as to which test applies under federal labor law (NLRA).

Here is a similar chart, showing which test applies to which federal law claims.

In California, it’s getting harder and harder to prove independent contractor status, especially for claims applying the Dynamex ABC Test. Many Californians are into zen, meditation, and positive thinking, but the power of positive thinking might not get you too far when it comes to trying to preserve independent contractor status. There are still defenses, and it’s still possible to maintain independent contractor status in California, but it’s not easy.

Fighting misclassification claims in California can sometimes feel like eating raw marmot meat. It might seem like a good idea at first, but then you could end up with bubonic plague.

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

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Not Even Cher Could Turn Back Time, But the Ninth Circuit Just Did; Dynamex Test Now Applies Retroactively in California

Clock independent contractor misclassification dynamex

In a mediocre and overplayed 1989 pop song, Cher sang about how she wished she could turn back time. If she could turn back time, according to the song, she’d take back those words that’ve hurt you and you’d stay.

The music video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” takes place on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri, which the U.S. Navy allowed because it believed the video could help boost recruitment. (How, exactly?) The song reached number one on the pop charts in Australia and Norway, causing me to question the collective judgment of the citizens of these otherwise fine nations.

As Cher well knew, you can’t turn back time. Doing so would cause all sorts of problems. As we will now see in California.

On May 2, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s Dynamex decision (from April 2018) must be applied retroactively. In the Dynamex case, the California Supreme Court had ruled that a strict ABC Test should be used to determine whether workers are considered employees or independent contractors under California’s wage orders.

You can read more about the test here, but what’s most important for now is that the test is really hard to meet. That’s why in Vazquez v. Jan-Pro Franchising International, Jan-Pro argued that since it was being sued for events that took place before the Dynamex ruling, its lawsuit should be decided under the test that was used before the Dynamex ruling. Jan-Pro argued that the Dynamex decision made up new rules in the middle of the game, and Jan-Pro should not be held to the new, made-up rules for time periods before the new rules were made up.

That seems logical to me, but not to the Ninth Circuit. Instead, the Court of Appeals ruled that Dynamex must be applied retroactively. The Court’s reasoning makes little sense.

The Court based its decision on the general rule that new statutes are applied prospectively, but court decisions are applied retrospectively. That makes sense as a default rule — but only if the court decision is interpreting the text of a statute or is applying a well-known rule to a set of facts. 

The ABC Test was invented by the California Supreme Court in its April 2018 Dynamex ruling. That test did not exist in any California statute enacted by the legislature or in any regulation. Before the Dynamex case, no business in California had any reason to believe that an ABC Test was the test — especially since for decades a different test had been used. The Dynamex decision, therefore, was much more like the enacting of a new statute than the judicial interpretation of a long-standing law. 

In fact, the Ninth Circuit’s decision last week goes so far as to admit that the Dynamex decision was, in essence, the adoption by California’s Supreme Court of a Massachusetts statute that had never been passed by California’s legislature.  The Ninth Circuit ruling includes this sentence, which precisely demonstrates my point:  “Thus, by judicial fiat, California incorporated Massachusetts’ employment classification statute into its labor laws.” Before April 2018, Massachusetts had an ABC Test, by statute. California did not.

Judicial fiat! That quote says it all. Judicial fiat is when the judiciary (not the legislature) creates a new law. It is a term most commonly used to criticize a judicial decision as going too far and usurping the role of the legislative branch.  But here the Ninth Circuit concedes that’s what the California Supreme Court did in Dynamex.  Since the Dynamex decision adopted a Massachusetts statute by judicial fiat, then the only fair way to apply that rule is to treat it like a statute and apply it only prospectively. But no.

It seems blatantly unfair for a court to make up new rules by adopting a different state’s statute — one that California’s legislature never adopted — and then to hold California’s businesses liable for failing to comply with a set of rules that did not yet exist.

So, Todd, tell me how you really feel.

Anyway, that’s now the law in California. The ABC Test invented by California’s Supreme Court in the Dynamex court now applies when determining whether someone is an employee under California’s wage orders, even for time periods before the test was invented.

You can read more about the Dynamex decision here and here.

California business are being advised to consider moving to Australia.

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

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The Stones, the Dalai Lama, and Arbitration: How Not to Get What You Need in an Arbitration Agreement

BF593720-B1EE-47D2-93A0-7B0AE09D5C33

Not Mick Jagger

You can’t always get what you want, said a wise English sage in 1969. This advice still holds true. For example, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang recently declared that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama must comply with Chinese law.  Good luck with that.

The enforcement mechanism for Lu’s edict is unclear, but the Chinese Communist Party knows what it wants. (Allow me a brief diversion. My favorite sentence in the cnn.com story: “It isn’t completely clear whether the Dalai Lama will allow himself to be reincarnated after he dies.”  You and me both, brother!)

Another example arose in a recent court case, in which a messenger service required its independent contractor messengers to sign an arbitration agreement. Like spokesman Lu, the messenger service may have demanded a bit too much. A California Court of Appeal declared the arbitration agreement invalid, ruling that it was both procedural and substantively unconscionable.

What makes an arbitration agreement so one-sided that it’s unconscionable?

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Slip Slidin’ Away? Truckers’ Fall Short in Bid to Overturn California’s Dynamex Standard (Plus: Bonus Quiz for Paul Simon Fans)

Truckers Western States dynamex independent contractor misclassificationIt seems a little presumptuous that when Paul Simon released the single, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” he released it as one of two new songs on his 1977 Greatest Hits, Etc. album. How is it a greatest hit before it’s been released? But sure enough, the song rose to #5 on the Billboard charts. Today’s Challenge: Ten bonus points will be awarded to anyone who can name the other new song that debuted on Simon’s 1977 Greatest Hits, Etc. compilation. The answer is at the end of the post.

In July, we wrote about “Convoy,” a 1975 song about a fictional trucker rebellion, as a way to introduce a new lawsuit filed by the Western States Trucking Association. The lawsuit seeks to invalidate California’s burdensome ABC Test (the Dynamex test), which is now used to determine who is a contractor and who is an employee under California wage and hour law.  The truckers argued that the law — as applied to truckers — was preempted by federal laws that seek to promote uniformity in the interstate transportation industry.

Based on a recent decision in a California federal court, the truckers’ hopes of invalidating Dynamex may be Slip Slidin’ Away.

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