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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Employers Required to Use New Form I-9 by September 18, 2017

Employers must begin using a new version of the Form I-9 issued by the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services (USCIS) no later than September 18, 2017 or face potentially large fines. The Form I-9 is the document employers must use to verify the identity of new hires to ensure they are authorized to work in the United States.

What’s Different?

The changes to the Form are subtle. There are changes to the instructions and the list of documents approved to verify eligibility. A Consular Report of Birth Abroad (Form FS-240) was added as a List C document, and all the certifications of report of birth issued by the State Department (Form FS-545, Form DS-1350, and Form FS-240) have been combined.

The List C documents have been renumbered, except for the Social Security Card. All changes are described in detail in the newly revised Handbook for Employers: Guidance for Completing Form I-9 (M-274).

Storage and Retention Rules

Employers must be able to present the Forms to government officials for inspection within 3 business days of a request. Employers who choose to keep paper copies of the documents their employees present may store them with the employee’s Form I-9 or with the employees’ records. However, the USCIS recommends that employers keep Form I-9 separate from personnel records to facilitate an inspection request.

Employers are required to retain an employee’s Form I-9 until the later of (1) the date the employee began work for pay + 3 years, or (2) the date employment was terminated + 1 year.

Potential Penalties for Failure to Follow Form I-9 Rules

In 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced increases for Form I-9 violations. For example, the minimum and maximum fines for simple Form I-9 violations increased to $216 and $2,156, respectively. Additionally, minimum and maximum fines for first offenses of Unlawful Employment of Unauthorized Workers has increased to $539 and $4,313 per worker, respectively.

Employers with lingering questions about the new Form I-9 should contact their employment counsel.

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Four Critical New Laws For California Employers in 2016

85Each new year brings challenges for employers and their Human Resources management, as a slew of new laws take effect, creating new traps for the unwary. 2016 is no exception. Here is a list of four new laws (or amendments) that can impact virtually every California employer.

The New Minimum Wage is $10.00

At first, this doesn’t seem like real news, as almost everyone has known the California minimum wage has been climbing since 2014. The information important to many employers, however, is the role the enhanced minimum wage plays in classification of salaried exempt vs. non-exempt employees.

Remember that an exempt employee in California must be paid a salary that is no less than two times the state minimum wage for full-time employment. Accordingly, as the state minimum wage increases from $9.00 to $10.00 per hour, the minimum annual salary for an exempt employee increases from $37,440 to $41,600. What you should do: Review compensation for all salaried exempt employees to ensure it equates to at least $41,600 annually.

Changes to Piece-Rate Compensation Requirements

Are some or all of your employees paid according to a piece-rate method? A business school definition of piece-rate compensation is: A wage determination system in which the employee is paid for each unit of production at a fixed rate. It is common in the automotive repair and garment industries, among others.

Assembly Bill 1513 added section 226.2 to the California Labor Code. It requires employers to pay piece-rate employees a separate hourly wage for “nonproductive” time, as well as “rest and recovery” periods. These hours and pay must be separately itemized on employees’ paystubs.

An additional challenge created by the new law relates to determination of the correct rate of pay. For “rest and recovery” breaks, employees must be paid the greater of (1) the minimum wage, or (2) the employee’s average hourly wage for all time worked (exclusive of break time) during the work week. For “nonproductive” time, the employee must receive at least minimum wage. What you should do: If you have employees paid on a piece-rate basis, make sure you understand and comply with the above. If not, contact your employment lawyer to get in compliance.

California Fair Pay Act

Senate Bill 358, amends California Labor Code Section 1197.5, which prohibits an employer from paying employees of one sex less than employees of the opposite sex for “substantially similar work.” Prior to the amendment, an employee seeking to prove unequal pay had to demonstrate that he or she was not being paid at the same rate as someone of the opposite sex at the same establishment for “equal work.” As amended, an employee need only show he or she is not being paid at the same rate for “substantially similar work” as measured by a composite of skill, effort and responsibility performed under similar working conditions.

Additionally, the amended law makes it unlawful for employers to prohibit employees from disclosing their wages to others, discussing their wages or inquiring about the wages of another employee. It also creates a new private cause of action whereby an employee may bring suit in court seeking reinstatement and reimbursement for discrimination or retaliation. What you should do: Audit your compensation structure to ensure both genders are paid equally for substantially similar work. Where changes are required, you may only increase the underpaid employee. Involve your employment lawyer if you need clarification or help.

Requesting Reasonable Accommodations is a Protected Activity

Assembly Bill 987 amends the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to expand the protections for employees who request a reasonable accommodation for disabilities or religious beliefs, regardless whether the request is granted. This means that, once an employee has requested a reasonable accommodation for a disability or religious belief, the employer may not take an adverse employment action (i.e., discipline, reduction in hours or pay, termination) in retaliation for the accommodation request. What you should do: Be sensitive to an employee’s request for accommodation, even if s/he does not use the term “reasonable accommodation.” If an employee tells you (or you perceive) s/he is disabled or has a particular religious belief/preference that requires accommodation, take the situation seriously. It may be a good idea to consult with your employment counsel.

