Stop Making Sense: California Companies Can Be Liable for Not Following Rule That Did Not Yet Exist

Sometimes things stop making sense. And I’m not referring to the 1984 Talking Heads album, which included “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House,” and other songs least likely to be used in an episode of Sesame Street.

No, when I say things “stop making sense,” I’m thinking more like dogs climbing ladders, pigeon-eating catfish, or Nazi Russian goats. Seriously mind-bending facts. The stuff that makes you question what was in those brownies.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling today falls in that category. Remember the 2018 Dynamex decision? That’s the one where the Court invented a new ABC Test for deciding whether someone was an independent contractor or an employee under California wage and hour law. Ever since then, companies have been trying to figure out whether that made-up test would apply retroactively. In other words, would California hold companies liable before 2018 for not following a test that did not yet exist until 2018?

After today’s decision in Vazquez v. Jan-Pro, we now know the answer: Of course! It’s California. Even companies not in the fortune telling industry should have known what legal standard the justices were going to invent. And of course it’s fair to hold companies liable for failing to comply with a standard that, before 2018, did not exist anywhere in California law. If Johnny Carson could figure out what was in that envelope (“seersucker“), California business should have been able to figure out what legal test the California Supreme Court would make up in 2018.

The Court reasoned that it’s normal practice for a decision to apply retroactively and said it’s only fair for the decision to apply to everyone retroactively since Dynamex didn’t see it coming either. The Court rejected the common sense notion that it would be unfair to apply the test retroactively, even though courts across California had — for years — applied the multi-factor Borello balancing test when determining employee vs. independent contractor status.

One saving grace may be that the Dynamex decision is now almost three years old, so statutes of limitation for wage and hour claims are running out. Most wage and hour claims in California must be brought within three or four years of the violation, depending on the claim asserted.

I can’t say this decision is surprising. But I couldn’t say the knife-wielding squirrel featured in the last blog post was surprising either. It’s a crazy world out there, folks. Sometimes it’s best to just stay home and watch Veep, which once seemed too outlandish to be believable.

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Employee Benefits for Contractors? Don’t Overreact to New DOL Rule (or to Knife-Wielding Squirrels)

Terror in the backyard! Screen grab from @asdiamond on twitter

A knife-wielding squirrel was seen patrolling a backyard fence last week, according to this article in the Toronto Sun. Here’s the video evidence. Fortunately, no one took action and no one overreacted. The squirrel reportedly gnawed on the knife a bit, lost interest, and dropped it to pursue other squirrel-related passions. Everything turned out ok.

Not overreacting is important. Get all the facts, and look at the big picture before deciding whether to take action.

Same with the new DOL regulation on determining in dependent contractor status, first reported here.

This week I’ve seen two articles saying that, under the new rules, providing employee benefits to independent contractors does not tilt the scales in favor of employee status under the new rules. No, no, no! If you’ve seen that commentary, please disregard it. It is an overreaction, and if you provide traditional employee benefits to an independent contractor, that’s a sure sign of misclassification.

Now, let’s break that down a bit. Yes, it’s true that in the commentary to the new rule, the DOL indicated that providing some types of benefits to an independent contractor does not necessarily mean the contractor is misclassified. (As you will all undoubtedly recall from reading all 261 pages of the DOL commentary, that’s on pages 58-59.) But — and there’s a big but (one t) — it does not mean that you can freely start giving employee benefits to contractors.

First, let’s not overstate what the DOL is trying to say. The DOL is not saying you can provide traditional employee-type benefits to contractors, the same way you do for your employees. The DOL is saying that it’s not automatic misclassification under the FLSA if you provide a contractor with extra money for the contractor to help fund his/her own benefit plan, such as through the healthcare.gov exchanges.

Second, let’s not forget the very narrow scope of the DOL’s new rule. The new rule applies only to the FLSA. That is, it applies only for determining whether someone is owed overtime and a minimum wage. And here’s the important point: The FLSA and the new rule and the new test have nothing to do with determining independent contractor vs. employee status under federal tax and benefits law.

The test for determining whether someone is an employee under federal tax and employee benefit law is a Right to Control Test, not the FLSA Economic Realities Test addressed in the new rule. If you add your contractor to your regular employee benefit plan, you have almost certainly created an employment relationship under those laws. Or, perhaps worse, you could disqualify your plan by providing plan benefits to a non-employee.

Under either scenario, providing regular employee benefits to an independent contractor is a very bad idea under current federal law. In short, don’t do it.

