There are quite a few songs about gals named Sue. There’s “Peggy Sue,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Susie Q,” and “Runaround Sue.” There’s a even a song about a “Boy Named Sue.” (The results of a recent survey consisting of me revealed that “Boy Named Sue” is by far the best of the Sue-themed songs.)
As far as I know, no one has yet written a song about Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su, but I would not be surprised if one of the unions in California wrote a ballad to applaud her work heading the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) and Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Maybe something like Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.”
Su is Biden’s pick for Secretary of Labor, following the resignation of Marty Walsh, who left to lead the NHL player’s union. Her nomination is controversial, and businesses fear they’ll be singing the blues if she’s confirmed.
But in a recent Senate committee hearing, she provided at least two answers that businesses will like.
First, she said she would not advocate for an independent contractor test modeled after California’s AB 5. She testified that it’s her view (mine too, probably the courts’ too) that only Congress could adopt an ABC Test to determine worker classification under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). That’s reassuring.
Second, she said that the DOL’s next regulatory agenda would not include a new joint employer test. The 2020 joint employer regulation adopted by the Trump DOL has been rescinded, and there has been no replacement regulation, which leaves a regulatory crater in the Code of Federal Regulations, where the joint employer rule used to be. Read more here.
On April 26, a Senate committee voted to advance Su’s nomination to the full Senate. All Democrats on the committee voted yes, and she received no Republican support. In a 51-49 Senate, the success of her nomination will likely depend on whether she can secure the support of Senators Manchin, Sinema, and Tester and whether Sen. Feinstein is healthy enough to vote.
And on that note, we turn back to Johnny Cash:
He said, “Now you just fought one heck of a fight And I know you hate me, and you got the right to kill me now And I wouldn’t blame you if you do But you ought to thank me, before I die For the gravel in ya gut and the spit in ya eye ‘Cause I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue”
In the Muppet Movie, Kermit famously wondered, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”
Articles in Psychology Today and Remind Magazine have attempted to answer this question. A blog post on the Tough Pigs website almost took a contrary view in a post titled “Why There AREN’T So Many Songs About Rainbows,” but that was a twitter gimmick asking for wrong answers only.
Turns out there are quite a few songs about rainbows. You can google it. There’s also a pretty good band called Rainbow (“Man on the Silver Mountain,” “Since You Been Gone”), and the University of Hawaii’s teams are the Rainbow Warriors, f/k/a just the Rainbows, which probably didn’t frighten much of their football competition in the Mountain West.
I’m inspired by Kermit’s lyrical question, but my thoughts stray in a different direction: Why are there so many … joint employment tests, just under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Shouldn’t courts applying a federal law use the same test in every jurisdiction? Of course they should, but they don’t.
Here are the current tests for joint employment under the FLSA, in a nutshell:
The First, Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits apply a four-factor test based on a 1983 case called Bonette. The test considers whether the putative joint employer (1) can hire and fire employees, (2) controls employees’ work and employment conditions, (3) determines rates of pay, and (4) maintains employment records. Bonnette v. Cal. Health & Welfare Agency, 704 F.2d 1465 (9th Cir. 1983).
The Second Circuit rejects the Bonette test as too focused on agency, instead applying a non-exclusive six-factor test. Zheng v. Liberty Apparel Co, Inc., 355 F.3d 61, 71-76 (2d Cir. 2003).
The Eleventh Circuit applies an eight-factor test that includes the Bonette factors and adds factors related to economic dependence. Layton v. DHL Express (USA), Inc., 686 F.3d 1172, 1176-78 (11th Cir. 2012).
The Fourth Circuit is having none of what the other circuits are having and goes in an entirely different direction. The Fourth Circuit’s test compares the two putative employers to determine whether they are “completely dissociated.” Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d 125 (4th Cir. 2017); Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757 (4th Cir. 2017). The Fourth Circuit’s test is so far off the mark that it relies on a (mis)interpretation of a federal regulation that no longer exists.
And speaking of federal regulations that no longer exist, the Department of Labor’s regulation defining joint employment under the FLSA? You guessed it. It no longer exists.
