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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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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Notification by Telex? Time to update your forms!

937EFF23-96B2-458B-B0DC-AA833A825379

Thank you Wikipedia, You know everything, making me feel so inadequate.

I recently edited a form agreement that allowed for notification “by facsimile or telex.” I deleted “telex” because, well, does telex even exist anymore? I then sent my edits back to the lawyer on the other side.

The other lawyer put it back in!

I then suggested he provide his client’s telex exchange and I asked if we could borrow his 50 baud modem and telex equipment to facilitate communications, because, um, our local antique store was fresh out of telex equipment. (I considered pushing back and insisting that all communications be in morse code but resisted. I admit to feeling pangs of regret that I didn’t push harder for the dashes and dots.)

People, update your forms!

If your independent contractor agreements and staffing agency agreements have not been reviewed since the widespread adoption of horseless carriages, it’s time for a fresh look. The risks of joint employment and independent contractor misclassification are real, and old forms almost definitely do not contain the types of clauses your business needs to protect itself.

For contracts with suppliers of labor, is your vendor accepting sole responsibility to do all of the things that employers must do, including hiring, firing, supervising, withholding taxes, tracking hours, and about a dozen other important tasks? Under many laws, you’re jointly liable if they fail, so you need robust contractual representations to shift liability.

Does your contract include sufficient insurance requirements and specific enough indemnity provisions to protect against a joint employment or misclassification claim?

Does your independent contractor agreement have specific descriptions of the types of control your business can and cannot exert? If you are not disclaiming the right to control a list of items, you’re missing a prime opportunity to turn the contract into strong evidence in your favor, in the event of a misclassification challenge.

For those of you, like me, who wouldn’t have the first clue how to telex someone, here’s what I learned on Wikipedia:

The telex network was a public switched network of teleprinters similar to a telephone network, for the purposes of sending text-based messages. Telex was a major method of sending written messages electronically between businesses in the post World War II period. Its usage went into decline as the fax machine grew in popularity in the 1980s.

The “telex” term refers to the network, not the teleprinters; point-to-point teleprinter systems had been in use long before telex exchanges were built in the 1930s. Teleprinters evolved from telegraph systems, and, like the telegraph, they used binary signals, which means that symbols were represented by the presence or absence of a pre-defined level of electric current. This is significantly different from the analog telephone system, which used varying voltages to encode frequency information. For this reason, telex exchanges were entirely separate from the telephone system, with their own signalling standards, exchanges and system of “telex numbers” (the counterpart of telephone numbers).

Telex provided the first common medium for international record communications using standard signalling techniques and operating criteria as specified by the International Telecommunication Union. Customers on any telex exchange could deliver messages to any other, around the world. To lower line usage, telex messages were normally first encoded onto paper tape and then read into the line as quickly as possible. The system normally delivered information at 50 baud or approximately 66 words per minute, encoded using the International Telegraph Alphabet No. 2. In the last days of the telex networks, end-user equipment was often replaced by modems and phone lines, reducing the telex network to what was effectively a directory service running on the phone network.

Keep your telex handy, my friends. You never know when you might need one — by contract.

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

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Is Joint Employment Illegal?

Is joint employment illegal? Buddha statue(Or, How is Joint Employment Like Tibetan Reincarnation?)

In Tibet, it is illegal to be reincarnated as a living Buddha unless “a majority of local religious believers and the monastery management organization” has requested the reincarnation. This is according to State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, issued in 2007, apparently to clamp down on rampant, uncontrolled reincarnations.

Joint employment is like Tibetan reincarnation in that both have lots of rules. But unlike Tibetan reincarnation, joint employment is not illegal.

Joint employment merely means that, in the eyes of the law, there are two employers. So far, no problem.

The problems arise if the primary employer doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

Consider a staffing agency scenario. The staffing agency is the primary employer. If the staffing agency’s employees are working at your company, taking direction from your supervisors, and working side-by-side with your employees, then the staffing agency workers are probably your joint employees.

The staffing agency is expected to pay its employees minimum wage, properly calculate their overtime, track their hours, etc. If they do all those things, no problem.

But if they don’t, that’s when joint employment becomes a problem. Even though your company has no control over the payroll processes of the staffing agency, your company can be held liable for their mistakes. That’s because under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), joint employers are both responsible for making sure that employees are properly paid.

The lesson here is to be careful about the companies you partner with for your staffing needs. If the agency is reliable, well-established, well-financed, and well-insured, then you should be in good shape. Fly-by-night operations that price their services at too-good-to-be-true discounts are a risk — not just because they might fail to provide you with quality employees, but because they might fail to properly pay those employees and then your company can be held responsible.

Be careful who you invite into your tent. Screen your staffing agencies. Impose contractual requirements that protect your business. Require adequate insurance. And do not ever permit any unauthorized reincarnations.

 

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

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