Like Being Thrown on a Trotting Horse? This Company is Trying Rideshare without Independent Contractors

In 18th Century Europe, common methods for trying to revive drowning victims included throwing the victim onto a trotting horse, dunking in freezing water (ironic?), and my personal favorite, blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum.

These were creative ideas and sometimes they actually worked. The bouncing motion from being on a trotting horse could force air in and out of the lungs, like modern CPR. Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, which causes the brain to release epinephrine, which helps to stimulate the heart to contract.

It’s fun now to look back at how people tried to solve problems when they didn’t know what would happen.

The biggest unknown in the world of independent contractor misclassification is what would happen if rideshare and delivery companies were forced to reclassify all drivers as employees. A well-funded startup in Dallas is attempting to find out.

As reported here, a new rideshare service called Alto just completed a $45 million round of Series B funding. Alto’s model is to use all W-2 drivers and company-owned vehicles. The service currently operates only in Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles, and has announced plans to switch to all-electric vehicles.

Will it work? Who knows.

Is it a viable business model? Who knows.

But in some ways, it’s a test case to see how an industry dominated by the independent contractor model might operate if forced to use all W2 workers. Yes, I know the taxi industry is another comparable. But it hasn’t exactly thrived since the emergence of rideshare. I’m pretty sure that’s not the model that rideshare would look to if force to pivot.

As the old proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. For those keeping score at home, Mothers of Invention was also the name of an experimental rock band in California once fronted by Frank Zappa and which featured tracks such as “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” But that’s for another day.

For now, the rideshare industry continues to operate with its independent contractor model under siege. Widespread conversion of driver contractors to employees would be difficult and would introduce massive disruption in the industry. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s continue to innovate. Sometimes, even being thrown on a trotting horse can be helpful.

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

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Portable Benefits: Soon to Be Available for Mass. Independent Contractors?

This article in The Fox Magazine lists five things you can buy that are portable, even though you wouldn’t think they could be. The list includes toilets, massage chairs, saunas, neck fans, and bedrooms. The description of a portable bedroom goes like this:

Another brilliant innovation from the country that brought us the toilet in a suitcase, you can now buy a portable bedroom which comes folded up in a series of cabinets that look just like regular closets and dressers. Simply open the cabinet and fold out your bed for a super comfortable night’s sleep.

Um, no thanks.

If this article is revised next year, one surprising addition to the list could be Health Benefits for Massachusetts Independent Contractors. A new bill, inspired by California’s Prop 22, has been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature. To my surprise, the three co-sponsors are Democrats.

The bill, H. 1234, would create a exception to the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, but only in the rideshare and delivery industries.

If the bill passes, rideshare and delivery platform companies would be required to offer occupational accident insurance and pay into a portable benefit account for drivers.

In exchange for doing so, these companies would gain assurance that drivers on their platforms are independent contractors under Massachusetts state law. The normal ABC Test would not apply. Platform companies would also be required to follow a few other basic guidelines in their interactions with drivers, including that:

  • Drivers can decide when to work and not work;
  • Drivers’ access to the platform cannot be terminated for declining a specific rideshare or delivery request;
  • Drivers can provide services on multiple platforms; and
  • Drivers can also work in another lawful occupation or business.

The bill is supported by the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work (and, of course, by the gig companies), and it is opposed by the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.

If passed, this would mark a significant exception to the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, which currently presumes all working relationships to be employment, unless:

(A) the individual is free from control and direction in connection with the performance of the service, both under his contract for the performance of service and in fact; and 

(B) the service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer; and, 

(C) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.

Unlike California’s AB 5 (later rewritten as AB 2257), the Massachusetts law does not currently have exceptions for certain industries. Rideshare and delivery services would be the first industries carved out of the Massachusetts ABC Test.

The bill is in the early stages of being considered. It has been referred to the Joint Committee on Financial Services for further consideration. We’ll keep an eye on this one. It’s much more intriguing to me than a portable bedroom or sauna.

