I didn’t know who Chrysippus was, but this is top shelf information. He died of laughter after witnessing a donkey eat his figs?!
That would make for one f***d-up game of Clue.
Here’s something that’s not a laughing matter.
Ever wondered why states seem so aggressive in fighting against companies that classify workers as independent contractors? Ok, yeah, there’s the crowd-pleasing pitch that they’re looking out for the little guy, and workers are being denied benefits, and companies are cheating the systems, etc.
But also comes down to money. State governments claim they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in unpaid taxes and unpaid contributions to unemployment and workers compensation funds. This policy brief by the National Employment Law Project cites to 30 state law studies with varying estimates of losses to state coffers.
Are these studies accurate, or are they merely self-serving reports designed to justify misclassification audits? Probably some of both, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. Whether motivated by workers’ rights or bolstering state coffers, states are doing two things to make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.
First, several pending state bills would make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.
Second, states are taking enforcement seriously. Through audits and lawsuits, the states are going after companies directly.
For companies, defending against state action can be a lot harder than defending against private lawsuits. State prosecutors and agencies claim to be fighting for the little guy, and they tend to get dug in with their positions. State prosecutors and agency enforcers get paid the same salary, win or lose, and it can be harder to persuade them that your company’s classifications are legitimate and that they should be spending their limited time and resources elsewhere.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers, on the other hand, are business people and are generally more open to business solutions that are driven by a cost-benefit analysis of how best to use their limited time and resources. A strong set of facts supporting independent contractor classification can lead to a victory in court or can create leverage for a favorable settlement with private litigants. Private settlements can also be reached with no admission of wrongdoing.
The lesson here is that enforcement efforts by state governments are no laughing matter. While a donkey trying to eat your figs may be drop-dead hilarious, an enforcement action by the state isn’t so funny. But it can still kill your business.
This spring has been a bad time for injured civilians who prefer not to be buried alive.
In Peru last month, a funeral procession was interrupted when the 36-year old car accident victim was heard banging on the lid of her coffin, trying to get out. Days earlier the woman had been pronounced dead, in what turned out to be an unfortunate mispronunciation.
In Shanghai, a nursing home mourned the passing of an elderly resident, who was placed in a body bag and sent to the mortuary. As seen in this video taken by a bystander, the mortuary workers unzipped the bag and found the man still moving. He was transferred to a hospital, which seems to me like a more appropriate place for someone still alive.
People may go quiet, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated as dead. The same holds true for individual arbitration agreements. They may exist quietly in the background, but courts can’t just ignore them, as a recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision made clear.
A plaintiff alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), claiming she was misclassified as an independent contractor and therefore was denied overtime pay. She asked the court to treat her lawsuit as a collective action, claiming that other contractors were also misclassified and were also denied overtime pay. In FLSA cases, plaintiffs have to opt in to join the class. The district court approved the distribution of opt-in notices to similarly situated contractors, letting them know about the lawsuit and their right to participate.
The defendant opposed the notices, pointing out that the contractors had all signed individual arbitration agreements that included class action waivers. They couldn’t opt in, the defendant argued, so they should not get the notice. When the court approved the notices anyway, the defendant filed a writ of mandamus with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the appeals court to intervene and stop the notices from going out.
The Fifth Circuit granted the writ and stopped the notices from going out. The Court of Appeals ruled that the arbitration agreements required all disputes to be resolved through individual arbitration, and therefore the contractors could not opt in to the lawsuit. Since they could not opt in, they could not be sent notices inviting them to opt in.
It’s unusual for a Court of Appeals to grant a writ of mandamus. But here, the Court of Appeals recognized that the arbitration agreements were very much alive, even if the contractors who signed them were silent in the background.
This case is a good reminder of the value of individual arbitration agreements with class action waivers. A well-drafted arbitration agreement will require all claims to be resolved on an individual basis and will include a waiver of the right to participate in any class or collective action. The agreement should also deprive the arbitrator of jurisdiction to preside over a class or collective action.
