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Colorado Supreme Court holds referral service to be an employer, striking independent contractor classification

In contrast with the Trump Administration’s approach to so-called gig-economy cases, the Colorado Supreme Court recently struck one company’s attempt to classify its workers as independent contractors, not employees.

At the federal level, the Trump Administration has, through both the NLRB and DOL, recently held that (at least some) gig-economy companies, like Uber in particular, are technology companies that merely connect consumers with service providers (example, drivers), and as such, they may lawfully characterize — at least for federal purposes — those service provides as independent contractors.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a company’s argument that it was merely a referral source connecting consumers with housecleaners. The Court held the company was, therefore, liable for Colorado state unemployment taxes.

Does the case signal a rejection of the Trump Administration’s approach at the Colorado state level? Or is the case distinguishable from situations like Uber’s paradigm? These questions have yet to be litigated. It may simply be that the Colorado Supreme Court will reject, at the state level, at least for unemployment, if not also workers compensation, the Trump Administration’s approach at the federal NLRB and DOL level.

Alternatively, the case may suggest some key factual distinctions about the particular company in this case. In the Colorado Supreme Court case, the evidence — unlike arguably in other gig-economy cases — was that the referral company did quite a bit more than simply refer. The Supreme Court noted testimony that it assisted cleaners, it trained them, it exercised “quality control,” it even controlled the cleaners’ ability to hire assistants. The Supreme Court held that all of this combined to be “exactly the control and direction” sufficient to convert a company into an employer, in other words, independent contractors into employees.

Another distinction may have been the apparent lack of technology underlying the cleaning company’s business model. As the federal agencies have noted in their gig-economy cases, companies like Uber characterize themselves as, first and foremost, technology companies. They have invested in and run considerable technological platforms to effectuate their referral systems. It is those very technologies that created their business models. The federal agencies noted that running those technologies is, therefore, the business of a gig-economy company, like Uber. In other words, Uber’s real business is running that technology, not driving. Thuse the company and its service providers are, those agencies have said, in two different businesses.

One thing is clear, companies in Colorado that use independent contractors should immediately review those classifications with experienced legal counsel. This case reflects a continuingly narrow approach to independent contractor classifications at the state level.

Additionally, it should be noted that the Colorado Supreme Court did not note that this company had written agreements in place. Both Colorado state unemployment laws and workers compensation laws create a rebuttable presumption of independent contractor status if companies have written agreements that meet particular statutory requirements. In addition to reviewing their independent contractor classifications, companies should ensure they consult with legal counsel to develop compliant written independent contractor agreements, so they can at least assert the benefit of such a presumption in these cases.

Source: Colorado Custom Maid v. ICAO, case no. 17SC350 (Colo. 5/28/19).

Uber and other gig-economy companies score major wins at NLRB and DOL

Both the NLRB and DOL have issued letters advising that gig-economy companies, like Uber, are not employers but have instead properly certain workers, like drivers, as independent contractors.

The letters come on the heels of NLRB decisions earlier this year holding that the Board will no longer look at potential or even contractually-available control. Rather it will focus on actual control exercises by the company, and in doing so will not consider control that is required by the government. This new test focuses on whether the independent contractor enjoys his-her own “entrepreneurial opportunity.”

In the NLRB letter, NLRB General Counsel opined that Uber in particular is, under this new test, not engaging drivers as employees but has properly characterized them as independent contractors. Specifically General Counsel noted that drivers control their own time of work, place of work and are free to drive for competitors, with many actually doing so. Drivers provide their own vehicles, fuel and maintenance. They operate without supervision by Uber, rarely interacting with Uber’s management except when a problem arises.

In the DOL’s letter, the DOL did not identify the gig-economy company at-issue but reaffirmed in general that such companies are, for similar reasons, properly able to characterize workers as independent contractors.

Source: NLRB General Counsel Advice Memorandum case no’s. 13-CA-163062, -158833 and -177483; DOL Wage-Hour opinion letter no. FLSA2019-6 (4/29/19).

Seven Things You Need To Know About The DOL’s Proposed Salary Rules

Here are answers to seven common questions regarding the DOL’s recent proposal to increase the minimum guaranteed salary for overtime exempt positions.

