California Supreme Court Defines “Employee” vs. “Independent Contractor”

On April 30, 2018, the California Supreme Court, in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, clarified the proper test for California companies to apply before treating any worker as an independent contractor. This post discusses this important new holding.

Background on “Employee” vs. “Independent Contractor”

For some businesses and their workers, the question whether the worker is properly classified as an “employee” or an “independent contractor” is both important and challenging. For employees, the hiring business pays federal Social Security and payroll taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and state employment taxes, provides worker’s compensation insurance and must comply with numerous state and federal statutes and regulations governing the wages, hours, and working conditions of employees. The worker obtains the protection of the applicable labor laws and regulations, including protections against unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

If, on the other hand, a worker should properly be classified as an independent contractor, the business avoids those costs and responsibilities, the worker obtains none of the numerous labor law benefits, and the public may be required in some circumstances to assume additional financial burdens with respect to such workers and their families.

The proper classification analysis is, in the first instance, up to the hiring business. The decision is often made without the assistance of counsel and, where the classification lands on independent contractor, is frequently wrong. The consequences may not become known for months or even years. However, disgruntled employees misclassified as independent contractors often ultimately bring claims or suits under wage-hour laws. Worse, the California Employment Development Department (EDD), which administers unemployment insurance claims, can audit a business suspected of widespread misclassification and, in extreme instances, impound funds without notice to the business. Therefore, it is critical before a business classifies any worker as an independent contractor that it ensures the classification is accurate.

The DynamexCase and the ABC Test

Since 1989, California courts were historically guided in deciding the independent contractor question by “the seminal California decision on the subject,” S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dept. of Industrial Relations. This case provided employers, their lawyers, the state and the courts with several non-exclusive factors to consider in the employee/independent contractor analysis.

In the Dynamexlawsuit, two delivery drivers sued the company on behalf of themselves and similarly situated workers claiming that the company misclassified its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. The California Supreme Court expressed the view that the multi-factor test previously announced in the S.G. Borellocase “makes it difficult for both hiring businesses and workers to determine in advance how a particular category of workers will be classified.” Therefore, the Supreme Court adopted a test previously adopted by some other courts known as the “ABC Test.”

Under the ABC Test, a worker is presumed to be an employee, unless the worker:

  1. Is free from the employer’s control and direction;
  2. Performs a service that is either outside the usual course of the business for which such service is performed or that such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise for which such service is performed; and
  3. Customarily engages in an independently established trade, occupation or business.

What Should Employers Do

If anything, the stakes get higher all the time for companies that misclassify workers as independent contractors. Claims brought before the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), as well as civil lawsuits, including class action and private attorney general (PAGA) lawsuits are on the rise.

Before classifying one or a class of workers as independent contractors, companies should be sure they meet the applicable criteria. Additionally, the role of workers currently classified as independent contractors should be evaluated under the ABC Test. Given the complexity of this area of employment law, employers should consider working with their employment counsel to make sure they are in compliance.

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