Don’t be a goat: Know the joint employment law before going to trial

Joint employment goatI took a picture of this goat right before it tried to eat a small paper cup. The paper cup had food in it, but the paper cup was not the food. This confusion is understandable because, well, it’s a goat. The bar is set low for a goat.

The bar needs to be set higher when retaining counsel to defend against claims of joint employment. A recent California case shows what happens when your lawyer doesn’t understand the proper test for joint employment.

In the lawsuit, a staffing agency employee had been retained to work in a supervisory role as a line lead in a production department. We’ll call the place where she worked the “contracting company.” The worker was accused of bullying, then she accused another worker of harassment, and the contracting company terminated its her relationship with her. We don’t know whether the staffing agency terminated her direct employment, but that’s not important for now. The point is that the contracting company terminated its relationship with her.

She then sued the contracting company for having terminated her role there, accusing the contracting company of sexual harassment and retaliation. Because her direct employer was the staffing agency, she would have to prove that the contracting company was her joint employer. That’s because you can only allege employment discrimination claims against an employer. In other words, to bring a claim of employment discrimination against the contracting company, she had to prove that she was an employee of the contracting company.

Under California anti-discrimination law, a right to control test is used to determine whether a business is a joint employer. The test looks at how much control the business had over how the worker did her work. Because she was a line lead and a supervisor for the contracting business, there were plenty of facts that could support a finding of joint employment.

The lawyers for the contracting business either didn’t understand the joint employment test or they knew their goose was cooked, so they tried a different approach. Instead of arguing that the contracting business did not have a right to control her work, they argued that the jury should look at who had more control — the staffing agency or the contracting business. They argued that the staffing agency hired her and paid her, so it must have had more control over the essential terms of her employment. The staffing agency, they argued, was therefore her real (and only) employer.

The jury bought this argument, finding that the contracting company was not a joint employer because it exerted less control than the staffing agency.

But this argument was too clever by half. That’s not the test. So last week, a California Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, sending the case back for a new trial. You’ve got to use the proper test.

The test for joint employment is not about who had the most control. It’s just about who had the right to exert certain types of control. If more than one business exerts the right kinds of control, there can be more than one employer. That’s the whole point of joint employment.

Here’s an analogy that may be useful. Suppose a worker has a manager, who reports to a general manager. Both the direct manager and the general manager have control over the worker, even though the direct manager has more day-to-day and direct control. But they both are managers, and both have the right to control how the worker does the job. It’s not about which of the two managers has more control. They both manage the employee. Jointly.

To effectively defend against claims of joint employment, it’s necessary to understand the legal test for joint employment. Here, the contracting company argued the wrong test and scored a hollow victory at trial. In goat-speak, they overlooked the food and ate the paper cup. Now they’ll have to do it all over again, costing the contracting company a boatload in additional legal expenses for a second trial.

The lesson here is: Know the law, and know the tests. It’s hard to mount a real defense against joint employment if you don’t.

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

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Say It Like You Mean It! NLRB Says Uber Drivers are Independent Contractors

All You can Eat Seats - Independent contractor misclassification

Section 223 looks delicious!

I was in Phoenix last week and saw this sign at a Diamondbacks Game. The seats in Section 223 were probably plastic and hard to chew but otherwise looked pretty tasty. Still, I don’t think I could eat more than a few at a time.

Ok, I know what the sign intended, but my reading is a fair one too. Right? The message wasn’t quite clear.

The NLRB was much more clear in the message it sent last week in an Advice Memorandum from the Office of the General Counsel. The Board opined that UberX and UberBLACK drivers were independent contractors, not employees of the ride-share app.

The opinion letter applies only to federal labor law (the NLRA), not to wage and hour law, employee benefits law, tax law, or the vast potpourri of state laws, but it’s another sign that the current administration is intent on protecting independent contractor relationships — if the relationships are properly structured.

The memo applied the same Right to Control Test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee that the Board used in January in its SuperShuttle decision. In SuperShuttle, the Board ruled that a group of airport van drivers were independent contractors, not employees, under the National Labor Relations Act. The ten-factor Right to Control Test used by the Board is explained here.

This NLRB Advice Memorandum arrives less than three weeks after a similar opinion letter from the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL’s April 29 letter concluded that service providers who use “virtual marketplace” apps to find customers are independent contractors, not employees. While the letter doesn’t identify the app it reviewed, the DOL’s analysis seems to apply to Uber and other ride-share apps and to the service providers (drivers) who use these apps to find customers. The DOL’s letter addressed only the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which applies a six-factor Economic Realities Test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee. Different law, different test. 

Here are four takeaways from the two letters, viewed together:

  1. Different tests apply to different laws, even for similar circumstances. That’s been a consistent theme in this blog, and these two letters — one interpreting the NLRA and the other interpreting the FLSA — reinforce the different approaches. Click here for a chart showing the different tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee, as of January 2019.
  2. The current administration and its executive agencies are much friendlier toward independent contractor relationships than their Obama-era predecessors. The Obama DOL and NLRB were outright hostile toward independent contractor relationships (see examples here for DOL and here for NLRB), so this is a major change.
  3. These are not court decisions and do not bind the federal courts, even as to NLRA and FLSA cases.
  4. These opinions apply only to the NLRA and the FLSA — two of the many federal laws that apply only to employees, not independent contractors. The opinions do not directly impact federal tax law or employee benefits law, and they do not impact any of the myriad state laws. In other words, the states don’t care.

