Tag Archives: independent contractor

Epic Policy Failure on Contractors

“The rest, in swarms, will overrun the boat deck

They’ll lose all sense of right and wrong

It will be every man for himself, all right!

The weak thrown in with the strong!”

Titanic, A New Musical (1997)

On April 30, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court (2018), 4 Cal. 5th 903. The court filled a void, in its view, of how to determine whether someone was an employee subject to wage orders of the Industrial Accident Commission.

Even before the ink fully dried on this monumental opinion, the California legislature sprang into action. Assembly Bill 5 (Gonzalez) was introduced on Dec. 3, 2018, to codify this new rule of law and to expand its “ABC test” to unemployment and workers’ compensation. From that effort then sprang a comical – or tragic, depending on your point of view – effort by a multitude of businesses to gain a reprieve from the ABC test, which was adopted by the court without legislative blessing, or even at the urging of the parties in the litigation, in an effort to curb the abuses of misclassification of workers as independent contractors.

AB 5 granted various forms of absolution to a multitude of businesses. Some achieved an appropriate complete exemption from the now-codified ABC test. Others are now compelled to go through various requirements to achieve dispensation, some requirements either being hopelessly ambiguous or impossible (or meaningless) to comply with. Still others were left outside the cathedral doors (also known as the Capitol in Sacramento) in hopes that their petitions for relief would be heard.

The ABC test as codified and amplified by AB 5, now Labor Code § 2750.3, is a complicated set of outright exemptions, quasi-exemptions and – as was seen with the case of various freelance artists and writers – exemptions that were illusory in the face of the reality of such work. The freelancers began an aggressive campaign last fall to get the law changed in 2020. In some respects, their efforts are succeeding.  

When the legislature returned in 2020, there were dozens of bills introduced to delay, modify or outright repeal AB 5. Most were by Republican authors, and most were never heard in policy committees: the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee or the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee. Today, changes to AB 5 will have to come from two bills by the same author, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D- Dan Diego), who is also the author of AB 5. The first bill is Assembly Bill 1850 (Gonzalez), the second Assembly Bill 2257 (Gonzalez). Both bills are moving in the legislative process. AB 2257 specifically deals with the issues raised by freelancers. According to the analysis in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, California Freelance Writers United supports the measure, as do many others in the art, music and content-creation industries who use freelance workers. And, per the analysis by the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, Assemblymember Gonzalez intends to add an urgency clause to AB 2257, meaning that it would become effective on signature by the governor and not upon Jan. 1, 2021. And so, freelancers achieved their objective.

AB 1850 includes the same language as AB 2257, at least for the moment. It also contains much more. This includes rewriting and reorganizing Labor Code § 2750.3 and adding still more exemptions from the ABC test. 

As proposed in AB 1850, there are nearly 50 occupations or business relationships that are not subject to the ABC test in Labor Code § 2750.3. Some of these exemptions are based on occupations, some on occupations provided that certain criteria are met and some on business-to-business or referral agency relationships. Many of these exemptions will require a careful analysis by a business if they are to be sure of passing muster with the labor commissioner, the Employment Development Department (EDD) and workers’ compensation insurance company premium auditors. The exemptions, in one form or another, maintain the venerable multi-factor test in S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal.3d 341 or, in the case of occupations where the legislature augmented this standard, what is now called “Borello +.”  

See also: How to Lead and Collaborate in Claims  

The business-to-business exemption remains inscrutable and should particularly cause persons involved in a franchise relationship great concern even as the applicability of Dynamex to franchises remains the subject of significant litigation. The problem remains that, while the relationship between a worker and a business service provider is governed by the ABC test, the statutory language in Labor Code § 2750.3 refers to the degree of control of the contracting business over the business service provider and not the employees of the business service provider. This seemingly obvious distinction was not clarified by the Sept. 13, 2019, letter from Assemblymember Gonzalez to the Assembly clerk trying to explain on the one hand whether a business service provider was an employee of the contracting business while also stating that nothing in AB 5 was intended to change the laws relating to joint employment.

The claimed abuses of application-based drivers and service providers have frequently been cited as the raison d’être for AB 5. There is a battle in the California courts over the classification status of workers in the digital marketplace. Most recently, on May 5, 2020, in People of the State of California v. Uber Technologies, San Francisco County Superior Court No. CGC20584402, California Attorney General Javier Becerra and several city attorneys stated:

“But rather than own up to their legal responsibilities, Uber and Lyft have worked relentlessly to find a work-around. They lobbied for an exemption to A.B. 5, but the legislature declined. They utilize driver contracts with mandatory arbitration and class action waiver provisions to stymie private enforcement of drivers’ rights. And now, even amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, they have gone to extraordinary lengths to convince the public that their unlawful misclassification scheme is in the public interest. Both companies have launched an aggressive public relations campaign in the hopes of enshrining their ability to mistreat their workers, all while peddling the lie that driver flexibility and worker protections are somehow legally incompatible.”

