Horizontal Risk: Criminal Case Moves Forward on No-Poach Agreement Among Competitors

Christian Encarnacion-Strand presents an unusual problem for the Cincinnati Reds. His name is too long to fit horizontally across the back of his uniform. The Reds are taking an upside-down-horseshoe approach to this problem, and if this minor league third baseman makes the big league club this year, his 18-character surname (with hyphen) would win the award (there’s no award) for most characters in a major league surname.

The current honor lies with Simeon Woods Richardson, a pitcher for the Twins, whose unhyphenated surname stretches 16 characters (including the space). The Twins applied more of a 3/4 circle strategy, which I think is less visually appealing than the Reds’ approach.

When it comes to horizontal challenges, placing letters on a uniform falls in the category of very low risk. The twitter community may have strong opinions, but there’s no real implication to either approach.

But when it comes to horizontal relationships among companies competing for talent, it’s much more important to get things right. No poaching agreements can lead to criminal charges — as we can see from a case making its way through the federal district court in Connecticut.

In the pending case, Company A outsourced engineering projects to companies B through F, all of whom compete for engineering talent. Companies B through F also compete with each other for projects from Company A.

Between 2011 and 2019, Companies A through F allegedly agreed to restrict the hiring and recruiting of engineers and other skilled-labor employees between them. All of the companies allegedly agreed to (1) not hire employees of Companies B through F and (2) not proactively contact, interview, and recruit applicants who were employed by another one of the companies. Company A allegedly policed and enforced the agreement.

This arrangement led to a criminal indictment, charging that these no-poaching agreements were a conspiracy in restrain of trade, in violation of the Sherman Act. The indictment alleges that the companies engaged in illegal market allocation, which suppressed competition for talent and wages.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. Because this issue potentially affects staffing and franchise relationships, the American Staffing Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, and others filed amicus briefs in support of the motion to dismiss.

On December 2, 2022, the district court denied the motion to dismiss. The opinion evaluates the arguments on both sides and considers how this arrangement compares to others where no-poach agreements have been held to be permitted. For example, the court considered whether the agreed-upon restraint was “ancillary to a legitimate business collaboration.” If yes, that could support an exception to the legal prohibition on restraints of trade. But the court ruled that the relationship here was competitive, not collaborative, because Companies B through F were competing for outsourcing work from Company A.

From a procedural standpoint, this decision does not make any findings about whether the arrangement actually did violate the law. This ruling is just the denial of a motion to dismiss, which means the case can move forward.

But the opinion should provide a wake up call to the staffing industry, the franchise industry, and other organizations where a small identifiable number of companies are competing for talent and for engagements.

The federal government has made it a priority to minimize restraints of trade and has shown a willingness to issue criminal indictments against companies (and individuals) who enter into unlawful agreements that restrict labor mobility.

That is not to say that all no-poach agreements are unlawful. In many situations they are appropriate. But companies in horizontal competition with each other need to tread very carefully, and any no-poach agreement among horizontal competitors may create significant legal problems, including potential criminal liability.

For baseball uniforms, horizontal challenges can be addressed with the upside-down horseshoe or 3/4 circle strategy (preferably the former!). But these simple solutions are not available in the business world, where companies compete for talent and engagements. As of now, there is no upside-down horseshoe exception to the Sherman Act.

Amicus briefs were file

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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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Don’t Be Like These Sheep: Check Your Contract Recitals to Avoid This Misclassification Mistake

In Inner Mongolia, these sheep have been walking in a circle for about two weeks, with a few sheep occasionally standing in the middle. Here’s video.

Various theories have been circulating to try to explain the odd behavior, including that it may be some sort of bacteria-induced delirium.

But I think I know the real reason. (And a hearty Mazel Tov! to the wooly couple!)

When drafting independent contractor agreements, it’s never a good idea to be unsure of why you’re doing something. Too often, businesses use generic agreements and don’t understand the impact or purpose of what they’ve written.

