The Ohio Supreme Court Just Made It Much Harder to Win a Misclassification Dispute

In the middle of the Bering Sea sit two islands, Little Diomede (U.S.) and Big Diomede (Russia). They sit less than three miles apart, but Big Diomede is 21 hours ahead. That’s because the International Date Line straddles the two. This would make scheduling play dates nearly impossible, but fortunately no one lives on Big Diomede. Little Diomede is home to about 115 brave (and very isolated) souls.

The Diomedes are a great example of being close but still so far away. The Ohio Supreme Court gave us another example in a worker misclassification dispute earlier this month. Ohio companies should pay close attention to this surprising — and bad — decision.

In this case, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) had determined that an underground-cable installation company had misclassified its workers as independent contractors rather than as employees.

The BWC looked back 5 years and handed the company a bill for $350,000 in back assessments for failing to pay into the workers compensation system. Companies pay into the system for employees, but not for contractors. The company appealed, arguing that under Ohio’s Right to Control Test, the installers were properly classified as contractors, meaning the back assessments were not warranted. The company provided evidence showing that the Right to Control factors tilted in favor of contractor status.

The Ohio Supreme Court reviewed the evidence and did not disagree with the company. You’d think, therefore, that they’d reverse the BWC decision, and the company would be relieved from paying the back assessments.

Nope.

The company was close, but oh so far from winning its appeal. That’s because the deck is stacked heavily against companies when it comes to challenging the BWC on worker classification determinations.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, under Ohio law, so long as there is “some evidence” that could support the BWC’s conclusion, the BWC’s decision was untouchable. This is insane.

In every case involving a balancing test — like the Right to Control Test used here — there will be at least some evidence supporting employee status and some evidence supporting contractor status. The point of the test is to weight the competing factors and see which direction the scales tilt.

But according to this ruling, Ohio law grants the BWC an absurd level of deference. The decision appears to say that a court must accept the BWC’s conclusion, even if the scales tilt the other way, so long as there is “some evidence” to support the BWC’s findings.

For Ohio businesses using independent contractors, this ruling means trouble. The BWC is, of course, incentivized to find misclassification because it means more money for the state. After this ruling, companies appear to have little recourse for challenging the BWC, even when the BWC is wrong.

Ohio companies should immediately evaluate their misclassification risks. If a contractor gets hurt and brings a workers comp claim, the BWC will look for misclassification. If the BWC finds it, the BWC will not only grant workers comp coverage for the injured contractor, it will issue back assessments against the company for failing to pay into the workers comp system — with a look back of five years.

Back assessments can also be triggered by an audit.

Same for unemployment. An unemployment claim by a contractor can lead to the same result, with Ohio Job & Family Services making the misclassification call. Back assessments would issue in that scenario too for failing to pay into the unemployment fund.

This ruling goes against the whole point of having a balancing test. I might have expected this level of deference from California or New York, but not Ohio. This ruling was issued by a Republican-majority Supreme Court.

Like the Diomedes Islands, what appears close can be so far away. Your business might be able to show all the reasons why your contractors are properly classified, but it doesn’t even have to be a close call for you to lose. If BWC finds misclassification and there’s merely “some evidence “ to support its conclusion, you might as well be arguing your point in Russian, the language of all zero inhabitants of Big Diomede.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Joint Employment Update: Ohio Law Throws Franchisors a Bone, But It’s Not Entirely Delicious

This is Zippy enjoying a delicious treat.

When I throw my dog a bone, she is so happy. She goes and gets it, eats it, and wonders why she is unable to speak to express her gratitude. She doesn’t wonder, “Why is he throwing me a mere bone instead of an entire squirrel?” The bone is enough for complete contentment.

Ohio lawmakers have thrown franchisors a bone. They’ve limited the circumstances when franchisors can be held jointly liable if individual franchise owners commit certain Ohio employment law violations.

Under the new law, franchisors are not jointly liable for minimum wage, overtime, or pay frequency violations by franchise owners and are not jointly responsible for franchise owners’ responsibilities under unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation law — unless: Continue reading

What is the Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee? (Jan. 2019)

what is the test for independent contractor misclassificationSeems like a simple question, but it isn’t. My question to your question is, “Why do you ask?” That’s because the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is different under different laws.

