Can Independent Contractors Form Unions? Seattle Wants to Allow It.

space-needle-independent contrcator drivers seattle uber lyft seattle law ordinanceA legal battle in Seattle (“The Battle of Seattle!”) may soon determine whether independent contractor drivers can form unions. In 2015, the city passed a law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to organize. The mayor allowed the law to go into effect but didn’t sign it because he was concerned it would spawn expensive litigation. He was right.

This month, a federal judge handed the City a victory, dismissing a lawsuit by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had argued that the ordinance was illegal. The decision is certainly not the last word on the subject, since the Chamber will appeal and there is a companion lawsuit still pending anyway.

The issues go beyond the basic question of whether independent contractors can form unions.

Generally, they cannot. Independent contractors are separate businesses. Antitrust law generally forbids businesses from banding together and collectively fixing prices and other conditions. You know the drill: Collusion bad, free market good.

The judge ruled that the circumstances here, however, are different than usual. First, it’s worth noting that the “unions” aren’t really unions (despite being overseen by the Teamsters), since unions are for employees and these are representation associations. That seems like word play to me, but everyone’s being careful not to call these things “unions.”

Second, the situation here is not merely that independent contractors are banding together to fix prices. Rather, a local law has established a procedure for ride hailing drivers to collectively share information in a particular format and setting, then negotiate collectively in a government-approved manner. The law enables the activity, not the drivers.

Ok, but what about the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? Only employees can unionize, right? Well, sort of. The NLRA definitely does not apply to independent contractors.  But, then again, the NLRA definitely does not apply to independent contractors.

So what does that mean? Does the NLRA preempt laws that would allow non-employees to unionize (as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued)? Or does the NLRA’s inapplicability to contractors mean that Congress was indifferent (and silent) as to whether independent contractors could organize? The judge went with Door #2, deciding that the NLRA did not pre-empt the City of Seattle from enacting this ordinance.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the Seattle ordinance did not violate any federal or state laws.

This is a case to watch. If Seattle ultimately succeeds in setting up a way for independent contractors to band together and collectively bargain, the gig economy could be changed fundamentally. Other cities would be sure to follow suit and pass similar laws.

A lot still needs to be sorted out, and this is a case that could eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. An ordinance like this poses a challenge to the scope of federal authority over labor law and antitrust law, both of which are areas where a uniform national policy has generally been considered important to maintain.

Keep an eye on this one. We’ll see if Seattle can hold onto the ball this time, or if the city again throws an errant pass to a wide-eyed Malcolm Butler hiding in the end zone. [Seahawks fans are advised not to click on this link.]

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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California May Tip The Scales, When It Comes to Tipping Independent Contractor Drivers

IMG_1078Should ride-hailing services (like Uber and Lyft) be required to offer a tip option if you pay by credit card? A proposed California law says yes.

A.B. 1099, passed by the California Assembly and headed to the State Senate, would require modification of these mobile apps to support credit card tipping. The bill, in its current form, takes no position as to whether these drivers are independent contractors or employees, instead calling them “workers,” but the proposed law is another attempt to legislate controls on the gig economy, rather than letting free market forces play out.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a posiiton on the bill, and it may or may not survive in the California Senate.

California has been a hotbed of litigation for ride-hailing and delivery driving companies, and this latest development shows that State Governments are not afraid to further constrain how companies that use independent contractor drivers run their businesses.

In fact, we saw similar scale-tipping recently in Florida (see blog post here), but that was in an effort to protect ride hailing companies and these companies’ efforts to protect the classification of their drivers as independent contractors.

Keep an eye out for more legislation, especially at the state level, in an attempt to recalibrate the market forces that have brought us the gig economy.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Court Rejects Mandatory Arbitration for Independent Contractor Truckers

truck independent contractor arbitrationArbitration agreements can be an effective way to manage disputes with independent contractors. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and Supreme Court decisions support arbitration as an efficient way to resolve disputes outside of the courtroom.

But what happens when an independent contractor with an arbitration agreement claims to have been misclassified as an employee? Can these disputes be forced into arbitration?