This lengthy polemic is another way of saying Uber and Lyft (among others) have gone and filed an initiative to deal with the classification issue. Well, shame on them.

On May 22, 2020, the initiative, “Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Act,” became eligible for placement on the November 2020 ballot. If it is not withdrawn by June 25, the voters of California will decide whether app-based workers, such as those for Uber or Lyft, are employees or independent contractors. The issue, as you might assume, is clearly more complicated than that, given the various requirements in the initiative necessary to qualify for an exemption to the ABC test.

See also: 4 Key Changes to WC From COVID-19  

It is safe to assume that the initiative polls very well with the public. It also is likely to pass.

So, by next year, the ABC test, “… whose objective is to create a simpler, clearer test for determining whether the worker is an employee or an independent contractor,” (Dynamex, 4 Cal. 5th 951, fn. 20) will have dozens of exemptions acquiesced to by the legislature and, likely, an exception that nearly overwhelms the rule should the initiative pass on app-based drivers and service providers. 

Why are we doing this? It is an epic public policy failure to suggest the only distinction between an entrepreneurial worker and an exploited one is whether 21 senators, 41 Assembly members and one governor in Sacramento decide to issue a pass. It may be too late to reset the dialogue in California on this issue, between court challenges and, potentially, a successful ballot measure. It is not too late elsewhere, including in Congress.

On Hand-Eating Clams And Independent Contractors

Is that guy you have doing that work you need done an independent contractor or an employee? Why does it matter? Well, aside from a whole host of other issues, liability for industrial injuries may hinge on whether that worker was an employee or an independent contractor.

Your humble author recently had occasion to visit his uncle Olaf. For those familiar with the exciting sport of competitive clam-breeding, you’ll no-doubt have heard of Olaf the Clamtastic, world-famous for his exceedingly rare clam-breeding abilities. He also has a business which sells the Giant Clams he raises, “Olaf’s World of Clams.” “Uncle Olaf,” I said, “who is that nice young man cleaning your prize-winning clams?” Uncle Olaf looked up from his magazine, Clams and Claims, and peered at his Olympic-sized swimming pool, the one where his giant clams ruled and all others feared to tread.

There, scrubbing the giant clams, was a young gentleman with a nervous look concealed by goggles and a breath mask.

“Oh,” said Uncle Olaf, “That’s Jim — he’s my independent contractor helping me keep the Clams clean.” As Uncle Olaf turned the page with one of his two hook-hands, I remarked “it’s a good thing he’s a contract worker and not an employee, those clams can be vicious!” But, the workers’ compensation defense attorney in me felt something was amiss. So, being the good nephew that I am, I asked Uncle Olaf, “how do you know he’s a contractor and not an employee?”

Uncle Olaf smiled, as if his silly nephew couldn’t be any sillier, and said “because I didn’t buy workers’ compensation insurance for him, of course!”

Poor Uncle Olaf …

The State of California does not require independent contractors to be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. In theory, one could have a thriving business using nothing but independent contractors and saving untold fortunes on workers’ compensation policy payments.

But, the law requires employers to either self-insure or obtain workers’ compensation insurance for their employees. And, much to Uncle Olaf’s surprise, the nature of a relationship, with respect to employer or contractor, is not determined by the possible employer’s purchase or failure to purchase workers’ compensation insurance. There is another test out there …

But, let’s start with the basics.

California Labor Code section 3353 defines an independent contractor as “any person who renders service for a specified recompense for a specified result, under the control of his principal as to the result of his work only and not as to the means by which such result is accomplished.” Section 3353 was enacted in 1930, codifying the common law distinction between employees and independent contractors. But, this distinction wasn’t concerned with workers’ compensation, but rather with tort law. Whereas an employee could make his employer liable for injuries caused to third parties (imagine an employee-bartender accidentally dropping a crate of fine whiskey on a poor bar patron — an unbearably cruel thought, I know, but one necessary to shock and make the point), the liability buck stopped with an independent contractor.