In 2021, the DOL rescinded the joint employer regulation that had been adopted by the Trump DOL in 2020. The 2020 regulation has rescinded the previous regulation, which had been around for decades. No new regulation has been adopted, and so there is no regulation. Part 791 of Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, formerly home to the DOL’s joint employment regulation, is empty.
So, why are there so many tests for joint employment? No good reason. There just are.
But that could change. Following a recent Ninth Circuit decision tagging Los Angeles County as a joint employer, L.A. County has petitioned the Supreme Court to reconsider the joint employment test. So we’ll see what happens there. A conservative Supreme Court majority might recognize how absurd it is that one federal statute can be interpreted so many different ways. Maybe they’ll take the case and announce one test for everyone.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for the joint employer test under the FLSA, you’ll need to look in several places. The test depends on where you are. All of us under its spell. We probably know that it’s ma-gic!
When I hear the name Lorena, my mind automatically goes back to 1993, which is probably true for many men about my age. That’s the year when Lorena Bobbitt brought a kitchen knife into the bedroom and cut off her husband John’s member while he was sleeping. She then tossed it in a field near the house, alerted police where to find it, and became an overnight celebrity for having taken revenge after years of alleged domestic abuse.
John later tried to cash in on the detachment, forming a band called The Severed Parts and appearing in two pornos called John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut and Frankenpenis.
It was a different Lorena who grabbed headlines last week, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether it’s unconstitutional to pass a law because of personal animus.
The law is California’s AB 5, and the Lorena is former California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. As a quick refresher, AB 5 is the California law that imposed a hard-to-satisfy ABC Test for determining independent contractor status. Lorena Gonzalez, a driving force behind the bill, was vocal in her animus toward rideshare and delivery app companies.
In Olson v. California, the rideshare and delivery app companies sued to invalidate AB 5, arguing that the law contained dozens of exceptions targeted toward a grab bag of industries, and their exclusion from the list of exemptions was due to animus toward them, rather than reason.
This might have been a hard argument to make, but for Lorena. Congresswoman Gonzalez made frequent public statements against rideshare and delivery companies, claiming they mistreated workers by not classifying them as employees. Gonzalez said she was open to including exceptions in the bill, but not for these companies. The legislature then passed an exemption for other referral-based app businesses, but not rideshare or delivery, even though the business models are basically the same. A few other vocal lawmakers joined Gonzalez with similar public statements targeting the rideshare and delivery app companies. It’s the old familiar “[insert name] said the quiet part aloud” story.
Last week the Ninth Circuit ruled that personal animus is not a legit reason to pass a law. The Court wrote, “We are persuaded that these allegations plausibly state a claim that the ‘singling out’ of Plaintiffs effectuated by A.B. 5, as amended, fails to meet the relatively easy standard of rational basis review.” The Court was referring to the standard used for evaluating equal protection claims under the Constitution. It does not advance a governmental interest to pass a law out of a desire to harm a politically unpopular group of citizens.
The Court’s ruling did not overturn AB 5. The ruling sent the case back to the district court, which will have to reopen the case against AB 5.
For now the law remains in effect, and there is no immediate impact to businesses in California. But the fight to overturn AB 5 has fresh legs and some momentum.
In other words, businesses in California are still subject to the ABC Test — unless you’re a licensed insurance business or individual, physician, surgeon, dentist, podiatrist, psychologist, veterinarian, lawyer, architect, engineer, private investigator, accountant, registered securities broker-dealer or investment adviser, direct sales salesperson, commercial fisherman working on American vessels for a limited period, marketer, human resources administrator, travel agent, graphic designer, grant writer, fine artist, payment processing agent, still photographer or photo journalist, freelance writer, editor, or cartoonist, licensed esthetician, electrogist, manicurist, barber, cosmetologist, real estate licensee, repossession agent, recording artist, songwriter, lyricist, composer, proofer, manager of recording artists, record producer or director, musical engineer or mixer, vocalist, musician engaged in the creation of sound recording, photographer working on recording photo shoots or album covers, independent radio promoter, newspaper distributor working under contract with a newspaper publisher, newspaper carrier working under contract either with a newspaper publisher or newspaper distributor, contracting party in certain types of business-to-business relationships, or referral agency other than for rideshare or delivery — all of which are subject to possible exemptions.
