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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Voters Would Reject This Flight Option, But They Could Change Independent Contractor Law in California This November

Expensive flight

A few years back, I found myself headed to the Houston airport earlier than expected after a business trip. I decided to check my phone to see whether I could get on an earlier flight back home to Cleveland.

Turns out I could — for $52,270. For coach. There was also a first class seat available. For $69,570.

I declined and decided to wait the three hours for my originally scheduled departure. But for good measure, I took this screenshot because, hey, why not.

Taking the earlier flight would not have been a good use of my money. The real subject of this post is about five app-based companies who are making much better use of their money.

With app-based companies under constant attack through independent contractor misclassification claims, and with California’s new Assembly Bill 5 making it even harder to classify people as independent contractors, the major providers are fighting back.

They’ve pledged $110 million to support a ballot initiative in California that would redraw the lines in the Employee vs. Independent Contractor debate — at least for rideshare and delivery drivers.

Under current federal and state laws, a worker is either an independent contractor or an employee. It’s binary. Employees get lots of protections. Contractors get almost none. There’s no third category that would allow rideshare and delivery drivers to operate independently while receiving a minimum level of legal protection.

This proposed initiative would change that. The law would create new rules for app-based transportation providers and drivers in California.

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.

The initiative needs 625,000 signatures to appear on the November 2020 ballot in California. I expect they’ll get the signatures, and then the media campaign will kick into high gear. Expect TV and radio ads, billboards, and a heavy social media push to garner support.

If the ballot measure passes, that will have been money well spent — a much wiser use of resources than for some dodo to pay $52,270 to take an earlier flight home from Houston. The proposed law would create a fairer and more predictable set of rules for drivers and companies, and it should substantially reduce the rampant misclassification lawsuits in the rideshare and delivery driver area.

I’ll be watching for similar proposed legislation in other states. And I’ll be watching airfares too, before I switch any future flights.

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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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Dead or Not Dead? Schreiber Lives On, But California’s New ABC Test Is Temporarily Killed for Owner-Operator Truckers

Prison dead independent contractor ABC TestWhen Benjamin Schreiber was sentenced to life in prison for clubbing a man to death with the wooden handle of a pickaxe, he probably expected to die in prison. But then fate intervened. Or did it?

In 2015, Schreiber fell severely ill in the Iowa State Penitentiary and had to be resuscitated five times. Schreiber then filed for post-conviction relief. He argued that he did, in fact, die in prison. Since he had to be resuscitated, he must have died, which means that he had successfully completed his “life sentence” — just before being resuscitated.

The argument failed. The judge ruled, “Schreiber is either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot.”

The decision did not say how many points Schreiber was awarded for creativity.

Two time zones west of Iowa, the California Truckers Association had better luck in its effort to kill California’s new ABC Test for independent contractor misclassification, at least as far the law applies to owner-operator truckers.

On December 31, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, preventing California from applying the new ABC Test to owner-operator truckers.  That means, for now, the question of whether an owner-operator trucker is an employee or an independent contractor must still be determined under the S.G. Borello balancing test in California, not the strict new ABC Test.

This is just a preliminary injunction, not a final ruling, so it is subject to further review even at the district court level, before the inevitable appeal.

The winning argument (for now) is that the law imposing the new ABC Test, Assembly Bill 5, is preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA).  The FAAAA preempts state law that affects the price, route, or service of any motor carrier with respect to the transportation of property.

The federal circuit courts of appeals are split on whether the FAAAA preempts state independent contractor laws as they relate to owner-operators in the transportation industry.  The 7th and 3rd Circuits have held that there is no preemption.  The 1st Circuit has held that there is preemption.

Ultimately, the question is likely to be settled by the Supreme Court.

For right now, the balancing test has been resuscitated for owner-operator truckers, but only a little bit like Mr. Schreiber’s resuscitation.

Hopefully, the stay will remain in effect until the case makes its way up the appellate ladder. And hopefully, dead is dead when it comes to the ABC Test and owner-operators.

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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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