Going Mobile? DOL Endorses Independent Contractor Model for Virtual Marketplace Apps

Opinion letter mobile app

Long before mobile apps were a thing, Pete Townsend and The Who were already going mobile. In the 1971 song, Townsend sings about the virtues of life on the open road, living in a mobile home. I’m an air-conditioned gypsy.

In an important opinion letter released this week, the DOL went mobile too, lending support to businesses in the “on-demand” or “sharing” economy. The letter is the first significant ruling that supports independent contractor status for service providers who obtain work through virtual marketplace apps.

A virtual marketplace app is a matchmaking service. It connects consumers who need a service (driving, housekeeping, handyman, anything) with service providers who do the work. Virtual marketplace companies (VMCs) are frequently the target of misclassification claims. In these types of claims, service providers — and the plaintiffs’ lawyers who love them — file lawsuits claiming that the service providers are really employees of the VMC. Frequent targets have been Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Grubhub.

In Monday’s letter, the DOL opined that service providers are indeed independent contractors of the VMC, not its employees, at least under the facts of this particular case. The letter does not identify the specific VMC at issue, but the facts in the letter are going to be generally applicable to lots of VMCs.

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“This is a Cabinet”: DOL Proposes New Definition of Joint Employer, Seeks to Clear Up a Confusing Label

This post was originally published as a BakerHostetler Employment Alert on April 3, 2019. Cabinet joint employmentSometimes it’s obvious what something is, and you don’t need a label. Other times it’s not so obvious, and you do need a label. Then there’s the rare instance when it’s obvious what something is, but someone feels compelled to supply a label anyway. That third scenario is what I saw when I went to my daughter’s volleyball tournament last weekend and snapped this photo of a cabinet in the lobby. The label is small, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it helpfully declares the item to be a “cabinet.” It further announces, in red handwriting, that the item has been “sold,” thereby allaying my concerns that my daughter was spending her Saturday playing volleyball in a den of cabinet thieves.

The second scenario – label needed – is the focus of this Alert. And the territory is familiar ground ‒ joint employment.

It’s rarely obvious what that phrase means, and companies that use workers supplied by other companies have been seeking clarity for some time now. Ignoring Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about the nine most terrifying words in the English language, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced on Monday that it’s here to help.

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We’ve Got Baby Steps Toward a New Definition of Joint Employment Under the FLSA.

Baby steps joint employment FLSA new rule

I still don’t know what this is, but I got it from Wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, which knows everything, or thinks it does, Baby Steps is the name of a Japanese manga series by Hikaru Katsuki. I have no idea what that means, but apparently it’s a story of some sort, which I infer from the following description: “The story is centered on Eiichirō Maruo, a first year honor student who one day decides that he is lacking exercise.”

This does not make me want to watch it.

I will, however, be watching the baby steps being taken by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). On February 28, the WHD submitted a proposed new rule on joint employment to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The new rule would modify the meaning of “joint employment” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which is the federal law governing minimum wage and overtime requirements.

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New Rule May Clear Up ‘Employee vs Contractor’ Test under FLSA, But Not Quite Yet

DOL joint employment

New regulations may soon be proposed to redefine “employee” under federal wage and hour law. In a recent interview with Bloomberg BNA, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta hinted that the DOL is working on a new regulation that would more definitively speak to who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law governing minimum wage and overtime for employees, does not apply to independent contractors. That’s one of the reasons it matters whether someone is classified as an employee of a contractor. Contractors are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime under federal law.

The FLSA was passed in the 1930s and does not fit the modern gig economy. Secretary Acosta appears committed to modernizing the regulations, which would bring much needed clarity to the question of who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.

In terms of priorities, the DOL appears likely to address the definition of “joint employment” first.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has initiated formal rulemaking procedures that would result in a new regulation defining joint employment more narrowly under federal labor law.  The DOL has indicated it has plans to follow suit, using rulemaking procedures to seek a new regulation redefining “joint employment” under the FLSA. We can probably expect to see a new proposed FLSA regulation redefining “joint employment” by early 2019.