And so you can see the point. The exemptions are a mishmosh created by special interests and lobbying efforts, with no coherent overall theme — except to make sure rideshare and delivery apps are subject to the ABC Test.
We’ll continue to follow this case. Meanwhile, if you’d like to read more about the original Lorena and the incident, there’s a Lifetime movie, an Amazon docuseries, and a whole bunch ofarticles.
In Denbighshire, Wales, the Howatson family lives in a small house that sits… wait for it… in the middle of a roundabout.
In the early 1980s, after the family had been in the house for 20 years, local authorities told them their property sat smack in the middle of where a roundabout was to be built. The family refused to sell, and they now have lovely 360-degree views of people driving around their house all day and night.
The Department of Labor is taking is a more direct approach in its effort to update the worker classification test under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But it’s a slow process, and it will be several more months before we see a final rule.
But this post will provide a status update. Long story short, we’ll see a new rule when the DOL gets around to it.
In October 2022, the DOL released its proposed new test for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The proposed rule generated more than 50,000 comments in response. I posted some initial reactions to the proposed rule in this article here.
The proposed rule identifies seven factors to consider when determining whether an independent contractor has been misclassified under the FLSA:
1. Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill;
2. Investments by the worker and the employer;
3. Degree of permanence of the work relationship;
4. Nature and degree of control;
5. Extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business;
6. Skill and initiative; and
7. Additional factors.
Under federal law, the rulemaking process involves three main steps. First, the agency posts a proposed new regulation. That’s what the DOL did in October.
Second, there is a public comment period, in which anyone can submit a comment to the DOL. The most effective comments tend to assist the agency in evaluating its proposed rule, such as explaining likely unintended consequences or identifying concerns with how it is written. Comments can also offer legal arguments as to why the agency’s proposed rule is not consistent with the law it is supposed to be interpreting.
Finally, after reviewing the comments, the agency will publish a final rule. The final rule might differ from the proposed rule, or it could be the same. Or the agency can jettison the proposed rule entirely and do nothing. Here that last option is unlikely. The DOL will almost certainly issue a new rule.
On December 13, I submitted a lengthy comment on behalf of Flex, the trade organization representing app-based rideshare and delivery platforms. The full comment is available here, and I thought it might be helpful to summarize the main points for this audience.
The comment included two parts.
Part One argues that the DOL should not abandon the current rule (the 2021 Rule), which was passed less than two years ago. The 2021 Rule was adopted after a thorough rulemaking process and comment period, and the rule was developed based on a detailed analysis by the DOL of decades of case law. The 2021 Rule focused on two core factors, rather than offering a multitude of factors that have no pre-assigned weight. The 2021 Rule offered more predictability for businesses and contractors, and predictability in the law is — to put it bluntly — good. A regulation should add clarity, and the 2021 Rule added clarity.
Part One also pointed out that the 2021 Rule had done little to damper the DOL’s efforts at combatting misclassification. The DOL has published a long list of successes in obtaining settlements and judgments in the last three months alone.
Abandoning the 2021 Rule would also be arbitrary and capricious, meaning it might not survive a legal challenge, and we urged the DOL not to make a change.
Part Two argues that even if the DOL decides to abandon the 2021 Rule, the proposed new rule needs some work. Part Two focused on seven aspects of the proposed new rule that the DOL should change.
The key thing to remember is that the DOL wants to go back to a multi-factor test. Multi-factor tests have been around for a long time, but the devil here is in the details. If you read the DOL’s description of each factor and how it should be applied, the DOL is putting its fingers on the scale, taking every close call (and some that aren’t close) and resolving them in favor of employee status.
I will list the seven arguments below to provide a general sense of the key points. But, since this is supposed to be a quick read format, I’m not going to wade into the details. You can read the full comment if you like.
From the Table of Contents to Part Two:
1) In Factor #1, the Commentary about “Managerial Skill” Should Be Deleted or Revised Because It Fails to Account for the Realities of 21st Century Work.
