Here’s a Tip a Cartoon Cat Would Love: Try This Edit to Your Independent Contractor Agreements

Independent contractor misclassification cat“Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!” Yes, boys and girls, I am talking about Felix the Cat, whose magical bag of tricks could be transformed to get him out of any treacherous situation. Don’t you wish you had one of those?

Well, I won’t share mine, but I can offer this tip, which may help you avoid a treacherous situation.

This weekend I was reading a California decision on independent contractor misclassification. (I do other, more fun things in my free time too, so don’t make fun. Ok, you should make fun a little.) While analyzing Right to Control factors, the court ruled that the worst fact for the business was that it could terminate the contractor at will. The ability to terminate a relationship at will, the court ruled, was the “ultimate” form of control! Really? I agree it’s a factor among many, but the “ultimate factor”? Come on.

Anyway, this problem is easily avoided with some creativity. Allow me to reach into my bag of tricks.

If your relationship with a contractor is for an indefinite time period and you rely on work orders to describe each project, consider a one-year term instead. No, not a one-year term with auto-renewals unless the parties give notice. That’s too close to an indefinite term. Allow the one year term to expire. But…

Add a provision that, after the one-year term expires, if you offer a new work order and if the contractor accepts a new work order, then acceptance of that new work order constitutes an agreement to renew the independent contractor agreement for another year.

This variation on the auto-renewal approach requires the parties to take an affirmative act to renew the agreement — the offer and acceptance of a new work order. And this approach also allows you to maintain that the relationship with the contractor is project-by-project (one work order at a time).

The main agreement does not have to be terminable at will. No need for that. If each project is defined by a work order and you’re not satisfied, then don’t offer any new work orders. The agreement itself does not have to be terminated.

If your independent contractor’s tasks are not defined by work orders, then this solution might not work for you. But if your contractor picks up work one work order at a time, this can be a helpful little maneuver.

No guarantees here, but I like this approach better than the indefinite agreement. Contracts of indefinite duration are definitely a negative factor in the Independent Contractor vs. Employee analysis, even though most courts would not be as fixated on that fact as this particular court was.

Now I am going to turn my bag of tricks into a helicopter.

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

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Don’t Wear Pajamas to Work: Be Careful Using “Statutory Minimum” Workers Comp Clauses in Subcontractor Agreements

Pajamas - Independent Contractor Agreements and Workers Compensation ClausesHave you ever had the dream where you show up at work or school in your pajamas or underwear? You’re exposed and embarrassed in the dream, and you can’t figure out why you forgot to put on regular clothes, right? (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s had this dream. Please?)

You may be living this dream inadvertently in your vendor or subcontractor agreements. (And this is not what people mean when they say, “I’m living the dream!”)

Here’s the problem:

It’s commonplace in vendor and subcontractor agreements to include a section requiring insurance. You might require $1 million in commercial liability coverage, for example. Insurance clauses usually (and should) require the vendor or subcontractor to carry workers’ compensation coverage too. But sometimes these clauses are written in a way that may leave you exposed. Here’s an example:

“Subcontractor agrees to provide workers’ compensation coverage to its workers in the minimum amount required by law.”

You’re good, right? Depends on the state — and the circumstances.

The “minimum amount required by law” may be none.

First, if the worker retained by your vendor or subcontractor is its independent contractor (and not its employee), then there is probably no coverage required at all. State laws impose standards for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee, but usually there is no requirement to provide any coverage to a true independent contractor.

Second, even if the worker is your vendor’s employee, the “minimum amount required by law” in the state might be none:

In Texas, for example, workers’ compensation coverage is generally optional. The minimum amount required by law is none.

Several states do not require employers to carry coverage unless they have a minimum number of employees. According to this chart from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), an advocacy organization for small businesses, the following states require employers to provide workers’ compensation coverage only if they have at least this number of employees:

VA – required if 2 or more
GA, NC, WI – required if 3 or more
RI, SC – required if 4 or more
MS, MO – required if 5 or more

Some states have different requirements for construction and non-construction businesses:

NM – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 3 or more
FL – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 4 or more
TN – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 5 or more

In some states, such as Ohio and New York, workers’ compensation might not be required for sole proprietors who have no employees other than themselves.

So what does all this mean for your agreements?

1. Depending on how your contract is written, you might be wearing pajamas to work. In other words, your agreement might leave you exposed, inadvertently, since the minimum amount of required workers’ compensation coverage for your vendor or subcontractor’s employees might be “none.”

2. Please don’t rely on the thresholds I have listed above. I have not examined the workers’ compensation laws state-by-state and I am merely listing state law summaries from the web. I have not checked these for accuracy. Check the laws in your state and check with legal counsel.