Businesses that rely on independent contractors should check their agreements and consider adding robust, carefully-drafted arbitration clauses.
Arbitration agreements can sit silently in the background for years, but that doesn’t mean they are dead.
Last month in Washington State, at a trailhead on the Olympic Peninsula, a woman dropped her cell phone in a pit latrine. Yes, that’s a flushless outhouse. The woman tried to retrieve the phone using a dog leash, then tried to use the dog leash to support herself as she reached down into the stinky muck. Dog leashes, however, are not meant for such endeavors, and — yes, this really happened — the leash failed. The woman fell head first into the latrine.
Making the best of a shitty situation, the woman found her phone, which she then used to call for help. The fire department rescued her, and the dispatch operator will be telling the story of that intake call forever.
The lesson here is: Know when to get help.
That lesson also applies to your company’s independent contractor relationships. Today’s tip is to set up a Gatekeeper System.
If your company is like most businesses, it’s simpler to contract with outside labor than to hire new employees. Operations managers or a procurement team are the people most likely to approve contracts for services. Because there are no employees being engaged in these contracts, the contracts don’t go to Human Resources, and they probably don’t get reviewed by Legal.
But every contract for services carries a risk that the individuals providing the services may be misclassified. Even if treated as independent contractors, those workers might be your employees under federal or state law. Or, if they’re being treated as employees of the business you contract with, they might be your joint employees. Both scenarios – independent contractor misclassification and joint employment – present legal risks.
But your operations managers or procurement team have not been trained to recognize those risks. They likely have never considered that the people providing those services might be deemed your company’s employees.
To protect against these risks, set up a Gatekeeper System. That would be a policy that says, anytime we retain non-employees to provide a service, there must be a written contract and it must be reviewed by a specific individual, the gatekeeper.
The gatekeeper will be trained to issue-spot and to recognize circumstances that may present an elevated risk of misclassification or joint employment. The gatekeeper can raise concerns with the legal department. Or maybe the gatekeeper is part of the legal team.
Setting up a Gatekeeper System is easy. It’s just a policy requiring a specific layer of review whenever non-employees are retained to perform a service. Make sure everyone authorized to enter into contracts for the business knows of the policy. Then train your gatekeeper to issue spot and to escalate for further analysis when necessary.
The point is that someone needs to know to look out for these risks. You can only protect yourself against the risks you have identified. Once you get sued or hit with an audit, it’s too late.
Just like it was too late for our friend the Washington hiker, who should have asked for help a bit earlier — before getting in over her head.
In the early 80s, I had two cassettes by the Australian band Men at Work — Business as Usual, released in 1981, and Cargo two years later.
Cargo includes the single, “It’s a Mistake,” a satirically upbeat Cold War-inspired song in which a soldier tries to figure out whether the Cold War is about to turn hot. The video features too-short shorts, bad lip syncing, and old ladies hitting the band members with umbrellas on the battlefield, all of which leads to an accidental nuclear launch, triggered when an officer tries to stub out his cigar in an ashtray but hits the wrong button.
All in all — a good song, a mediocre video, and a strong commentary on the politics of the day.
A recent move by the NLRB’s General Counsel revives the “It’s a Mistake” narrative, this time in the context of independent contractor misclassification. There are no accidental nukes involved, but the move is definitely politically motivated.
If the General Counsel has her way, the Board will rule that independent contractor misclassification is an automatic unfair labor practice (ULP), even if it’s a mistake.
To reach that conclusion, the Board would have to overturn its 2019 decision in Velox Express, in which the Republican-controlled Board ruled that misclassifying a worker, by itself, is not automatically a ULP.
The GC’s actions are no surprise. In mid-2021, she issued a strategy memo announcing that one of her strategic (political) priorities was to get Velox Express overturned during her tenure. With the NLRB now featuring a 3-2 Democratic majority, she’s likely to prevail.
What does this mean for companies that use independent contractors?
It means the stakes are higher. If Velox Express is overturned, misclassification of independent contractors would likely become an automatic ULP, even if the classification was well-intentioned. Essentially, there would be strict liability for misclassification.