One common place I see mistakes is in the very beginning of contracts – the contractual recitals.

Recitals are often used to provide context for the reader. Recitals are also used for six-year old piano players to play chopsticks for grandma, but that’s for another day. For example, an off-the-shelf independent contractor agreement might start with something like this: We’re in the business of doing X, and we are retaining Contractor to do this part of X. Therefore, the parties agree to the following terms.

The problem with that innocent sounding recital is that it may be evidence the contractor is misclassified.

Under a Strict ABC Test, if the work being performed by the contractor is within the hiring party’s usual course of business, the contractor is automatically considered an employee. That fact fails prong B of a strict ABC Test.

Under an Economic Realities Test or a Right to Control Test, one of the factors often considered is often whether the work being performed is “an integral part” of the business, or some variation on that theme. Unlike ABC Tests, these tests are balancing tests and so one factor will not necessarily determine a worker’s classification, but there’s no reason to give the factor away, especially in a contract recital.

In a misclassification challenge, every fact and contract term will be subject to scrutiny.

If you’re unsure whether the term is needed, then question whether to include it. Recitals generally aren’t needed at all, and I often omit them from my independent contractor agreements. Don’t include off-the-shelf terms if you don’t understand their effect.

Unexplainable behavior makes for good blog posts and tweets, but not good contracts.

Which is why I never ask unfamiliar sheep to help me draft contracts.

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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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Get Aligned on Commissions: Ten Tips For Using Independent Sales Reps

Zippy incorrectly chooses portrait instead of landscape

Getting properly aligned is important. That’s true not only when using a dog bed, but also when using independent sales reps.

Sales reps generally receive commissions. When commissions systems are unclear, disputes arise. We don’t want disputes. You may think your commission system is clear, whether by tradition or otherwise. But it’s probably not as clear as you think. Unclear commission plans lead to lawsuits, especially after the relationship with a sales rep ends.

Here are ten tips for avoiding commission disputes. These tips are helpful whether your sales rep is an independent contractor or an employee.

1. Put the commission plan in writing, and get the rep to sign it. Many states require written, signed commission plans for employees. (California, I’m looking at you!) But even when not required by law, a clearly drafted and accepted plan is the best way to avoid disputes.

2. Define what constitutes a sale. Is a sale complete when the customer pays for the good? When the good is delivered? When it’s accepted? When some period for returns has expired? Whatever you decide, state it clearly.

3. Define when a commission is earned. Usually there are several things that have to happen before a commission is earned. List them all, and make clear that a commission is not earned until all of these things have occurred.

4. Specify the timing of when commission payments are due. For employee sales reps, you might have less flexibility than with contractors, since state laws often require that employees are paid at certain intervals. But you can also create some space for yourself in your definition of when a commission is considered “earned.”

5. Clarify whether the sales rep must still be employed (or still under contract) to earn a commission. This term will be viewed in tandem with your explanation of when a commission is considered “earned.” Some states (hey there, California!) require that the commission has been paid if the employee has basically done everything needed to earn the commission, even if employment has ended. Calling the rep a contractor won’t necessarily get around that, since as we know, California does not grant a lot of deference to classifying workers as contractors instead of employees.

6. Explain how the commission amount is calculated. The formula might be A times B times C. Whatever it is, write it out.

7. Clarify the relevant time period. If the commission plan is for 2022 only, say so. If the commission plan overrides all prior year plans, say that too.

8. What about charge backs? Are there circumstances when a commission might be paid but you’d have to recoup some of the payment through a charge back? Describe when chargebacks are permitted, if at all.