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

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Biden Plan: Independent Contractor Misclassification Will Be An Enforcement Priority

Money
Get away
You get a good job with good pay and you’re okay
Money
It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Pink Floyd just gets it. When I was a young lawyer, someone described civil litigation to me as just moving piles of money from one party to another. But that cynical view tells only part of the story. It excludes the emotion, frustration, stress, and workload involved in defending disputes and in dealing with the consequences, which can include destroying an entire business model.

For businesses making widespread use of independent contractors, all of these concerns are about to get worse.

President Biden’s proposed FY2022 budget includes expanding resources to combat independent contractor misclassification. The Administration’s “commitment” to combatting misclassification is spelled out pretty unambiguously on page 15:

The Administration is also committed to ending the abusive practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors, which deprives these workers of critical protections and benefits. In addition to including funding in the Budget for stronger enforcement, the Administration intends to work with the Congress to develop comprehensive legislation to strengthen and extend protections against misclassification across appropriate Federal statutes.

The President’s proposal includes $14.2 billion for DOL enforcement efforts, including to “address the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.” This represents a $1.7 billion increase from 2021.

Expect the Department of Labor to place much greater scrutiny on independent contractor relationships than during the Trump Administration. The nomination of David Weil to head up the Wage and Hour Division signals that the President is serious about this enforcement priority. Weil served in the same role under Obama, and he made independent contractor misclassification a focal point of his enforcement efforts.

If your independent contractor arrangements have not been closely examined recently, it’s time for a check up. $14.2 billion for enforcement efforts is a lot of money. I think I’d buy me a football team.

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

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What Are “Contract Workers”? You’ll Need Some Clarification First.

Did you know that Monaco’s flag looks the same as the flag of Indonesia? The differences are subtle. The Indonesian flag is wider, with a width-to-length ratio of 2:3, compared to Monaco’s 4:5; and Monaco flies a slightly darker shade of red. The flag above is Monaco’s. Fans of Indonesia, don’t be fooled by that pushy sales clerk at the flag store.

Now take your screen and flip it 180 degrees. That’s the flag of Poland. Its proportions are 5:8.

Sometimes, things look the same, even when they’re not. True with flags. Also true with “contract workers.”

When a client starts talking about its “contract workers,” the first thing I want to know is what they mean. Are you talking about 1099 independent contractors? Staffing agency workers employed by a staffing agency? Or your own W2 employees with contracts to work for specific period of time?

Each is as different as Monaco and Indonesia.

If discussing 1099 independent contractors, we’re talking about workers that no one is treating as an employee. The legal risk here is independent contractor misclassification. In other words, are laws being broken by not treating these workers as employees?

If discussing staffing agency workers, we’re talking about someone else’s W2 employees. The issue here is not whether these workers are anyone’s employees. We already know they’re the staffing agency’s employees. The legal issue here is whether these workers are joint employees. In other words, are they employees of both the staffing agency and your company?

If discussing your own W2 employees with contracts for a definite period, we’re probably discussing contract terms and we’ll probably need to see the contract. These are employees but not employees at-will.

The flags of Monaco and Indonesia may look the same, but the countries and their laws are very different. Same thing here. These three types of “contract workers” are as different as a European principality with a population of less than 40,000 and a Southeast Asian chain of islands with a population larger than every country on earth except China, India, and the United States.

Yes, Indonesia really does have the world’s fourth largest population. Fun fact! (And one of the world’s most common flags, tied with Monaco and Poland, as you now know.)

If you’re asked about “contract workers,” be sure you know what you’re being asked about. Any of these three types of worker can be called “contract workers,” but they’re very different, and the legal issues involved are very different too.

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

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Independent Contractors May Have a Weil Problem On Their Hands

Crash Test Dummies is a band from Winnipeg that I really like — especially the 1993 album, God Shuffled His Feet. It’s full of thoughtful questions asked in a booming deep voice. The song In the Days of the Caveman takes a look back, with some keen observations added for good measure:

In the days of the caveman
And mammoths and glaciers
Bugs and trees were your food then
No pajamas or doctors

See, that’s all true and probably not something you had thought about before.

President Biden has given us another reason to look back and reconsider some things you hadn’t thought about in a while. Last week, Biden nominated David Weil to serve as Wage and Hour Administrator. Weil served in the same role under Obama, so we’ve seen that movie too.

