Silver Linings? DOL Looks to Adopt New Independent Contractor Test Before Year End

canoe

The past few months have included many silver linings — more family time, a Lake Michigan vacation, and professional cornhole on TV. I’ve also learned new things — governors have more power than I thought, remote work is more doable than many of us thought, and there’s such a thing as professional cornhole.

Now the Department of Labor wants us to learn something new too — about independent contractor status. (Too many long dashes so far? I’m flagging myself for excessive use.)

Last week the DOL published a notice that it intends to fast-track a new regulation covering the test for independent contractor vs employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

What would that test look like? The DOL gave no hints, but here is my educated guess.

The test for independent contractor status under the FLSA is an Economic Realities Test.  That is a court-created test, it’s well-established, and it’s not likely to change. If the DOL did try to change it, I don’t think the courts would follow the new regulation anyway. So the DOL is going to have to work more around the edges.

I expect the regulation to define more precisely the factors to be taken into account under the Economic Realities Test. Right now, different courts use different versions of it. Some uniformity would be helpful.

I also expect some examples to help illustrate how the factors should be applied. Look for sample fact patterns that seem like close calls but perhaps would be deemed supportive of independent contractor status under a new DOL interpretation.

We can expect the DOL will gently place its fingers on the scales, making it a bit easier to maintain independent contractor status under the FLSA. Don’t expect a full rewrite of the test.

The DOL will want to implement the new rule quickly, in case a new administration takes over in January. Look for a proposed regulation shortly, a quick public comment period, and a new regulation on the books late this year.

Hopefully by the time we see a final rule, we can watch real sports on TV and demote cornhole to livestream only. That way both people who care could still watch.

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

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Here’s a Question I Was Asked Three Times This Week (and the Answer)

Zippy sunset Charlevoix

Zippy on vacation

The word “sunset” can be used to signify many things. My personal favorite is the one pictured here. That’s Zippy enjoying the view this past weekend in Charlevoix, Michigan.

Another meaning of Sunset” is to fade out or to discontinue. That’s the meaning I’m after here.

One question came up multiple times this week, with some slight variations. Here it is, along with the answer.

Question:  When the pandemic began, we laid off an employee. We now have some work for that employee, but not as much as before. Can I bring back the employee as an independent contractor?

Answer:  Sunset that idea. Let it fade away. Discontinue that thinking. Probably not.

Any time the same individual receives a W-2 and a 1099 in the same calendar year, red flags go up. It’s a strong indicator of misclassification. If the worker’s work was employment before the pandemic, it’s almost certainly employment now — even if the hours are reduced or the recall is for a limited time.

Remember, the Employee vs. Independent Contractor question is answered by looking at the facts related to the work and how it is performed, regardless of what the parties call the relationship. If you’re bringing back an employee to perform similar work, you should probably be bringing that employee back as an employee.

In the IRS’s handbook for Worker Classification Determinations, the Service instructs its agents that when a worker has received a W-2 and a 1099 in the same year, the agent is to perform a full status review. It’s a likely sign of misclassification. Also, you probably don’t want the IRS to do a full anything.

There may be situations where it’s ok, such as if the laid off worker quickly established her own business, advertised to the public, secured other clients, and wants to bring on your business as a new client. But it’s pretty unlikely all that has happened since March.

The pandemic has given us all enough to deal with. Let’s not add a misclassification claim to the list of concerns.

Remember, it’s ok to bring back an employee as a part-time employee, or for a limited time with a projected end date. But retain the worker’s status as an employee.

And for those looking to get away during the pandemic, I highly recommend finding a beach house on Lake Michigan. Can’t beat these views!

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

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New Seattle Sick Pay Law for Gig Workers: Squishy or Full of Venom?

jellyfish

Horrifying images not intended to scare children. Thanks, PBS Learning.

I learned this week that a species of jellyfish found off the coast of China, Japan, and Korea can weigh up to 440 pounds. There’s a video here, and the size of this thing is terrifying.

In Finding Nemo, I learned that you can bounce on the fleshy heads of jellyfish without getting stung, and this creature has an abundantly fleshy head. The tentacles, though, are a different story. There are a lot of them. So the lesson here is that when approaching a Nomura’s Jellyfish, as they are called, be thoughtful in how you approach.

Which brings me to the City of Seattle. Seattle has been relentless in looking for ways to provide gig workers benefits of some kind, without getting caught up in the Independent Contractor vs. Employee question. The city has been aiming to grant gig workers certain rights, whether they are employees or not.

Seattle’s strategy is to aim for the jellyfish’s head, not wanting to get caught up in the tentacles of a dispute over whether the gig workers are employees or not.