Hopefully, federal law will eventually change to allow independent contractors better access to employee-type benefits without converting them to employees for all purposes. But we are a long way from there.

In the meantime, let’s not overreact. As for the new rule, Biden might invalidate it anyway before it is scheduled to take effect March 8.

As for knife-wielding squirrels, don’t confront them directly. You’ll just make them angry and more determined and–as you can see in this video–squirrels can be pretty darn creative when they are determined to get something.

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Snapshot or Long Exposure? Dep’t of Labor Approves New IC Test … For Now

Say cheese! Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
(Note: This post was updated on 1/6/21)

This octopus in New Zealand has been trained to take photos of visitors to the Sea Life Aquarium. That’s a pretty neat trick. I’m sure the visitors love it and will pay whatever exorbitant fee the aquarium charges to profit on the back of its cephalopod slave labor, but do the photos last? Do the visitors keep them, or do the pictures end up in the circular file at home?

Some photos are cherished and kept. Others, not so much.

So which category will the DOL’s new independent contractor test fall into — cherished and kept? Or not so much?

As reported here, in September 2020, the DOL published a new proposed rule for how to determine independent contractor vs. employee status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The DOL has been rushing to publish the new rule before Inauguration Day 2021, in case of a change in the Oval Office.

Now facing that change, the White House on Monday approved the proposed rule, and this morning the Department of Labor released the new rule. It takes effect on March 8, 2021–unless it doesn’t. The Biden administration’s incoming press secretary, Jen Psaki, has already said the new administration would try to kill this one in an early executive order. We’ll see how that plays out.

Meanwhile, whether the new rule goes into effect or not, the FLSA analysis for independent contractor vs. employee should not really change anyway. The new rule is essentially a repackaging of how the courts have already been applying the FLSA test. While Democrats have protested the new rule as an attempt to make it easier to classify someone as an independent contractor, I don’t see it that way. I see it as a clearer way to articulate the test that has been applied for years.

Once Biden takes office, there are so many things he’ll want to undo, he’ll need more hands than an octopus has legs, so this one might not quite hit the top of the list. We’ll continue to monitor the status of this proposed new rule, including whether and when it actually takes effect.

In the meantime, if you can get to New Zealand anytime soon, there’s an octopus that would like to snap your picture. Happy New Year!

© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Today’s Tip: Beware of Multi-State Issues (and Rudolf is a girl?!)

Neil deGrasse Tyson broke the news last week that Santa’s reindeer must be female, since they still have their antlers in the winter. Mind blown: Rudolf is a girl. #girlpower

It seems like should have figured that out earlier. Sometimes things are not as they seem. So let’s play some reindeer games.

Assessing independent contractors status isn’t always as it seems either. Do you pass the IRS Test? Congratulations, but that tells you nothing about whether your relationship meets state law tests. Did you win an unemployment claim on the basis that your contractor was not your employee? Congratulations, but that tells you nothing about whether your relationship has contractor status under federal wage and hour law.

To determine whether an independent contractor relationship is legitimate requires you to look at multiple tests across multiple laws across multiple jurisdictions.

Companies that retain contractors across multiple states should pay particular attention to the differences among multiple states and across multiple laws. The same relationship can be deemed employment under one test and independent contractor under another.

For example, in my home state of Ohio, the analysis of whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee is subject to a long list of competing legal standards:

  1. Federal Income Tax: Right to Control (IRS factors)
  2. Ohio Income Tax:  Follows IRS
  3. ERISA, ADA, Title VII, ADEA: Right to Control (Darden Test)
  4. Affordable Care Act: Right to Control (Treasury Regs.)
  5. FLSA: Economic Realities Test
  6. NLRA: multi-factor hybrid/right to control test
  7. OH Unemployment (ODJFS): IRS old 20-Factor Test
  8. OH Workers Comp / Construction: Need 10 of 20 old IRS Factors
  9. OH Workers Comp / Other: Ohio Right to Control Test
  10. OH Discrimination (RC 4112): Ohio Right to Control Test

The complexity is similar in every state.  In Illinois, the list is about as long, but with different state law tests and standards:

  1. Federal Tax: Right to Control (IRS factors)
  2. ERISA, ADA, Title VII, ADEA: Right to Control (Darden Test)
  3. Affordable Care Act: Right to Control (Treasury Regs.)
  4. FLSA: Economic Realities Test
  5. NLRA: multi-factor hybrid/right to control test
  6. IL Unemployment: ABC Test
  7. IL Wage Payment & Collection Act: ABC Test
  8. IL Workers Compensation: Various factors, including control, relationship to company’s business
  9. But, if Construction, then Employee Classification Act:
    – Presumption is employee,
    – Then apply ABC Test,
    – Then apply 12-factor test to prove sole proprietorship or partnership is IC

And there are 48 more states just like these (but different).