But, as California Labor Code section 3357 specifically excludes independent contractors from the presumption of employment (and therefore the presumed requirement for the employer to insure or self-insure against those workers’ industrial injuries), the issue is an important one — and case-law expanded the test. So, poor Uncle Olaf can’t put his checkbook away just because he never took it out to insure against a worker’s injuries. Uncle Olaf can’t even put his checkbook away just because he doesn’t micromanage the work or “control the means by which such result is accomplished.”

After all, Uncle Olaf thought that, so long as he doesn’t stand over the young gentleman’s shoulder … hovering … judging … making little comments and directing his every move (“you missed a spot, scrub that clam harder, put your hand inside the clam to get a better grip …”) the young gentleman could remain an independent contractor and Uncle Olaf could laugh at the competitor Clam stores paying insurance premiums every month.

So, dear readers, there I sat in my beloved Uncle Olaf’s kitchen as he ground his hooks into his wooden table, nervously watching the man he hired to clean his prize-winning clams for his Clam sale business, who he thought was his independent contractor but was actually allegedly (your humble author is a zealous defense attorney, after all) an employee, place his hands inside the snappiest of Uncle Olaf’s prize-winning clams. “Scrub from the outside!” he shouted, but the young gentleman cleaning the clams couldn’t hear him …

The California Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989), outlining the proper analysis for determination of the question of employment or independent contractor status. S. G. Borello & Sons owned farmland near Gilroy (a place with a wonderful Garlic Festival). Although they kept regular employees for the various crops grown on these farms, for cucumbers, the nature of the market dictated another approach. Cucumber harvesting was contracted out to various migrant farm-worker families.

The families were provided with the opportunity to lay claim to a certain amount of plots of cucumbers, were provided with crates into which to harvest the cucumbers, but were otherwise left to their own devices. The cucumbers were sold to a pickle company in the area, and the profits were shared between the land-owners and the harvesters.

For the multi-week cucumber harvesting season, the harvesters were responsible for taking care of the cucumbers, picking only those ripe and ready for picking, and generally seeing about maximizing profits. The most aggressive task-masters in S.G. Borello & Sons employ found themselves absolutely powerless at the edge of the cucumber plots, for no employees dwelt there — only independent contractors.

That is, until, the Department of Industrial Relations issued a stop-work order. Finding that the independent-contractors were actually employees, and uninsured employees at that, the Department of Industrial Relations went on the war path against poor Mr. Borello and his sons (as well, effectively, against all other farmers in the Gilroy area that adopted the same practices).

Borello’s argument before the Supreme Court was simple — unlike other crops, cucumbers required a degree of knowledge and skill for harvesting, and the harvest workers were compensated for the final product and not the means of rendering service. But the Supreme Court found that other factors, primarily found in the Restatement Second of Agency, play into the analysis as well, among them:

  1. The right to discharge at will, without cause;
  2. Whether the worker is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;
  3. Whether the occupation, in that locality, is typically performed by a specialist without supervision;
  4. The skill required in the particular occupation;
  5. Whether the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place for doing the work;
  6. The length of time for which services are performed;
  7. The method of payment (hourly or by task);
  8. Whether the work is part of the regular business of the principal; and
  9. The intent of the parties.

The Borello Court noted that “under the [Workers’ Compensation] Act, the “control-of-work-details” test for determining whether a person rendering service to another is an ’employee’ or an excluded ‘independent contractor’ must be applied with deference to the purposes of the protective legislation.”

The Court also noted that the workers made minimal investment in their work — no heavy equipment but just basic tools.

Other cases followed too.

In the case of Jose Luis Lara v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (2010), for example, the Court of Appeal examined whether a garden-variety handy-man could be an independent contractor. Lara sustained a pretty serious injury while doing work for a small shop called Metro Diner. Metro Diner didn’t have Lara covered by its workers’ compensation policy because he had no regular employment — he was called up to do odd work such as trimming bushes along Metro Diner’s roofline.

Lara provided his own equipment, paid his own taxes, and, although he was paid by the hour, was hired by the job rather than on a general basis. Nor did Metro Diner set Lara’s hours — he was just told to come early or late to avoid interfering with the operation of the Diner.

The workers’ compensation Judge found that Lara was an employee, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board reversed. In affirming the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board’s finding that Lara was a contract employee, the Court of Appeal cited Borello. Specifically, the Court noted that gardening was Lara’s line of work (and not the Diner’s), that Diner could not control the manner of Lara’s work, Lara had his own clients (other than Diner), and Lara had a substantial investment in his business (lots of tools, equipment, etc.).