In its latest head shot, Seattle has enacted an ordinance requiring transportation network companies and food delivery network companies (app based) to provide paid sick time to gig workers who perform services in Seattle. The requirement applies regardless of whether the workers are contractors or employees. The law was signed on June 12, 2020.

This move may signal a new strategy for states and localities that wish to provide benefits to gig workers. They can require benefits for gig workers, regardless of whether the workers are deemed employees.

This approach, if it works, may introduce other problems for app-based companies.

If companies start providing benefits such as paid sick leave to workers they consider to be independent contractors, that fact could be used against them as evidence the workers are being treated as employees.

In other words, this ordinance sets a trap. App-based companies will still be able to argue that they are providing sick leave only because they are required by local law, but surely the plaintiffs’ bar will argue that providing sick leave is evidence of employment status.

It’s a dangerous game, trying to bounce of the heads of the squishies while avoiding the sting. We’ll see how it plays out. In the meantime, obey beach hazard signs and try to avoid getting stung.

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

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New Rules for Drivers? California’s ABC Test Could Change Again in 2021

Worst parking.jpg

Rebellious? Indifferent? Clueless? I’m still trying to understand how this car thought it was ok to take up FOUR parking spaces in the parking lot at a Walgreens near my house.

Any one of the spaces seems suitable for a car of ordinary proportions. I have parked in most of these four spots before, and my experiences were uniformly positive. I’d give four stars to each spot. Reliable, met expectations. Near enough to the store entrance. Picking just one of the four would be an excellent way to start your shopping experience.

When people don’t like the rules they’re expected to follow, one approach is to try to change the rules. That’s what ride share and delivery app companies are doing in California.

Late last month, these companies achieved an important milestone, reaching the 625,000 signature threshold for a November ballot initiative that, if passed, would change the test in California for determining Employee vs. Independent Contractor. The measure will now appear on California ballots, giving voters the chance to override A.B. 5 for ride share and delivery app companies.

If the initiative passes, the new ABC Test would not apply to workers in the app-based rideshare and delivery business. Instead, those workers could stay classified as independent contractors, but the app-based companies must ensure that the drivers receive a predetermined level of compensation and benefits, including:

  • Earnings Minimum. The measure would require app-based companies to pay at least 120 percent of the minimum wage for each hour a driver spends driving—but not time spent waiting for requests.
  • Health Insurance Stipend. The measure would require rideshare and delivery companies to provide a health insurance stipend of about $400 per month to drivers who regularly work more than 25 hours per week (not including waiting time). Drivers who average 15 driving hours per week but less than 25 driving hours would receive half as much.
  • Medical Expenses and Disability Insurance. The measure would require that companies buy insurance to cover driver medical expenses and provide disability pay when a driver is injured while driving.
  • Rest Policy. The measure would prohibit drivers from working more than 12 hours in a 24 hour period for a single rideshare or delivery company.
  • Other. The measure would require that rideshare and delivery companies have sexual harassment prevention policies and conduct criminal background checks and safety training for all drivers. It also would prohibit discrimination in hiring and firing.

The measure would also prevent cities and counties from passing further restrictions on driver classification.

I wrote more about this bill here, leading the post with a harrowing flight selection option offered on my United app.

So if you‘re reading this post from the Left Coast, get out and vote in November. You can make a meaningful change in the way that California approaches the question of Who Is My Employee? In the meantime, drive safe, wear your mask, and park within the lines.

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

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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.

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Take a Hike? Not This Time. CARES Act Offers Unemployment Help for Gig Workers

61C63C40-A3B8-41A8-A458-1545EB3168E8While coyotes invade San Francisco and wild boars torment Barcelona, things are a bit quieter here in Cleveland.

Last weekend, I took a few hours off from the nonstop advising on all things COVID-19 and went on a hike with my family at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about half an hour from my house.

But then it was back to work, and back to keeping up on all the latest COVID-related legal developments, and there are a lot. One item of note for independent contractors and gig workers is the new CARES Act, passed earlier this week.

While unemployment insurance coverage traditionally has not been available for independent contractors, the CARES Act makes it possible for self-employed contractors to obtain coverage.

Hopefully this is a small first step toward allowing independent contractors to obtain more benefits without converting them to employees. The binary system we have — either you’re an employee or an independent contractor — generally means all or nothing. That’s why so many state legislators are trying to convert contractors to employees — so these workers can receive benefits and other protections that the law provides to employees but not to contractors.

