Shout It Like a Helium-Filled Gator: Don’t Limit Your Arbitration Agreements to Work-Related Disputes

Fig. 3. Atmosphere exchange during the experimental procedure without handling the subject

A team of researchers studying the vocalizations of Chinese alligators have won an Ig Nobel Prize for their method. They put the gators in helium-filled tanks and observed variations in their calls.

Sign me up.

I want to write papers with sentences like this one: “High-energy frequency bands in the bellows of the Chinese alligator were shifted towards higher frequencies when the animal vocalized in the heliox condition.”

My writing, for better or worse, is more focused on agreements. Here’s something to remember when writing arbitration agreements.

One of the main benefits of an arbitration agreement is the ability to prohibit class action lawsuits. When using arbitration agreements with employees or independent contractors, don’t forget to include the class action waiver. (There are pros and cons to mandatory arbitration, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

Too often, the scope of arbitration agreements is too narrow. Many agreements require arbitration of work-related or employment-related claims only.

Go broader. Expand your range, but without using helium.

In this case, a group of drivers alleged that a rideshare app company mishandled a data security breach. The drivers tried to bring a class action.

The court instead required them to seek relief one-by-one, in individual arbitration actions. That’s because their agreements required them to arbitrate disputes with the company and prohibited class litigation. The arbitration agreement here was broad enough to cover data breach claims.

Quick side note on what the legal dispute was really about: The drivers argued that the agreements were unenforceable. They pointed to the transportation worker exception in the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA generally protects the enforcement of arbitration agreements, but it doesn’t apply to transportation workers in interstate commerce. The dispute was whether drivers who pick up passengers at airports for local rides are acting on interstate commerce because the passengers and their luggage flew in from other states. The district court said no, that these local drives are not interstate commerce, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

For our purposes, the lesson here is to be thoughtful about the scope of claims subject to arbitration. Go broader than just work-related claims. A data breach can be an expensive class action to defend if thousands of people are affected. Any single individual arbitration, however, is probably not worth the effort for a plaintiff’s lawyer. The damages for an individual arbitration will be too small to make it worth pursuing.

(The “go broad” concept has limits, and there are some claims that should be carved out of arbitration agreements, so I don’t want to overstate the point.)

Anyway, be creative and thoughtful when drafting agreements. Be sure the scope of covered claims is sufficiently broad. Careful planning can avoid class actions — or just maybe it can win you an Ig Nobel Prize.

Bonus track: Here’s audio of a helium-induced alligator bellow.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

2018_Web100Badge

Better Flow? Will New Bill Allow More Benefits for Independent Contractors — Without Risking Misclassification Claims?

toilet gig workers plumberA Sheboygan man was recently sentenced to 150 days in jail and probation for repeatedly clogging women’s toilets with plastic bottles. According to the Sheboygan Press, the serial toilet clogger told police he gets urges to do odd things, like look for bottles in the garbage to plug toilets.

I get urges to do odd things too, like scour local newspapers for stories like this one. But since I’m sharing this important knowledge with readers, I figure it’s for the greater good. (Repeat:) For the greater good. (See Hot Fuzz, my nominee for best movie ever.) 

Two recently introduced bills in Congress seek to protect the greater good when it comes to gig workers. In the current legal environment, digital marketplace companies are reluctant to do anything to provide assistance to independent contractors who use their platforms, since courts and agencies tend to use such good deeds as evidence that the contractors should really be classified as employees. For digital marketplace companies that rely on an independent contractor model, such a finding can cause serious damage to normal business operations — even worse than the mess caused by an overflowing bottle-clogged ladies’ toilet.

The Helping Gig Economy Workers Act of 2020 would permit digital marketplace companies to provide payments, health benefits, training, and PPE to users of the digital marketplace without these good deeds being used as evidence — in any federal, state, or local proceeding — that the company has misclassified its independent contractors or is acting as a joint employer. The bill would protect companies throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

The bill is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), with a companion bill sponsored by four Republicans in the Senate.

Historically, Democrats have opposed any legislation that would solidify independent contractor status for workers, instead advocating for bills that would convert more contractors to employees. Will the COVID-19 crisis be a turning point?

With independent contractor delivery services needed now more than ever, will there be a push to allow companies to provide greater protection for these workers without fear that their good deeds will be used against them in a misclassification claim?

That remains to be seen. If this bill gains any momentum, it could be the equivalent of pulling a bottle out of the clogged toilet of independent contractor misclassification laws. (I concede the analogy is a stretch, but I’m doing my best here.)  This bill could signal a shift toward a philosophy of promoting greater benefits for independent contractor gig workers, rather than aiming solely to convert them all to employees. I’m not sure it will, but it might. This is one to watch.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 
2018_Web100Badge
 

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Will New Bill Finally Allow Independent Contractors to Receive “Employee” Benefits?

Employee benefits for independent contractors

In 1983, Journey released the album Frontiers which, as you all know, is not as good as Escape but way better than Raised on Radio. The third song on Frontiers is After the Fall (youtube 80s refresher here), not to be confused with the later-formed Australian rock band, After the Fall (which is not to be confused with the much earlier British post-punk band The Fall, which came before After the Fall, but I digress). The Australian band, After the Fall, featured a drummer named Mark Warner, not to be confused with the Democratic Senator from Virginia, who, incidentally, is not related to John Warner, who was also once a Senator from Virginia.

Mark Warner the Senator recently introduced a bill that relates to the subject of this blog, and so for that, I am grateful, especially since it allowed me to mention the album Escape, which I really liked very much.

Sen. Warner has been trying for some time to gain traction on a bill that would promote portable employee benefits for gig workers. I am solidly behind this idea, as it would provide much more flexibility for independent contractors to carve out their own career paths without forfeiting employee benefits. I never understood why we tie health insurance to employment in this country, but that’s for another day.

Warner’s bill has never gone anywhere but, to his credit, he is trying again.

Last week, he introduced an amendment to a massive appropriations package. The amendment would set up a system to award grants for state and local governments and non-profits. The grants would support the creation of programs to allow portable benefits for gig workers, including health insurance, workers compensation, disability coverage, and retirement savings plans.

I hope the program succeeds. The current legal framework, which recognizes independent contractors and employees but no third option, is not consistent with how the modern gig economy works. If benefits can be de-coupled from employment, as they should be, we may eventually see a 21st century system that allows gig workers to receive insurance, workers comp, and other protections, without having to be reclassified as employees.

Thank you, Sen. Warner. I won’t stop believin.

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Gig Economy Workers Aren’t Saving for Retirement. That Might Cause You to Get Sued.

Gig economy savingsThe Drifters wanted listeners to save the last dance for them. Grand Funk Railroad wanted to save the land (album: E Pluribus Funk!!!). The Sex Pistols wanted to save the queen. Or they wanted God to do it for them. Lazy Sex Pistols.

But what about saving money? Not enough action there. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute found that the median (50th percentile) working-age family had just $5,000 in retirement savings. (Warning: It’s boring Boring BORING, but click here if you dare.)

Workers classified as employees can Continue reading