The area of independent contractor misclassification and the never-ending quest to determine Who Is My Employee? continues to evolve at a pace that should keep readers on the edge of their seats. Just don’t sit too close to the edge, because if you abandon your seat, someone at a D-Backs game might try to eat it.

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

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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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Pain, Humiliation & Self-Pity: How Does the Definition of “Employ” Relate to Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Suffer or Permit to Work FLSA Definition of Employ

According to the New World Encyclopedia, examples of “suffering” include pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, self-pity, and death.

According to federal wage and hour law, “suffer” means employment.

Ouch. Happy Monday.

One of the many problems with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) — the federal law that sets minimum wage and overtime standards — is that it’s archaic, outdated, old. It was passed in 1938.  Before Hitler invaded Poland.  Before the first Captain America comic book. Even before the invention of the Slinky.

In 1938, Mick Jagger wasn’t even born yet. (But Betty White was 16.)

The language used in the FLSA reflects a different era. In the definitions section of the Act, “employ” includes “to suffer or permit to work.” What exactly does that mean? At the time it was written, what did Congress intend for it to mean? And what does it mean now, in the modern economy, especially when trying to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor?

According to the FLSA regulations, if “the employer knows or has reason to believe that [the individual] is continuing to work,” then the time is working time. It’s employment. Even work that is “not requested” is work time if the employer permitted the work to be done.

When asking the question, Who Is My Employee?, this broad definition presents a challenge. As the Supreme Court has recognized, this definition is broader than the ordinary “common law” definition of employment, which looks at the extent of control the employer exercises (or has the right to exercise) over the worker. That’s the Right to Control Test, which is discussed in more detail here.

Because the definition of “employ” is different under the FLSA than under most other employment laws, the test for determining Who Is My Employee? is different too.

The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine whether a worker is an employee (as compared to an independent contractor).

The Economic Realities Test is expressed slightly differently by different federal courts but, in general, the test asks whether the worker is economically reliant on the potential employer to earn a living. If economically reliant, the worker is likely an employee. If the worker has other sources of income or is business for himself/herself, the worker is more likely an independent contractor, not an employee.

The Economic Realities Test is described in more detail here.

So that’s how the federal courts interpret the “suffer or permit to work” language in the FLSA. But to keep things interesting, California’s wage and hour laws use the same “suffer or permit” language in its state law definition of “employ,” but California interprets that phrase differently and imposes a different test. Same standard, different test.

As we will discuss in Thursday’s post, California’s alternative interpretation of that same phrase can lead to very different results when evaluating whether someone is an employee or independent contractor.

It’s California’s definition — more than the federal definition — that is more likely to cause pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, or self-pity. To the Golden State’s credit, though, probably not death. Good job, California.

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

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What is the Test for Joint Employment? It Depends.

Joint employment together

There are lots of ways to be together. Some are good, some less good.

Let’s compare:

  • By the end of the movie Grease, the graduates of Rydell High have decided that they “go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.” That, I think, is supposed to mean good.
  • In The Fox and Hound 2, a direct-to-video DisneyToon generally rated as “not terrible,” our four-legged heroes sing that they “go together like wet dog and smelly peanut butter jelly fleas on my belly.” That sounds less good.

In employment law, being together can be good or bad, depending on your perspective.

When a company retains someone else’s employees to perform work, it sometimes becomes necessary to decide whether the first company is a “joint employer” of the second company’s employees. Being a joint employer is not illegal, but it means that if the primary employer violates employment laws, a “joint employer” is liable too — even if it wasn’t primarily responisble for the unlawful act.

The test for joint employment varies depending on which law was violated and depending on the state you’re in. (Here’s a map that illustrates the madness.) For example…

In this post we discussed how you determine if someone is a joint employer under federal wage and hour law (the Fair Labor Standards Act) (FLSA).

In these posts, we discussed how you currently determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act) (NLRA). In this post, we discuss how and when that test is likely to change.

In today’s post, we’ll examine how you determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal employment discrimination and breach of contract law. For these laws, the test for joint employment looks to the common law of agency.

A recent decision by the federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reminds us that different tests apply to different laws. Applying the joint employment test for FLSA claims, the trial court had ruled that a citrus grower was the joint employer of migrant workers after the primary employer who hired them did not properly pay them.  (The farm-labor contractor who hired them allegedly demanded kickbacks from the migrant workers’ wages under threat of deportation. Today’s Tip: Don’t do that.)

The migrant workers had another claim too. They alleged breach of contract under federal law (the contract was part of the federal visa process), and it tried to sue both the farm-labor contractor who was demanding the kickbacks and the citrus grower at whose fields they picked delicious fruit.

For the breach of contract claim, the Court of Appeals ruled that the proper way to determine whether someone is a joint employer is to use a Right to Control Test.