Traditional remedies for ULPs include back pay and reinstatement, which could mean forced reclassification as employees. The GC has been pushing to further expand the scope of available remedies because, hey, why not.
If your business is hit with a ULP and forced to reclassify workers under the NLRA, good luck trying to maintain independent contractor status under wage and hour laws or other laws.
A reversal of Velox Express, therefore, may have sweeping ramifications, making it much harder to maintain independent contractor status across a broad range of federal and state laws.
The consequences of this expected reversal will be serious — not quite on the scale of nuclear devastation, but worse than old ladies hitting you on the head with an umbrella.
Those who have seen me present on independent contractor issues know that I like to incorporate song references by The Who. There are so many song titles and lyrics that help the presentation flow.
On Tuesday, it’s my turn to co-present at the annual BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law. The session is called Answering Tough Questions About Independent Contractors, Joint Employment and the Contingent Workforce, Using Songs by The Who. The session is free, 2-3p ET on April 5. Register here.
If you join me, you’ll get gems like this when we update you on 2022 developments, such as David Weil’s nomination to serve as Wage and Hour Administrator of the DOL:
Democrats: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Republicans: We won’t get fooled again.
David Weil was the Wage and Hour Administrator in the DOL during the Obama Administration. He published two Administrator’s Interpretations expressing the view that most independent contractors were misclassified and that joint employment should be much easier to establish. He wrote about the problems with the “fissured workforce,” meaning the expansion of non-traditional, non-employee labor. He was not a friend of the business community and especially disliked by the franchising community.
In 2021, Biden nominated him to reclaim that post.
Last week, the Senate voted 53-47 to block the nomination.
In the independent contractor space, it’s been a busy few months for the DOL, and I would imagine the administration would like to fill this role as quickly as possible.
Last month, a federal court took issue with the Biden DOL changing its tune on the Trump DOL’s test for independent contractor misclassification. The court declaredThe Song Is Over and rejected the Biden DOL’s change, reinstating the Trump-era test for worker classification under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). More details here.
In January, the DOL and the NLRB signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which they agreed to share information to combat independent contractor misclassification.
Join me and my colleagues Margaret Rosenthal and Vartan Madoyan on Tuesday for more updates, tips, previews, and Who-themed lyrics. There’s no charge to attend. I’m Free.
I just got back from Miami, where this happened. According to The Miami Herald, a very badass bobcat was caught on video taunting a 120-lb python by swatting at it and eating its eggs. Despite giving up 100 lbs to the python, the bobcat reigned supreme. Unbeknownst to our friends in the animal kingdom, there are easier ways to get an omelet.
This week’s post is also about fighting over who reigns supreme. But this battle is between the FTC Franchise Rule and the ABC Test for determining independent contractor vs employee status. Sounds exciting? (I know!)
In Massachusetts, there is a strict ABC Test for determining employee status. This is the hardest ABC Test to meet in the US. It is the same as California‘s test but lacks the exceptions found in California law.
ABC Tests have been viewed in the business community as a threat to the franchising model of doing business. On one hard, franchisors must exert control over their franchisees to ensure brand consistency. On the other hand, exerting control is a sign of employment and could turn a franchisee into the franchisor’s employee.
In Patel v. 7-Eleven, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was asked whether the ABC Test can be used to determine employment status in a dispute between a franchisor and franchisee. The franchisor, 7-Eleven, argued that the state law test is incompatible with the FTC Franchise Rule and should therefore be disregarded in the franchise context.
The Court ruled that the ABC Test still applies, reversing the earlier decision I wrote about here, in this super fun but now outdated Electric Grandma-themed post.
The Court explained that the FTC Franchise Rule deals with control over the “method of operations,” not control over the method of “performing service”:
“[C]ontrol over the franchisee’s method of operation” does not require a franchisor to exercise “control and direction” in connection with the franchisee’s “performing any service” for the franchisor — the relevant inquiry under the first prong of the ABC test. That the election under the FTC Franchise Rule and the first prong of the ABC test employ the same word — control — does not create an inherent conflict. Indeed, “significant control” over a franchisee’s “method of operation” and “control and direction” of an individual’s “performance of services” are not necessarily coextensive.