There’s a better way, such as the path forward proposed by five gig economy companies in California, with a measure that hopefully will appear on the November 2020 ballot.  (You can read more here.)  We need a middle ground that allows self-employed contractors to remain contractors, while allowing them to obtain some of the benefits that employees receive.

The trail I went on last weekend was a loop. It ended right back where it started. Hopefully the CARES Act is a small step in a new direction, and we can move away from the binary legal choice we’ve been stuck with for decades.

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

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How Does the Families First Act Apply to Independent Contractors?

Families First Act Independent Contractors

Hungry for more COVID-19 info? I can help with that, but if your hunger pangs are for something more exotic — say, deep-fried bull testicles — I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck. Deerfield (Mich.) American Legion Post 392 has cancelled its 19th annual Testicle Festival, leaving festival supplier Dennis Gerth with 330 pounds of bull testicles in his freezer. That’s my 2020 submission if anyone is giving out awards for Sentences I Never Thought I’d Write.

Yes, the coronavirus is affecting society in ways we never imagined. Last week, Congress offered some relief to workers affected by the virus. While the new law doesn’t help Gerth or his ball-filled freezer, it does provide paid leave for employees of most small businesses.

But what about independent contractors?

The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act provides up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for employees unable to work (or telework) for childcare reasons and up to 80 hours of paid sick time to employees unable to work (or telework) for six specified reasons.

Trying to apply the Act raises a lot of questions. Many are addressed here, in a conversational tone that acknowledges this is awfully confusing. But this post will focus on how the Act applies to independent contractors.

Do Independent Contractors Get the Benefits of the Act?

No. The Act provides paid sick leave and expanded Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave only to employees, and only if their employer has fewer than 500 employees.

How Does the Act Differentiate Between an Employee and an Independent Contractor?

Ah yes, the age old question of Who Is My Employee? The Act uses the definitions of “employee” in the FMLA and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FMLA uses the FLSA definition, so let’s focus on that.

The test for whether an independent contractor is really an employee under the FLSA is determined by using an economic realities test. This is a different test than the ones used for determining whether someone is an employee under tax, unemployment, workers compensation, and many other federal and state laws.

The economic realities test generally looks at these factors:

  1. The extent to which the services rendered are an integral part of the principal’s business.
  2. The permanency of the relationship.
  3. The amount of the alleged contractor’s investment in facilities and equipment.
  4. The nature and degree of control by the principal.
  5. The alleged contractor’s opportunities for profit and loss.
  6. The amount of initiative, judgment, or foresight in open market competition with others required for the success of the claimed independent contractor.
  7. The degree of independent business organization and operation.

This list is from DOL Fact Sheet #13, but it’s worth noting that different courts define the factors differently. Know your jurisdiction. Another commonly used listing of the factors can be found here.

The more independent the worker is from the business retaining his/her services, the more likely the worker is properly classified as an independent contractor.

How Could this Issue Arise?

With the economy in a cornoravirus-induced tailspin, lots of employees are losing their jobs, and lots of independent contractors are losing their engagements. When the income stream stops flowing, people look for a way to reopen the faucet.

Independent contractors might file unemployment claims. We’ve discuss the dangers of that here. They might also be tempted to file lawsuits claiming they’ve been misclassified. A successful claim could mean they’re entitled not only to the benefits of the Families First Act, but also potentially to unpaid overtime and other benefits that employees can receive.

Times are tough, and livelihoods are at stake. As contractors lose more work, we’re likely to see an increase in independent contractor misclassification claims. And that’s no bull.

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

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Here’s a Simple Way to Self-Audit Your Company’s Independent Contractor Misclassification Risk

yawn

The most boring concert I ever went to was Genesis, in the Orange Bowl, Miami, 1987. The sound quality was terrible, and the band just didn’t seem that into it. My dad, who was there with me, was so bored he pulled out a newspaper. (Yes, that means he anticipated being this bored and brought a newspaper, but he was not a Genesis fan. He went for me, which is something a good dad just does.) [Also: Hi, Dad, I know you’re reading!]

Three years earlier, Phil Collins released Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now). The song did really well, but he did not play that song or any other solo songs at the 1987 concert. I know this because… wait for it…  the internet! Yes, the set list from that March 1, 1987 show is posted here.

Segue please? Ah yes, take a look at me now.

One of the simplest ways to check your exposure to independent contractor misclassification claims is to perform a self-audit. (Take a look at me now!)

Get a printout of all 1099s your company issued last year. Is the list mostly LLCs? Or individual names? Focus on the individuals’ names, especially the ones who were paid the most. What kind of services did these individuals perform? Did they do something similar to what your W-2 employees do? Did they work side-by-side with your W-2 employees?