9. Don’t assume. Spell everything out. Just because there haven’t been commission disputes in the past doesn’t mean they won’t happen in the future. A recently departed sales rep is going to be more aggressive about a commission dispute than one who is still happily engaged, especially if the rep just closed a big deal was separated before the company received payment from the customer. Without a clearly drafted plan, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

10. Write for the jury. A stranger reading your commission plan should be able to tell whether a commission is earned or not, how much the commission should be, and when the commission is due. It needs to be that clear. If there’s ambiguity, expect that the disputed term will be interpreted in favor of the sales rep. After all, you wrote the plan, not the rep.

Bonus 11th Tip: Don’t forget state law. State law may contain requirements for commission plans. Know where your salespeople are working and where they are selling. If multiple states are involved, consider adding a choice of law clause.

Getting aligned on commissions before there’s a dispute can go a long way toward preventing a dispute. Getting misaligned on a dog bed may lead to back pain or a funny picture, but getting misaligned on commissions can lead to expensive litigation.

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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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Here’s a Bizarre Lawsuit, Plus Tips for Avoiding Misappropriation Trade Secrets

A couple in Uttarakhan, India, has sued their 35-year old son for $650,000 on the grounds that he failed to provide them a grandchild. The monetary claim reflects the amount they supposedly invested in him over the years, apparently viewing him as some sort of horse stud when they paid for his education and wedding.

Their petition explains, “We killed our dreams to raise him” and “despite all our efforts, my son and his wife have caused mental torture by not giving us a grandchild.”

In the business world it seems more reasonable to demand a return on your investment in someone. But that has limits too.

Last week in Virginia, a jury awarded $2 billion to a software company for misappropriation of trade secrets, finding that a rival had paid a disloyal employee of the victim company to steal trade secrets and pass them along. Investing in someone to steal trade secrets is not kosher. Unlike the “no grandbabies” case, that seems like solid ground for a lawsuit.

While the theft of trade secrets appeared intentional here, it’s possible to acquire a rival’s confidential information unintentionally too. The risk may be especially high when you’re retaining an independent contractor who has expertise in an industry and who has likely worked for various competitors in the same space.

When retaining independent contractors, businesses should take steps to ensure they are not going to be acquiring confidential or trade secret information from the contractor.

Here’s an easy tip to help protect your company from inadvertently acquiring confidential or trade secret information from a competitor: Include in your independent contractor agreement a clause that prohibits the contractor from using any confidential or trade secret information from any past client or employer. Prohibit the contractor from incorporating any such information into any work that the contractor creates for your business.

The same type of clause can be inserted into your employment agreements.

While intentionally stealing a rival’s trade secrets is obviously a no-no, an accidental taking or an accidental incorporation of such information into your software or other systems can also create liability. Taking a clear stand that you prohibit that sort of thing will help avoid a problem later. And, if something bad does occur (assuming you didn’t solicit the improper disclosure), you’ll be in a much better place to defend against a misappropriation claim.

As for the Uttarakhan man and his wife, I don’t know what the best defense is to that sort of claim. But I do know the next family get-together is likely to be a bit uncomfortable.

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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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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.

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In Contract Labor Agreements, This Simple Clause Can Be Your Pillow

Joint employment contract clauseFor humans, some things are essential. Like a good pillow. For non-humans, the anti pillow sometimes works too. Not sure how. But the non-human in this picture generally sleeps like this.

For businesses contracting for labor, some things are essential too. One clause you are likely to have in contract with a supplier of labor is the right to remove a bad apple from the project.

The bad apple clause typically reads something like this: “We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time.”

That’s useful, but does it create an argument that your business is taking control over the individual’s employment in a way that could make your business an employer (or joint employer) of an individual you remove?

Here’s a simple fix to improve your contracts and limit the viability of that argument:

“We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time. We do not, however, have any right to control the individual’s employment status with contractor. Contractor retains the sole right to make all decisions regarding the hiring, termination, and other conditions of employment for all individuals assigned to the project or removed from the project.”

Consider the addition of that extra sentence or two to be a fluffy pillow.  It will help you sleep better if faced with a misclassification or joint employment claim.

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

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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.