I dissent. (Can I do that?)
The lines get awfully blurry awfully fast. The differences the Court relies on are subtle differences. In many respects, control over the operation seems to requires control over how services are performed. Your burger at one franchise looks and tastes the same as your burger at another franchise because the method for making that burger has to be essentially the same. It’s true that the franchisor doesn’t control a franchisee’s schedule or hiring process. But how well will a jury understand that the franchisor’s control is over the “operation,” but not over the “services”?
The Court’s ruling does not mean franchisees in Massachusetts are going to be considered employees now, but it does make it more challenging for a defendant/franchisor to explain the subtle distinctions in types of control.
I don’t know who in this scenario is the bobcat and who is the python, and I certainly don’t know who would be the one eating the eggs. But like the python vs. bobcat confrontation, there’s a definite clash here, and it’s an uncomfortable and confusing situation for everyone. The Massachusetts Supreme Court certainly didn’t do anything to make it easier to apply the ABC Test, and independent contractor misclassification remains a serious risk for franchisors who comply with franchising requirements.
There’s an optical illusion known as a negative afterimage. If you stare at the red dot on this woman’s nose for about 15 seconds, then look at a blank wall, you’ll see the woman on your wall – but in full color and with dark hair. And yet, there is no woman on your wall.
You see what isn’t there because the illusion tricks the photoreceptors in your retina.
Monday’s ruling by a federal judge in Texas also has us seeing what isn’t there – or what was there and then wasn’t there – or something like that, but with respect to the test for independent contractor classification.
In early January 2021, the Trump DOL issued a new regulation that sought to provide clarity on how to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Even though the FLSA is a federal law that is supposed to apply everywhere, different courts around the country used different versions of the FLSA’s Economic Realities Test to make that determination.
Under the new regulation, 29 CFR Part 795, there would be just one test. It was simple, and the same rule would apply all over the country. The regulation was scheduled to take effect March 8, 2021. But a few days before the effective date, the Biden Administration postponed implementation of the new rule. Then in May, they rescinded it. They replaced it with nothing. If you go to the Code of Federal Regulations, there is no 29 CFR Part 795. (Here, try it!)
But Monday’s ruling said to stare a little harder. It’s there.
The court ruled that the Biden Administration’s effort to delay and then withdraw Part 795 was unlawful and violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The delay provided too short a comment period, failing to offer the public a meaningful period to provide input. The withdrawal was improper because the DOL failed to consider alternatives and instead “left regulated parties without consistent guidance.”
Because the delay and withdrawal of the Trump era rule were deemed unlawful, the court ruled that Part 795 did, in fact, go into effect March 8, 2021, and “remains in effect.”
So now you probably want to know what the rule is, since you cannot find it online in the Code of Federal Regulations – at least as of Tuesday night.
The test in Part 795 identifies two “core factors” for determining the independent contractor vs. employee question under the FLSA. If both factors point in the same direction, the issue is generally decided. If the core factors point in different directions, three “other factors” are considered.
• The nature and degree of the individual’s control over the work; and
• The individual’s opportunity for profit or loss.
The control factor supports independent contractor status if the worker “exercises substantial control over key aspects of the work,” including setting schedules, selecting projects, and being allowed to work for others.
The profit or loss factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the worker has the opportunity to earn profits or incur losses based on the exercise of initiative, managerial skill, business acumen or judgment, or based on management of his or her own investments or capital expenditures. Examples of investments may include hiring helpers or buying equipment.
If the two core factors do not determine the issue, three other factors are to be considered:
• Amount of skill required for the work;
• Degree of permanence of the working relationship between the individual and the potential employer; and
• Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production.
Amount of skill required. This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work requires specialized skill or training that the potential employer does not provide.
Degree of permanence. This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work is definite in duration or sporadic. This factor supports employee status if the work is indefinite. Work that is seasonal by nature does not weigh in favor of independent contractor status, even though it’s definite in duration.
Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production. This factor is likely to receive the heaviest criticism from worker advocates. The “integrated unit of production” factor comes from a pair of 1947 U.S. Supreme Court cases. Over the years, this factor has morphed into the question of whether the work is “integral” to the potential employer’s business. Part 795 takes a firm stance here, saying that — based on the 1947 Supreme Court decisions — the relevant question is whether the work is “integrated,” not whether it is “integral.”
This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work is “segregable” from the potential employer’s processes for a good or service. For example, a production line is an integrated process for creating a good. A software development program may require an integrated process for creating a computer program. Work that is performed outside of an integrated unit of production is more likely performed by an independent contractor.
What Happens Now?
First, the DOL can appeal the decision to the Fifth Circuit. We expect that will happen. In the meantime, a stay might be issued or might not be issued.
Second, Part 795 is now in effect, unless a stay is issued.
Third, it’s a fair question how much this really matters anyway. The test was not intended to change the outcome in most instances. It was instead intended to articulate more clearly how these determinations were already being made. The two “core factors” were already determinative in almost all cases, even if courts were not explicitly identifying two factors as being most important. Also, the Circuit Courts of Appeal do not have to adopt the DOL’s interpretation of the test. They can go on using their five-part and six-part tests, or they can apply the Part 795 analysis.
The Part 795 should now be the applicable test. But we shall see.
If you stare hard enough at your handy copy of the Code of Federal Regulations, and then look at a blank wall, Part 795 just might appear.
In this post, we’ll set the bar low. Today’s theme is “Don’t say stupid [stuff].”
Those of you living outside Northeast Ohio may have missed this recent gem. During a city council meeting on whether to allow ice fishing at Hudson Springs Park, Hudson’s mayor opposed the proposal — on the grounds that ice fishing shanties might be used for prostitution.
“If you open this up to ice fishing, while on the surface it sounds good, then what happens next year? Does somebody come back and say, ‘I want an ice shanty in Hudson Springs Park for ‘X’ amount of time?’ And if you then allow ice fishing with shanties, then that leads to another problem. Prostitution.”
Don’t say stupid stuff. After being widely mocked, the mayor resigned a week later.
A similar rule of thumb applies when evaluating your independent contractor relationships.
It’s a great idea to look carefully at those relationships and to examine whether misclassification might exist. But be careful what you put in writing. Don’t write stupid stuff. Emails are a plaintiff’s lawyer’s best friend.
If you think your business might be misclassifying its contractors, you get a gold star for being proactive. (Congratulations! It will look great on your chart on the refrigerator.) But don’t express that opinion in an internal company email. Pick up the phone and call someone. Or better yet, get your legal counsel involved. Not only can you have privileged, non-discoverable email communications with counsel, you can also get helpful legal advice.
Email, IMs, DMs, texts, Slack, and Team chats are all discoverable in litigation. If your business gets sued for misclassifying contractors, you do not want a trove of emails from HR to the CFO saying, “I think we may be misclassifying our contractors” or “I saw Lebowitz’s blog, and I think our contractors are probably employees under the Right to Control test,” or “That California ABC test is a real killer. There’s no way we meet part B.”
Those are helpful thoughts — and you all know I always recommend being proactive about these things — but please, please, pick up the phone instead. Call your CFO. Call your company president. Call your lawyer. Don’t write it in a discoverable email or text or IM or chat. Don’t create evidence that will allow a plaintiff’s lawyer to say, “Not only was this business misclassifying its contractors, but they knew they were doing it. Just look at this email.”
Your good intentions in identifying a possible issue can be used against you. But be careful how you communicate that concern. Say it, don’t write it.
I like long songs. For the last several weeks, I have been starting my workday with the Pink Floyd album Atom Heart Mother on my headphones. The opening track is 23 minutes, and the album ends with “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” a 13-minute journey that includes lines like “um, flakes” and “marmalade, I like marmalade.”
