On January 9, 2023, the United States Department of Labor issued a new final rule regarding the proper classification of workers as independent contractors under the Fair Labor Standards Act. While the rule is technically new, it is, in substance, a recitation of the applicable law regarding the proper classification of workers set forth by the Supreme Court.
Prior to recent rule making, caselaw guided the determination of whether a worker was an employee or independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). In United States v. Silk, the United States Supreme Court outlined the factors relevant to the determination: degree of control, opportunities for profit or loss, investment in facilities, permanency of relations and skill required in the claimed independent operation. The Silk court noted that “no one factor is controlling.” Just about every court, federal or state, applies the same or similar standard to determine the issue under the FLSA or state statutes regarding minimum wage and overtime pay.
The new rule and the case law arose under the FLSA, but workers have challenged the classification in other contexts as well. In addition to the fact that independent contractors are not protected by the FLSA and state statutes that impose overtime and minimum wage protections, they lack other protections as well. They are not entitled to employee benefits such as health care, or to unemployment compensation under most state laws. They are generally not covered by workers compensation policies. Employers do not have to pay the employer portion of federal and state taxes for independent contractors. Many employers sought to lower the cost to employ workers by improperly classifying them as independent contractors. In these contexts, courts, regulators and state and federal agencies generally apply a test similar to that set forth in United States v. Silk. The Internal Revenue Services has its own twenty-three factor test, but the factors are similar to the Silk factors.
Employers face expensive consequences for classifying an employee improperly. A finding by a court that an employer improperly classified an employee as an independent contractor can result in liability under the FLSA and state minimum wage and overtime laws; the Employee Retirement Income Security Act; federal and state tax laws; and, unemployment compensation laws. Each of these statutes includes penalties and attorney’s fees provisions in favor of the employee. Tax, unemployment and workers compensation authorities may require an audit of all workers to ensure compliance. In the event an employer has failed to pay employee taxes or contribute to unemployment or workers compensation funds, the employer will be subject to penalties for those violations. If the employer has misclassified an entire class of worker, this could multiply the consequences.
In 2021, the Department of Labor issued a Final Rule (the “2021 Rule”) to implement regulations interpreting the factors set forth in United States v. Silk. The 2021 Rule attempted to assign weight on certain of the six factors, despite the consistent language of the case law that no one factor is controlling. That rule stated that the worker’s “economic dependence” on the employer was the “ultimate inquiry”. Out of the six factors cited in United States v. Silk and its progeny, the 2021 Rule stated that the “nature and degree of control over the work” was the most important factor, reciting that the remaining factors “are less probative and, in some cases, may not be probative at all.” This resulted in a more employer-friendly interpretation of the regulation.
However, the truth is that these types of regulations are merely interpretations of the FLSA, and the court will be the last word on interpretation of the statute. The same is true of similar state statutes.
The new rule mirrors the language of the case law. It recites that the ultimate inquiry is the worker’s “economic dependence.” It then identifies that the six factors “should guide an assessment of the economic realities of the working relationship and the question of economic dependence.” The rule requires, as does the applicable case law, that this is a “totality of the circumstances” analysis, and the weight to give each factor will depend on the facts of each particular case.
The rule then recites the six factors, and provides guidance in how to apply those factors, including examples for each factor. In this way, this rule does put its thumb on the scale in favor of a finding that the worker is an employee. For example, the rule recites that the analysis of whether or not there is an “opportunity for profit or loss” depends on the worker’s “managerial skill”. The rule recites that the ability to work more hours or take more jobs when the worker is paid a fixed rate per hour does not indicate that the worker is properly classified as an independent contractor.
The new rule does not dramatically change the analysis any more than the 2021 Rule did. The courts will still be the last word on classification under the FLSA. The new rule is consistent with federal and state caselaw on the topic. In the end, it is the courts that will make those determinations, and the case law provides the best analysis of whether an employer has properly classified an employee. Further, the rule applies only to the FLSA. Some states, such as California, have stricter independent contractor rules. The IRS has its own rules. The regulation’s guidance is helpful, but there is no change as to how to analyze the issue of a classification of the worker: employers will need to analyze the particular worker under the applicable state and federal case law and regulatory guidance and make a decision that factors in the expensive consequences of getting it wrong.
Patricia Collins is a Partner and Employment Law Chair with Antheil Maslow & MacMinn, LLP, based in Doylestown, PA. Her practice focuses primarily on employment, commercial litigation and health care law. Patricia Collins can be contacted at 215.230.7500 ext. 126.
Reprinted from the April 20th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2023 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
In Sharp v. S&S Activewear, LLC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tackled the difficult issue of when a generally toxic workplace becomes a hostile environment under Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that employees’ allegations regarding playing offensive music in the workplace were sufficient to state a claim for a hostile work environment under Title VII relied on recent Supreme Court precedent, in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020); and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs, 523 U.S. 75 (1998).