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Don’t be a Hirtle: Here’s Why You Should Avoid “Works Made for Hire” Clauses in Independent Contractor Agreements

independent contractor works made for hireDon’t shoot yourself in the foot, Adam Hirtle of Colorado Springs. It’s an expression, not a thing to do with a real firearm. According to this article, Hirtle did it because he wanted to see how it felt. Presumably: Bad.

Shooting yourself in the foot is something many companies may be doing when trying to protect their intellectual property in independent contractor agreements. Generally, there are two ways to protect copyright: “works made for hire” and assignment.

Many independent contractor agreements use both. Intellectual property clauses often say that anything created by the independent contractor is a “work made for hire,” which would mean that the company — not the individual — owns the copyright. These clauses will also typically say that anything not deemed a “work made for hire” is assigned to the company. This is supposed to be a belt-and-suspenders way to ensure that the company owns the intellectual property created by the independent contractor.

Did you know that clause can turn the contractor into an employee?

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Can You Be at Fault if Your Subcontractor Performs Shoddy Installation Work? Ask a North Dakotan.

Interstate 94 in North Dakota near Gladstone

Interstate 94 in North Dakota, near Gladstone, demonstrating why ND is the least visited of the 50 states. Photo from Wikipedia.

According to the official tourism website for North Dakota, the Peace Garden State “leads the nation in production of spring wheat, durum wheat, dry edible peas, dry edible beans, honey, flaxseed and canola.” North Dakota is also the #1 producer of honey in the U.S., a fact you can learn more about by clicking on this official North Dakota State Bee Map, on which you can locate the most active apriaries, which is a place where bees are kept and which is a word that I did not know was a word, so you see, we have all learned something today.

In addition to giving us more dry edible beans than any one of us could safely consume, North Dakota also gives us a recent case that reminds us of an important principle: If your company contracts to perform a service and subcontracts the service, your company is probably still liable under contract law to ensure that the service is properly performed.

In Bakke v. Magi-Touch Carpet, the Supreme Court of North Dakota examined a case where Magi-Touch subcontracted the installation of a shower door, which later “imploded,” according to the narrative in the opinion. I envision something less dramatic than the implosion of the Georgia Dome (cool video), but nonetheless if it were my shower door, I’d be unhappy with that sort of installation job.

The subcontractor apparently stunk it up (too many dry edible beans?), and the homeowner sued Magi-Touch for negligence, fraud, breach of contract, and bunch of other stuff that its creative attorney could come up with. The Court ruled that this was a basic breach of contract case, not a tort case and not a negligence case. Magi-Touch had an obligation to ensure the proper installation of the door, since that what it had contracted to do. Retaining a subcontractor did not relieve Magi-Touch of its contractual obligation to install the door, and Magi-Touch could be held liable under a breach of contract theory for failing to complete the installation in a workmanlike manner.

On the bright side for Magi-Touch, it could not be held liable for negligence or other tort claims. Any damages were limited to the type of damages available for a breach of contract — namely, what it could take to repair and properly install the door.

While this may seem like an obscure shower door case from a state you’ll never visit, the principles of law discussed in the case apply fairly universally. The N.D. Supreme Court decided this case based on common law principles, which generally apply no matter where in the U.S. you are located.

The important thing to remember is that subcontracting a service that your company has contractually agreed to perform does not relieve your company of the contractual obligation to perform the service. Subcontract at your own risk, and take steps to ensure the work is properly performed before paying the subcontractor.

Be sure your contracts are clear as to whose obligations are whose — both in your contracts with customers and in your contracts with subcontractors.

And if you ever find yourself planning a trip to North Dakota, aim for September in Grand Forks and prepare to witness greatness. According to the N.D. Tourism site, “The world’s largest french fry feed is held every year in Grand Forks, during Potato Bowl USA. A new record was set on September 10, 2015, when 5,220 pounds of french fries were served.” Sounds healthy but delicious.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

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

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