How to Support Prong C of the ABC Test, and Why You Can’t Lie Down When Faced with an Audit

Zippy practices for the 13th Annual Lying Down Championships

Lying down in the face of a challenge is rarely a good strategy. I did, however, find one exception.

A man from Montenegro recently won the 12th Annual Lying Down Championships, beating out nine other competitors by remaining horizontal under a tree for 60 hours. As a reward for his (lack of) effort, he received 350 euros, lunch for two at a restaurant, a weekend stay at a local village, and a rafting trip.

Then things got weird. Local media reported that shortly after the competition, the winner was taken into police custody for (allegedly) physically attacking journalists and damaging the headquarters of a newspaper that called him “the biggest swindler in all of Montenegro.”

I suppose there’s a lesson in here somewhere: Offer a man an award and he’ll lie still for 60 hours, but call him a swindler and he won’t take that lying down.

But I digress. In this post, I want to share some tips gleaned from a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case involving prong C of the ABC Test. The case also serves as a reminder never to take a misclassification audit lying down.

The dispute involved East Bay, a drywall installation company that used independent contractor drywall installers for residential jobs. Until 2013, the company treated its installers as employees. It then switched to an independent contractor model. Risky move. This sparked an audit.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development wanted to know why this company, which was still active, suddenly lacked employees. The audit looked at the individuals who continued to install drywall and examined whether, under New Jersey’s ABC Test, they were independent contractors or employees.

You can guess what happened next. The Department found that 16 installers were misclassified, and it issued a hefty back assessment against the company for failing to pay into the state unemployment fund. The company appealed and lost.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion focused largely on what it takes to prove prong C of the ABC Test — that the individual “is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.” (You can read more about New Jersey’s ABC Test here, but otherwise I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the basic concept of the ABC Test.)

The drywall company put forth evidence that the independent contractors had registered business entities and certificates of insurance. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that wasn’t enough to satisfy prong C. This evidence wasn’t enough to prove that the individuals truly operated independently. Evidence in support of prong C should demonstrate that the independent contractor would not become unemployed if the work from this company went away.

The Court gave some examples of evidence that would have been more persuasive in satisfying prong C, including:

  • That the IC’s business will continue when this engagement ends;
  • That the IC’s business is stable and lasting, or other evidence of longevity;
  • That the IC has other customers;
  • That the IC has other sources of revenue, and the company being audited is not the primary source of income for the IC;
  • That the IC provides the tools, equipment, vehicles, and other resources needed to perform the work;
  • That the IC has telephone listings or business stationery;
  • That the IC advertises;
  • That the IC has its own employees;
  • That the IC maintains inventory;
  • That the IC bears the risk of loss;
  • That the IC benefits from the goodwill generated from a job well done;
  • That the IC is required to maintain educational and licensure requirements;
  • That the IC is permitted to obtain work from other businesses; and
  • That the IC in fact performs work for other businesses.

The court cited these as examples of the types of evidence that would have been helpful to prove prong C. This is not a mandatory list. The point here was just that business registrations and certificates of insurance were not enough. Strategically, there is other evidence that would be helpful too, and there are steps that can be taken when retaining ICs to help build a defense. I maintain a longer list but, hey, I can’t give away all the secrets here.

Other observations from the New Jersey Supreme Court decision:

1. How to invite an audit. Switching from an employee model to an independent contractor model is, by itself, enough to prompt an audit.

2. An ominous footnote about prong B. There was also a dispute in this case over the meaning of prong B. Remember, New Jersey has a standard ABC Test, which allows prong B to be satisfied by showing either the work is outside the hiring party’s usual course of business or the work is performed outside of the places of business of the hiring party. (This is different than the California version of the ABC Test.) All drywall installation work was performed at customers’ residences. After the audit, the Commissioner of Labor found (inexplicably) that prong B was not satisfied. It is unclear from the opinion whether that was based on a conclusion that the customers’ residences were East Bay’s places of business or was based on some other fact, such as some kind of work being done at East Bay’s place of business. If the Commissioner believed customer’s residences to be East Bay’s places of business, then it is hard to see how the latter part of prong B could ever be satisfied. But the NJ Supreme Court did not consider prong B in its decision. The Court ruled that prong C was not satisfied, and so it chose not to wade into the morass of prong B.

But there is an ominous footnote. When the Court declined to consider prong B, it noted that in its prior decisions, the place of business meant locations where the hiring party had a “physical plant or conducts an integral part of its business.” That’s consistent with common sense and would exclude a customer’s residence. The Court then, however, invited the Department of Labor to issue regulations explaining how the Department thinks prong B should be interpreted. Yikes!

3. You need to fight unemployment claims by ICs at the initial audit level; you can’t expect a court to save you on appeal. Courts will defer to the findings of an agency if its factual findings have any support in the record, no matter how flimsy. In other words, the agency can be wrong in its overall weighing of the factors, but a court is supposed to affirm the agency’s decision if there’s evidence to support it. Not “a preponderance of evidence” or “ample evidence” or even “sufficient evidence.” Just “evidence.” Folks, the reason we have trials is because there’s almost always at least some evidence on both sides, even if the preponderance of the evidence leans the other way. You shouldn’t have to pitch a shutout to win the game.

