Did a State Supreme Court Just Rewrite a Key Definition in Independent Contractor Misclassification Law?

knowtherulesFor businesses using independent contractors and concerned about misclassification claims, there hasn’t been too much to get mad about lately. As of last week, I’m just mad about saffron. (She’s just mad about me.)

But a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may change that. The PA Supreme Court just took a commonly used phrase in Employee vs. Independent Contractor tests and gave it a new meaning. (Fun fact about change: If you change your name, you probably can’t include a numeral or punctuation.”)

Under PA unemployment law, anyone receiving pay is an employee for unemployment insurance purposes, unless the individual is (a) free from control and direction, and (b) customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business. Traditionally, that’s a test that’s been considered pretty easy to meet. Maybe not anymore.

Addressing part (b), the PA Supreme Court ruled that to be “customarily engaged in” an independent business, the individual must — right now — “actually be involved, as opposed to merely having the ability to be involved, in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business.”

The Court looked to see whether the contractor actually operated his/her own business. Merely being allowed to do so wasn’t enough. It may still be enough if the contractor advertises his/her services to the public, even if a contractor doesn’t have other customers at that particular time. But the contractor needs to take some affirmative steps that show that the contractor is — at that time — “actually involved” in an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business” at the same time the contractor is being paid by whatever company doesn’t think that worker is its employee.

If this “actually engaged” standard is applied in other states, it may make it harder in other states to maintain independent contractor status. States that have a similar “customarily engaged in” requirement in one or more of their misclassification tests include:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii (apostrophe before the last i or no? I never know.)
  • Indiana
  • Lousiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Yikes. In most of these states, the “customarily engaged in” language is in the statutes covering who is an employee for unemployment insurance, but some of the states also include this as part of their test for other laws.

In California and Massachusetts, for example, that language is part C of the dreaded ABC Test that addresses other aspects of the employer-employee relationship.

To be safe, companies should consider requiring independent contractors to provide some proof that they are “actually engaged in” an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.” The proof might consist of evidence that they advertise for other customers or that they have other clients. What’s considered sufficient in one state might not be good enough in another.

While coronavirus seems to be dominating the news cycle, let’s not lose sight of the fact that independent contractor relationships are still under attack. Companies should do what they can to be proactive. Now it a good time to evaluate your relationships with contractors to make sure they can withstand a challenge.

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

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Can Independent Contractors Sue for Employment Discrimination?

diaper independent contractor discrimination

The answer brings to mind the one must-have item for the thousands of crazies who spend 12 hours in Times Square waiting for the ball to drop every New Years’ Eve with no available public restrooms:

Depends.

Under federal anti-discrimination law, an individual generally needs to be an employee to bring an employment discrimination claim. Laws like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act require employment status to file a lawsuit. Race discrimination claims, on the other hand, can potentially be brought under a different statute.

State laws, however, vary. Some states permit independent contractors to bring “employment discrimination” lawsuits; other states do not.

A recent decision by the Washington Supreme Court serves as a reminder that in the Great Northwest (home of Mount St. Helens and Blaine Peace Arch Park [which I visited  last month and got to run around and around the obselisk that marked the international border]), an independent contractor can bring a state law claim for discrimination “for the making or performance of a contract for personal services.”

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act also prohibits discrimination against independent contractors.

On the flip side, state anti-discrimination laws in Ohio and Florida protect only employees, not independent contractors.

To determine whether independent contractors are protected under anti-discrimination laws, the answer truly is: It depends.  It depends on the type of alleged discrimination and depends on the state whether the alleged discrimination occurred.

None of this is to say that companies in states like Ohio or Florida should discriminate against contractors. In fact, where facts of any individual case are particularly egregious, common law claims might be recognized by courts uncomfortable with the idea that there is no remedy, even if the state’s anti-discrimination statute does not permit the claim. Although I live on the defense side, I still say: Do the right thing.

And if you should ever find yourself in Times Square on New Years’ Eve, passing the hours until the ball drops, I say this: Bring your adult undergarments. There’s no place to pee.

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

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Exotic Dance Marathon Ends with $4.5 Million Misclassification Award

Dollar independent contractor misclassification millionsThe Penthouse Club of Philadelphia was hit with a $4.5 million jury award for having misclassified its dancers as independent contractors. This case was filed in 2013, and the federal court just recently entered the judgment order.

For those of you seeking business lessons from stripper lawsuits, today is your lucky day!

The dancers had alleged that they were treated as employees but not paid as employees. For example, they alleged that the club required them to work a set number of hours and days each week, required them to comply with physical appearance guidelines, and took deductions from their tips for what we’ll call special kinds of dances.

The Club fought hard for five years but could not overcome the negative facts in the case. Remember, the determination of whether someone is an employee or a true independent contractor is not based on what the parties agree. It’s based on the facts of the relationship.

This was primarily a Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit, and so the Economic Realities Test is used. Other laws apply a Right to Control Test. Some states use a more difficult ABC Test.

Independent contractor misclassification lawsuits can be a tremendous liability, and businesses using contractors should be proactive and set up the relationship in a way that will withstand a challenge. When a business maintains control over hours, days of work, worker appearance, location of work, and other aspects of how the work is performed, the relationship starts to resemble employment.

In this case, the Club not only is on the hook for $4.5 million. They had to pay their attorneys’ fees, they’ll continue to pay their attorneys’ fees if they appeal, and they had to slog through six years of painful, time-consuming litigation that was undoubtedly a distraction from the business of running whatever type of classy joint they have going there. [Note to wife: I did not do any onsite investigation.]

We’ve seen lots of activity lately in the field of “exotic dancing.” I mean misclassification activity, and lawsuit activity, just to be clear on what I’ve been “seeing.” See other multi-million dollar misclassification awards here and here, all of which are SFW.

Businesses that use independent contractors need to evaluate the facts of the relationship and need to be proactive in setting up the facts to support true independent contractor status. Those who fail may get an extra long high-heeled kick in the rear.

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

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Court Serves Up Reminder that Contractors Can Be Properly Classified and Misclassified – At The Same Time.

elephant-reminder pennsylvania court joint employment joint empoyer construction workplace misclassification act

A recurring theme in this blog has been that when trying to determine Who Is My Employee?, there are different tests under different laws. Different tests can yield different results.

A recent court decision from Pennsylvania emphasizes this point. In the Keystone State (proud home of Dunder Mifflin and Hershey Park), contruction workers are considered employees for workers compensation purposes unless they (i) have a written contract, (ii) have a place of business separate from their general contractor’s site, and (iii) have liability insurance of at least $50,000. This strict test is courtesy of the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (CWMA), an Act whose name shows a disappointing lack of creativity.

I might have gone with “Construction Occupation Workers’ Act Regarding Designations In Classifying Employees” (COWARDICE) or “Law About Misclassifying Employees” (LAME) or, if I was hungry for shellfish, then maybe “Construction Law About Misclassification for Builders And Keeping Employees Safe” (CLAMBAKES).

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