Long litigation, on the other hand – I’m not a fan. When I was an associate, I worked on a healthcare fraud case that lasted about 8 years. Not fun.
The legal team at Sleepy’s LLC probably doesn’t like long litigation either. Hargrove v. Sleepy’sLLC is an independent contractor misclassification case that was filed in 2010. The case has been to the Third Circuit twice already and went to the New Jersey Supreme Court on the certified question of what test should be used to determine employee status under New Jersey wage and hour law. I wrote about that 2015 ruling here in a post that also takes an admiring look at one menu option at an ice cream parlor in Dania Beach, Florida. (Partial spoiler: ABC Test. But you’ll have to read the post to see about the menu option.)
This case is back in the news after a new set of rulings.
After 12 years, the court issued a decision last week to grant class certification and to deny the defendant’s motions to dismiss. These are issues that are typically resolved in the first several months of a case.
The point here is to show you how long and complicated an independent contractor misclassification case can become. This is not straightforward litigation, and there are so many legal issues that can dominate the underlying dispute — questions, for example, about class certification, class size, jurisdiction, standing, and which legal test to use for deciding whether misclassification exists.
This case is a good reminder of the importance of getting your independent contractor arrangements reviewed and your contracts revised. Preventive steps taken now can help avoid lengthy litigation later. Lengthy litigation is no fun for anyone.
But I do like long songs, and if you pay close attention, you can appreciate the careful and elaborate construction of a track. Put on your headphones if you want to catch every subtle sound.
There’s no reason our maps are oriented the way they are, with Australia at the bottom and Canada near the top. There’s no right side up in space, and we could just as easily think of the world with Australia on top, in the middle.
Same with our way of deciding Who Is My Employee? The process for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor doesn’t have to be the way Americans conduct that analysis.
Two High Court decisions this month in Australia highlight a key difference between the American approach and what is now the new Australian approach.
In the U.S., courts look past the written contract and analyze a worker’s status based on the actual facts of the relationship.
The Australian High Court says the U.S. approach is upside down.
In two highly publicized decisions, the Australian court ruled that the contract establishes the rules of the relationship and therefore also determines the worker’s status. In one case, the agreement said the work would be controlled by the hiring party. By contractually reserving the right to control the work, the hiring party inadvertently made the worker an employee. The court still looked past the fact that the parties called the worker an independent contractor, but the court said the contractual requirements of the relationship — the terms and conditions — controlled the outcome.
The other High Court case involved two truck drivers. Their contracts exhaustively set forth terms preserving their flexibility to work for others and to control how their work was performed. Their contracts also called for the drivers to use their own equipment, which involved a significant investment by the drivers. The court overruled a lower court decision that deemed the workers to be employees. The lower court focused on actual control exerted by the hiring party. But the High Court said the contract controls and, in this case, the contract established requirements consistent with independent contractor status. It is up to the parties to follow the contract, but the contract establishes the independent contractor relationship.
There are lessons for American companies here too.
While under U.S. law, the actual facts of the relationship control whether the worker is an employee, the independent contractor agreement is an opportunity to memorialize the helpful facts. That’s why off-the-shelf templates in the U.S. are of no value. (Hot tip: Google & Bing is not a law firm.) See related posts here and here, including how to discomfit a bear.
An independent contractor agreement in the U.S. should be drafted with the particular facts of the relationship in mind. Does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done? If so, put that in the contract. The worker controls when and where the work is performed, and the hiring party has no right to control when and where.
If the worker’s status is challenged, you want the contract to be a helpful piece of evidence. You want to be able to say to a court: Not only does the worker get to decide when and where the work is done (or insert other factor), but the contract forbids us from controlling that.
In the U.S., contract terms like that will be persuasive evidence, but only if the actual facts align. In Australia, the contract sets the rules, and the parties are in breach if they fail to follow the rules established in the contract.
But no matter where you sit, and no matter which way your map is aligned, companies should view independent contractor agreements as an opportunity to build the case that an independent contractor is properly classified.
By planning ahead and drafting carefully, you can maximize your chances of coming out on top.