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.

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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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Who Pays for Reasonable Accommodations to Staffing Agency Workers? Ask Shorty.

Limb lengthening reasoable accommodation

Suppose you’ve got a staffing agency worker (we’ll call him Shorty) who’s a bit vertically challenged and is self-conscious about it. He tells you he’s gonna need some time off because he found this:

A limb-lengthening clinic in Las Vegas claims it can make you a few inches taller through minimally invasivce surgery. According to this article on OddityCentral.com, here’s how it works:

“We cut the leg bones – either femur (upper leg bone) or tibia (lower leg bone) – and insert a device that slowly stretches them out which makes you taller permanently.”

“I insert a device that responds to an external remote control that the patient will control at home. Once the device is set, I place screws at the top and bottom of the device to lock into position. This is done on each leg.”

The doc says you then just press a button at home and you’ll stretch by 1 mm a day. Just like nature intended.

So, back to Shorty. Suppose he has this surgery one weekend and comes back to work a bit achy from all the stretching. He wants some extra breaks to get him off his feet. Or he wants you to provide him a stool so he can rest more often from his station on the assembly line. Do you have a reasonable accommodation obligation?

If you’re in HR, you know that weird stuff happens, so maybe you hadn’t considered limb-lengthening, but let’s use this as an excuse to think about relationships with staffing agency workers and what your obligations might be for medical issues.

This is unlikely to be a disability situation, unless Shorty’s stature is due to a medical condition. But you’ll undoubtedly have staffing agency workers who do have disabilities and who do need reasonable accommodations.

That brings us to today’s Tip of the Day:

Consider adding to your staffing agency contracts a clause requiring the agency to pay the expenses for any reasonable accommodations provided to qualified staffing agency employees to allow them to perform their job functions.

Accomodations can sometimes be expensive, and it’s not unforeseeable that staffing agency workers will need accommodations at some point. Plan ahead, and build this contingency into the contract.

A clause like that may lengthen your contract a bit, but this lengthening can be done in a sentence or two — with no surgical intervention, no cuts in your femur or tibia, and no insertion of a stretch button in your leg. That’s the kind of lengthening I’d be much more inclined to try. I’ll leave my limbs just the way they are.

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© 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!  

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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.

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

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In Contract Labor Agreements, This Simple Clause Can Be Your Pillow

Joint employment contract clauseFor humans, some things are essential. Like a good pillow. For non-humans, the anti pillow sometimes works too. Not sure how. But the non-human in this picture generally sleeps like this.

For businesses contracting for labor, some things are essential too. One clause you are likely to have in contract with a supplier of labor is the right to remove a bad apple from the project.

The bad apple clause typically reads something like this: “We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time.”

That’s useful, but does it create an argument that your business is taking control over the individual’s employment in a way that could make your business an employer (or joint employer) of an individual you remove?

Here’s a simple fix to improve your contracts and limit the viability of that argument:

“We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time. We do not, however, have any right to control the individual’s employment status with contractor. Contractor retains the sole right to make all decisions regarding the hiring, termination, and other conditions of employment for all individuals assigned to the project or removed from the project.”

Consider the addition of that extra sentence or two to be a fluffy pillow.  It will help you sleep better if faced with a misclassification or joint employment claim.

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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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The Monster with Three Eyes Can Help You Avoid Claims of Joint Employment

Some monsters are scary. There’s Godzilla, who terrorized Tokyo and whose name in Japanese translates roughly to gorilla-whale. (Thanks, wikipedia!) There’s Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula (also Count Chocula), and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was filmed in terrorizingly implausible black and white 3-D.

But on the other hand, some monsters are friendly and educational, like Cookie Monster, E.T., or, dare I say, Elmo. (“Kids look at these crayons… Kids look at these crayons.”)

This post is about a friendly and educational monster: The Monster with Three Eyes.

If you want to help your business avoid claims of joint employment, remember the Monster with Three Eyes when drafting contracts with staffing agencies or other vendors that supply labor.

Confession: The “three eyes” really should be the letter I three times, but when I try to write that out, it looks like “three is,” which is neither memorable nor a suitable name for a monster, even a friendly and educational one. So we go with three eyes. When I say it aloud — making sure first that no one is listening because why would a person say something like that aloud for seemingly no reason? — it sounds the same.

Here are the three main ingredients you’ll want to include in each contract with a vendor that supplies labor:

1. Identify the sole responsibilities of the vendor with respect to its employees. List these responsibilities. List the various obligations of an employer — things like properly recording all hours worked, paying overtime, paying a minimum wage, handling payroll, reimbursing expenses, providing meal and rest breaks, stuff like that. List these responsibilities specifically in the contract. Don’t just say the agency agrees it is the sole employer. Remember, joint employment is a legal doctrine that holds your business responsible if the vendor failed to do something it’s supposed to do. If your found to be legally liable, you want to be able to point to a specific contractual obligation the vendor failed to satisfy.