2) Factor #2 Should Be Substantially Revised to Remove Provisions That Are Illogical, Incompatible with Economic Realities, and Contrary to FLSA Case Law.
3) Factor #4 Should Remove the Commentary That Legally Required Control May Be Relevant Evidence of Control Because This Commentary Is Contrary to Controlling Case Law, Contrary to this Department’s Own Guidance, and Not Probative of the Economic Realities of a Relationship.
4) In Factor #4, Use of Technology to Supervise Should Not Be Referenced as a Relevant Control Factor.
5) Factor #5 Should Preserve the Current “Integrated Unit of Production” Analysis and Should Not Adopt a Flawed “Integral Part” Analysis That is Contrary to Case Law and Legally Unsupported.
6) Any Final Rule Should Preserve the Helpful Subregulatory Guidance in Fact Sheet #13, Clarifying That Certain Factors Are Not Relevant.
7) Any Final Rule Should Replace the Term “Employer” with “Principal” or a Similarly Neutral Term.
And now onto Step Three of the DOL’s rulemaking process. Last week, the Biden Administration published its overall regulatory agenda for 2023. It included a May 2023 placeholder for a proposed final rule. That’s just a best guess at this point, and with more than 50,000 comments for the DOL to review, the actual release date may be several months later. But the DOL, at least at present, appears prepared to move forward with a new rule to determine independent contractor vs. employee status under the FLSA.
We’ll continue to monitor developments, in a roundabout way.
If you google “what to watch for 2023,” you’ll mostly get tips on soon-to-be-released movies and streaming video shows. You’ll get grammatically impossible generic hype like “movies we can’t wait to see” (except the whole point is that you have to wait to see them) and you’ll get grammatically impossible niche hype like “The most anticipated Korean dramas and movies we can’t wait to watch in 2023.”
We won’t peddle hype in this post, and you’ll literally have to wait for all of the things addressed below. But here are five important developments to watch for in 2023.
1. The test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is likely to change, at least under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Department of Labor proposed a new multi-factor test, and the period for public comment ended December 13. The DOL is likely to roll out a new test in 2023. It will replace the current core factors test described here.
2. The test for Joint Employment is likely to change, at least under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In September, the NLRB proposed a new test for determining when joint employment exists under the NLRA. You can read more here. The public comment period has closed, and we can expect a new test sometime in 2023.
3. The NLRB is likely to rule that independent contractor misclassification, by itself, is an unfair labor practice. The NLRB General Counsel has expressed an intent to reverse the Velox Express decision from 2019, in which the Board ruled that misclassification was not an automatic ULP. More information is here. Now that the Board majority has switched from Republican to Democrat, expect a decision in 2023 that creates an automatic ULP when there’s a finding of worker misclassification.
4. Expect state legislatures to keep changing the tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee. Some states will try to make it harder to maintain independent contractor status by passing ABC Tests, in either a standard or strict version. A few conservative states may go the other way and adopt the latest version of the Uniform Worker Classification Act proposed by ALEC. The law would create a safe harbor for independent contractor classification if certain requirements are followed, including having a written contract. Versions of this law have been passed in West Virginia and Louisiana. You can read more here. Expect Oklahoma to be next.
5. Expect significant rulings on California independent contractor law. Several important cases are pending. These include Olson v. State of California, which challenges the constitutionality of AB 5. Oral argument was held in the Ninth Circuit in July 2022. In another case, the California Court of Appeal is considering the legality of Prop 22, the successful ballot measure that helped to protect independent contractor status for rideshare and delivery drivers using app services. Oral argument in that case, Castellanos v. State of California, was held in December 2022.
The law regarding contingent workforce is constantly changing, and 2023 looks to be another year of significant transformation. As always, it will be a good idea to watch these new developments carefully, as they will likely have a significant impact on companies using independent contractors and other contingent workforce arrangements.
If you have a beard at least 8 inches long, here’s an opportunity you might not have considered. At a bar in Casper, Wyoming, a group of bewhiskered patrons tied their beards together to take the world’s record for Longest Beard Chain.
How long? 150 feet, shattering the previous record of 62 feet, set by a shaggy German crew in 2007.
