Don’t Get Armboxed: Strict ABC Test Results in $100 Million Misclassification Liability

In Russia, a new variant on boxing involves chaining the two combatants to opposite sides of a podium, with one arm of each boxer immobilized. They then pound each other with the remaining good arm and, because they’re tied to the podium, they have nowhere to go.

The contests, called armboxing, last for three one minute rounds. If the fighters last two rounds, their arms are both freed up for round three, but the boxers remain chained to the podium.

Getting pummeled with nowhere to go is also a fair way to describe Uber’s most recent run-in with the New Jersey Department of Labor over unpaid unemployment contributions. The NJDOL claims that under the Strict ABC Test governing New Jersey unemployment law, rideshare drivers are employees, not independent contractors.

The NJDOL pursued Uber and a subsidiary for failing to pay into the state’s unemployment fund over a five-year period, 2014-2018.

Last week, the NJDOL announced a settlement with Uber to cover the unpaid assessments – for a cool $100 million. The amount was based on $78 million in unpaid contributions plus $22 million in interest. Uber has made the payment but did not concede there was any misclassification.

New Jersey uses a strict ABC Test to determine employee status for unemployment coverage, but uses a different version of the ABC Test for wage and hour law. The strict ABC Test used for unemployment law follows the same formula as the tests in Massachusetts and California. The danger in these tests, of course, lies in prong B, which requires that to be an independent contractor, the work being performed must be “outside the usual course” of the hiring party’s business.

State departments of labor are notoriously aggressive in pursuing misclassification, and courts often defer to their judgment, even if the facts could support independent contractor status. The NJDOL is among the most aggressive enforcers, as you might expect when its Labor Commissioner says this: “Let’s be clear: there is no reason temporary, or on-demand workers who work flexible hours, or even minutes at a time can’t be treated like other employees in New Jersey or any other state.”

For businesses using independent contractors, tools such as arbitration agreements with class action waivers can be effective in preventing class action litigation. But arbitration agreements can’t stop a state agency from conducting an audit and imposing its own penalties for noncompliance.

And that’s how Uber found itself tied to a podium with one arm immobilized as it got hit.

Businesses in states using strict ABC Tests need to be particularly careful when setting up their business plans, their contracts, and their external messaging. State audits can be random, or they can be initiated after a worker complaint.

Unemployment filings by independent contractors can be especially dangerous. State departments of labor will typically investigate those claims, assess whether the worker is misclassified and — most troubling of all — will find that if the one worker was misclassified, then all similarly situated workers were also misclassified. The state DOL may then issue back assessments based on its assumptions about how many workers are similarly situated and how many were therefore misclassified.

When an independent contractor files an unemployment claim, pay attention and be prepared to defend your classification decision. Merely denying that the worker was an employee may not be enough, and a full-fledged audit could follow. In a full-fledged audit, the stakes can be high, and it might not feel like a fair fight.

Be proactive, plan ahead, and don’t chain your business to a podium.

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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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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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Long Songs: After 12 Years, Court Certifies Class in Independent Contractor Misclassification Dispute

I like long songs. For the last several weeks, I have been starting my workday with the Pink Floyd album Atom Heart Mother on my headphones. The opening track is 23 minutes, and the album ends with “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” a 13-minute journey that includes lines like “um, flakes” and “marmalade, I like marmalade.”

Long litigation, on the other hand – I’m not a fan. When I was an associate, I worked on a healthcare fraud case that lasted about 8 years. Not fun.

The legal team at Sleepy’s LLC probably doesn’t like long litigation either. Hargrove v. Sleepy’s LLC is an independent contractor misclassification case that was filed in 2010. The case has been to the Third Circuit twice already and went to the New Jersey Supreme Court on the certified question of what test should be used to determine employee status under New Jersey wage and hour law. I wrote about that 2015 ruling here in a post that also takes an admiring look at one menu option at an ice cream parlor in Dania Beach, Florida. (Partial spoiler: ABC Test. But you’ll have to read the post to see about the menu option.)

This case is back in the news after a new set of rulings.

After 12 years, the court issued a decision last week to grant class certification and to deny the defendant’s motions to dismiss. These are issues that are typically resolved in the first several months of a case.

The point here is to show you how long and complicated an independent contractor misclassification case can become. This is not straightforward litigation, and there are so many legal issues that can dominate the underlying dispute — questions, for example, about class certification, class size, jurisdiction, standing, and which legal test to use for deciding whether misclassification exists.