2. Indemnify. The indemnification provision needs specificity. It should require the vendor to indemnify your business for any claims of joint employment and for any claims arising out of the vendor failing to comply with any of its contractual obligations. That’s why you’re listing the specific contractual obligations of the vendor. When seeking indemnification, you want to be able to point to a specific contractual obligation the vendor failed to meet, which triggers the indemnification requirement.

3. Insure. Insurance requirements are just as important as indemnity. The indemnity clause is of no value if the vendor goes out of business or is liable for more than it can pay. Vendors who supply labor should be able to demonstrate that they have sufficient insurance so that if there is a joint employment claim and your business seeks indemnity, someone (the insurer) has the ability to pay.

Because joint employment is a legal doctrine that can hold your business fully liable for the misdeeds of a vendor, the key to limiting your business’s exposure is a carefully drafted contract. Even if your business is jointly liable under the law, you want to have a contractual claim against the vendor that failed to do what it was supposed to do, along with indemnity and insurance so that your business can be made whole.

So remember the Monster with Three Eyes when drafting or reviewing your next contract with a vendor that is providing laborers. If the vendor fails to meet its legal obligations, a contract drafted with these lessons in mind will be the gorilla-whale you need to get out of paying for the vendor’s mistakes.

© 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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Arbitration Agreements & Staffing Company Workers: Can They Take You Anywhere You Want to Go?

1956 chevy bel air Arbitration agreements staffing agency

1956 Chevy Bel Air. The Ides of March’s Vehicle was a ‘55.

I’m your vehicle baby. I can take you anywhere you want to go.

That may be true for Jim Peterik, vocalist and frontman for The Ides of March, who issued this bold proclamation in the band’s 1970 single, “Vehicle.” (It worked. See more below.)

It’s not true for arbitration agreements, though. They can’t take you anywhere you want to go unless you draft them very carefully. A recent decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us of this lesson, although the opinion disappointingly fails to quote the Ides of March.

In Hogan v. SPAR Group Inc., we have an independent contractor named Paradise Hogan (which seems like would have been a cool name for a rock band); a staffing company called SBS; and a retail services provider called SPAR.  SPAR contracted with the staffing company to use the services of its independent contractors, including Hogan.

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What is Joint Employment?

What is joint employment

Despite the spread of marijuana legalization initiatives, the term “joint employment” has nothing to do with edibles, 4/20 day, or the prevailing aroma at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Joint employment simply means that more than one entity is a worker’s employer — at least under some applicable law.

In joint employment there is usually a primary employer and a secondary employer. The primary employer, for example, could be a staffing agency. The staffing agency pays the worker, onboards the worker with tax and immigration forms, and assigns the worker to a worksite. The secondary employer is the company where the staffing agency worker performs the services. It’s the company that most directly benefits from the work being performed.

Even though the secondary employer expects the primary employer (the staffing agency) to pay a minimum wage, to properly calculate and pay overtime, and to provide other benefits to its primary employees, a secondary employer can be held liable if the primary employer drops the ball. If the ball dropping is a violation of the law — for example, the primary employer didn’t properly pay overtime — then both joint employers can be held liable.

Joint employment is a backup plan for what happens when the primary employer doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. If Staffing Agency A goes bankrupt and doesn’t pay wages, or if it miscalculates overtime, or if it doesn’t pay for off-the-clock work, both Staffing Agency A and Company B can be deemed joint employers. As joint employers, either company can be held fully liable when a worker doesn’t get what the law says he or she should get.

Let’s digest that for a moment: That means a joint employer can be held responsible for wage and hour violations even when it has no control over how the primary employer runs payroll or calculates worker pay.

In other words, being a joint employer can mean getting punished for things you didn’t do — and weren’t expected to do. As we explained here, it’s like taking steroids by accident.

That hardly seems fair. But it’s the law, intended to protect workers and to ensure there are deep pockets somewhere to ensure the worker is properly compensated for work performed.

So do you want to avoid joint employment? Not necessarily.  Joint employment by itself is not against the law. It is not illegal to be a joint employer.  Joint employment becomes a problem only when the primary employer didn’t treat its employees as the law requires. The law doesn’t care who was supposed to do it. In a joint employment situation, both companies are responsible.

That’s why a detailed contract is so important when engaging a staffing firm to supply employee labor. Contracts with staffing agencies should clearly spell out which company is responsible for what. You can read more here about common deficiencies in off-the-shelf staffing agency contracts. Those agreements generally need to be beefed up to provide proper protection.

How do you know if you are a joint employer? That’s (unfortunately) a tougher question to answer. The test for Who Is a Joint Employer? varies state-by-state, law-by-law. Here is a map showing the current chaos and inconsistencies in the tests. Several previous blog posts address the various tests being used and how these tests continue to develop. We’ll continue to post frequently on developments in joint employment, which is one of the focal points of this blog.

For now, my best non-legal advice is: Subscribe to this blog!

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

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