Here are some highlights from Weil’s last stint as W&H Administrator:

  • Administrator’s Interpretation 2016-1: Joint Employment under the FLSA, which I wrote about here when it was issued. Weil embraces the broadest possible view of joint employment. The Trump Administration’s DOL rescinded this guidance in 2017.
  • Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1: Applying the FLSA’s “Suffer or Permit” Standard to Independent Contractor Classification, which I wrote about here. Weil advocates an expansive view of employment, declaring that “most workers are employees under the FLSA’s board definitions.”

Here’s what we can expect from Weil 2.0:

  • Increased enforcement activity by the DOL against companies using independent contractors.

Right now, claims generally arise through lawsuits, and class/collective actions present the most danger. The risk of class claims can be limited with arbitration agreements and class waivers. But arbitration agreements provide no defense against a DOL action. Those agreements don’t bind the government. Expect the DOL to go after companies that make extensive use of independent contractors.

  • Increased enforcement activity by the DOL on joint employment claims.

Remember, unlike independent contractor misclassification, joint employment is not illegal. Joint employment is a problem when a primary employer (such as a staffing agency or vendor/subcontractor) fails to comply with some aspect of the FLSA and its wage payment rules. Under a broad theory of joint employment, the company benefitting from the services is going to be liable for the errors of the primary employer, even though the alleged joint employer had no control over the primary employer’s wage practices.

  • New regulations on independent contractor classification and joint employment.

The standards and test keep changing, depending on who holds the White House. One step the Wage and Hour Division can take to try to make its views more permanent is to adopt its views as formal regulations, not just Administrator’s Interpretations. This is what the Trump DOL tried to do for both independent contractor misclassification and joint employment. Expect a strong push by the DOL to adopt new regulations that make it harder to maintain independent contractor status and easier to find joint employment.

The bottom line is that we’re going back in time. Maybe not so far back that bugs and trees were your food then, but back to 2015 and 2016 interpretations of the FLSA. Expect no pajamas or doctors.

What to do about it? Businesses that rely on independent contractors should tighten their agreements now. Businesses that engage staffing agencies should review those contracts now.

These posts contain a few of my favorite tips:

Good luck out there, and beware of mammoths and glaciers.

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

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What Are the I-9 Requirements for Independent Contractors?

The Munker-White Illusion, image by David Novick (UTEP)

This is one of my favorite optical illusions. The spheres here are all beige. They are not red, green, or purple. Look closely and you’ll see. David Novick, a professor of engineering at UTEP, explains the illusion here.

It’s fun to be fooled with optical illusions. But it’s not fun to be fooled with federal immigration law.

Companies retaining independent contractors should remember these key points for I-9s and immigration law compliance:

1. Properly classified independent contractors do not need to complete I-9 forms.

2. Misclassified independent contractor — that is, those who are really employees under federal law — are employees and should have a completed I-9. A multi-factor test is used to make this determination. According to federal regulations, these factors should be considered:

  • Who supplies tools or materials;
  • Whether the worker makes services available to the general public;
  • Whether the worker works for a number of clients at the same time;
  • Worker’s opportunity for profit or loss as a result of labor or services provided;
  • Worker’s investment in facilities for work;
  • Who directs the order or sequence in which the work is to be done; and
  • Who determines the hours during which the work is to be done.

3. Federal law prohibits individuals or businesses from contracting with an independent contractor to provide services in the U.S., knowing that the contractor is not authorized to work in the U.S. [8 U.S.C. 1324a(a)(4)]

4. Staffing agency temps employed by the staffing agency must complete I-9s as employees of the staffing agency. Contracts with staffing agencies should make clear the staffing agency accepts this obligation. If an agency sends a bunch of undocumented temps to your worksite, you might get an unscheduled visit from ICE, which is not a good look.

For those keeping a list at home (wait, that’s just me?), you can add immigration law noncompliance to the list of Things That Can Go Badly When Independent Contractors are Misclassified.

And that’s no illusion.

