Should the Economic Realities Test be Changed for the Gig Economy? One Court Thinks So (But How Would That Affect Jon and Ponch?)

CHiPS are off duty police officers contractors or employees?

Go Jon! Go Ponch! Screenshot from IMDb

According to IMDb, the highest rated episode of CHiPs was Christmas Watch. Thieves at the community church ran off with a 15th century bell, which meant — according to IMDb — “The Christmas season doesn’t mean any less work for Jon and Ponch!”

Well ho ho ho then. The Christmas season means lots of extra work for lots of other people, including real life police officers. A recent case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether police officers taking second jobs are independent contractors or employees.

The test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is well-established. It’s the Economic Realities Test, a multi-factor test that seeks to determine whether, as a matter of economic reality, the worker is reliant on the hiring party to earn a living.

But in Acosta v. Off Duty Police Services, the Court of Appeals questioned whether the usual formula should still apply in the modern gig economy, when lots of people take second jobs.

In this case, a private company called Off Duty Police Services (ODPS) retained off-duty police officers to handle private security, flag traffic for events, and monitor locations to be sure nothing was amiss. The work largely involved sitting in the patrol cars and doing a whole lot of nothing.

When the case initially went to trial, the trial court ruled that the sworn police officers were properly classified as contractors because they had another full-time job and therefore were not “economically reliant” on ODPS to earn a living. Makes sense — since that’s the test.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that in the modern economy, it is common for workers to have more than one job at a time. The court said that modern reality should not weigh in favor of non-employee status. To that I would say, Ok, you may have a policy argument for what the test should be, but the test is well-established. The test asks whether the worker is economically reliant on the hiring party to earn a living. In this case, they’re not. You can’t just go around re-arranging the furniture.

The Court of Appeals, while paying lip service to the six Economic Realities factors, seems to re-imagine how the factors are weighed, tilting the scales to reach a desired outcome for the new economy.

In this case, the officers all signed Independent Contractor Agreements saying they were independent contractors, but the Court of Appeals ignored those agreements.  As we have discussed before, the determination of Independent Contractor vs. Employee is based on the facts of the situation, not what the parties choose to call themselves.

Here, it wasn’t even one of the police officers who argued misclassification. ODPS was sued by the Department of Labor. Yes, that’s right — the Trump-era DOL is fighting worker misclassification.

After this case, here’s what you need to remember:

(1) The FLSA definition of employee is intended to be “strikingly broad.” The test is different than the common law test used for determining Who Is My Employee? under tax law or benefits law. More people are employees under the FLSA than under tax, discrimination, or benefits law.

(2) In the modern gig economy, could we be seeing a move toward re-imagining the FLSA test in a way that makes its coverage even broader? Under a re-imagined test, even more contractors may be misclassified than previously thought.

(3) The common refrain of “We’ve always done it this way” is no defense — as ODPS learned the hard way.

Jon and Ponch might not have needed extra jobs, but they also probably had hefty union benefits and a pension. Not so today. Lots of people take second jobs to make some extra cash, and “second jobs” may be the newest target for misclassification claims.

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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What is the Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee? (Jan. 2019)

what is the test for independent contractor misclassificationSeems like a simple question, but it isn’t. My question to your question is, “Why do you ask?” That’s because the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is different under different laws.

And worse, the tests keep changing, as we saw in Monday’s post about the NLRB’s SuperShuttle decision.

As of today, January 31, 2019, here’s where we stand:

The current tests for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee are:

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)

Right to Control Test (SuperShuttle version, as of 1/25/19)

Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), ERISA

Right to Control Test (Darden version, or some variant of it, as applied circuit by circuit)

Internal Revenue Service

Right to Control Test (IRS version)

Affordable Care Act

Right to Control Test (emphasis on particular factors, based on regulation)

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Economic Realities Test (which different courts articulate differently)

California, Massachusetts wage & hour laws

ABC Tests (strict version of Part B)

New Jersey wage & hour

ABC Test (regular version of Part B)

California state laws other than wage & hour

S.G. Borello & Sons Test (customized hybrid version of Right to Control & Economic Realities Tests), we think, for now

State Unemployment and Workers Comp Laws

Pick a card, any card. Tests vary substantially state to state. Some are Right to Control Tests, some are ABC Tests, some are entirely made-up, customized tests that require consideration of — or proof of — specific factors

Other State Laws (wage & hour, discrimination, tax)

Tests vary significantly state by state, law by law

This chart may be a helpful start, but three significant challenges remain, when trying to determine Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

  1. Fifty Shades of Gray.  These tests, for the most part, are balancing tests. Courts and agencies must weigh multiple factors. In most instances, some factors will favor contractor status and some will favor employee status. Different courts may reach different conclusions, even with the same facts.
  2. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Multi-state employers face the added challenge of having to deal with different tests in different states. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, states generally apply different tests for different state laws. Sometimes different tests apply in different industries too. Transportation workers, for example, may be subject to different tests than construction workers.
  3. Into the Wild. The tests keep changing. In January 2019, the NLRB changed its test in the SuperShuttle case. In 2018, California changed its test under state wage and hour law from the S.G. Borello balancing test to a strict ABC Test. In 2015, New Jersey switched to a different version of an ABC Test for its state wage and hour law. The times they are a-changin.