Conclusion

Employers should remain mindful of these changes as we embark upon a satisfying and, hopefully, productive new year!

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OSHA Fines Set to Climb By As Much As 80% by August, 2016 — Is Your Business At Risk?

1The new federal budget signed into law on November 2, 2015, requires the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to increase its penalties for the first time since 1990.

What is OSHA and why is this important?

OSHA is a federal agency (part of the Department of Labor) that ensures safe and healthy working conditions for Americans by enforcing standards and providing workplace safety training. OSHA is empowered to enforce its regulations by imposing penalties that most employers feel are already steep.

From 1990 through 2015, OSHA was one of only three federal agencies that were exempt from a law requiring such agencies to raise fines to keep pace with inflation. A section of the 2015 budget bill–the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 (no that’s not a typo!)–eliminated this exemption.

The budget bill further requires OSHA to make a one-time “catch-up” increase, which cannot exceed the inflation rate from 1990 through 2015 as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Based on the recent CPI, the maximum increase is expected to be in the range of 75-80%. Further, given consistent comments by OSHA leadership about the benefits of imposing stiffer regulatory punishments, it is believed that OSHA will implement most, if not all, of the increase.

To illustrate the impact of this increase, an 80% increase in the current schedule of maximum penalties would result in the following fines:

  • Other than Serious Violations: $12,600
  • Serious Violations: $12,600
  • Willful Violations: $126,000
  • Repeat Violations: $126,000

Cal/OSHA

California is among several states that have a State Plan: an OSHA-approved job safety and health program that is operated by an individual state instead of federal OSHA. Federal OSHA still provides up to 50 percent of the funding for these programs and the State Plan must be “at least as effective” as federal OSHA.

Cal/OSHA has recently hit employers with staggering penalties. Since June, 2015, Cal/OSHA imposed penalties against a meat byproducts processing company, a door manufacturer, a refinery and two construction firms amounting to $1.6 million.

Who is at risk?

Any employer that does not fully comply with OSHA safety standards is at risk for penalties. Unfortunately, many employers in industries that do not typically focus heavily on safety standards are equally at risk, not only for accidents and injuries, but also for stiff OSHA penalties. For example, retail businesses have been heavily penalized for such violations as blocked exits, fire extinguishers and similar non-obvious safety risks. Often ownership and management of such “white collar” businesses are unsophisticated about safety issues.

What should employers do?

Fortunately, employers have several months to take steps to avoid OSHA penalties. These should include making safety and compliance with applicable OSHA standards a priority. Where there is doubt about the specifics of a safety standard, employers should consult with their employment counsel, who may also recommend or involve safety specialists to ensure full compliance.

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5 Secrets to Gaining Client Trust: #4 Make Sure The Client Is Prepared

It is my considered view that litigation lawyers fall broadly into two categories: (1) those that adequately prepare their clients to testify in deposition and trial, and (2) everyone else.  I have crossed both types of advocates and, without exception, lawyers who did not spend the time to properly prepare their client (or other witness) for testimony were corner-cutters most everywhere else in the case.  Like most defense lawyers, I eat corner-cutters for lunch.

There may be barriers to proper preparation of a client for deposition or trial testimony.  The biggest is usually the client.  Clients who are not often involved in litigation have a difficult time understanding the need for serious testimony preparation.  It’s time-consuming, expensive, repetitive, exhausting and generally irritating.  After all, these clients reason, I’m just going to be asked to tell the truth, right? How hard can it be?

Reluctant clients need to understand the importance of adequate preparation.  A deposition that goes bad, if it’s an important witness, can be a game-changing event in a case.  Fortunately, many clients will heed our advice and take testimony preparation seriously. 

Experienced lawyers differ on timing and methodology of testimony preparation.  I recently heard a “rule of thumb” of 2 hours of preparation for every anticipated hour of testimony.  This might work as a general guideline, though we seldom know beforehand how long a deposition is going to last.  I prefer allowing lots and lots of time for preparation, and scaling back the actual time spent based on the client/witness progresses.  Some clients/witnesses are naturally good at the process, others are not so good.  I like to think I know how to improve those who are not so good, and I’ve also developed various methods, which I might share later, for helping increase a client’s comfort level in giving his or her testimony.  Typically, practice alone—using credible mock deposition or cross-examination questions—makes a client more comfortable.  When a client or other witness is comfortable and relaxed, he or she not only gives better testimony, but he or she feels better about the process.  This, in turn, tends to build client trust in my skills. 

Our conduct in defending the deposition itself can also engender (or erode) trust.  Our clients need to know we’re there, alert and in control throughout the deposition.  Effectively maintaining control of the process, strategic objecting, etc. are subjects for other posts.  However, in addition to being alert, I think it’s important to maintain and convey a sense of calm throughout the deposition, even if opposing counsel is nasty or taunting.  I’m of the mind that it is preferable to terminate a deposition that has become uncivil (and seek a protective order), rather than subjecting my client to angry arguments between the lawyers.  It is rare, I’ve found, that a heated argument among counsel during a deposition will accomplish much beyond unnerving my client and leading to potentially harmful testimony.

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