Garbage Bird? Don’t Get Poisoned By A Double Hit of Misclassification and Joint Employment

Photo: Benjamin Freeman/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

The natives of Papua New Guinea call the hooded pitohui a “garbage bird,” and they don’t eat it or touch it. As Westerners learned more recently, there’s a good reason for the islanders’ hostility.

The hooded pitohui is the first bird confirmed to be poisonous. The bird‘s feathers emit batrachotoxins, which causes numbness and burning in low concentrations. A heavier does can cause paralysis, cardiac arrest and death. In other words, there’s good reason for keeping the hooded pitohui off the menu.

Numbness and burning may also describe the impact of a recent DOL enforcement action on two contractors in Louisiana. They were dealt a double hit—the DOL found independent contractor misclassification and joint employment.

After an investigation, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division found that hundreds of painters and drywall workers had been misclassified as independent contractors. The company that retained the workers, PL Construction, failed to pay overtime and failed to maintain accurate time records, both violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Adding to the pain, the DOL found that a higher tier contractor, Lanehart, was the workers’ joint employer. That meant Lanehart was jointly liable for the violations—even though it had no control over PL Construction’s pay practices.

The DOL recovered more than $240,000 in overtime back wages for 306 workers.

There are several lessons here, both for companies that retain independent contractors directly and for higher tier contractors that engage subcontractors that use ICs.

1. The DOL considers independent contractor misclassification an enforcement priority. The agency is actively looking for violations.

2. The DOL publishes its wins. That means you can expect a press release naming and shaming your company if the DOL finds that there’s a practice of misclassifying workers. Have you heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? It’s not true.

3. Higher tier contractors are taking a risk if they put their head in the sand and disregard misclassification by their lower tier subs—especially if they plan to direct the work of the lower tier sub’s workers.

Here, the DOL found that Lanehart, the higher tier contractor, supervised PL’s workers and maintained records of who worked when. Lanehart’s supervision and direction made it a joint employer of PL’s workers. Under the FLSA, a joint employer is fully liable for wage and hour violations, even where it had no control over how the lower tier sub paid its workers.

4. A lawsuit is not the only way misclassification claims arise. Federal and state agencies can initiate investigations too. And while arbitration agreements with class action waivers can prevent class action litigation, they can’t stop a federal agency from pursuing claims on its own.

The DOL made its position pretty clear in its press release: “Our investigation shows the costly consequences employers face when they or their subcontractors fail to comply with the law. When we determine a joint employment relationship exists, the Wage and Hour Division will hold all responsible employers accountable for the violations.”

Misclassification hurts. Joint employment doubles the pain. The DOL can inflict an uncomfortable burning sensation, even without sending a a hooded pitohui your way.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Watch Your Back, AB 5! Ninth Circuit Case Could Wipe Out California’s ABC Test

Yes, that’s a goat on my back.

This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.

We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.

Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.

The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.

While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.

Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and other situations.

Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.

The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.

We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.

AB 5, watch your back.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Watch Your Back, AB 5! Ninth Circuit Case Could Wipe Out California’s ABC Test

Yes, that’s a goat on my back.

This weekend we tried goat yoga. Highly recommended. It was a mix of basic yoga (my kind of yoga) to help get me stretched out, but held in a pen with goats who know no boundaries.

We then toured the farm, which featured llamas, long-haired pigs, guinea hens, a few obligatory dogs, and several varieties of goats, including the kind of fainting goats featured in that George Clooney movie.

Having to watch my back during yoga was something I signed up for and was part of the fun. Not so for California’s AB 5, which should be watching its back after what we saw at the Ninth Circuit last week.

The Ninth Circuit held oral argument in a case brought by Uber called Olson v State of California. Uber is arguing that AB 5 is unconstitutional.

While it’s hard to predict cases based on oral argument, the three judges on the panel seemed pretty sympathetic to Uber’s argument, which is that the statute arbitrarily picks winners and losers, i.e., the exemptions make no sense from an equal protection/due process standpoint.