1.    What has the DOL proposed?

As explained in a prior blog post, the DOL has just proposed increasing the minimum guaranteed salary for most overtime exempt positions from $455 per week ($23,660 per annum assuming the employee works some portion of 52 weeks per year, which amount could be less depending on actual vacation/etc.) to $679 per week ($35,308). It is expected this increase will affect approximately one million workers, who will have to be paid either a raise or overtime.

2.    When will the new minimum salary take effect?

Currently the DOL’s proposal is just that, a proposal. If the proposed rule becomes final, it is expected to take effect in January 2020. Many commentators believe that is likely.

3.    What does the DOL’s proposal mean for employers now?

Employers should begin reviewing their workforce for employees who are classified as overtime exempt to ensure that their salaries exceed the proposed new minimum ($679 per week).

4.    What are an employer’s options?

Employers will have two options for employees who are currently overtime exempt but earn less than the proposed minimum:

  1. Increase the employee’s guaranteed salary to meet the new proposed minimum ($679 per week); or,
  2. Convert the employee to hourly and pay overtime.

Technically there are at least two other options:

  •  Continue paying the current sub-minimum salary, but convert the position to overtime-eligible, then pay overtime on an hourly basis, at half-time, in addition to the salary, for workweeks when overtime is worked. This is called the “fluctuating workweek” method.
  • Continue paying the current salary under an agreement with the employee that the salary includes assumed overtime; pay no additional hourly (or salary) amounts to compensate employees for overtime hours. This is called a Belo agreement.”

Unfortunately while the fluctuating-workweek method and Belo agreements are theoretically available, and sound like ways to “build in” overtime into a salary, they are not as practical as employers (and employees) might hope. Each is disfavored by the DOL and the courts. Each is available only in strictly limited circumstances. Both options are beyond the scope of this article. Neither should be implemented except after consultation with experienced legal counsel.

5.    What are some of the most common considerations for employers weighing their options?

Analyzing the impact of these proposed regulations will depend greatly on the circumstances of every workforce. However, here are some of the most common considerations:

  • The number of workers (and the number of positions) currently overtime exempt but paid under the DOL’s proposed minimum.
  • The financial difference between each worker’s current salary and the DOL’s proposed minimum.
  • The likelihood of overtime hours and the feasibility of converting a currently salaried overtime-exempt worker to an hourly overtime-paid worker.
  • The increased cost of benefits that may be tied to pay (assuming a worker’s pay is increased) and any change to the level or type of benefits available (assuming a worker is converted to hourly).

To help employers with the math of comparing options, a number of spreadsheets are available on the Internet.

Additionally, employers are reminded that consideration should be given to two other features of this proposed rule that may affect the math of their analyses:

  • The ability to do a “catch-up” payment, which may help some employers meet the new proposed salary minimum.
  • The ability to exclude certain bonuses from overtime calculations, which may help other employers afford converting workers into overtime-eligible hourly positions.

Finally, employers should consider with their HR professionals the potential impact on workforce morale. This in particular will vary from company to company. Common questions include the following:

  • How will other workers respond to seeing these positions receive raises?
  • Will raises cause salary compression?
    • In other words, will lower level salaried employees start earning nearly as much as workers in skilled or even managerial level positions?
    • Will skilled and even managerial level positions need to be increased accordingly?
  • Is any part of the workforce unionized?
    • If so will converting salaried positions into hourly positions make them more likely to be claimed by union as part of its bargaining unit?
    • For positions already within a bargaining unit, employers are reminded of their collective bargaining obligations and to review with legal counsel, first, any requirements for notice and an opportunity to bargain, as well as the potential impact of a current agreement’s “zipper” clause.

6.    Reminder, employers still have to meet the “duties” tests for overtime exemptions

Employers are reminded that paying the minimum guaranteed salary is not all it takes to be exempt from overtime requirements. Workers must also meet the DOL’s duties tests for the various kinds of exemption.

