Stop the Leaks! What if White House Staffers Were Independent Contractors?

Sessions stop the leaks independent contractorsTrump and Sessions wants to prosecute the leakers. As we’ve seen before, stopping leaks can become a Presidential obsession. In Nixon’s White House, the Plumbers were tasked with stopping leaks of classified information, such as the Pentagon Papers. Through the Committee to Re-Elect the President (fittingly, CREEP), members of the Plumbers broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Some of you may have heard about what happened next.

Presidential aides and White House staffers routinely have access to information that is intended to remain confidential. Businesses face the same issue. A company’s employees often have access to confidential or trade secret information that would be harmful in the hands of competitors, or that could damage the business if released to the general public.

It’s commonplace to require employees in such positions to sign Nondisclosure Agreements (NDAs).  NDAs typically define the scope of confidential information and require employees to refrain from using or disclosing any of it outside of work.

But what about independent contractors? Non-employees like specialists or consultants are often retained to work on sensitive company projects. In the course of that work, they are often granted access to confidential information.

Should independent contractors sign NDAs too? You bet! If they will be granted access to confidential or trade secret information, NDAs are important.

They can be used in a stand-alone agreement or as part of a broader independent contractor agreement containing other terms.

It is arguably even more important to have a contractor sign an NDA than it is for an employee to be required to sign one. Why?

Employees, by their nature, are agents of the company and are presumed to be acting to further the employer’s interests. NDAs are a useful reminder to employees of their obligations to the employer, and NDAs can expand — by contract — the scope of protection offered by trade secret laws.

Independent contractors, in contrast, are in business for themselves. They are generally not agents of the business, and any obligation they have to preserve confidential information will stem mainly from contractual obligations, rather than from trade secret law.

In fact, trade secret laws generally require a company to prove that it takes steps to safeguard the privacy of trade secret information — that is, steps to prevent other people from accessing it. By sharing trade secrets with a non-employee contractor, the company may — through that act alone — risk losing trade secret protection for their confidential business information.  They’ve shared it outside the company.

That is where NDAs come in. If a contractor is required to sign an NDA as a condition of the retention, then the employer can much more confidently share confidential and trade secret information with the contractor.

The NDA not only creates a contractual obligation on the contractor to preserve the secrecy of the information, but it also bolsters the company’s ability to show that it takes active steps to protect its confidential information. In other words, the NDA helps the business show that it does not tell an outsider its trade secrets without first obtaining a signed NDA.

The lesson here is simple. If your independent contractor will be granted access to confidential information — even incidentally or accidentally — NDAs can provide important protections to the business.

If the contractor leaks the information anyway, you can always find some goons to break into the office of the contractor’s psychiatrist to get some dirt on him.  (That was a joke. Don’t do that!) Legal remedies are available. Don’t break into anyone’s office. Please.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Avoid These FMLA Traps with Joint Employment

nurse - FMLA leave and joint employment-359321_1920The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is already one of the hardest employment laws to comply with. Add joint employment into the mix, and the level of difficulty further increases.

Here are some pointers for handling FMLA issues when joint employment is likely to exist:

Issue 1: Is there Joint Employment?

To determine whether two companies are joint employers under the FMLA, the Economic Realities Test is used. This is the same test used under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). (See this post for a recent development that threatens to expand the definition of joint employment under the FLSA.)

The DOL has advised that in most staffing agency relationships, there is joint employment.

Issue 2: How Does Joint Employment Affect An Employee’s FMLA Eligibility?

In this post, we addressed how service time as a temp counts toward the one-year and 1250-hour requirements for an employee’s FMLA eligibility. The same holds true for current staffing agency workers, with a few additional items to remember.

One of the requirements for FMLA eligibility is the existence of 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. So you thought counting was easy? Here are two rules to remember:

  • Staffing agency workers count for both the staffing agency and the company for whom services are being provided.
  • When applying the 75-mile radius rule, the staffing agency worker’s worksite is the location from which work is assigned, unless the worker has been working at a location for more than a year, in which case the physical worksite is used.

Issue 3: Who Is Responsible for What?

The DOL has published this handy dandy Fact Sheet, which describes the FMLA obligations of “primary” and “secondary” employers. In staffing agency relationships, the staffing agency is the primary employer, and the company receiving the services is the secondary employer.

Responsibilities of the primary employer (the staffing agency):

  1. Provide FMLA Notices;
  2. Provide FMLA leave to eligible employees;
  3. Maintain group health insurance benefits during the leave;
  4. Restore the employee to the same job or an equivalent job upon return from leave;
  5. Keep all records required under FMLA for its primary employees.

The primary employer is also prohibited from interfering with a jointly-employed employee’s exercise of or attempt to exercise his or her FMLA rights, or from firing or discriminating against an employee for opposing a practice that is unlawful under the FMLA.

Responsibilities of the secondary employer:

  1. Restore an employee to the same or equivalent job upon return from FMLA leave;
  2. Keep identifying information and payroll records for any jointly-employed employees; and
  3. Comply with all the provisions of the FMLA for its regular, permanent workforce.

A secondary employer is also prohibited from interfering with a jointly-employed employee’s exercise of or attempt to exercise his or her FMLA rights, or from firing or discriminating against an employee for opposing a practice that is unlawful under the FMLA.

Are we having fun yet?

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Joint Employment Is Like Taking Steroids By Accident

athlete-joint employment - staffing agency - 1840437_1920It seems like every month another professional athlete is caught using a prohibited substance. The typical script (after getting caught) is to blame the maker of a supplement. “I should have more carefully checked the label,” or “I had no way of knowing what was in that synthetic elephant urine.”