The point here is that the state-minimum required amount of coverage might be “none.” Things can go south for your business in a hurry if your vendor or subcontractor has insufficient coverage. If one of their workers is severely injured, the worker may bring a lawsuit against your business as an alleged joint employer. If the injury is severe enough and there is no workers’ compensation coverage, liability could be in the millions.

Keep this risk in mind when drafting the insurance sections of your vendor and subcontractor agreements. Draft carefully, and be sure you are fully covered.

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

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Court Rules that New Jersey is a Goat (sort of): a Note on Forum Selection Clauses

goat independent contractor misclassification forum selection clause Mary Kay caseThe Monty Hall puzzle is a brain teaser based on the game show, Let’s Make a Deal. The contestant is presented with three doors and must choose one. Choose the correct door and win a car. Choose either of the wrong doors and win a goat. (Note to rural readers: The puzzle is a first-world conundrum and assumes you’d prefer the car.)

Once the contestant chooses, the host opens one of the doors with a goat and asks the contestant whether he wants to stay with his original choice or choose the other unopened door. As explained here, the contestant should always switch doors, since switching provides a 2/3 chance to win. The math here is not intuitive, but read about it and you’ll understand.

The gimmick relies on the fact that the host knows what’s behind each door and will only reveal a door that hides a goat. The host never reveals a car.

When drafting multi-state independent contractor agreements, be the host, not the contestant. You want to know what’s behind each door and choose knowingly — and that leads us to choice-of-law and forum selection clauses.

One of the lessons reiterated throughout this blog is that the tests for Who Is My Employee? (i.e., Independent Contractor vs. Employee) vary substantially among the states. Some state laws are much more favorable for businesses than others. Massachusetts and California, for example, are the goats.

Businesses that use independent contractor agreements across multiple states should consider the advantages of inserting a forum selection clause and choice of law provision. Know what’s behind each possible door and then select, in advance, which state’s law will apply and where any lawsuit between the parties must be brought. If these terms are in an Independent Contractor Agreement, courts will generally (but not always) defer to the parties’ contractual agreement, so long as the selected state has some reasonable connection to the parties’ relationship and is not contrary to the state’s public policy. (Sorry, you can’t pick Hawaii just because you like pineapples.)

A recent case out of New Jersey demonstrates the usefulness of these clauses.

A group of New Jersey independent contractor beauty consultants attempted to sue Mary Kay, alleging independent contractor misclassification and violations of New Jersey wage law. They filed the lawsuit in New Jersey, which the plaintiffs’ bar likens to a shiny new Escalade. Mary Kay, however, sees New Jersey as a goat and knew ahead of time that New Jersey was a goat. On the well-known Car vs. Goat Continuum (ed. note: not actually well known at all), New Jersey employment laws are relatively pro-employee. The company therefore included in its Independent Contractor Agreement the requirements that any litigation be brought in Texas, that Texas law applies, and that any complaint must be recited aloud in court using a voice imitating Ross Perot, circa 1992. (The last part might be unenforceable.)

In response to the lawsuit, Mary Kay pointed to the contract and asked the court to move the case to the Lone Star State. Despite the plaintiff’s protests, the court honored the contract and sent the case southward. The plaintiff appealed that decision but lost. The Court of Appeals ruled that it was proper, under the circumstances, to honor the choice of law and forum selection clauses and to move the case to Texas.

Businesses using independent contractors across multiple states should strongly consider inserting choice of law and forum selection clauses into their contracts. (Arbitration agreements can be an even better option, but that’s for another post.)

Avoid the goats. They’ll eat anything, including your cash.

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

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Why I Can’t Give You a Template Independent Contractor Agreement

Independent contractor vs employee template independent contractor agreement - generic independent contractor agreement - IMG_1112I am often asked for a sample Independent Contractor Agreement. I do a lot of work in this area, so I should have plenty, right? Well, sure, I have drafted dozens, but they won’t do you much good.

A generic Independent Contractor Agreement that includes a few boilerplate recitals is of little value. A generic agreement probably says something like, “We all agree that you’re an independent contractor and not an employee. We won’t pay employment taxes for you. We’re not paying into your Social Security account or providing you workers’ comp or unemployment coverage. We’re not giving you benefits. You’re lucky if we let you breathe the air in our building. No, you know what, bring your own oxygen tank. You can’t use our air. You agree to all of this and you’ll like it. And Thank you sir, may I have another?

As discussed here, applying the wisdom of a Dave Mason song, merely agreeing to be classified as an independent contractor doesn’t mean the worker is one. The determination of Independent Contractor vs. Employee is based on the facts, not what the parties agree. Remember: You can’t just agree to not to follow tax law, employment law, and employee benefit law. If the facts say the worker is an employee, then the worker is an employee — no matter what the agreement says.