7.    In what states will the DOL’s proposal affect employers?

If it becomes effective, the increase will take hold nationwide, at a federal level. Although it will apply in all fifty states, employers are reminded that some states, including Alaska, California and New York, already require minimum guaranteed salaries in excess of even this new proposed increase. Accordingly, employers in Alaska, California and New York should confirm with legal counsel but may find no change is required to their workers’ salary levels.

 

DOL proposes overhaul of Joint Employer rules

Following up on recent efforts by the NLRB to overhaul the Joint Employer doctrine, the DOL has proposed its own revisions.

Like the NLRB, the DOL proposes that the right to control not be considered, but rather that focus be on whether the putative joint employer actually has exercised control.

Only actions taken with respect to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment, rather than the theoretical ability to do so under a contract, are relevant to joint employer status under the Act.

Additionally, the DOL proposes to clarify that “whether an employee is economically dependent on the potential joint employer is (also) not relevant.”

Rather, the DOL suggests that four factors be considered to determine whether the putative joint employer exercised sufficient control, in actuality, to warrant liability:

The Department’s proposed test would assess whether the potential joint employer:

  • Hires or fires the employee;

  • Supervises and controls the employee’s work schedule or conditions of employment;

  • Determines the employee’s rate and method of payment; and

  • Maintains the employee’s employment records.

Source: DOL proposed rules re “Joint Employer Status Under The Fair Labor Standards Act,” 29 CFR Part 791, RIN 1235-aa26 (4/1/19).

DOL confirms that employers may claim tip credit even for time tipped employees spend on non-tipped work

Confirming an approach announced in a recent opinion letter, the DOL has amended its Field Handbook, the manual for its enforcement personnel, that employers (like restaurants) may claim a tip credit for time that tipped employees spend on non-tipped work (such as a waiter who may vacuum) if performed contemporaneously (or nearly so) with tipped customer duties.

An employer may take a tip credit for any amount of time that an employee spends on related, non-tipped duties performed contemporaneously with the tipped duties—or for a reasonable time immediately before or after performing the tipped duties—regardless whether those duties involve direct customer service.

As explained in two recent blog posts, this lifts the DOL’s Obama-era 80-20 rule for tipped employees.

Source: DOL Field Assistance Bulletin 2019-2 (2/15/19).

DOL proposes to overhaul its overtime rules

The Department of Labor issued the much anticipated proposed revisions to its overtime regulations.

Proposed Increase To Minimum Guaranteed Salary For Exempt Employees

The proposals will increase the minimum guaranteed salary that (most) exempt employees must receive from $455 per week ($23,600 per year) to $679 per week ($35,308 per year).

The DOL anticipates this increase will result in 1-million currently exempt employees losing their overtime exemptions, in other words, having to be paid overtime. This compares to the Obama Administration’s 2016 proposal to increase the minimum salary to $913 per week ($47,476 per year), which was anticipated then to result in 4.6-million exempt employees losing their exemptions, in other words, having to be paid overtime.

Proposed Increase to Highly-Compensated Employees

The proposals will increase the minimum guaranteed salary for employees in the Highly-Compensated Exemption from $100,000 per year to $147,414 per year. The DOL anticipates this will convert 201,100 workers into non-exempt employees who must be paid overtime.

Inflationary Adjustments

In contrast with many commentators’ expectation, the proposed rule does not provide for automatic adjustments to the minimum salary to, for example, keep with inflation. Instead, the DOL proposes to revisit these numbers every 4 years through further rulemaking. 

Other Changes

Other proposed changes to the federal overtime rules include a proposal to, now, permit up to 10% of the required minimum salary to be satisfied by the payment of nondiscretionary bonuses and commissions:

(T)he Department proposes to permit nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) to satisfy up to 10 percent of the standard salary level test for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions, provided that such bonuses or payments are paid annually or more frequently. Such payments may include, for example, nondiscretionary incentive bonuses tied to productivity and profitability.

The DOL also proposes that employers will be able to make a 1-time annual “catch-up” payment to ensure employees exceed the required minimum salary.