This case is a good reminder of the importance of getting your independent contractor arrangements reviewed and your contracts revised. Preventive steps taken now can help avoid lengthy litigation later. Lengthy litigation is no fun for anyone.

But I do like long songs, and if you pay close attention, you can appreciate the careful and elaborate construction of a track. Put on your headphones if you want to catch every subtle sound.

And marmalade. I like marmalade.

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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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Is Another Strict ABC Test About to Muddy the Independent Contractor Waters?

NJ ABC Test independent contractorAccording to this article about the Garden State, New Jersey is about more than just the Sopranos and Snooki. Here are three fun facts about NJ:

1. Considered the “Diner Capital of the Country,” NJ has an estimated 525 diners. (I’m assuming from context that more than 525 New Jerseyans dine out, that “diners” here means those breakfast-themed restaurants that often look like rail cars, and that Uber Eats isn’t quite yet so dominant that the other 9 million NJ-ers eat at home every night.)

2. The first modern submarine ride was taken in NJ’s Passaic River. (I find this hard to believe but, if true, I’m sure the scenery was lovely.)

3. NJ was home to the first intercollegiate football game, Rutgers vs. Princeton. (The game is still in a scoreless tie.)

Another less fun fact about NJ is that its legislature may be about to adopt one of the strictest tests for independent contractor misclassification in the country. A recently proposed bill would model the state’s test for independent contractor vs. employee on the new California ABC Test.

New Jersey already uses a type of ABC Test for its wage and hour laws, but the bill would make Part B of the test much harder to meet — like California’s new law, Assembly Bill 5.

It’s no lock that the proposed law will pass, but if I am a betting man — and, fun fact, sports wagering is now legal in NJ — I would bet this one will become law sometime in 2020.

Until then, at least we can all enjoy the diner and submarine scene.

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© 2019 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!  

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Which States Are Trying to Kill “Independent Contractors” to Death? (Hint: One Rhymes with Schmalifornia)

Man Killed to Death - independent contractor misclassification

Only 4:34 am and already it’s gonna be a long day in the newsroom.

The tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee vary state-by-state, law-by-law.

In some states, it’s particularly hard to show that an independent contractor relationship is real. These states want to call everyone an employee, even if the parties have agreed to classify the relationship as an independent contractor relationship. When it comes to independent contractor classification, these are the states that are killing it to death.

Like the poor guy who was the subject of this local news story. Getting killed to death — that’s gotta be one of the worst ways to die.

The Top Three Hardest States to Be Independent Contractors, from my vantage point, are: Continue reading

What is the Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee? (Jan. 2019)

what is the test for independent contractor misclassificationSeems like a simple question, but it isn’t. My question to your question is, “Why do you ask?” That’s because the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is different under different laws.

And worse, the tests keep changing, as we saw in Monday’s post about the NLRB’s SuperShuttle decision.

As of today, January 31, 2019, here’s where we stand:

The current tests for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee are:

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)

Right to Control Test (SuperShuttle version, as of 1/25/19)

Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), ERISA

Right to Control Test (Darden version, or some variant of it, as applied circuit by circuit)

Internal Revenue Service

Right to Control Test (IRS version)

Affordable Care Act

Right to Control Test (emphasis on particular factors, based on regulation)

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Economic Realities Test (which different courts articulate differently)

California, Massachusetts wage & hour laws

ABC Tests (strict version of Part B)

New Jersey wage & hour

ABC Test (regular version of Part B)

California state laws other than wage & hour

S.G. Borello & Sons Test (customized hybrid version of Right to Control & Economic Realities Tests), we think, for now

State Unemployment and Workers Comp Laws

Pick a card, any card. Tests vary substantially state to state. Some are Right to Control Tests, some are ABC Tests, some are entirely made-up, customized tests that require consideration of — or proof of — specific factors

Other State Laws (wage & hour, discrimination, tax)

Tests vary significantly state by state, law by law

This chart may be a helpful start, but three significant challenges remain, when trying to determine Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

  1. Fifty Shades of Gray.  These tests, for the most part, are balancing tests. Courts and agencies must weigh multiple factors. In most instances, some factors will favor contractor status and some will favor employee status. Different courts may reach different conclusions, even with the same facts.
  2. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Multi-state employers face the added challenge of having to deal with different tests in different states. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, states generally apply different tests for different state laws. Sometimes different tests apply in different industries too. Transportation workers, for example, may be subject to different tests than construction workers.
  3. Into the Wild. The tests keep changing. In January 2019, the NLRB changed its test in the SuperShuttle case. In 2018, California changed its test under state wage and hour law from the S.G. Borello balancing test to a strict ABC Test. In 2015, New Jersey switched to a different version of an ABC Test for its state wage and hour law. The times they are a-changin.