And worse, the tests keep changing, as we saw in Monday’s post about the NLRB’s SuperShuttle decision.

As of today, January 31, 2019, here’s where we stand:

The current tests for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee are:

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)

Right to Control Test (SuperShuttle version, as of 1/25/19)

Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), ERISA

Right to Control Test (Darden version, or some variant of it, as applied circuit by circuit)

Internal Revenue Service

Right to Control Test (IRS version)

Affordable Care Act

Right to Control Test (emphasis on particular factors, based on regulation)

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Economic Realities Test (which different courts articulate differently)

California, Massachusetts wage & hour laws

ABC Tests (strict version of Part B)

New Jersey wage & hour

ABC Test (regular version of Part B)

California state laws other than wage & hour

S.G. Borello & Sons Test (customized hybrid version of Right to Control & Economic Realities Tests), we think, for now

State Unemployment and Workers Comp Laws

Pick a card, any card. Tests vary substantially state to state. Some are Right to Control Tests, some are ABC Tests, some are entirely made-up, customized tests that require consideration of — or proof of — specific factors

Other State Laws (wage & hour, discrimination, tax)

Tests vary significantly state by state, law by law

This chart may be a helpful start, but three significant challenges remain, when trying to determine Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

  1. Fifty Shades of Gray.  These tests, for the most part, are balancing tests. Courts and agencies must weigh multiple factors. In most instances, some factors will favor contractor status and some will favor employee status. Different courts may reach different conclusions, even with the same facts.
  2. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Multi-state employers face the added challenge of having to deal with different tests in different states. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, states generally apply different tests for different state laws. Sometimes different tests apply in different industries too. Transportation workers, for example, may be subject to different tests than construction workers.
  3. Into the Wild. The tests keep changing. In January 2019, the NLRB changed its test in the SuperShuttle case. In 2018, California changed its test under state wage and hour law from the S.G. Borello balancing test to a strict ABC Test. In 2015, New Jersey switched to a different version of an ABC Test for its state wage and hour law. The times they are a-changin.

What to do about it? (Free tips!)

  1. Know the tests that apply where your business operates.
  2. Construct your independent contractor relationships in a way that tends to favor the factors supporting independent contractor status. Inevitably, business considerations will get in the way, and tough decisions will have to be made about how much control can be relinquished and how the relationships need to be structured. Adjust the facts of the relationship.
  3. Use a customized independent contractor agreement that emphasizes the factors that support independent contractor status. Avoid off-the-shelf agreements. Merely reciting that everyone agrees the relationship is an independent contractor relationship is only a teeny bit helpful. “Teeny bit helpful” is not the gold standard.
  4. Re-evaluate existing relationships, and make changes from time to time.
  5. Implement a gatekeeper system to prevent operations managers from entering into contractor relationships that may be invalid. Require any retention of a contractor to be approved by a point person, who can issue spot and seek help in evaluating whether a contractor relationship is likely to withstand a misclassification challenge.
  6. Seek legal help before you get audited or sued. Now is the time to review and modify relationships to reduce the likelihood of a misclassification claim. Once a claim is made, your business can only play defense. Create your playbook now, before the defense has to take the field.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Ultimate Survival Alaska: The Most Detailed Test for Independent Contractor Misclassification Yet! (And Bears!) (Maybe)

Alaska independent contractor definition workers compensationReality TV seems to fit Alaska like antlers on a caribou, but apparently much of what we see on TV is fake, according to this article by Tom Kizzio in the L.A. Times. Kizzio derisively charges that state subsidies have caused the proliferation of shows about bush people, lack of indoor plumbing, and living off the land, despite some being filmed near suburbs with multiple Safeways.

I say “derisively” because Kizzio wrote a book called Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, which chronicles a pioneering family in the (real) bush who turns out to have a past worthy of reality TV. That is, Kizzio planted his flag in the same mud flat. Maybe Kizzio’s just jealous that his book didn’t get a show.

Reality TV in Alaska may be full of fakes, but one thing Alaskans apparently take seriously (other than their annual oil subsidies) is precision in defining what it means to be an independent contractor.

We’ve written about all sorts of balancing tests, like Right to Control Tests and Economic Realities Tests, and we’ve written about stricter ABC Tests and the proliferation of state law variations, some of which apply only to certain types of state laws like workers compensation or unemployment.