But that wasn’t even the hairiest highlight of the weekend. Down the street was the National Beard and Moustache Championships, a visual delight featuring moustache categories such as best handlebar, Dali, freestyle, and uber-stache, and partial beard categories including best friendly sideburns, goatee freestyle, musketeer, and Fu Manchu.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the west, a different sort of hairy situation was nearing conclusion for several operators of gentleman’s clubs or nightclubs or strip joints, depending on your preferred terminology.
Last week, a federal district court in San Francisco approved a settlement that combined multiple class action claims of independent contractor misclassification brought by exotic dancers. The settlement covered more than 8,000 dancers and included a total payout of $6.5 million.
The cases were complicated by a number of legal issues, including the fact that — because of the timing of the lawsuit — the question of whether the dancers were contractors or employees was to be determined using different tests for different claims. The dancers’ classification for their California wage order claims would be determined using an ABC Test, but their classification under other Labor Code claims would be determined using the Borello balancing test, which is a California hybrid of Right to Control and Economic Realities Tests.
The class period covered 2010 through 2018, so the Dynamex decision applied to the wage claims, but AB5 had not yet been enacted, which left the Borello test to govern the Labor Code claims. This post explains the complicated situation that existed at the time. Had the class covered the period from January 2020 forward, the ABC Test likely would have been used to determine classification under all of the California claims.
But there were also Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) claims. The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine a worker’s classification, but that test is fluid too. The Economic Realities Test used by most courts is different from the test that was written into the current FLSA regulations in 2020, which is different from the test the DOL recently proposed to enact in a new set of regulations currently under consideration.
So for these class members, there were at least three different tests that would determine whether they were employees or independent contractors under different laws. That’s kind of like trying to determine who had the best musketeer or Fu Manchu but with everyone’s facial hair tied together in a 150-foot beard chain.
There are a few takeaways here for the rest of us.
First, misclassification claims by exotic dancers remain common. The business model needs some internal review. But that’s probably not your concern.
Second, the settlement is a good reminder of how complicated it can be to determine a worker’s classification when multiple laws apply. Different tests apply to different laws, even within the same state. The dancers, had they gone to trial, might have been employees under some laws and contractors under other laws.
Third, there are significant costs in reclassifying contractors to employees. The settlement required the clubs to reclassify their dancers to employees, which means the dancers would become eligible for unemployment, workers’ comp coverage, and protection under the anti-discrimination and leave laws that apply to employees.
Regardless of your business, it’s always a good idea to proactively review independent contractor relationships to see how well they would withstand a classification challenge in court. Misclassification cases are high stakes and can take many twists and turns. Sort of like the facial hair in the Full Beard Freestyle category. (Photos here.)
This gem recently popped up on my twitter feed. Causes of death in London, 1632. Seems to me that cancer would be bad enough, but 10 deaths were attributable to the deadly combination of “cancer and wolf.” Sounds to me like 17th century cancer wards needed a moat.
Other notable causes of death include “Consumption” (1797) and its equally deadly opposite, “Dead in the street and starved” (6). “King’s evil” fell 38 unappreciated subjects of the Crown, and 98 died from “Rising of the lights,” which is a fate perhaps narrowly avoided by Clark in Christmas Vacation.
There were lots of things in 1630s London that could bring a person down, but happily “joint employment” is not among the recorded causes of death. Which raises this question as we head into 2023:
Can individuals be liable as joint employers?
The answer, of course, is sometimes.
The Supreme Court of Virginia recently ruled that individuals could not be joint employers under that state’s law on unpaid wages. The decision, was based on a strict reading of a state statute, which permitted only “entities” to be joint employers. The Virginia court explained that this definition was narrower than the understood meaning of joint employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
And, indeed, the FLSA does recognize that individuals may be joint employers. This nugget from the First Circuit Court of Appeals answers that question with little room for doubt: “The overwhelming weight of authority is that a corporate officer with operational control of a corporation’s covered enterprise is an employer along with the corporation, jointly and severally liable under the FLSA for unpaid wages.”Donovan v. Agnew, 712 F.2d 1509, 1511 (1st Cir.1983).
The difference is definitional. The FLSA looks to whether one or more “persons” is the employer. Persons can be individuals or entities. The Virginia statute considered only “entities.”