There are different versions of Right to Control Tests, but they all try to determine whether a hiring party retains the right to control how the work is performed. If the answer is “yes they do,” then the hiring party is a joint employer under that law. If the answer is “no they don’t, they care about the achieving the result but not how the work is performed,” then the hiring party is not a joint employer.

This Court of Appeals decided that there are 7 factors that should be used to determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal breach of contract law. (The same test would generally apply to federal employment discrimination claims.) State laws may differ. Here are the 7 factors that this court used to determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal breach of contract law:

1. Does the alleged joint employer have the right to control how the work is performed?
2. Does the alleged joint employer provides the tools?
3. Is the work being performed at the worksite of the alleged joint employer?
4. Does the alleged joint employer provide employee benefits?
5. Does the alleged joint employer have the right to assign additional work?
6. Does the alleged joint employer have discretion over when and how long the workers work?
7. Is the work being performed a part of the alleged joint employer’s regular business?

In this case, applying the 7 factors, the Court of Appeals ruled that the citrus grower did not exert much control and therefore was not a joint employer for the breach of contract claim — even though it was a joint employer for the FLSA claim. (The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test, not a Right to Control Test, to determine whether someone is an employer.) That’s right — different tests, different results.

The citrus grower did not want to be a joint employer because it was not part of the alleged kickback scheme and did not want to be held jointly responsible. Nonetheless, it was found to be a joint employer under the FLSA but not under the breach of contract claim. Confusing stuff.

When making music, being together seems so much simpler, although much more prone to nonsense words. Just ask the Turtles, who in 1969 were “so happy together Ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba.”

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

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When Are Shareholders Also Employees? (Disney-Themed Version)

When are shareholders considered employees

I have always believed that in the song made famous by Happy, Dopey, Sneezy and friends, they were saying “Off to work we go,” but I just checked a few sites for lyrics and the lyrics all show the dwarves singing, “It’s home from work we go.” Can this be true? Have I been mixed up all these years about which way the dwarves were going to dig dig dig with a shovel or a pick?

Work can be confusing. A non-cartoon-dwarf scenario that can be confusing is trying to determine whether shareholders in a business are also employees of that business. In today’s post, we examine that question by celebrating the 15th anniversary of a 2003 Supreme Court case. (Happy Anniversary, case! 🎂)

Like many tests for determining Who Is My Employee?, this one comes down to control and the familiar Right to Control Test.

In Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P. C. v. Wells, an employee of this Oregon-based medical clinic tried to sue for disability discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To bring claim under the ADA, though, the plaintiff must show that her employer has 15 or more employees.

The clinic had four owner/shareholders who were also physicians. If they were also employees, then the clinic had 15 employees and Ms. Wells could pursue her ADA lawsuit. If these physicians were just shareholders and not employees, then the clinic had fewer than 15, and Ms. Wells would be SOL.

The dispute made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the proper way to determine whether the physician/shareholders counted as employees was to apply a Right to Control Test. But which version?

The standard Right to Control Test tries to distinguish between an employee and an independent contractor. Because the question here is a bit different, the test had to be adapted to fit the situation.

The Court decided that these six factors were most important for deciding whether the physician/shareholders were also employees:

1. Whether the organization can hire or fire the individual or set the rules and regulations of the individual’s work;
2. Whether and, if so, to what extent the organization supervises the individual’s work;
3. Whether the individual reports to someone higher in the organization;
4. Whether and, if so, to what extent the individual is able to influence the organization;
5. Whether the parties intended that the individual be an employee, as expressed in written agreements or contracts; and
6. Whether the individual shares in the profits, losses, and liabilities of the organization.

Like the traditional Right to Control Test, this is a balancing test. Some factors may weigh in one direction, some may tilt the other way. Ultimately, a judge (or jury) needs to weigh the factors and make a determination.

In this case, the Supreme Court did not do the weighing. Instead, it articulated the test and sent the case back to the Oregon district court to weigh the factors.

So for Ms. Wells, the case left the Supreme Court and went back to the federal court in Oregon. And so the real question is: For Ms. Wells after the Supreme Court’s ruling, was it “off to court we go” (headed back to Oregon) or “home from court we go” (leaving D.C.)? I bet she never thought about that.

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

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Here’s a Tip a Cartoon Cat Would Love: Try This Edit to Your Independent Contractor Agreements

Independent contractor misclassification cat“Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!” Yes, boys and girls, I am talking about Felix the Cat, whose magical bag of tricks could be transformed to get him out of any treacherous situation. Don’t you wish you had one of those?

Well, I won’t share mine, but I can offer this tip, which may help you avoid a treacherous situation.

This weekend I was reading a California decision on independent contractor misclassification. (I do other, more fun things in my free time too, so don’t make fun. Ok, you should make fun a little.) While analyzing Right to Control factors, the court ruled that the worst fact for the business was that it could terminate the contractor at will. The ability to terminate a relationship at will, the court ruled, was the “ultimate” form of control! Really? I agree it’s a factor among many, but the “ultimate factor”? Come on.

Anyway, this problem is easily avoided with some creativity. Allow me to reach into my bag of tricks.

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