As Uncle Olaf scratched his head (very carefully, mind you, as those razor sharp hooks hurt!), I could see that he wasn’t convinced. His prize-winning, hand-eating, giant-clam-raising mind was working. What else did Uncle Olaf think he had up his sleeve?

Uncle Olaf was beginning to get worried — what if his upstart nephew was right and, even though Uncle Olaf didn’t get insurance for the Clam Cleaner, an employment relationship was formed. After all, if Mr. Clam Cleaner was an employee, Uncle Olaf would be liable for any injuries sustained by Mr. Clam Cleaner, and, having lost both hands to giant Clam Bites before, was very much aware of the risks involved.

“I’m pretty sure he is an independent contractor,” said Olaf. Just then we heard a loud *SNAP* as a clam slapped shut, and the young gentleman in the Clam tank yanked his hand away just in time. Uncle Olaf breathed a sigh of relief and said “but he signed a contract … the contract says ‘I am not an employee; I am an independent contractor. I will clean Olaf’s clams. And if I should lose a hand or two, I will only sue the clam or clams that got me, and not poor Uncle Olaf.'”

I shook my head and told poor Uncle Olaf of the panel decision in the case of Leonard Key v. Los Angeles County Office Education. Leonard Key had signed a contract stating that he was an independent contractor paid to teach music lessons at one of the Los Angeles County schools. However, the Workers’ Compensation Judge found that Mr. Key was, in fact an employee, and his injury was compensable. Workers’ Compensation in California is compulsory, after all, and Mr. Key was simply an employee by any other name. And, after all, the farmers in the Borello case had signed a contract as well.

The most important thing for Uncle Olaf to remember is the guiding policy of workers’ compensation — to shift the costs of industrial injuries to the producers and not the consumers/public. Even the Legislature might make efforts to amend the law, defining a contractor vs. an employee based on a long list of factors.

So, dear readers, what should Uncle Olaf do? Before the young gentleman sticks his hand into another one of Uncle Olaf’s clams, should Olaf pull him out of the tank and cease operations until he can get a workers’ compensation policy?

Boston Furs Sued For $1M For Violations of Fair Labor Standards Act

Citing “knowing, deliberate and intentional” violations of federal wage and hour law, the Labor Department is suing Boston Hides and Furs Ltd. and company officials seeking at least $500,000 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages for allegedly underpaying employees of the Chelsea wholesale animal hide business. See Solis v. Boston Hides & Furs Ltd., Anthony Andreottola, Angelo Andreottola and Antoinetta Andreottola Parisi, CV-1:12-CV-11997-MLW. The suit illustrates the significant liability that companies or their owners or management risk by failing to properly pay workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act and meet other Fair Labor Standards Act requirements.

Fair Labor Standards Act Wage & Hour Laws Big Business Responsibility
The Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires that an employer pay each covered employee at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as well as time and one-half their regular rates for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. When the state minimum wage is higher than the federally mandated wage, and employees work more than 40 hours in a week calculated in accordance with applicable state laws, employees paid at the minimum permissible level are entitled to overtime compensation based on the higher state minimum wage. Time credited may be determined differently under state law versus the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers must ensure proper crediting, recordkeeping and payment in time to meet both applicable requirements.

The Fair Labor Standards Act also requires employers to maintain accurate records of covered employees’ wages, hours and other conditions of employment and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the law. Special rules also may apply to the employment of children or other special populations.

The rules generally establish a legal presumption that a worker performing services is working as a covered employee of the recipient. Unfortunately, many businesses that receive services often unintentionally incur liability because they ill-advisedly misclassify workers as performing services as independent contractors, salaried employees or otherwise exempt by failing to recognize the implications of this presumption. The presumption that a worker is a covered employee generally means that an employer that treats a worker as exempt bears the burden of proving that a worker is not a covered employee and of keeping accurate records to show that it has properly tracked the hours of and paid each covered employee.

The Fair Labor Standards Act provides that employers who violate the law are, as a general rule, liable to employees for back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages. State wage and hour laws also typically provide for back pay and liquidated damage awards. Attorneys’ fees and other costs often also are recoverable. In certain instances where the violations are knowing, deliberate and intentional, violators often may risk criminal as well as civil liability.

Labor Department Sues Boston Hides and Furs Ltd For Knowing, Deliberate & Willful Fair Labor Standards Act Violations
The Labor Department lawsuit seeks to recover more than $1 million from Boston Hides and Furs Ltd and various company officials for allegedly engaging in knowing and deliberate violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage, overtime and retaliation rules.