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

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Breaking News? DOL Rescinds Independent Contractor Rule That Never Took Effect

Remember when TV news was on at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. and that was it? Every once in a while, there would be a Breaking News! alert, and it was always something really important. They wouldn’t interrupt Diff’rent Strokes for just anything. (Bonus points if you remembered there was an apostrophe in the title instead of the first ‘e.’)

But now, with 24-hour news on a dozen stations, everything is Breaking News! – even this story about a New Mexico man who went grocery shopping, then returned to his car to find 15,000 bees in the back seat. (Man walks back into store, returns jar of honey.)

The Breaking News! you’re reading about today is the Department of Labor’s (DOL) latest announcement, rescinding its proposed rule for determining independent contractor status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Click here for the rest, posted by me on Friday on the BakerHostetler Employment Law Spotlight blog.

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

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A Million Dollar Bill? Be Careful Before Relying on the Direct Seller Exemption for Contractor Status

All this cash is available on Amazon for just $13.67!

A Tennessee woman was recently busted for trying to use a $1 million bill to buy a cartful of personal items at a dollar store. The clerk reported the woman to Blount County police, who issued a no trespass order.

That really had no chance of working. Did the woman really think the register at a dollar store had $999,900 or so in change? She did not think that one through too carefully.

Thinking things through is important in all walks of life, including when classifying sales personnel as contractors or employees.

You may have heard that the Internal Revenue Service treats a “direct seller” as an independent contractor, not an employee. But don’t assume all directs sellers are contractors, not employees. Here are two important notes of caution:

First, the definition of “direct seller” is narrow. Here’s what it means, according to IRS Guidance on Direct Sellers:

Direct sellers include any of the following:

  • A person who sells consumer products in the home or a place of business other than a permanent retail establishment,
  • A person who sells consumer products on a deposit or commission basis, or to other persons who will sell the products in the home or place of business,
  • A person who delivers and/or distributes newspapers or shopping guides.

Direct sellers have certain things in common. Their compensation is related to sales rather than to the number of hours worked. Services are performed under a written contract between the seller and the person for whom the seller performs the services.

And the contracts involved provide that sellers are not treated as employees for federal tax purposes.

But wait, there’s more. The Internal Revenue Code also requires, for someone to be a “direct seller,” that:

(B) substantially all the remuneration (whether or not paid in cash) for the performance of the services described in subparagraph (A) is directly related to sales or other output (including the performance of services) rather than to the number of hours worked, and

(C) the services performed by the person are performed pursuant to a written contract between such person and the person for whom the services are performed and such contract provides that the person will not be treated as an employee with respect to such services for Federal tax purposes.

The full statute is here. Further IRS Guidance can be found here.

Second, even if someone is a “direct seller” under the Internal Revenue Code, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically independent contractors under other laws, including federal wage and hour laws state laws.

For example, the FLSA says that “outside sales” professionals are exempt from minimum wage and overtime requirements, but the requirements are different. DOL Fact Sheet #17 explains this exemption.

California’s ABC Test does not apply to “direct salespersons,” but only if those individuals meet the test in California’s unemployment law. Other states have different rules for sellers.

The bottom line when classifying direct sellers is to remember that different tests apply to different laws. Be thorough, and remember that a worker’s classification may be different under federal tax law than under wage and hour law or state law. You’ve got to think this all the way through.

Getting it wrong can be costly, especially for businesses that use lots of independent contractors, and — most important — novelty U.S. currency like million-dollar bills won’t cover those penalties or litigation damages. But, according to the seller of these bills on Amazon, these are the “million dollar bills that get the WOW response.” So there’s that.

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

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West Virginia Adopts Pro-Business Independent Contractor Test

Three Fun Facts about West Virginia:

  1. The New River is actually one of the world’s oldest rivers and, unusually, flows south to north.
  2. The nickname and team mascot for Poca High School in Poca, WV is the Dots.
  3. West Virginia just adopted the most pro-business worker classification test in the nation.

While I would love to write about the Poca Dots, I’m going to focus on the state’s new worker classification test, enacted March 11, 2021. It takes effect 90 days later, on June 9, 2021.