Fair or unfair, every athlete knows that he/she is responsible for what goes into the athlete’s body, whether the juicing was intentional or not.

The same rule applies to companies who use staffing agencies.

When workers are deemed to be joint employees, both the staffing agency and the company that benefits from the services are responsible for failures to follow employment law. It doesn’t matter who made the mistake.

Under the FLSA, for example, employers must pay non-exempt employees a minimum wage, must pay for all hours worked, must pay overtime, and must properly calculate overtime rates. Sometimes this is hard. Two traps that ensnare even the most sophisticated employers are the challenge of accounting for off-the-clock work (checking email by cell phone, for example), and calculating the base hourly rate when there are bonuses and other forms of compensation provided.

Joint employment means joint liability. If the staffing agency responsible for paying employees makes an error, both companies are on the hook. That means a company can be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages  — including back pay, attorneys’ fees, and liquidated damages — for errors it had no control over.

When the potential exists for a finding of joint employment, be careful when selecting  vendors who supply workers. Here are three tips:

  1. Be sure any vendors who supply workers are reputable, competent, professional, and reliable. (Four tips in one! you’ll thank me later)
  2. Be sure they stand behind their obligations with a suitable (and specific) indemnity clause.
  3. Be sure they are sufficiently insured.

Remember, under the FLSA (and many other laws), your company may be jointly liable for a staffing agency’s mistakes — even if you had no control over their pay practices.

Using staffing agency workers is like taking a performance supplement. It may enhance the bottom line and improve overall performance, but any funny business is your responsibility.

It doesn’t matter who put the horse steroid in your protein powder. If you ingest it, you are responsible for it.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Never Been Sued? Congratulations! Here’s Why You Should Re-Evaluate Your Use of Independent Contractors Now.

IMG_1072Have you ever heard someone say, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result“? That’s just wrong. No, it’s insanely wrong. (Irony! Actual definition, click here).

  • If you flip a coin 5 times and it comes up heads each time, is it insane to think it might come up tails next time?
  • If you play golf in a lightning storm five times and never get hit, is it insane to think you might get a nice electrical jolt next time?
  • If you root for the Browns to win a football game and they never do, is it insane to think they never will? [Note to self: Delete that. Bad example. It is true that they might never win a game. Shameful admission: I am a Browns fan.]

My consistent advice to companies that use independent contractors is to be proactive. Review your policies, practices, and documents now — before you get sued or audited. Many take this advice. Those who do not generally give two reasons:

  1. We don’t want to spend the money now; and
  2. We’ve always done it this way and have never been sued.

Folks, that kind of thinking is: n. extreme foolishness; folly; senselessness; foolhardiness.

Here are a few quick facts:

  1. Every company that has been sued for independent contractor misclassification had never been sued before the first time it was sued.
  2. Every company that has been audited for independent contractor misclassification had never been audited before the first time it was audited.

Continue reading

Can an Intern be an Independent Contractor? (Answers revealed in James Bond movies)

IMG_1068Among James Bond films, Rotten Tomatoes ranks Never Say Never Again 18th out of 26, with a mediocre 63% rating. (Bond movie quiz at the end of this post, for patient readers.)

It’s a cliche saying, I know, but my first reaction when asked this question was, “I’d never say never, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would work.” (That was also my second reaction and my third. Let’s just say that’s my reaction.)

Let’s run this through the gauntlet. Remember, it’s not your choice whether an intern is an independent contractor or an employee. The law decides that for you, based on the nature of the relationship.

Test #1: Economic Realities Test. Under federal wage and hour laws, an independent Continue reading

Today’s Tip: Avoid Telling Contractors How to Perform the Work (with Stones lyrics)

IMG_1066The great scholar Mick Jagger reminds his followers that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need. This is good advice, not just for Mr. Jimmy (who did look pretty ill), but also for companies who use independent contractors.

In a true independent contractor relationship, the hiring entity knows what it needs. It needs results, but the details about how, when, and where to work toward those results are left to the contractor’s discretion. There is no oversight or supervision.

The more direction a company provides a contractor on how to perform the work, the more likely the contractor is misclassified and the relationship will be deemed employment. You might want to control these things, but if they are not necessary to get what you need, then you should try sometimes and you might find you can get what you need without exerting extra control over the contractor. Continue reading

Trump’s Tax Plan Is Great News for Independent Contractors! Here’s Why.

IMG_1063President Trump’s tax plan, released last week, is great news for independent contractors. Contractors may be able to cut their tax rates by half (or more) by creating an entity, instead of contracting as an individual. Indirectly, this would help companies who use contractors as well. Here’s why:

Benefit to Individuals:

For individuals, the proposal would reduce personal tax rates modestly. An individual being paid as an independent contractor will likely see a reduction in marginal tax rates, but the range is likely to remain somewhere between 25% and 35%, depending on income level.

For individuals being paid through their homemade entities, however, the proposal could result in substantial savings. Currently, pass-through entities like LLCs pay taxes at the rate of the individual. The sole owner of an LLC would pay taxes on the LLC’s profits at the individual’s personal income tax rate, likely between 25% and 35%.

Under the proposal, however, pass-through entities such as LLCs and partnerships would instead be taxed on pass-through business income at 15%. That’s a sizable savings compared to 25-35%.

If this proposal passes, individual independent contractors will have a strong financial incentive to incorporate. Creating an LLC is relatively inexpensive. If it leads to Continue reading