So why even have an Independent Contractor Agreement?

Lots of reasons — if it’s customized to fit the facts of the relationship. Use the contract to highlight the facts that support independent contractor status. When drafting a meaningful Independent Contractor Agreement, consider the tests that might be applied to determine if the worker is really an employee or an independent contractor. These include Right to Control Tests, Economic Realities Tests, and ABC Tests, among others.

If the worker determines when and where to do the work, what days to do the work, whether to hire helpers, what equipment to use, etc., those are all facts that support independent contractor status. Put that in the agreement!

Or better yet, if you do not intend to exercise control over those decisions, don’t just write in the Agreement that the contractor gets to decide these things. Write that the business has no right to control these things. It’s a “Right to Control” Test you need to be concerned about. There is no “Exercise of Control” Test.

Independent Contractor Agreements can be helpful in memorializing a legitimate independent contractor relationship and can be valuable evidence in a hearing or trial if the worker’s status as an independent contractor is challenged. But they are helpful only if they are customized to fit the facts of the relationship.

Generic recitations of independent contractor status are of little value. They’re the Canadian pennies of the contract world. Make your Independent Contractor Agreement work for you.

© 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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Court Serves Up Reminder that Contractors Can Be Properly Classified and Misclassified – At The Same Time.

elephant-reminder pennsylvania court joint employment joint empoyer construction workplace misclassification act

A recurring theme in this blog has been that when trying to determine Who Is My Employee?, there are different tests under different laws. Different tests can yield different results.

A recent court decision from Pennsylvania emphasizes this point. In the Keystone State (proud home of Dunder Mifflin and Hershey Park), contruction workers are considered employees for workers compensation purposes unless they (i) have a written contract, (ii) have a place of business separate from their general contractor’s site, and (iii) have liability insurance of at least $50,000. This strict test is courtesy of the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (CWMA), an Act whose name shows a disappointing lack of creativity.

I might have gone with “Construction Occupation Workers’ Act Regarding Designations In Classifying Employees” (COWARDICE) or “Law About Misclassifying Employees” (LAME) or, if I was hungry for shellfish, then maybe “Construction Law About Misclassification for Builders And Keeping Employees Safe” (CLAMBAKES).

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, that whack-a-doodle misclassification test for construction workers. As my loyal readers know, that’s not even close to the tests used for determining Employee vs. Independent Contractor under most other laws. Other more common tests, like Right to Control Tests or Economic Realities Tests, rely on entirely different factors and weigh them, rather than requiring three specific factors to be met.

The court noted that the CWMA test was very different from the common law test and that the result under one test was not necessarily going to lead to the same result under the other test.

So remember, the task of deciding whether a worker is misclassified is hard and no fun. The task of writing names for laws, however, should be embraced with joy and creativity.

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

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Michael Jackson Says: Be Sure Your Subcontractor Agreements Require Adequate Insurance

Insuracne subcointractor agreement independent contractor clauses agreements IMG_1096The Michael Jackson song, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” has all kinds of lyrics I can’t understand. No matter how many times I listen to that song, most of it sounds unclear to me, like nonsense syllables.

The one part of the song that is clear, though, is the title. That one phrase is repeated over and over. Leaving aside (for now) the unintelligible parts of the song, the King of Pop unwittingly provided a good lesson on insurance clauses for subcontractor agreements.

(Note to readers: I looked up the real lyrics, and they have nothing to do with subcontractor agreements or insurance clauses, but they might as well since I still can’t understand them.)

Subcontractor agreements typically include an indemnification requirement and an insurance requirement. The subcontractor is required to indemnify your business against certain types of claims and must require sufficient insurance to cover those claims.

But how much insurance is enough?

That varies, of course, depending on the scope of the engagement and the responsibilities undertaken by the subcontractor. But don’t leave the amount and types of coverage to the subcontractor’s discretion.

Types of required insurance often include general commercial liability, automobile, and workers compensation coverage. Minimum amounts, though, should be specified. It does you no good to have a contractual agreement for indemnification if the subcontractor lacks the financial backing to pay up. You may end up with a bankrupt contractor and a worthless indemnification agreement.

I often see $1 million or $2 million per occurrence for general commercial liability. Workers compensation clauses often refer to “statutory limits,” but some states, like Texas, do not have statutory coverage requirements, so the term “statutory limits” in Texas might be meaningless.

Provide some specific requirements for coverage amounts and don’t stop til you get enough.

Now about the song, did you know these are actual lyrics?

  • Keep on with the force, don’t stop.
  • I was wondering, you know, if you could keep on, because the force it’s got a lot of power.
  • I’m melting (I’m melting) like hot candle wax.

Sounds like a tribute to the Star Wars exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s.

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

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