What to do about it? (Free tips!)

  1. Know the tests that apply where your business operates.
  2. Construct your independent contractor relationships in a way that tends to favor the factors supporting independent contractor status. Inevitably, business considerations will get in the way, and tough decisions will have to be made about how much control can be relinquished and how the relationships need to be structured. Adjust the facts of the relationship.
  3. Use a customized independent contractor agreement that emphasizes the factors that support independent contractor status. Avoid off-the-shelf agreements. Merely reciting that everyone agrees the relationship is an independent contractor relationship is only a teeny bit helpful. “Teeny bit helpful” is not the gold standard.
  4. Re-evaluate existing relationships, and make changes from time to time.
  5. Implement a gatekeeper system to prevent operations managers from entering into contractor relationships that may be invalid. Require any retention of a contractor to be approved by a point person, who can issue spot and seek help in evaluating whether a contractor relationship is likely to withstand a misclassification challenge.
  6. Seek legal help before you get audited or sued. Now is the time to review and modify relationships to reduce the likelihood of a misclassification claim. Once a claim is made, your business can only play defense. Create your playbook now, before the defense has to take the field.

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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Pain, Humiliation & Self-Pity: How Does the Definition of “Employ” Relate to Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Suffer or Permit to Work FLSA Definition of Employ

According to the New World Encyclopedia, examples of “suffering” include pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, self-pity, and death.

According to federal wage and hour law, “suffer” means employment.

Ouch. Happy Monday.

One of the many problems with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) — the federal law that sets minimum wage and overtime standards — is that it’s archaic, outdated, old. It was passed in 1938.  Before Hitler invaded Poland.  Before the first Captain America comic book. Even before the invention of the Slinky.

In 1938, Mick Jagger wasn’t even born yet. (But Betty White was 16.)

The language used in the FLSA reflects a different era. In the definitions section of the Act, “employ” includes “to suffer or permit to work.” What exactly does that mean? At the time it was written, what did Congress intend for it to mean? And what does it mean now, in the modern economy, especially when trying to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor?

According to the FLSA regulations, if “the employer knows or has reason to believe that [the individual] is continuing to work,” then the time is working time. It’s employment. Even work that is “not requested” is work time if the employer permitted the work to be done.

When asking the question, Who Is My Employee?, this broad definition presents a challenge. As the Supreme Court has recognized, this definition is broader than the ordinary “common law” definition of employment, which looks at the extent of control the employer exercises (or has the right to exercise) over the worker. That’s the Right to Control Test, which is discussed in more detail here.

Because the definition of “employ” is different under the FLSA than under most other employment laws, the test for determining Who Is My Employee? is different too.

The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine whether a worker is an employee (as compared to an independent contractor).

The Economic Realities Test is expressed slightly differently by different federal courts but, in general, the test asks whether the worker is economically reliant on the potential employer to earn a living. If economically reliant, the worker is likely an employee. If the worker has other sources of income or is business for himself/herself, the worker is more likely an independent contractor, not an employee.

The Economic Realities Test is described in more detail here.

So that’s how the federal courts interpret the “suffer or permit to work” language in the FLSA. But to keep things interesting, California’s wage and hour laws use the same “suffer or permit” language in its state law definition of “employ,” but California interprets that phrase differently and imposes a different test. Same standard, different test.

As we will discuss in Thursday’s post, California’s alternative interpretation of that same phrase can lead to very different results when evaluating whether someone is an employee or independent contractor.

It’s California’s definition — more than the federal definition — that is more likely to cause pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, or self-pity. To the Golden State’s credit, though, probably not death. Good job, California.

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

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Extra Pepperoni! Domino’s Fends Off Joint Employment Claims

Pizza Food Slice Cheese Mushroom Veggies V

Domino’s Pizza in Russia recently had to cancel a promotion offering free pizza for life to anyone who got a tattoo of the Domino’s logo after too many people tatted up. The Russian franchisee that offered the promotion was overwhelmed by the response. It canceled the scheduled two-month promotion after just four days.

Franchise owners have to adhere to brand standards, but they have flexibility on other things, such as how vigorously to encourage their customers to ink. It can be confusing to the public, however, which decisions are made by franchisors and which decisions are made by franchisees. Not surprisingly, this confusion extends to employment situations, where claims of joint employment are frequently asserted against franchisors, even though individual employment decisions are made by franchisees.

In a delicious decision for franchisors, a New York federal court has ruled that Domino’s Pizza’s corporate entities are not joint employers of the employees who work at individually owned Domino’s franchises – at least under federal and New York State wage and hour law. (Click here for Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment.)

