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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

 

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 
2018_Web100Badge
 

Not Your Ordinary Haircut: Does Your Sexual Harassment Policy Prohibit Harassment by Contractors?

Harassment policy independent contractor

From the Library of Congress digital collection.

This photo came with the description: “One of a series of images of a man harassing a woman as he cuts her hair.” Tip: don’t try this at home.

There are (unfortunately) many ways to harass a woman, most without scissors. Harassment can be by supervisors or fellow employees, but sometimes it comes from independent contractors.

Your company has a sexual harassment policy. Does it prohibit harassment of employees by contractors and other non-employees?

It should. Federal law creates a claim for sexual harassment if the harassment is by another employee, especially a supervisor. But the path toward a sexual harassment claim against a company for conduct by its independent contractors is less obvious. A hostile work environment claim can be asserted if a company knows of — and permits — a work environment that includes harassment by contractors, but a company’s control over contractors and their actions is going to be more limited than its control over its employees.

Your policy should fill the gap.

By creating a policy that takes a stance against harassment by independent contractors and other third parties, your company enhances its position in the event of a claim. Plus, it’s the right thing to do. If you hear of such a claim, investigate it. You may need to do something about it. That may include terminating the relationship with the contractor.

The policy should also say that conduct may be in violation of company policy even if the conduct is not prohibited by law. In other words, you are not conceding that you can control what your contractors do, and you are not conceding that there’s a viable legal claim. But you are taking a position against harassing behavior as a matter of policy.

The caption at the bottom of the photo above is small, but it says, “Getting his hair banged.”  I haven’t the slightest idea what that means, but it sounds bad. I would prohibit that too.

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2018_Web100Badge

“Who Was That Masked Man?” It Could be Your Independent Contractor.

who was that masked manFrom 1949 to 1957, The Lone Ranger ruled the airwaves. As recounted in the all-knowing wikipedia: “At the end of each episode, mission completed, one of the characters would always ask the sheriff or other authority, ‘Who was that masked man?’ When it was explained, ‘Oh, he’s the Lone Ranger!,’ the Ranger and Tonto would be seen galloping off with the cry, ‘Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!’ catching the attention of one of the townspeople crossing the street.”

Today, the answer to “Who was that masked man?” is likely to be, “Oh, he’s the lone maintenance guy on third shift” or “Oh, that’s Wilbur, our accountant.”

With many states now requiring employees and customers to wear face coverings, should the same be required of your company’s independent contractors? If you require contractors to wear face coverings, is that the type of control that could weigh in favor of employee status?

The practical answer is that, as the nation tries to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good practice to require everyone who works onsite — employees, customers, and independent contractors — to wear face coverings. The use of face coverings can be made mandatory as a condition of entering your facility. That is a site safety measure, not evidence of control that would convert your contractor to an employee.

But what about when the contractor works remotely, perhaps interacting with customers or working independently offsite? In that case, follow common sense and any applicable state and local law. For independent contractors who work on their own or in their homes, it’s probably not necessary to impose any specific face covering requirement. But that doesn’t mean they should freely expose their titillating chins and lips to the adoring masses. In your contracts with independent contractors, it is always wise to require that they comply with all applicable laws when performing any part of the services. That catch-all requirement is going to capture whatever face covering rule applies in that state at that time. The contractor should be required to do whatever the state or local law requires. Different states have different requirements.

What about staffing agency workers who work onsite? Can you safely impose the same face covering requirements on them as with your W-2 employees? Yes, and you should. Anyone working in your facility needs to comply with the applicable state and local work rules. That includes staffing agency workers at your location.

When the popular show’s run ended, Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger, used to make public appearances in his distinctive mask. But in 1979, the Wrather Corp., which owned the rights to the character, sued Moore to make him stop wearing the mask in public. Moore reverted to wearing green-tinted sunglasses with his cowboy outfit, hardly an acceptable substitute for our heroic roughrider.

In 1985, the Wrather Corp. relented and allowed Moore to again don the mask. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985, “Playing the Lone Ranger made me more considerate of my fellow man.”

In today’s COVID-19 climate, you can follow the Lone Ranger’s ethos and require face coverings. It’s a small gesture that will make you more considerate of your fellow man.

Hi-yo!

2018_Web100Badge

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

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.

2018_Web100Badge

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

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.

2018_Web100Badge

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Nothing on TV? Read Your Contract to See If There’s a COVID-19 Exception

covid-19 force majeure

Now that everything fun is banned and workplaces are sending people home, I’m planning to spend next week getting hernia repair surgery on Wednesday. Then I’ll take it easy watching baseball NCAA basketball the NBA tennis Netflix the second part of the week.

Or so I thought. Yesterday I learned that all non-essential surgeries are likely going to be cancelled. So it may be back to work. Or home to work. Or some variation of work. I think the hernia and I will continue our relationship for a while longer.

Where does this leave you with independent contractors and staffing agency contracts?

COVID-19 is creating conditions we never anticipated, and the work to be performed by contractors or staffing agency workers may be unnecessary — or impossible.

Are you still on the hook to pay them? The answer lies within your contract. There are a few ways performance may be excused.

  1. Force majeure or impossibility clauses. Force majeure is French legalese that means, literally, “Bad stuff happens if people eat bats and pangolins.” I’m not real good at French, so I could be off slightly. But it’s close. These are the boilerplate provisions most people never read. It’s time to read them. We now have states of emergency declared, pandemic status, CDC Level 2 and 3 travel restrictions, and mandatory quarantines in various parts of the world. Any of these events may be sufficient to trigger the force majeure or impossibility clause in your contract, if there is such a clause. Most of these clauses will not be so specific as to address pandemics, but terms like “Acts of God” or similar language might suffice. These clauses generally aren’t expected to list every contingency that would trigger excusing performance. A global pandemic seems likely to fit — if the conditions make performance impossible. A general business downturn that results from the virus might not be enough.
  2. Termination without cause. A force majeure clause is probably unnecessary if performance can be cancelled without cause, either at will or after a short notice period. This may be the time to issue notice.
  3. Modification or renegotiation. Your contractor or staffing agency may be as unprepared or as unwilling to perform as you are. It’s time to have a discussion — preferably by phone or while maintaining social distancing. A side letter in which both sides agree to modify the contract may be in order.
  4. No obligation to perform. If your contract is a master services agreement, performance might not be required. Check your work orders, and maybe all you need to do is modify or terminate those.

In the meantime, consider opening that bottle of wine you’ve been saving and starting a good book. We all need to make the best of a bad situation, and Cabernet can help.

2018_Web100Badge

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

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.