The new test creates a safe harbor. If you comply with a list of requirements, including a written contract, your worker is automatically an independent contractor under WV wage and hour law, anti-discrimination law, workers’ compensation, and unemployment.

The bill nearly had a disastrous flaw. In its original form, passed by one chamber, if you failed to meet the safe harbor criteria, you’d automatically be deemed an employee. That would have had absurd unintended consequences, including that a worker would automatically be an employee if there was no written contract or if the contract did not include all required clauses.

I drafted a last-minute amendment that was adopted and inserted into the bill at the eleventh hour. The amendment said that if the safe harbor was not met, the worker would not automatically be an employee. Instead, the worker’s status would determined by using the 20-factor Right to Control Test in IRS Rev. Ruling 87-41. (The 20 factors are explained here in this PDF from the Texas Workforce Commission.)

The bill is very pro-business.

Businesses retaining contractors in WV should review the safe harbor provisions and be sure to comply. Compliance means a free pass for independent contractor status under state law (but not under federal law). Contracts may need to be adjusted to include the required clauses. Now is the time to do that.

Here is a link to the bill. The blue text contains the safe harbor. Read it closely and make sure these provisions are in your WV independent contractor agreements.

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

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Use a Sea Slug’s Secret Superpower When Drafting IC Arbitration Clauses

Witness: The severed head of a sea slug. Image by Sakaya Mitoh, who performed this awesome experiment.

Did you know that sea slugs have superpowers?

According to researchers at the Nara Women’s University in Japan, if you sever the head of a certain type of slug, the slug can grow a new body, organs and all. I like that as the basis for a new Marvel character. Or maybe the slug is a distant cousin to Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.

The moral of the story is that when a slug loses its head, all is not lost. (This is how sea slugs survived the French revolution.) The same may be true in the context of arbitration agreements for independent contractors. (Come on, that’s a really good segue, isn’t it?)

For independent contractors in the transportation industry, arbitration agreements may be unenforceable under federal law. But all is not lost. In some states, state arbitration law can save the day. That means it’s important to know your state laws and to draft choice of law clauses carefully.

Here’s what I mean:

For companies that work extensively with independent contractors, there are lots of good reasons to require that disputes are resolved in arbitration, not in court. One of the biggest advantages of arbitration is the ability to include a class action waiver, requiring any claimant to bring a case on an individual basis only. No class actions. Class claims are the sexiest of all claims to plaintiff’s lawyers. Individual claims are not nearly as lucrative. Or sexy.

The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) embraces arbitration as an enforceable way to resolve disputes. But there’s a big exception to the FAA. It doesn’t apply to transportation workers “engaged in … interstate commerce.” The meaning of that phrase is unclear, and there are lots of lawyers fighting about its scope. Different courts have come to different conclusions, especially regarding last mile delivery drivers and rideshare. Eventually, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on exactly what this phrase means.

But in the meantime, what if your contractors are arguably “engaged in … interstate commerce”? Are you stuck with a lengthy legal battle over whether your arbitration agreement is enforceable under the FAA?

Not necessarily. Don’t forget about state law. Several states have their own laws embracing arbitration as an enforceable way to resolve disputes, and these state laws generally do not have exceptions for transportation workers.

New York is a good example. Courts in New York have upheld arbitration agreements, even when the workers were arguably transportation workers not covered by the FAA.

Choose your state law carefully, especially if your arbitration agreement might be subject to the FAA’s exception for transportation workers. It’s common to include a “choice of law” clause in contracts, but those clauses are often dropped into contracts without anyone thinking about why a certain state’s law should apply. Those clauses really do matter, and the choice of law section should be carefully considered.

When it comes to arbitration agreements, the choice of law clauses should not be viewed as a boilerplate clause to toss in without careful thought.

The ability to choose a particular state’s law is a real superpower. Use it like a sea slug!

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

Sign up now for the BakerHostetler 2021 Master Class on The State of Labor Relations and Employment Law. Twelve sessions, one hour every Tuesday, 2 pm ET, all virtual, no cost. Click here for more information. List me as your BakerHostetler contact so I know you’ve registered. 

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