Unlike the strict ABC Test in Massachusetts, the California ABC Test codified in AB 5 (and later AB 2257) contains loads of exceptions. The statute says to use the ABC Test to determine employee vs independent contractor status for all workers — except for dozens of categories of workers and various other situations.

Let’s not pretend. We all know this bill was written to target ride share and delivery app companies. The unfairness of making this law apply to everyone soon became apparent and led to the insertion of dozens of exceptions. If an exception applies, the Borello balancing test applies instead of the ABC Test.

The exceptions just about swallow the rule, and a law targeting a handful of companies presents constitutional problems. Or so the argument goes.

We can expect a decision in the next few months, and this is one to watch. Unlike me at goat yoga, imagining a decision that strikes down or severely limits AB 5 is not a big stretch.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Hear This: Ballot Measure to Limit Mass. ABC Test is Blocked

Have you heard? There’s a baby goat in Pakistan who may have set the world record for Longest Ears by a Goat. The ears are each 1.6 feet long. Which also means there’s category for Longest Ears by a Goat.

The goat, named Simba, reportedly trips on its ears, which are so long that they drag on the ground. That’s a problem, I hear.

I’m also hearing of a problem in Massachusetts, but it’s of a different sort entirely.

Efforts to add exceptions to Massachusetts’ ABC Test for independent contractor misclassification have been scuttled by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. A ballot measure modeled after California’s Prop 22* would have created exemptions to support independent contractor status for app-based rideshare and delivery drivers. The Court, however, ruled that the proposed ballot measure covered too many subjects and could not lawfully be placed on the ballot.

What does all this mean?

As many of you know, Massachusetts has the toughest test in the nation when it comes to classifying independent contractors. Under Massachusetts wage and hour law, a worker is deemed an employee 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.

That’s a strict ABC Test, like California’s. But California’s ABC Test has a slew of exceptions, memorialized in AB 2257, formerly AB 5. The Massachusetts Independent Contractor Law has no exceptions, which makes Massachusetts a favorite venue for plaintiffs’ lawyers who like to bring misclassification cases.

With the ballot measure struck down, voters will not have an opportunity to pass a Prop 22-like bill in Massachusetts that would have allowed app-based rideshare and delivery drivers to maintain independent contractor status, so long as certain requirements were met.

States with ABC Tests continue to pose significant compliance risks for businesses that rely on independent contractors. It’s easy to trip and fall, regardless of the size of one’s goat ears.

*California’s Prop 22 is in limbo too. As explained here, a state court ruled the ballot measure unconstitutional. The issue is now on appeal.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Inedible Food: DOL Starts New Rulemaking Process to Toughen FLSA Independent Contractor Test

I saw this truck while driving home last week from my daughter’s college graduation. Now I’m no livestock dietician (I failed that course in law school), but this seems like the worst possible thing to feed your animals.

Whoever’s behind the labeling also needs some help with marketing. I know I wouldn’t buy that.

I’m also not buying the DOL’s recent announcement that it’s holding two public forums to help it decide what to do about a new independent contractor misclassification test. I think we all know what the DOL is going to do already.

The DOL will hold an Employer Forum on June 24, then a Worker Forum on June 29. Anyone can attend. RSVP links are here (6/24) and here (6/29).

After this charade open-minded exchange of viewpoints, the DOL will get to work preparing a new rule for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The current regulation, issued by the Trump DOL, refocuses the traditional Economic Realities Test inquiry on two core factors: (1) the nature and degree of the individual’s control over the work, and (2) the individual’s opportunity for profit or loss. The Biden DOL tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent the Trump rule from going into effect, but a federal court ruled that the Biden DOL’s attempt to dismantle the rule was flawed, and the Trump rule therefore went into effect.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves. Just because a court told the Biden DOL that it’s stuck with this Trump-made rule doesn’t mean anyone at the DOL is actually applying it. The Biden DOL has said it plans to rewrite the rule, pronto. The new rule will make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors under the FLSA. We already know that’s going to happen, even if we don’t know the precise language to be used.

In late 2022, the DOL will issue its new rule, which will be like the old rule that we had before the Trump DOL’s new rule. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And with each new administration, it will become harder then easier then harder to be classified as a contractor under the FLSA.