So bottom line: Just like you can’t make assumptions about your reindeer’s gender based on its name, you can’t make assumptions about your contractor’s status based on what you call the relationship. You’ve gotta check the antlers — or the appropriate law.

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

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Buckle Up? Why The Gig Economy Should Love Biden’s HHS Pick

Back before seatbelts were a thing, Sears sold this handy Auto Strap for Front-Seat Tots. Tie your toddler to some part of the car, and drive carefree! What could go wrong?

Ok, things have changed a bit when it comes to driving. Seatbelts and airbags seem to have carried the day. Things have also changed quite a bit in the modern workforce, with the gig economy pushing aside traditional employer-employee work relationships.

Something important just happened to help California gig economy companies, and it’s gone under the radar. Biden named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his pick for Health & Human Services. Why should gig economy companies care who Biden’s HHS pick is? Because naming Becerra to HHS means Becerra will no longer be California’s Attorney General. And that’s good new because a key part of Becerra’s agenda as State AG had been to knock around gig economy companies as much as possible.

Becerra tried to sabotage Prop 22 by giving it a misleading description on the ballot, but voters saw through it and passed the measure anyway.

Becerra has been the driving force behind California’s lawsuits against ride share companies, trying to force them to reclassify drivers as employees.

But now, assuming he gets confirmed, someone else will take over as California AG. Hopefully it will be someone with less of an anti-gig economy agenda than Becerra. We’ll see. But for now, this pick seems to be good news. I don’t know what he’ll do as HHS Secretary, but I know what he won’t do as HHS Secretary, and that’s to pick fights with companies who help to keep the gig economy strong.

So strap in and let’s see what this new ride will bring. Just be sure to use a seatbelt, not a $1.88 standing harness.

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

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Statue or Statute? When Defending a Misclassification Claim, Don’t Forget a Limitations Defense

I took this photo in Paris. Creepy, isn’t it?

When a New Zealand man was caught snooping around with a torch at a building where he didn’t belong, someone called the authorities. When the local police arrived, the man was still there but still as a stone. He was pretending to be a statue.

The ruse failed, and the man was taken into custody.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that elaborate ruses don’t make good excuses.

The same can be said for a group of movers who claimed that a moving company had misclassified them as independent contractors and denied them a minimum wage and overtime. The federal court hearing the case, however, threw it out because the movers filed too late. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the statute of limitations on federal minimum wage and overtime claims is two years — or three years, if willful. These plaintiffs filed well after the deadline had passed.

The plaintiffs didn’t go away quietly, however. Knowing they had missed the deadline, they first tried some creative arguments as to why the court should toll — or extend — their deadline to file.

First, they argued that they the moving company had tricked them into thinking they weren’t employees and had no FLSA rights, since the moving company told them they were independent contractors. Sorry, the court ruled. If that were an excuse, there would be no statute of limitations in misclassification cases. The deadline to file would get tolled every time, and that’s not gonna happen.

Second, they argued that the moving company failed to provide the required posters that notify employees of their rights. Again, no dice. Independent contractors aren’t entitled to employee notices, so if the company thought the workers were contractors, there obviously wouldn’t be notices. This too would apply in every misclassification case and cannot be grounds for tolling the filing deadline.

Finally, they argued that they were immigrants and shouldn’t be held responsible for not knowing the rights under US law. The judge wasn’t buying that one either. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, especially when the plaintiffs were basing their lawsuit on the very law they claimed to be ignorant of.

This case dealt with statutes not statues, and despite spellcheck’s frequent failure to see the difference, there is a difference. Anyway, the excuses by the statue guy and the movers were similarly unimpressive. The movers’ case was dismissed for failure to file within the statute of limitations, and the court never even considered whether the workers were actually misclassified.

Companies facing misclassification claims need to remember to review statutes of limitation. A claim filed too late is destined to fail, so long as the company raises that defense.

And I still can’t believe the New Zealand guy thought he could go unnoticed by holding really really still. I’d love to see the body cam footage from when the officers moved in and caught him. Swatting away the pigeons on his head probably gave him away.