What to do about it? (Free tips!)

  1. Know the tests that apply where your business operates.
  2. Construct your independent contractor relationships in a way that tends to favor the factors supporting independent contractor status. Inevitably, business considerations will get in the way, and tough decisions will have to be made about how much control can be relinquished and how the relationships need to be structured. Adjust the facts of the relationship.
  3. Use a customized independent contractor agreement that emphasizes the factors that support independent contractor status. Avoid off-the-shelf agreements. Merely reciting that everyone agrees the relationship is an independent contractor relationship is only a teeny bit helpful. “Teeny bit helpful” is not the gold standard.
  4. Re-evaluate existing relationships, and make changes from time to time.
  5. Implement a gatekeeper system to prevent operations managers from entering into contractor relationships that may be invalid. Require any retention of a contractor to be approved by a point person, who can issue spot and seek help in evaluating whether a contractor relationship is likely to withstand a misclassification challenge.
  6. Seek legal help before you get audited or sued. Now is the time to review and modify relationships to reduce the likelihood of a misclassification claim. Once a claim is made, your business can only play defense. Create your playbook now, before the defense has to take the field.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Do ABC Tests Matter if my Business is not in California? (Yes!!!)

ABC Test Califoirnia Dynbamex Massachusetts other states

According to Michael Jackson and his brothers (don’t forget Tito), ABC is easy as 1-2-3, and it’s also easy as do-re-mi. According to Julie Andrews, in Do-Re-Mi, once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything. This is not technically true, as once demonstrated by William Hung.

ABC may sound easy, and some people might think they can sing anything.  But actual compliance with ABC Tests is not easy — and yes, every business needs to think about how it would comply with ABC Tests. (For background on What is an ABC Test?, read here and here.)

ABC Tests are not just in California. Massachusetts uses an ABC Test to determine who is an employee under state wage law. New Jersey uses an ABC Test to determine whether someone is an employee or independent contractor for state wage law. Unemployment too.

For unemployment purposes, lots of states use ABC tests to determine whether someone seeking unemployment coverage was your employee or an independent contractor. These states include Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. There are more but I started prioritizing my list by number of electoral votes.

Because ABC Tests are stricter than ordinary balancing tests (like Right to Control or Economic Realities tests), your company may be required to make unemployment contributions for individuals who are independent contractors under most laws but are employees under your state’s unemployment compensation law. You could owe back assessments and penalties for failing to pay into the state unemployment insurance fund.

New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C. use ABC Tests for work performed in the construction industry.

Some states use even tougher multi-factor tests to determine whether an individual presumed to be an independent contractor is really an employee. Maine has an ABCDE Test, meaning each of five factors must be met (plus another 3 from a list of 7, creating a veritable menu of family-style Chinese take-out for misclassification). New Hampshire uses an ABCDEFG Test to determine whether someone is an employee subject to its workers compensation and wage and hour laws.

Congressional Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and his hair, have introduced a bill that would use an ABC Test to determine whether someone is an employee under the NLRA. The bill has no chance to become law unless (until?) the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the Presidency, but for now, it’s worth noting that there is a desire among some lawmakers to adopt sweeping changes to the definition of employee.

The point is that ABC tests are prevalent already — and they are expanding. The California decision adopting an ABC Test was issued three years after the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a similar (but less stringent) ABC Test for its state wage and hour laws.

With more state legislatures and state supreme courts considering changing the tests, we can expect this trend to continue. We can expect more states to adopt ABC Tests, especially in states where the courts (like in California) make up ABC Tests without legislative input. For a legislature to pass an ABC Test, it takes some work, bicameral support, and usually the signature of a governor. For courts to make up new ABC Tests, however, it’s easy as 1-2-3, do-re-mi.

Business should be thinking proactively about whether their contracts, relationships, and public-facing statements (such as in websites) will allow them to support independent contractor status when an ABC Test is used to determine WhoIs My Employee?

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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