Individual corporate officers can, therefore, face liability as joint employers, particularly in smaller organizations where corporate formalities might not be followed as closely as they should be. For example, in the Agnew case, the court determined that “corporate officers with a significant ownership interest who had operational control of significant aspects of the corporation’s day to day functions, including compensation of employees, and who personally made decisions to continue operations despite financial adversity during the period of non-payment” were employers under the FLSA.
The bottom line here is that, yes, individuals can — at least under some circumstances — be joint employers under the FLSA. But not necessarily under every state’s law.
So that’s one more thing that individuals need to be wary of, in addition to the king’s evil and the dreaded combination of “cancer and wolf.”
If I ask you to name a song by Rick Springfield, you’ll say “Jessie’s Girl.” If I ask you to name another, you’ll look at me with a blank stare. But there’s another song you probably know. I forgot all about it too until I heard it on the 80s channel last week.
“Don’t Talk to Strangers” was released in 1982 and, around May of that year, spent four weeks at #2 on the Billboard charts. (Bonus Trivia Question: Can you name the #1 song in May 1982? The answer is below.)
Springfield had a couple of other hits too. Remember “Love Somebody” and “I’ve Done Everything for You”? Good times.
Anyway, the State of California and County of Los Angeles are hardly strangers, and they not only talk, but they collaborate on social services programs. That collaboration led to a lawsuit raising joint employer questions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The State of California and the County of Los Angeles administer an In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program, which allows low-income elderly, blind, or disabled residents of the county to hire a provider to help them with daily living activities. The State of California runs the program at a state level, through state regulations, but the counties play a role in administering the program too.
Under a 2013 DOL regulation covering domestic workers, these workers were entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA. Until late 2015, however, the regulation was vacated while a court reviewed it. The state began paying overtime in 2016.
In this lawsuit, one of the IHSS providers filed suit against Los Angeles County, seeking FLSA overtime wages for 2015, while the rule was vacated and under review.
The county responded that the state, not the county, was the employer; and therefore the county could not be liable for the state’s failure to pay overtime in 2015. The district court agreed and ruled that the state, not the county, was the employer. The county would not be liable for the unpaid overtime. Or so it thought.
In a recent decision, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that conclusion. Applying the FLSA joint employer test, the Court held that the county was a joint employer, even though it did not control payroll.
Seems a little unfair, but that’s how joint employment works.
According to the Ninth Circuit, here’s the joint employer test under the FLSA: To determine whether an entity is a joint employer, the court must consider “whether the alleged employer (1) had the power to hire and fire the employees, (2) supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment, (3) determined the rate and method of payment, and (4) maintained employment records.”
The test derives from a Ninth Circuit case called Bonette. Other circuits use slightly different tests.
Even though the state controls payroll, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the county had enough involvement, based on the four factors, to make it a joint employer. The county therefore would be jointly liable for the shortfall in overtime pay.
The case is a good reminder of the dangers of joint employment. Even if your business has no control over payroll, a joint employer is liable for the failure to pay overtime.
The idea of two different things coming together is also the answer to today’s trivia question from above: What was the #1 song on the Billboard charts in May 1982?
Have you ever gone to a new restaurant that took over the space where one of your favorite restaurants used to be?
You’ve been wanting to try the new restaurant. You get there and the menu looks similar, so you order the fettucine with shrimp because that dish was always really good at the old place. It arrives and it looks the same but you’re not sure that it tastes quite the same.
Maybe the sauce tastes a little different but it’s hard to tell for sure. Then, you get home later that night and you feel a little queasy. You realize that the new restaurant must have put onions in the sauce. You probably didn’t notice because when the dish was served it looked just like it did at the old restaurant.
But you’re not supposed to eat onions, and now you have to wait and see if you’re going to start cramping up from eating the onions or if you’re going to be just fine. You really just don’t know. It could just as easily go either way, and now all you can do is wait.
That’s kind of how I feel after reading the Department of Labor’s proposed new independent contractor rule, released earlier this week.
Click here to read the rest of the story, originally published in Law360 on 10/13/2022.
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.