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

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Discomfit a Bear? Here’s a Quick Tip To Improve Your Independent Contractor Agreements

In this story from the Illustrated Police News, 1877, we see the courageous exploits of a young lady from Runcorn, England, skillfully discomfiting a bear with her parasol. Now, I question whether this really happened as captioned. The caption says she punched the bear in the eye with her parasol, but this artist’s rendering depicts more of a body blow, so I’m not sure which to believe. But either way, as you can see, the bear was discomfited and this atypical encounter ended well.

In this instance, a parasol was more than a mere umbrella. It served as a defensive weapon.

The lesson here is that objects we take for granted can be used as a defensive weapon with some proper planning. That includes your independent contractor agreements.

Independent contractor agreements should not be generic, off-the-shelf documents. Every agreement is an opportunity to build your defense against a claim of independent contractor misclassification.

Think about all of the factors that go into determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. For a refresher, you can review some earlier posts on Right to Control Tests and Economic Realities Tests. Also here.

On factors where are you do not exert control and do not need to exert control, put that in the contract. Put in the contract that the contractor controls these factors and you have no right to control them.

For example, do you care what time of day the contractor works? Do you care if the contractor retains helpers? Do you care whose tools the contractor uses?

If not, put that in the contract: The contractor decides when to work, whether to hire helpers, and what tools to use. There are dozens more factors like these to consider. The point is to customize your agreement so that it is defensive weapon to help fend off a claim.

Then go a step further and put in the contract that you have no right to control these decisions. Remember, the Right to Control tests generally focus on whether you have the right to control something, even if you don’t actually exercise that right.

If you use your agreement to memorialize the good facts—those that support independent contractor status—then you can turn that agreement into a defensive weapon.

The agreement might not help if confronted with a bear in Victorian England (“here, read this contract while I run!”), but it may help to discomfit an independent contractor misclassification lawsuit.

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

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Say Say Say: How Not to Bungle an Independent Contractor Relationship

Remember the 1983 song, Say Say Say, by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson? “Say, say, say what you want. But don’t play games with my affection.”

The songs asks for some straight talk. Be direct. Say what you mean. Or as Michael says, “What can I do girl, to get through to you. Cause I love you, baby (baby).”

1983 was a memorable year for me for music. I had a cassette called CHART ACTION 1983 that was one of my favorites. It included songs from Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Adam Ant, the Stray Cats, Bonnie Tyler, and Golden Earring.

But it didn’t have Say, Say, Say, and that was fine by me because I don’t really like the song. If it was on CHART ACTION 1983, I’d have skipped it, but the old fashioned way: forward, forward more, a little more, oops too far, rewind, rewind, forward, got it. Hungry Like the Wolf.

“Say say say what you want” would have been good advice for a Pennsylvania agency that offered interpreter and transcription services. The agency tried to run its business with an independent contractor model, but failed to say say say the right things in its agreements.

A Pennsylvania court ruled that the agency had misclassified its interpreters as independent contractors. Under PA unemployment law, the interpreters were actually employees. (“You know I’m crying oo oo oo oo oo.”)

Let’s look at where the agency went wrong.

Bad facts, tending to support employee status: The interpreters had a set of policies and procedures they had to follow, including wearing name badges. The agency did the scheduling.

Good facts, tending to support contractor status: The interpreters are not supervised, reimbursed for their expenses, or provided benefits, training, equipment, or name badges. An interpreter could refuse work at any time.

Totally unnecessary bad fact: The interpreters had to sign a non-compete agreement. That’s evidence of employment because it restricts the interpreter’s ability to work for others as an entrepreneur would do. But it turns out that, in reality, the agency didn’t care if the interpreters worked for others, and many of the interpreters did work for others.

Even worse, the non-compete included language referencing an “existing contract of employment.” Oops. Poor choice of words when you’re trying to prove there was no employment relationship. I would bet that the agency just pulled this non-compete language off the internet, without having considered the legal implications. The court focused a lot of attention on the non-compete when ruling that the interpreters were really employees.

The non-compete was a self-inflicted wound. That misstep is a good example of why you can’t just pick template agreements off the internet and expect that they’ll be sufficient.

More bad facts were on the website: Another problem for the agency was its website, which described the extensive training provided to interpreters, referred to them as “new hires,” and indicated they were all required to undergo a final performance evaluation. These facts all suggest an employment relationship.

Pennsylvania unemployment law applies a two-part test for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. To be an independent contractor, the service had to prove that it did not exercise control (a Right to Control Test) and that the interpreters were “customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.”

