Can Independent Contractor Misclassification Automatically Violate Federal Labor Law? (Hint: Yes)

The past two weekends, we have seen NFL players link arms in solidarity. They protest mistreatment and injustice in society, not mistreatment and injustice by their employers. In fact, there have been several instances where owners and coaches have joined in.

Had the players been protesting actions by their employers — their teams — their actions likely would be considered “protected concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA grants employees the right to act collectively to protest terms or conditions of their employment. Employees have these rights even if there is no union.

NLRA rights apply only to employees, not to independent contractors. Independent contractors have no right under the NLRA to engage in collective behavior. In fact, antitrust laws can sometimes prohibit independent contractors from acting collectively — such as in price fixing.

So let’s get to the issue that is the focus of this blog — the issue of Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

Here’s the question of the day:

If independent contractors have no rights under the NLRA but employees do, can the mere act of misclassifying independent contractors be considered a denial of NLRA rights? 

Yes, said an Administrative Law Judge in a recent case involving couriers.

Here’s the judge’s reasoning: Employees have NLRA rights, allowing them to act collectively. An employer violates the NLRA by denying an employee the right to act collectively. Protected concerted activity can include discussing wages with co-workers, discussing discipline, speaking out against a supervisor, criticizing work conditions, and a broad range of other activities (many of which you probably never thought were protected).

Independent contractors do not have these rights because the NLRA applies only to employees. By misclassifying a worker as a contractor, the judge ruled, a business is essentially telling the worker — who is actually an employee — that he has none of these rights.

Telling an employee that he has no right to engage in protected concerted activity is pretty clearly a violation of the NLRA.

And there you go.

So what does that mean for businesses that use independent contractors? In other posts, we have discussed many of the negative consequences of independent contractor misclassification. A business that has misclassified workers as independent contractors (when they should really be deemed employees) can be liable for failure to pay employment taxes, failure to provide workers’ compensation and unemployment coverage, failure to follow hiring and paycheck laws, failure to provide employee benefits, and more.

Now add to that list a possible automatic violation of the National Labor Relations Act — at least according to this judge.

You can’t see me, but I am kneeling in protest.

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

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Update: Uber’s Misclassification Cases, Arbitration, and the Supreme Court

Independent contractor vs employee Uber misclassification lawsuit arbitration agreements IMG_1111Remember the children’s game called Red Light, Green Light? One ambitious youngster is selected as the traffic cop, who randomly shouts “red light” or “green light,” requiring all the children to run and stop and start in short bursts that would cause an adult human to tear an ACL.

That’s essentially what’s happening in the big Uber misclassification case that has been pending in California since 2014. The case is called O’Connor v. Uber Technologies and is being overseen by traffic cop / federal judge Edward Chen in San Francisco. If anyone ever gets to the finish line, it will eventually be determined whether Uber drivers are properly classified as independent contractors, rather than employees.

There are lots of Uber cases, but this one is the biggie for now, with potentially a billion dollars at issue. For those keeping score at home, that’s 1,000 times more than Dr. Evil demanded for the return of the Kreplachistan warhead.

In December 2015, the judge approved a class of 240,000 drivers, and allowed the case to proceed toward a trial. Green light! Notably, many of the drivers in the class had signed arbitration agreements preventing them from participating in a class action. The judge, however, ruled that the arbitration agreements were unenforceable. He said that the agreement prevented the drivers from engaging in “protected concerted activity” (participating in a class action lawsuit), a right protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Now wait a minute. We have a chicken and egg problem here. The NLRA only applies to employees. If the drivers are truly independent contractors, the NLRA does not apply, and the validity of the arbitration agreements should not be an issue. Uber filed an immediate appeal, claiming that the agreements are valid and that judge should not have allowed the case to proceed as a class action. (Red light?)

In April 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear Uber’s appeal.

Meanwhile, Judge Chen allowed the case to proceed toward trial, despite the appeal. Green light! But both sides flinched (Red light!), and the case settled for $100 million.

But wait. A judge must approve a class settlement. This judge ruled the settlement was unfair to drivers since the actual recovery in trial could be much greater. (Hey, isn’t that the point of a settlement? The drivers also might have taken home nothing!) Anyway, Green light!

Meanwhile, back at the Ninth Circuit, the appeals court issued an order last week that said, “Hey, everybody wait.” Red light!

The Court of Appeals noted that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether employee arbitration agreements that waive the right to participate in a class action are permissible, or whether they violate the NLRA. That’s the same issue that led Judge Chen to call “Green light!” in 2015 and certify the class of Uber drivers. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely govern whether the Uber drivers’ arbitration agreements are valid.

On October 2, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on this issue, and a decision is expected in the first half of 2018. The Supreme Court’s decision will have far reaching consequences for all businesses who ask their workers to sign arbitration agreements waiving the right to trial and waiving the right to participate in a class action.  So far, courts around the country have split on this important issue, reaching different conclusions about whether these agreements are allowed. The Supreme Court decision will settle this issue for everybody.

The Supreme Court case, called NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, will be one of the more significant employment law decisions from the Supreme Court in a long time. You can read more here from SCOTUSblog or here from Baker Hostetler blogs.

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

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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.]

///Update 9/11/17: In early September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals placed this ordinance on hold, while the case is on appeal. That means the ordinance is not currently in effect, and  independent drivers cannot currently organize under this law. A final decision is expected sometime in 2018.

© 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