Sheriff’s deputies in Washington County, Oregon, responded with guns drawn, expecting they were responding to a burglary in progress. A woman had called 911, saying that someone had broken into her house and locked themselves in the bathroom. She could hear rustling noises from behind the bathroom door, even though she knew she hadn’t allowed anyone into her home.
The officers entered the home and heard it too. They demanded that the suspect come out of the bathroom, hands raised. But no one responded. They busted open the door, ready to take down the suspected burglar by force.
What they found instead was a Roomba. The homeowner’s robotic vacuum cleaner had gotten stuck in the bathroom.
Calling the Roomba a burglar didnt make it a burglar, and calling in a suspected burglary did not make the woman a victim.
People make mistakes, and calling something the wrong thing can be an excusable mistake.
That’s essentially what the National Labor Relations Board ruled late last week, in a major pro-business decision.
In a case called Velox Express, The Board ruled that to misclassify a worker as an independent contractor — when the worker should have been an employee — is not a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the Act).
The Board reasoned that The Act prohibits interfering with employees’ Section 7 rights. Section 7 rights refer to employees’ right to engage in protected concerted activities, such as banding together to complain about their treatment. The Board said that by misclassifying employees as independent contractors, a company is merely stating a legal opinion about what the worker is. Telling workers they are contractors does not, by itself, interfere with their ability to organize or engage in protected concerted activity. If they’re really employees, they still can. It’s only if the company coerces or threatens the workers that the company interferes and then violates the Act.
The Board further reasoned that it’s hard sometimes to tell whether a worker is a contractor or an employee, and Congress did not intend to punish companies for making a mistake.
This decision will be blasted by worker advocates and, frankly, it’s surprising even to me.
The ALJ Decision That Led to This Ruling
We wrote about this case previously here, when an Administrative Law Judge made three important rulings.
First, the ALJ found that Velox exercised significant control over how its delivery drivers performed their work, which made them drivers under the NLRB’s Right to Control Test.
Second, the ALJ ruled that Velox violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act when it discharged driver Jeannie Edge for raising group complaints that Velox exercised too much control over its drivers. (In a somewhat ironic twist, Edge wanted to be an independent contractor but had perceived, correctly, that Velox was treating its drivers more like employees, even though it was calling them contractors. Edge wanted Velox to treat the drivers more hands-off, the way contractors would typically be treated.)
Third, the ALJ ruled that misclassifying an independent contractor was, by itself, a violation of the NLRA. The ALJ’s reasoning was that by misclassifying workers as independent contractors, the company was in effect telling the workers they had no rights under the NLRA, since that Act protects only employees, not independent contractors.
The case was appealed to the full Board, which agreed that (1) the Velox drivers were really employees under the common law Right to Control Test, and (2) Velox violated Section 8(a)(1) when it discharged Edge for engaging in protected concerted activity.
But the Board rejected Finding #3, ruling instead that misclassifying workers as independent contractors is, ho-hum, merely expressing a legal opinion. Section 8(c) of the Act says it’s not a violation to express an opinion.
The Board recognized that the outcome would be different if the company misclassified its workers as contractors for the purpose of interfering with employees’ Section 7 rights or to coerce them not to exercise those rights. But misclassification alone is not a violation of the NLRA.
So, Is Misclassification Now Lawful? Hey Man, Are You Gonna Shut Down the Blog?
No! and No! This decision says only that the act of misclassification is not an automatic violation of the NLRA. That’s just one law.
When a company misclassifies an employee as an independent contractor, every other law related to employees still applies. A company that misclassifies employees as contractors can still be violating tax law by not withholding from wages; can be held liable for violating wage and hour law by failing to pay a minimum wage or overtime or failing to provide meal and rest breaks; can still be in violation of state workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance law by failing to pay into those systems; can be in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act by failing to offer the type of leave available to employees; and can still find itself in violation of every other law that grants rights to employees when the company does not grant those rights.
Misclassification can still violate the NLRA too, if a company engages in misclassification for the purpose of interfering with employees’ rights.
The game is still very much on.
So What Impact Will This Decision Have?
Probably not much. It sounds like a doozy, and it is; but as a practical matter, it probably doesn’t change a whole lot. Independent Contractor Misclassification still has significant legal consequences, and companies who misclassify workers as independent contractors when they should really be employees still face liability under a long list of employment, tax, and benefit laws. Violations of these laws continue to result in massive liabilities, often in the many millions of dollars.
This pro-business decision by the Board may result in fewer unfair labor practice disputes, but even that outcome seems unlikely. Disputes over employee vs. independent contractor status usually arise because there’s a real dispute over how a company is treating its workers, not merely because it used the wrong terminology. Any failure by a company to grant employees rights they are entitled to receive is still a violation of law, even if it’s no longer a violation of the NLRA merely to call an employee an independent contractor.
© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.
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