Reprinted with permission from the October 14th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2022 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
Employers eager to recapture the costs of hiring foreign citizens often use damages or repayment provisions in employment agreements. A recent case in the Southern District of New York illustrates a challenge to that strategy. The Southern District’s recent decision in Baldia v. RN Express Staffing Registry LLC to allow a complaint under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) to proceed, is part of a growing trend in using the TVPA to challenge such agreements.
The plaintiff in the Baldia case, Marie Alexandrine Baldia, is a citizen of the Philippines. RN Express Staffing recruited her from the Philippines and hired her as a registered nurse supervisor after sponsoring her visa to work in the United States. Baldia signed an Employment Agreement for a three-year term, that included a liquidated damages provision. Specifically, the Employment Agreement required that in the event Baldia left the employ of RN Express Staffing, “without cause”, before the end of the three-year term, she would need to repay the costs of “recruiting, training and placement”. The Employment Agreement recited that the “Company Recruitment Costs” totaled $33,320, and that the number would be reduced after her first full year of employment.
As state governments issue stay-at-home orders, employment lawyers across the country have been digesting new employment laws, assisting clients in managing layoffs, furloughs, and leaves of absence, and working to keep up with a changing employment landscape. Federal legislation has imposed dramatic, although temporary, changes to the way employers manage their employees during this trying time. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“Families First Act”) and its regulations impose, for the first time under federal law, paid leave obligations. The CARES Act changes the economics of layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours for employers.
On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed the Families First Act into law. The Act includes provisions to assist employers and employees during these extraordinary times. The Families First Act creates two forms of paid leave related to the Covid-19 crisis: two-week paid leave (“Emergency Leave”); and expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to provide twelve weeks of paid leave (“Expanded FMLA Leave”).
On April 1, 2020, the Department of Labor issued temporary regulations regarding the terms of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“Families First Act”). The regulation provides extensive guidance regarding the regulation to help employers comply with its terms.
Late Friday, the United States House of Representatives passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (the “Act”). The President has tweeted his support of the legislation, and the Senate will take it up this week.
On September 24, 2019, the United States Department of Labor announced a new final rule regarding eligibility for overtime pay. The rule requires employers to revisit their classifications of employees as exempt in order to ensure compliance.
As I discussed in previous articles (Texas Federal Judge Blocks New Overtime Rules and Speaking of Overtime Rules and One Final Overtime Update) the DOL announced rules in 2016 to dramatically increase the salary threshold in order for certain categories of employees to meet the standards for exemption from federal overtime requirements. The rules were met with litigation and a stay of their enforcement.
The new final rule raises the salary threshold from $455 a week to $684 a week, or $35,568 a year. Employers may now use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions to satisfy up to 10% of the salary level. Employees will still have to meet requirements related to their duties in order to meet the standards of exemption for the overtime requirements.
This final rule will become effective on January 1, 2020. As we advised in 2016, employers should take steps to ensure compliance by the end of the year. The first step is to identify any employees who are classified as exempt but are making less than $422 a week, and develop a plan to reclassify those employees, or revise their compensation. This is a good time to revisit the job duties of those employees to ensure that they meet the applicable standards for exemption in terms of their duties as well as their salary. This is also a good time to review overtime policies to ensure appropriate recordkeeping, efficient use of overtime and compliance with applicable law.
AMM can help employers navigate these new rules and review their employee classifications to ensure compliance and minimize risk.
A recent case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit demonstrates the ongoing struggle to apply the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to the “side gigs” that have come to signify the modern employment market. In Acosta v. Off Duty Police Services, Inc., United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Nos. 17-5995/6071 (February 12, 2019), the Sixth Circuit held that security offers working for Off Duty Police Services (“ODPS”) as a side job were employees entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA.
ODPS workers were either sworn law enforcement officers who worked for law enforcement entities during the day, or unsworn workers with no background in law enforcement. All workers had the same duties, but sworn officers earned a higher hourly rate. Duties included “sitting in a car with the lights flashing or directing traffic around a construction zone.” They were free to accept or reject assignments, but would be punished by withholding future assignments if they did so. When they accepted an assignment, ODPS instructed the workers where to report, when to show up, and who to report to upon arrival. ODPS provided some equipment, but workers did have to use some of their own equipment. Workers followed customer instructions while on assignment, and only occasionally received supervision from ODPS. ODPS paid workers for their hours upon submission of an invoice. Workers did not have specialized skills, as sworn officers and unsworn workers had the same duties.
ODPS treated the workers as “independent contractors.” As the facts set forth in the Sixth Circuit opinion demonstrate, the factors relevant to determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee do not provide a clear answer. The United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky broke the tie this way: the court held that “nonsworn workers” were employees, but that the sworn officers were independent contractors because they “were not economically dependent on ODPS and instead used ODPS to supplement their incomes.”
The Sixth Circuit disagreed, noting that the FLSA is a broadly remedial and humanitarian statute, designed to improve labor conditions. The Sixth Circuit applied the “economic reality” test to determine that the sworn offers were also employees and not independent contractors, and to uphold the finding that unsworn workers were employees. Specifically, the Court noted that the officers provided services that represented an integral part of the business, and that the work required no specialized skills, that the officers made only limited investment in equipment, and that the workers had little opportunity for profit or loss. The Court noted that the facts did not “break cleanly in favor of employee or independent contractor status” regarding the right to control the work for the sworn officers.