I have seen the same deference standard applied to unemployment decisions in New York and Ohio. The courts defer to the agencies. It is unfair. The result can be that the agency’s decision gets affirmed, even if it made the objectively wrong decision.

This unfair standard highlights how important it is to win at the earliest stages in an unemployment claim, if independent contractor status is being challenged. The initial investigation is your best chance to defend independent contractor status. If you wait, it’s too late. Provide the auditor your best evidence on every factor, and don’t hold back.

Remember the consequences too. If one contractor is misclassified, the agency will likely deem all other similarly situated contractors to be misclassified, and you’ll be on the hook for unpaid assessments for all of them. The stakes are high. Companies using independent contractors should spend the time and money to mount a full defense of their contractor’s status at the audit stage. It’s worth the investment, especially because the state courts will generally defer to the agency’s findings, even if the agency is wrong.

Here’s the ultimate takeaway: If you’ve entered a Lying Down Competition, it’s ok to lie down for as long as you want. But if you’re faced with a worker classification audit, or a 1099 audit, or an unemployment claim by a former independent contractor, do not take that lying down.

You need to fight hard in the audit, producing evidence to support independent contractor status. You’ll have the right to appeal if you lose, but don’t expect a fair chance to prove your case. You’ve got to do your best to win any classification dispute at the initial audit. That’s the time to retain counsel and invest time and resources. If you lose the audit and bring an appeal, you’re fighting a steep uphill climb.

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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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Would You Like Some Pepperoni with Your (Oops) Joint Employment?

Joint employment pizza 31E83EC5-E554-428A-A5D6-37F13905C3B9According to pizza.com, “There are approximately 61,269 pizzerias in the United States.” That number seems pretty precise to me, not an approximation, but who am I to question something I read on the internet?

Approximately 4 of the 61,269 pizzerias are owned by a New Yorker named Paola P., who runs each of the 4 under a different LLC. Paola’s employees can be assigned to any of the 4 pizzerias on their workdays. Seems boring so far, but stay with me. Now say this three times fast:

Paola’s practice prompted problems since Paola P’s pizzerias were impermissibly positioning personnel to prevent paying overtime. 

Pity.

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Can Independent Contractor Misclassification Automatically Violate Federal Labor Law? (Hint: Yes)

[NOTE 9/2019: Not anymore. The information in this post has been superseded by a later NLRB decision. In Sept. 2019, the NLRB ruled that independent contractor misclassification is not an automatic violation of the NLRA.  It still can be, but it is no longer automatically a violation. Read more here.]

Here’s the original post:

The past two weekends, we have seen NFL players link arms in solidarity. They protest mistreatment and injustice in society, not mistreatment and injustice by their employers. In fact, there have been several instances where owners and coaches have joined in.

Had the players been protesting actions by their employers — their teams — their actions likely would be considered “protected concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA grants employees the right to act collectively to protest terms or conditions of their employment. Employees have these rights even if there is no union.

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Who is the Next “Miss Classified”? Here’s How I Would Award the Prize.

IMG_1107I received an email this week from a worker claiming he was “Miss Classified.” I did not know there was a pageant for that, but I suppose congratulations were probably due. I politely responded that I only represent companies, not individuals, in disputes relating to independent contractor misclassification, and I wished him luck.

But then I started thinking, What if there was a pageant? What would it take to be crowned Miss Classified?

I came up with a few criteria.

To be named Miss Classified, a contestant would probably have a job that requires her to work a set daily schedule, with little flexibility. She’d have to ask a supervisor for time off (including to enter this pageant).

A fixed schedule suggests employment when assessing Independent Contractor vs. Employee, so I’d award that contestant a point toward becoming Miss Classified. If the supervisor denies the request for time off, I’d award an extra point toward Miss Classified status — but sadly, if denied the day off, this worthy contestant might not show up for the pageant. [🤔]

I’d award another point toward being named Miss Classified if she uses company tools and equipment. If she does office work, she’d get points if she uses someone else’s desk and computer, performs her work at the company’s primary place of business, and has a company badge. I’d award bonus points if she has a company email address.

Instead of a swimsuit competition, I’d have contestants reveal what they wear to work. Anyone wearing a swimsuit is at the wrong pageant and would be asked to leave. But anyone wearing company uniform or logo would get a point. I’d have an exception, though. If the company shirt says “Company – Authorized Contractor,” no points.

For the talent portion of the Miss Classified pageant, I’d ask candidates how they learned their special skill. I’d award no points to anyone who became licensed and trained on their own time and on their own dime. But if they learned their craft from the company they are working for, I’d award a point toward being named Miss Classified. If the company paid for the license or training, I’d award another point.

My pageant would have a monetary award for the winner (let’s just call it damages), but before awarding any economic prizes, I’d ask the contestants about their current financial situation. Are you economically reliant on one company for all your compensation? If yes, two points. That’s a candidate who might be worthy of the title Miss Classified.