So I will not be wasting my time listening in on these forums. I expect they’ll be as useful as inedible food. Which cannot be good for the GI tract.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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The Ohio Supreme Court Just Made It Much Harder to Win a Misclassification Dispute

In the middle of the Bering Sea sit two islands, Little Diomede (U.S.) and Big Diomede (Russia). They sit less than three miles apart, but Big Diomede is 21 hours ahead. That’s because the International Date Line straddles the two. This would make scheduling play dates nearly impossible, but fortunately no one lives on Big Diomede. Little Diomede is home to about 115 brave (and very isolated) souls.

The Diomedes are a great example of being close but still so far away. The Ohio Supreme Court gave us another example in a worker misclassification dispute earlier this month. Ohio companies should pay close attention to this surprising — and bad — decision.

In this case, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) had determined that an underground-cable installation company had misclassified its workers as independent contractors rather than as employees.

The BWC looked back 5 years and handed the company a bill for $350,000 in back assessments for failing to pay into the workers compensation system. Companies pay into the system for employees, but not for contractors. The company appealed, arguing that under Ohio’s Right to Control Test, the installers were properly classified as contractors, meaning the back assessments were not warranted. The company provided evidence showing that the Right to Control factors tilted in favor of contractor status.

The Ohio Supreme Court reviewed the evidence and did not disagree with the company. You’d think, therefore, that they’d reverse the BWC decision, and the company would be relieved from paying the back assessments.

Nope.

The company was close, but oh so far from winning its appeal. That’s because the deck is stacked heavily against companies when it comes to challenging the BWC on worker classification determinations.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, under Ohio law, so long as there is “some evidence” that could support the BWC’s conclusion, the BWC’s decision was untouchable. This is insane.

In every case involving a balancing test — like the Right to Control Test used here — there will be at least some evidence supporting employee status and some evidence supporting contractor status. The point of the test is to weight the competing factors and see which direction the scales tilt.

But according to this ruling, Ohio law grants the BWC an absurd level of deference. The decision appears to say that a court must accept the BWC’s conclusion, even if the scales tilt the other way, so long as there is “some evidence” to support the BWC’s findings.

For Ohio businesses using independent contractors, this ruling means trouble. The BWC is, of course, incentivized to find misclassification because it means more money for the state. After this ruling, companies appear to have little recourse for challenging the BWC, even when the BWC is wrong.

Ohio companies should immediately evaluate their misclassification risks. If a contractor gets hurt and brings a workers comp claim, the BWC will look for misclassification. If the BWC finds it, the BWC will not only grant workers comp coverage for the injured contractor, it will issue back assessments against the company for failing to pay into the workers comp system — with a look back of five years.

Back assessments can also be triggered by an audit.

Same for unemployment. An unemployment claim by a contractor can lead to the same result, with Ohio Job & Family Services making the misclassification call. Back assessments would issue in that scenario too for failing to pay into the unemployment fund.

This ruling goes against the whole point of having a balancing test. I might have expected this level of deference from California or New York, but not Ohio. This ruling was issued by a Republican-majority Supreme Court.

Like the Diomedes Islands, what appears close can be so far away. Your business might be able to show all the reasons why your contractors are properly classified, but it doesn’t even have to be a close call for you to lose. If BWC finds misclassification and there’s merely “some evidence “ to support its conclusion, you might as well be arguing your point in Russian, the language of all zero inhabitants of Big Diomede.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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No Laughing Matter: Here’s Why States Think Your Independent Contractors Are Misclassified

The best twitter account you’re not yet following is Depths of Wikipedia @depthsofwiki, which finds all the crazy fascinating stuff on Wikipedia that you wish you had time to look for.

Such as this gem from last week:

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.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Not Dead Yet: Arbitration Agreements May Sit Dormant, But They Can Still Save You From a Class/Collective Action

Not dead yet. @SCMPNews

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.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Don’t Get in Over Your Head: Set Up a Gatekeeper

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.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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It’s a Mistake? Too Bad. NLRB Might Soon Make Misclassification an Automatic Unfair Labor Practice

Cover art from the single, released on Epic Records

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.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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