In the last segment of this series, we focused on concerns for employers in drafting and enforcing restrictive covenants. The choices for employees are fewer, and none of them are good. Employees are generally asked to sign restrictive covenants at two points: either at the beginning of their career or upon a promotion or other significant improvement in employment status. Such agreements diminish employees’ choices should they want to move on from their current employment, whether or not the restrictions are actually enforceable.
Some employers require employees to sign a restrictive covenant at the outset of their employment. If the employee was recruited and has other employment choices, the employee has some bargaining power to reduce the duration or scope of the restrictions. But this is seldom the case, and the law recognizes that employees generally have limited (or no) bargaining power in these situations. The law disfavors restrictive covenants for precisely this reason: the agreement imposes a post-employment restriction that may hinder the employee’s ability to earn a living at a time when the employee has little or no bargaining power to negotiate the restriction.
This calculus changes a little when the employee is required to sign a restrictive covenant in conjunction with a promotion or other benefit, such as participation in a stock option or bonus program. Then the employee has to decide whether the value of the promotion or other benefit is enough to justify agreeing to the post-employment restriction. Where it is not, the employee can refuse to sign, forcing the employer to decide how valuable this employee is to the employer. However, the employee should factor into this decision that the employer is free to terminate the employee for refusing to sign. And, this might be a good thing, as the employee will be leaving the employer without a noncompete.
Frequently, employees breach the restriction without consulting an attorney first based on the widely held, mistaken, belief that courts do not enforce noncompetes. Let’s be clear: courts will enforce noncompetes where the law permits them to do so. More importantly, the old employer will sue the employee and the employee’s new employer for breach of the agreement. The new employer may terminate the new employment to avoid the costs of litigation. Litigation regarding these matters is expensive, time-consuming and stressful. Practically speaking, most employers will refuse to hire an employee with a restrictive covenant even if it is unenforceable for any number of technical reasons we have discussed in this series.
At the very least, employees should consult an attorney prior to signing, even if they have limited bargaining power, to understand the restrictions in place. We can help employees with that review, and we can help employees navigate the minefield of finding new employment when they have a noncompete in place.
Part 2 of our Noncompete Series will focus on employers. Noncompetes, when well drafted, are a powerful tool to protect customer relationships, confidential information, trade and training secrets, and key employee relationships. But, the law does not favor these agreements, so drafting requires care, and, as a practical matter, timing is everything.
While noncompetes are disfavored and maligned, they do serve useful purposes for certain employers. There are two types of restrictions that such agreements can impose: general prohibits on certain kinds of competition; or, prohibitions on soliciting customers, vendors, employees, contractors, or other valuable relationships. For the most part, restrictions on soliciting customers, employees and other key relationships are easier to enforce. They allow the employee to continue to work, and protect those relationships for the employer. For some employers, these restrictions, tailored to their business and in place for a sufficient period of time, are enough. Generally, these restrictions tend to last a year or perhaps two. Employers will need to weigh the dangers of making the restriction too long, and thus unenforceable, as against the time it takes for those relationships to go stale.
Restrictions on competition generally are another matter. The general principle applied by the court is this: a court will not enforce the restriction if it is not designed to protect a legally recognized protectable interest, renders an employee unable to pursue his chosen profession, or appears designed to eliminate fair competition. The court will only act to protect the following interests: trade secrets or confidential information, specialized training the employee received from the employer, or customer good will developed using the employer’s resources. Given these competing factors, it is best to narrowly tailor the restriction to the employer’s business. An employee is more likely to comply with such a restriction (thus avoiding court), and a court is more likely to enforce it as written.
Employers next must consider when to ask employees to sign noncompetes. These agreements are enforceable when signed at the beginning of the employment relationship. A noncompete executed by an employee after the employee has worked for the employer for a period of time is not enforceable unless accompanied by a raise or promotion, or some other benefit. This creates a practice problem for employers. Often, a noncompete is not required at the beginning of employment, but circumstances change: employees are promoted, the nature of the business changes, the employer becomes more sophisticated about its internal procedures, for example. A skilled employee with options in the marketplace may very well refuse to sign such a restriction where the new consideration offered is simply not worth it. So, for example, while a bonus of $500 is enough to make the agreement legally enforceable, it may also not be enough to cause the employee to sign. This creates a difficult situation for the employer – should the employer terminate and lose the key employee, or allow the employee to stay without a noncompete?
Creating a noncompete program for employees is complex, and many of the issue are interrelated. In addition to the legal concerns, employers must consider what concerns and relationships truly require protection, as well as retention and morale issues. We have helped many employers sort through these issues and are uniquely equipped to help businesses navigate difficult noncompete issues.
The third installment of my Navigating Noncompetes series will look at noncompetes from the employee's perspective, outlining potential issues which should be considered before signing such an agreement.