Usually yes, but this blog post by my colleague, John Lewis, highlights the limitations of arbitration agreements when applied to transportation workers. Although federal public policy — as articulated in the FAA — generally favors arbitration as a way to resolve disputes, Section 1 of the FAA lists a few situations where the FAA does not apply. One type of excluded dispute is over “contracts of employment” with transportation workers.

Are independent contractor agreements with owner-operator truckers “contracts of employment” with transportation workers? Continue reading

New Florida Law Grants Independent Contractor Status to App-Based Drivers

IMG_1064In December 1965, the Beatles released Rubber Soul, which led with Drive My Car.  (“Asked a girl what she wanted to be/She said Baby, can’t you see?/I want to be famous, a star on the screen/But you can do something in between.”) You can thank me later for getting that song stuck in your head all day.

Under a new Florida law, online ride hailing service are singing “Baby you can drive my car, and maybe I’ll love you.” If certain easy-to-meet conditions are satisfied, drivers for online ride hailing services are declared independent contractors by law, not employees. This new law protects Uber, Lyft, and similar services from misclassification class actions brought under state law.

The requirements for being granted independent contractor status under the new law are simple. Continue reading

Maximum Badass Trucker Fight Fails to Break Up Independent Contractor Status

boxing-independent contractor or employee - independent contractor misclassification 0 100733_1920

In 2012, Mens Fitness Magazine ranked the “12 Most Badass Fight Scenes of the Millennium.” An obscure Ohio rest stop battle between two truckers didn’t make the list, but one attacked another viciously with a metal bar, breaking his leg and causing permanent injuries after being cut off in traffic.

But that’s not why I mention the Rest Stop Rumble (a/k/a Herndon v. Torres). The victim trucker sued both the trucker and the trucking company whose load the wannabe Maximus Decimus Meridius was hauling.

The trucking company avoided liability, however, by proving to the court that its relationship with Maximus was that of an independent contractor. While an employer can be held vicariously liable for the badass acts of its employees, there is generally no vicarious liability for independent contractors.

The court evaluated the relationship between Mad Max and the trucking company using a Right to Control Test, which is used to determine Who Is My Employee? under Ohio tort law.

The following factors helped establish that Max Zorin, while still the story’s villain, was not an employee of the trucking firm: Continue reading

What’s Up? Black Car Drivers Are Independent Contractors. Here’s Why.

balloons-1786430_1280At the end of Pixar’s Up, Carl and Russell sit on a curb pointing out cars: “Red one!” “Blue one!” Then Dug (the dog) calls out “Gray one!” which I find endlessly funny every time I watch it.

Whatever color the car, they sat there content, eating ice cream.

Black car companies in New York are celebrating too (hopefully with ice cream), after a recent decision preserving their drivers’ status as independent contractors. In Salem v. Corporate Transportation Group, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that drivers were not entitled to overtime pay, since they were not employees, but rather independent contractor franchisees.

We’ve written often in this blog about the different tests for determining Who Is My Employee? This case was brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and comparable New York law, so the Court applied an Economic Realities Test. This test measures whether workers are economically dependent on one company to earn a living or are in business for themselves.

Relying on the Economic Realities factors, the Court ruled the drivers were economically independent and were in business for themselves. Here are the keys to victory:

  1. The drivers purchased franchises, choosing from a variety of options (rent, own);
  2. The drivers used their own cars and paid all their own expenses;
  3. The drivers could drive for competitors or for personal clients;
  4. The drivers were entrepreneurs, controlling many significant aspects of their personal driving business;
  5. The drivers were free to accept or reject jobs;
  6. The drivers chose when, where, and how often to work; and
  7. The franchisor company could not freely terminate the drivers’ franchise agreements.

While independent contractor relationships remain under fire, this decision shows that there’s still hope. Companies can win these cases when they carefully construct the facts, relinquish control, and allow contractors to run their own enterprises.

Although these drivers had considerable discretion over how to run their individual businesses, none (unfortunately) had the creativity to ditch the car and transport customers in a helium-balloon powered house.  Now back to the film.

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© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.