Finally, the Department proposes to permit employers to make a final “catch-up” payment within one pay period after the end of each 52-week period to bring an employee’s compensation up to the required level. Under the proposal, each pay period an employer must pay the exempt executive, administrative, or professional employee 90 percent of the standard salary level ($611.10 per week), and if at the end of the 52-week period the salary paid plus the nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) paid does not equal the standard salary level for 52 weeks ($35,308), the employer would have one pay period to make up or the shortfall (up to 10 percent of the standard salary level, $3,530.80). Any such catch-up payment would count only toward the prior year’s salary amount and not toward the salary amount in the year in which it was paid.

Anticipated Litigation

As with previous wage-hour regulatory proposals, these have already been greeted with numerous promises of litigation.

Comments

The DOL has invited comments from the public within a 60-day period.

Source: DOL’s proposed rule “Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees,DOL RIN 1235-AA2 (3/7/19).

DOL revives self-reporting program

The United States Department of Labor (DOL) has revived its Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which is designed to allow employers who suspect they have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to self-report the suspected violation and get the DOL’s take on the situation. Unfortunately that’s about all an employer gets.

The program is open to employers who suspect they’ve underpaid workers, unless the employer is already involved in an audit, litigation or has received a demand from an employee or their attorney. Unfortunately the DOL doesn’t say what happens if the employer self-reports and then receives the demand, does that kick the employer out of the PAID program?

We aren’t likely to find out because the PAID program offers very little real benefit to a self-reporting employer. On its face, it is supposed to allow an employer to self-report and, in doing so, self-identify their own calculations of backpay owed. If the DOL agrees, it will then process the payments to workers. Although that is likely helpful to mitigate against penalties — especially in cases that involve a large total amount at-issue, consisting of small payments to individual workers, incurred as a result of an inadvertent violation — participation in the program doesn’t result in either the employees or the DOL waiving future claims, audits, litigation, etc.

Participating in the program comes with an especially high price. In order to be eligible, the employer must effectively lay out a plaintiff’s case, by submitting the following information to the DOL (quoting the DOL):

  1. specifically identify the potential violations,

  2. identify which employees were affected,

  3. identify the timeframes in which each employee was affected, and

  4. calculate the amount of back wages the employer believes are owed to each employee.

Source: US DOL PAID program.

DOL proposes reversing course on Obama-era tip-pooling rule

The U.S. Department of Labor has issued a proposed rule that would reverse an Obama-era tip-pooling rule, which has proven controversial since its issuance. As previously reported in this blog, the courts have split over whether — and the Tenth Circuit has joined the majority that hold that — employers need not comply with the tip-pooling rule if they otherwise meet the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage requirements. These courts hold that the tip-pooling rule is merely a condition of claiming the credit for tips against the minimum wage; if an employer does not claim the tip credit — if the employer pays at or above the minimum wage — then the tip-pooling rule does not apply. One part of the tip-pooling rule prohibits employers from sharing tips with any worker in a position that is not customarily and regularly tipped, such as dishwashers, cooks, etc. Thus, by paying tipped employees (e.g., waiters) at or above the minimum wage, without claiming the tip credit, employers are free to require a tip pool that is shared with other employees, even dishwashers, cooks, etc. This proposed rule would confirm this view in the formal FLSA regulations, in other words, that the tip-pooling rule only applies as a condition of claiming the tip credit. The proposed rule would codify the approach already taken by the Tenth Circuit.

Court strikes Obama-era DOL overtime rules

After issuing a preliminary injunction freezing the Obama-DOL overtime rules in 2016 before they took effect, the same court struck them on August 31, 2017 as unconstitutional, and in so doing expressly held the DOL had acted outside even Chevron authority. The decision, for now, seems to bring an end to the rules, as it seems unlikely the Trump-DOL will re-visit them.

Source: Nevada v. U.S. D.O.L., — F.Supp.3d —, case no. 4:16-cv-00731-ALM (D.E.D.Tex. 8/31/17).

DOL Persuader Rule blocked

The DOL’s persuader rule, which would have extended the longstanding persuader rules to cover attorneys providing legal advice, has been blocked by the courts. Whether it will survive numerous lawsuits, much less a Republican Congress and Trump Administration, is doubtful.

Nat’l Fed’n of Independent Bus. v. Perez , N.D. Tex., No. 16-cv-066, 11/16/16.