The Alaska legislature has passed a new law that contains one of the most specific tests yet, an ABCDEFGH test that includes subparts under G and H and which applies only to the definition of “independent contractor” for workers compensation purposes.

I know most of my readers will not be grappling with the complexities of this Alaskan workers comp statute in their day-to-day business dealings, but this new law is a good illustration of how every state seems to want to define “independent contractor” its own way. The multitude of definitions means a labyrinth of red tape and confusion for any business that operates in multiple jurisdictions. In some places, your independent contractor may be properly classified; in other places, not so much.

The abundance of tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee was already mind-numbing, but this new test is perhaps the most detailed and specific yet. Many of these factors appear in other tests as factors to be considered and weighed, but this test is different in that — like an ABC Test — each item must be present for someone to be a contractor.

Here’s Alaska’s new test, which applies only to workers compensation law:

A person is an independent contractor for the purposes of this section only if the person: 

(A) has an express contract to perform the services; and

(B) is free from direction and control over the means and manner of providing services, subject only to the right of the individual for whom, or entity for which, the services are provided to specify the desired results, completion schedule, or range of work hours, or to monitor the work for compliance with contract plans and specifications, or federal, state, or municipal law; and

(C) incurs most of the expenses for tools, labor, and other operational costs necessary to perform the services, except that materials and equipment may be supplied; and

(D) has an opportunity for profit and loss as a result of the services performed for the other individual or entity; and

(E) is free to hire and fire employees to help perform the services for the contracted work; and

(F) has all business, trade, or professional licenses required by federal, state, or municipal authorities for a business or individual engaging in the same type of services as the person; and

(G) follows federal Internal Revenue Service requirements by

(i) obtaining an employer identification number, if required;
(ii) filing business or self-employment tax returns for the previous tax year to report profit or income earned for the same type of services provided under the contract; or
(iii) intending to file business or self-employment tax returns for the current tax year to report profit or income earned for the same type of services provided under the contract if the person’s business was not operating in the previous tax year; and

(H) meets at least two of the following criteria:

(i) the person is responsible for the satisfactory completion of services that the person has contracted to perform and is subject to liability for a failure to complete the contracted work, or maintains liability insurance or other insurance policies necessary to protect the employees, financial interests, and customers of the person’s business;
(ii) the person maintains a business location or a business mailing address separate from the location of the individual for whom, or the entity for which, the services are performed;
(iii) the person provides contracted services for two or more different customers within a 12-month period or engages in any kind of business advertising, solicitation, or other marketing efforts reasonably calculated to obtain new contracts to provide similar services.

Whew! That’s information overload. I doubt most of you read all the way through. You skimmed, right? Sort of fake-read your way through it? That’s ok. (I did too.) Thanks for jumping to the bottom and joining me again.

I’ve gotta leave you now, though. I checked the guide on my TV, and I don’t want to miss reruns of Bristol Palin’s reality show about “her amazing journey through life” (actual description from imdb), or, to translate the hyperbole of Alaskan reality tv into a simpler more truthful description, her state-subsidized show about being a single mom.

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

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We’re Blogging about Logging! (I know, lame headline, but true)

Logger Ohio workers compensation independent contractor

The lyrics, “Come fly with me, come fly, come fly away” are instantly associated with Frank Sinatra (although, troublingly, the Michael Buble version appeared higher in my google search for a link to the lyrics). It is a little known fact* that the original version of the song was an ode to woodsmen and forestry workers and went something like this: “Come log with me, come log, come log away.”

In the original* lyric, Ol’ Blue Eyes invites a fellow logger to chop wood with him — not for him. That same distinction (with, not for) made all the difference in a recent court decision denying workers compensation benefits to a logger.

Continue reading

Don’t Wear Pajamas to Work: Be Careful Using “Statutory Minimum” Workers Comp Clauses in Subcontractor Agreements

Pajamas - Independent Contractor Agreements and Workers Compensation ClausesHave you ever had the dream where you show up at work or school in your pajamas or underwear? You’re exposed and embarrassed in the dream, and you can’t figure out why you forgot to put on regular clothes, right? (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s had this dream. Please?)

You may be living this dream inadvertently in your vendor or subcontractor agreements. (And this is not what people mean when they say, “I’m living the dream!”)

Here’s the problem:

Continue reading