Have they been providing services for years? Did they used to be W-2 employees of your company?

Do they have contracts with your company? Are those contracts any good? Are they specific enough, and do they memorialize the good facts (those that support independent contractor status)?

It’s labor-intensive to do a comprehensive self-evaluation of your risk of independent contractor misclassification claims, but for rough back-of-the-envelope estimating, this can be a pretty useful exercise.

I hope it helps.

That’s All.

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

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Lost Chicken, Very Friendly: 2020 IRS Tips on Independent Contractor Status Are Now Available

Years ago, I signed up for the Next Door app, thinking it might be helpful to hear about things going on in my neighborhood. Most of the posts I see are useless — Can anyone recommend a good restaurant? Is it gonna snow tonight? Does Solon have any good proctologists?

I was ready to unsubscribe but just hadn’t gotten around to it. But then, last week, I got the post that made it all worthwhile:

36204067-6829-41E5-8647-D9C3FF88FABC

I should have clicked “Thank,” because I really do want to thank D. from South Central Solon for that post. The best part, of course, is the armchair psychoanalysis of Lost Chicken’s personality: “Very friendly.” (Lost Chicken also scores high for empathy and teamwork.)

Also known for being “Very friendly” is the IRS. New for 2020 is the Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide, also known by its catchier, more taxlike moniker, Publication 15-A. Please don’t take my copy. You can get your own here.

Publication 15-A includes a section on independent contractor misclassification. It reminds employers that the IRS uses a Right to Control Test, which evaluates factors related to behavioral control, financial control, and the type of relationship of the parties. The specific factors are listed.

To improve readership, the IRS offers several helpful hypotheticals to illustrate the Independent Contractor vs. Employee conundrum, using memorable characters such as Vera Elm, an electrician; and Helen Bach, an auto mechanic. (But I see Helen Bach as more of a resurrected doomsday cult leader. I’m going to assume that the person who wrote this hypothetical pulled one over on the supervisor who approved it. Well played, IRS writer. Well played.)

Publication 15-A provides other helpful tips for employers at tax time. Get yours now, while supplies last. I’m going to offer a few extra copies on the Next Door app.

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

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When The Rules Do Not Apply: Freelancers’ Lawsuit Challenges California’s New ABC Test

piano IMG_2111

I was headed to an appointment last week when I came upon this sign. Sometimes the people who make the rules just assume the rules don’t apply to them. Or sometimes people don’t even think about the rules and whether they make sense.

I was tempted to take the sign off the piano, in the interests of following the directive on the sign. But I just took a picture instead.

This post is about when the rules should apply.

Since California’s new ABC Test law (Assembly Bill 5) went into effect January 1st, the legal challenges have been rolling in. (See this post, for example.) The latest groups to challenge the new law are freelance writers and photographers.

Wanna know something absurd? Of course you. We all do. That’s why we read the internet on our phones during meetings. Under the new law, freelancers are exempt from the ABC Test — and can likely remain independent contractors — if they make 35 or fewer submissions to a publication in a year. But with the 36th submission, the ABC Test suddenly applies, meaning that same freelancer would more likely become an employee, retroactive to the first submission.

What is so special about the 36th submission that would convert a freelancer from an independent contractor to an employee? All together now: “Nothing!” This law is ridiculous. A newly filed lawsuit asks a court to invalidate that limit on the basis that it is arbitrary, which it absolutely is. The lawsuit alleges that the arbitrariness violates the freelancers’ Equal Protection and First Amendment Rights.

Freelancers don’t want to be employees for two reasons.

First, works created by contractors are owned by the contractors, who can license the works and earn a fee. That’s how they make money — and is the reason why freelance journalists are all so rich. (That’s for my daughter, who’s in journalism school and doesn’t eat ramen noodles. Yet.) In contrast, under the U.S. Copyright Act, works created by an employee are owned by the employer. That means the freelancer who created the work loses the rights to it. So, if we apply the new rule, that would mean Submission #36, which likely converts the freelancer to a retroactive employee, also converts ownership of Submissions #1-35 to the employer. No way that’s fair.

Second, for every action there’s a reaction. Publishers are not stupid. They don’t want freelancers to become their employees either. So what will they do once a freelancer hits the 35-submission limit? They won’t accept any more submissions. That hurts the publication and the freelancer. Or maybe they will want some freelancers to become their employees so they can commandeer ownership of Submissions #1-35. Either way, this is absurd.

If you’d like to read more, here’s a copy of the complaint. The lawsuit is pending in federal court in the Central District of California.

And please don’t place anything on top of the piano.

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

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