Based on Secretary Acosta’s comments to Bloomberg BNA, it seems likely that the DOL will turn it’s attention to the Independent Contractor vs Employee conundrum next.

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

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Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment

Everyone knows that two’s company but three’s a crowd. Except, of course, for Three’s Company with Jack, Janet, and Chrissy (or Cindy or Terri). But how many of you recall that one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do? Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one. I know this because of Three Dog Night.

For musical tastes, the number four can mean Tops, Seasons, or Non Blondes.

But today’s number is FIVE.  Here are Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment.  (click here to download the PDF.)

Five things You Should Know About Joint employment - page 1 screenshot

Five things You Should Know About Joint employment - page 1 screenshot

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

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Dept of Labor May Redefine Joint Employment with New Rule, Hints Labor Sec’y

DOL may issue new rule for joint employment

Rules are important for avoiding chaos, as I am reminded daily by one of my favorite twitter accounts, @CrimeADay. That’s where I learned that it’s a federal crime to operate a manned (or unmanned) submersible in national park waters without a permit, thereby ruining my weekend plans. (18 USC 1865 & 36 CFR 3.19). I also learned it is a federal crime to bring a child to a cockfight before his or her 16th birthday, thereby ruining my winter plans for father-daughter bonding activities. (7 USC §2156(a)(2)(B) & 18 USC §49(c).)

The Department of Labor (DOL) thinks rules are important too. Taking a page from the NLRB, which last week issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to redefine “joint employment” under federal labor law, the DOL may be about to follow suit.

In a speech to members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta disclosed that the DOL is working on a proposal to redefine joint employment, presumably under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires the payment of overtime and a minimum wage.

Joint employment is a hot button issue in the hospitality business, where outsourcing functions like housekeeping is commonplace, and where joint employment can mean the hotel operator is liable for for wage and hour violations by other entities who are supplying labor.

As we have discussed in previous posts, the tests for joint employment are different depending on which law is being applied. That means that even if the NLRB revises the definition of joint employment, that new test would not apply to the FLSA. The DOL would need to write a separate rule that would define joint employment under the FLSA.

According to Acosta, that new rule may soon be on the way.

Until then, remember that it is illegal to take a fishing boat into the danger zone of the Potomac near the Naval Surface Warfare Center while they’re firing guns, aerial bombing, using directed energy, or other hazardous operations, unless the patrol boats let you in. (33 USC §3 & 33 CFR §334.230(a)(2).)

Thanks, @CrimeADay!

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

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When Sharks Talk to Bears: Beware of Cross-Agency Communications When Defending Independent Contractor Misclassification Claims

Shark independent contractor misclassification information sharing agreements

According to National Geographic, A 20-year old Colorado man has been bitten by a shark, a bear, and a snake.

Either the animal kingdom hates this guy, or he simply tastes delicious.

Formal information sharing across species is probably unusual, but within government agencies, it’s a thing. Businesses need to be aware of cross-agency information sharing when defending audits and defending agency enforcement actions related to independent contractor misclassification.

Federal and state agencies are particularly focused on sharing information about independent contractor misclassification. The Wage and Hour Division of the DOL has signed information sharing agreements with 27 states. The IRS and the DOL have a Memorandum of Understanding. Tax agencies share information too.

This network of cooperation can spell trouble for businesses undergoing 1099 audits or other agency investigations related to potential independent contractor misclassification.

A small assessment by a state agency may not seem like it’s worth fighting, but beware. Information sharing agreements may cause the assessment to multiply. Adverse findings might also be discoverable in litigation if there’s a civil lawsuit.

In other words, you could be viewed as an easy target, having been found already to be in violation.

A finding of independent contractor misclassification by one state agency may feel like a minor snake bite (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a minor snake bite, but stay with me here).  The snake, however, may share information with the shark, who will tell the bear, and before you know it, you’re that guy in Colorado who’s been bitten by all three.

Ouch!

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

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