On the other hand, a candidate gets no points if she performs work for several companies and advertises her services in the marketplace. Anyone using a personal business card and website to advertise her services to the public gets no points. Anyone who is simultaneously working for one company and that company’s direct competitors will be disqualified from the competition. That person is probably not Miss Classified.

I’d hold my competition in California. That would be the most likely place for someone to be named Miss Classified. California has all sorts of state laws that would influence the outcome of my competition.

I’d have Simon Cowell judge. Not for any good reason though. I just think that would be good for ratings.

And the winner is … hopefully not anyone performing services for your company!

(In case you were wondering, this would NOT be the among the world’s strangest pageants. But these are.)

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Tip of the Day: Set Up a Gatekeeper

door-gate-entrance-gateway

What you don’t know can hurt you.

Claims of independent contractor misclassification can sneak up on companies that don’t even know they have a problem.

Businesses usually treat the retention of contractors as an expenditure, not an increase in headcount. Since no new employees are being hired, Human Resources Departments and Legal Departments often have no idea when operations managers have retained contractors–sometimes at distant locations.

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Misclassification settlement strips $6 million from Club Assets

IMG_1090When I was an undergrad at Michigan, any time I would drive to the airport or to Tiger Stadium, I’d see billboards for Deja Vu, a strip club with (apparently) lots of locations. I never visited (not into that sort of thing, thanks for asking), and I never thought much of it. I certainly did not expect to be writing about Deja Vu and independent contractor misclassification 25 years later. But here goes.

When patrons of these fine establishments partake in the traditional lap dance, it’s doubtful they’re thinking about whether these often-single-mom “entertainers” who are just trying to make a living have been properly classified under wage and hour law. More likely, they’re thinking about — never mind.

But that’s an important issue, as Deja Vu recently learned, when it was sued by a class of 28,177 dancers alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors, rather than Continue reading

Podcast: What You Need to Know About Independent Contractor Misclassification

IMG_1073This week, I am encouraging readers to tune in to this podcast from XpertHR, in which I discuss issues and hot topics related to independent contractor misclassification.

Topics covered include:

  • The attack on business models that rely on the use of independent contractors;
  • The future of misclassification claims;
  • Possible updates to the FLSA;
  • Industries that are most at risk for independent contractor misclassification claims; and
  • Common misconceptions.

I hope you enjoy this interview, and thank you to David Weisenfeld and Xpert HR.

Security Guards: Employees or Contractors?

security guard employee or independent contractorI never saw the movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop and almost certainly never will. (Do I really need explain that decision?)

The Independent Contractor vs. Employee question often arises in the context of security guards, though. I confess to not knowing how Paul Blart was classified but, for companies who retain security guards, the decision whether to hire them as employees or to contract with a security firm is an important one.

The main advantage of hiring security guards as employees is the ability to retain control over how an individual guard does the job. The company can select who it wants to work and when, and can provide as much supervision and direction as needed.

The biggest disadvantage to using employees for security work, however, is the risk of Continue reading

Never Been Sued? Congratulations! Here’s Why You Should Re-Evaluate Your Use of Independent Contractors Now.

IMG_1072Have you ever heard someone say, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result“? That’s just wrong. No, it’s insanely wrong. (Irony! Actual definition, click here).

  • If you flip a coin 5 times and it comes up heads each time, is it insane to think it might come up tails next time?
  • If you play golf in a lightning storm five times and never get hit, is it insane to think you might get a nice electrical jolt next time?
  • If you root for the Browns to win a football game and they never do, is it insane to think they never will? [Note to self: Delete that. Bad example. It is true that they might never win a game. Shameful admission: I am a Browns fan.]

My consistent advice to companies that use independent contractors is to be proactive. Review your policies, practices, and documents now — before you get sued or audited. Many take this advice. Those who do not generally give two reasons:

  1. We don’t want to spend the money now; and
  2. We’ve always done it this way and have never been sued.

Folks, that kind of thinking is: n. extreme foolishness; folly; senselessness; foolhardiness.

Here are a few quick facts:

  1. Every company that has been sued for independent contractor misclassification had never been sued before the first time it was sued.
  2. Every company that has been audited for independent contractor misclassification had never been audited before the first time it was audited.

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The Myth of “Temporary Employees”

IMG_1067What is a “temporary employee”? I have practiced employment law for 20 years (Note to self: Keep practicing; someday you’ll get good at it.) and I can’t tell you. It’s a state secret. All lawyers have been sworn to secrecy forever.

Either that or, if you really want to know and say “pretty please” (with or without sugar on top, but no artificial sweetener please), that term has no legal significance. Usually the term is used to mean one of two things:

  1. your employee, hired on a trial basis with some sort of probationary period; or
  2. a staffing agency worker, retained to augment staff levels on a temporary basis.

Under option 1, the “temp” is a regular W-2 employee of yours, probably employed at will like your other employees, but whether you call that person “temp” or “permanent” or “regular” or “irregular” (?), none of it matters. A temp worker who is your employee, paid subject to deductions, is your employee.  Temp time counts toward FMLA eligibility. Continue reading