This could have been done correctly. Because of the independent nature of an interpreter’s work, the agency probably could have set up legitimate independent contractor relationships. This case is a classic example of how a proactive legal review could have saved the day.

If the agency had asked a lawyer for help in setting up the business the right way, this case could have gone the other way. The agency could have eliminated the non-compete agreement (which it didn’t enforce anyway), modified the website to eliminate “new hire” language and to de-emphasize training, cut back on the specific training provided, and changed the name tag requirement to a more generic requirement to provide identification.

So to the song I say say say: You may have hit #1 in the U.S. that October, but I’m not the one who really loves you.

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

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Election News: California Voters Adopt Prop 22; Kentucky Voters Elect Dog as Mayor

Zippy evaluates the candidates.

Some elections are more consequential than others. It can be tough to lose, but in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, the candidates for mayor are probably indifferent to the outcome. Even the winner probably doesn’t do a lot of mayoring.

That’s because the mayor of Rabbit Hash is a dog. Since 1988, the mayor has always been a dog. This year’s winner is a six-month old French bulldog named Wilbur Beast. Wilbur succeeds incumbent Brynneth Pawltro, a pit bull who has served since 2016.

Click here for an adorable photo of the winner.

In other election news (in case you were wondering whether there was anything else happening in the category of elections), voters in California passed Proposition 22. Prop 22 will allow ride share and delivery drivers in California to maintain independent contractor status, so long as the app companies provide a suite of predetermined benefits. Read more here.

That means the ABC Test in AB 5 will no longer apply to ride share or delivery drivers in California. The new exemption does not apply to other industries.

Look for intense lobbying from other industries to obtain similar treatment. Hopefully Prop 22 serves as model legislation and will adopted elsewhere throughout the country.

There was intense lobbying in the Rabbit Hash race too. Wilbur Beast’s owner, Amy Noland, told CNN that the dog had done a lot of campaigning and had hosted a lot of events.

According to the Rabbit Hash Historical Society, “The people of Rabbit Hash generally elect mayors based on the candidates’ willingness to have their belly scratched.” Based on my informal survey of other recent political races, this appears to be a anomaly.

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

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Time: More than Just a Pink Floyd Song (and Here’s What Happened This Week with Independent Contractor Cases)

The day after turning our clocks ahead, we find it’s easier to get up early to not commute to work, to not drop the kids off at school, and to not be late for any meeting you’d ordinarily attend in person since there are none. Welcome to pandemic-style Standard Time.

A bit of Daylight Savings Time trivia for you: In January 1974, the whole country went on DST for what was supposed to be 16 straight months in response to the energy crisis. But the people resisted, complaining about school kids waiting for buses in the dark, and Congress repealed the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Act in October 1974.

Today, Arizona and Hawaii are the only states that do not observe Daylight Savings Time, although in a sense they do observe it but just choose not to participate, sort of like how most of us observed school dances in junior high from inside the gym but far from the dance floor.

Today’s post takes a look back in time, but only a very brief look back because I’m going to recap events from last week. It was a busy week in the courts for independent contractor misclassification issues.

  • The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in a case invoking an independent contractor trash collector whose leg was amputated after a garbage truck ran it over. The garbageperson (sanitation worker?) had been retained through a staffing agency as a 1099 IC, and the issue was whether worker’s compensation coverage was available.
  • A pair of drivers in California lost their motion seeking a temporary restraining order against Uber, seeking to prevent the company from texting drivers to ask them to support Prop 22. (Read more on Prop 22 in last week’s post).
  • A group of cable installers in Illinois won approval to proceed as a class in a case alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors. The plaintiffs claim they were really employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and are owed overtime pay.
  • A Missouri appeals court ruled that a company’s pet sitters were employees under Missouri unemployment law, not independent contractors. The court applied a Right to Control Test.

In 1908, the town of Thunder Bay, Ontario (then known as Port Arthur) was the first place to adopt Daylight Savings Time. Regina, Saskatchewan followed in 1914; and Winnipeg and Brandon, Manitoba adopted DST in 1916. Germany and Austria jumped on the DST bandwagon in 1916, turning the clocks ahead to minimize the use of artificial lighting. The UK and France followed shortly afterward, although I am sure if you asked, they would say they got the idea from Canada, not the Germans.

I find it confusing that we shorten Daylight Savings Time to DST, but we use EST, CST, MST, and PST to refer to Standard Time—in other words, the times when we’re not using DST.

So confusion reigns with the clocks, just as it does with independent contractor misclassification issues. I hope you enjoyed your extra hour of sleep on Sunday.

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

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