Joint employment claims are a constant threat in the franchise space. Major restaurant and fast food franchisors are frequently alleged to be joint employers when plaintiffs bring employment lawsuits against individual franchisees. The franchisors (like Domino’s) are viewed as the deep pockets and, by targeting the franchisor’s corporate office, plaintiffs can try to build class actions that include groups of employees across multiple franchises. Or, by tagging a franchisee as a joint employer, plaintiffs can feel more confident that enough dollars will be available to pay any judgment.

The court’s ruling, which granted summary judgment to Domino’s corporate entities, evaluated the plaintiffs’ joint employment claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and New York Labor Law (NYLL) using a two-part Economic Realities Test.

Following guidance from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the court looked at two sets of factors: one set to assess formal control exercised by the franchisor, and the second set to assess functional control by the franchisor. (That’s not the test used everywhere.)

As is typical in franchisor-franchisee relationships, the franchisee (store owner) signed a franchise agreement, agreeing that it – not the franchisor – “shall be solely responsible for recruiting, hiring, training, scheduling for work, supervising and paying the persons who work in the Store and those persons shall be [franchisee’s] employees, and not [franchisor’s] agents or employees.”  The agreement required the franchisee to adhere to brand standards to ensure consistency in product, but individual employment decisions were to be made at the store level, not by the franchisor.

Based on this framework, the court analyzed the facts using the formal control factors and the functional control factors.

The formal control factors included whether the franchisor:

  1. had the power to hire and fire the employees,
  2. supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment,
  3. determined the rate and method of payment, and
  4. maintained employment records.

The functional control factors for determining joint employment, some of which do not even make sense in the context of a franchise relationship, are:

  1. whether the alleged employers’ premises and equipment were used for the plaintiffs’ work;
  2. whether the subcontractors had a business that could or did shift as a unit from one putative joint employer to another;
  3. the extent to which [the] plaintiffs performed a discrete line job that was integral to the alleged employers’ process of production;
  4. whether responsibility under the contracts could pass from one subcontractor to another without material changes;
  5. the degree to which the alleged employers or their agents supervised [the] plaintiffs’ work; and
  6. whether [the] plaintiffs worked exclusively or predominantly for the alleged employers.

After evaluating the facts using these factors, the court ruled that the Domino’s corporate franchisor entities were not joint employers. The franchisor entities were therefore dismissed from the lawsuit, but the court allowed the case to continue against the individual franchise owners.

The decision is refreshing for franchisors, but not too refreshing.  As noted here, other Courts of Appeal – mainly the Fourth Circuit – apply different tests for determining whether a company is a joint employer under the FLSA, even though the FLSA is a federal law that you would think would be interpreted the same way all across the country.

The test for joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act is different too – and is likely to change again.  It is possible for a company to be a joint employer under one law or test but not under other laws or tests. There is no uniformity or consistency.

For now, franchisors should rejoice in this small victory, but the fight to protect franchisors against joint employment claims is far from over — unlike the Russian tattoo promotion, which is entirely kaput.

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

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Despite New DOL, Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment Remain Risky

What effect of withdrawal of DOL memos

In June 2017, the DOL withdrew its Obama-era 2015 and 2016 informal guidance on joint employment and independent contractors. The memos covered federal wage and hour law (FLSA). Eight months later, what effect has that decision made?

Essentially none.

Remember, the 2015 and 2016 memos did not change the law on independent contractor misclassification or joint employment. Rather, the memos were an attempt by the Wage & Hour Administrator, David Weil, to summarize existing law – but with a pro-employee leaning. The memos selectively interpreted court decisions that supported Weil’s view of the world, i.e., that most workers are employees. When Weil left, the DOL said goodbye to his interpretations as well.

But … Continue reading

Map Shows Joint Employment Tests Are a Mess!

IMG_8284The tests for determining whether a business is a joint employer vary, depending on which law applies. That means there are different tests under federal labor law, wage and hour law, and employee benefits law, to name a few. There are also different tests under different states’ laws.

Further complicating the analysis, there are even different tests when applying the same law — depending on where you live.

Yes, you read that right. Even though the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal wage and hour law that applies across the country, federal courts in different states use different methods for determining whether a business is a joint employer under that single law.

Continue reading

Four FMLA Traps When Using Temp Workers — and How to Avoid Them

The FMLA is full of traps for companies who use staffing agency workers, both for staff augmentation and temp-to-hire. Here are a few of the most common mistakes and how to avoid them:

fmla-danger-cliff-caution-2

photo credit: ransomtech Chimney Bluffs State Park via photopin (license)

1. Mistake: Not counting staffing agency time as service time, when determining whether the worker has worked for 12 months.

Tip: Staffing agency time counts. Add staffing agency time plus regular employee time to determine whether the worker has 12 months of service time. Accumulate all time worked during the past seven years. Continue reading