The Labor Department filed the lawsuit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts after a Labor Department Wage & Hour Division investigation found the employer committed willful and repeated violations of the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act including offering for shipment or sale “hot goods” produced in violation of the law during a period spanning at least three years. The suit also asserts that the company unlawfully retaliated against several workers by firing them after they cooperated with the federal investigation.

In its complaint, the Labor Department claims the investigation found that 14 Boston Hides & Furs employees worked approximately 10 hours per day, six days per week processing hides and furs for shipping to tanneries. These workers were paid a daily cash wage of $50 to $70, which amounted to an hourly pay rate far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The employees also were not paid time and one-half the required state minimum wage of $8 applicable for those hours worked above 40 in a week. Additionally, the defendants failed to keep adequate records of the workers’ employment, work hours and pay rates, and a representative of the defendants falsely told investigators that the company’s payroll records included all employees.

The lawsuit also charges that the defendants ordered employees to hide in a nearby house when Labor Department Wage and Hour Division investigators first arrived at Boston Hides & Furs so they could not be interviewed. Two days after investigators subsequently interviewed the workers, the defendants fired the workers. During their employment, Labor Department claims the workers were threatened and subjected to verbally abusive treatment on an ongoing basis, particularly when they asked about their pay rates.

In addition to back wages and liquidated damages, the Labor Department lawsuit seeks to permanently prohibit the defendants from future Fair Labor Standards Act violations — including a prohibition against shipping any goods handled by workers who were paid in violation of the law — and compensatory and punitive damages for the workers on account of their unlawful firing. The Wage and Hour Division also has assessed $100,000 in civil money penalties against Boston Hides & Furs Ltd. for willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Overtime & Other Wage & Hour Enforcement Risks Rising
Employers increasingly risk triggering significant liability by failing to properly characterize, track and pay workers for compensable time in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act or other laws. Unfortunately, many employers often are overly optimistic or otherwise fail to properly understand and apply Fair Labor Standards Act rules for characterizing on-call or other time, classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt or making other key determinations.

Employers wearing rose tinted glasses when making wage and hour worker classification or compensable time determinations tend to overlook the significance of the burden of proof they can expect to bear should their classification be challenged. These mistakes can be very costly. Employers that fail to properly pay employees under Federal and state wage and hour regulations face substantial risk. In addition to liability for back pay awards, violation of wage and hour mandates carries substantial civil — and in the case of willful violations, even criminal — liability exposure. Civil awards commonly include back pay, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The potential that noncompliant employers will incur these liabilities has risen significantly in recent years.

Under the Obama Administration, Labor Department officials have made it a priority to enforce overtime, recordkeeping, worker classification and other wage and hour law requirements. While all employers face heightened prosecution risks, federal officials specifically are targeting government contractors, health care, technology and certain other industry employers for special scrutiny. The Labor Department is also using smart phone applications, social media and a host of other new tools to educate and recruit workers in its effort to find and prosecute violators. See, e.g. New Employee Smart Phone App New Tool In Labor Department’s Aggressive Wage & Hour Law Enforcement Campaign Against Restaurant & Other Employers.

Meanwhile, private enforcement of these requirements has also soared following the highly-publicized implementation of updated Fair Labor Standards Act regulations regarding the classification of workers during the last Bush Administration. See Texas Landscaper’s $106,000 In Minimum Wage & Overtime Settlement Reminds Employers To Prepare For FLSA Enforcement, Minimum Wage, Overtime Risks Highlighted By Labor Department Strike Force Targeting Residential Care & Group Homes, Review & Strengthen Defensibility of Existing Worker Classification Practices In Light of Rising Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny, 250 New Investigators, Renewed DOL Enforcement Emphasis Signal Rising Wage & Hour Risks For Employers, and Quest Diagnostics, Inc. To Pay $688,000 In Overtime Backpay.

Employers Should Strengthen Practices For Defensibility
To minimize exposure under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers should review and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and take appropriate steps to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws. Steps advisable as part of this process include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Audit of each position currently classified as exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
  • Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
  • Review the characterization of on-call and other time demands placed on employees to confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
  • Review of existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
  • If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, self-initiation of appropriate corrective action after consultation with qualified legal counsel;
  • Review of existing documentation and recordkeeping practices for hourly employees;
  • Exploration of available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees; and
  • Reengineering of work rules and other practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations.

Because of the potentially significant liability exposure, employers generally will want to consult with qualified legal counsel prior to the commencement of their assessment and to conduct the assessment within the scope of attorney-client privilege to minimize risks that might arise out of communications made in the course of conducting this sensitive investigation.