Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘independent contractor’

New Jersey hits Uber with $650 million bill for back taxes, this week in the war on workers

Monday, November 18th, 2019

New Jersey says Uber owes $650 million in back taxes and interest for misclassifying workers as independent contractors. This isn’t coming out of nowhere—in 2015, the state notified Uber it owed $54 million in unemployment and disability taxes. Four years later, the number has grown to $523 million in past-due taxes and $119 million in interest and penalties.

No surprise, Uber says it will fight to avoid paying its tab. And the decision that Uber drivers are employees could have major ramifications beyond taxes—refusing to treat its workers as employees is at the heart of Uber’s business model. New Jersey is dealing other blows against that misclassification, including determining former rideshare drivers to have been employees for the purposes of collecting unemployment (one of the taxes Uber hasn’t been paying), and the state Senate is considering legislation cracking down on misclassification. California recently passed such a law, which Uber and other affected companies have said they will spend tens of millions of dollars fighting. A class-action lawsuit against Uber in New Jersey also seeks to escape Uber’s forced arbitration requirement because the drivers in question are involved in interstate commerce.

Uber’s business model is reliant on violating labor law to exploit workers, and, as the New Jersey case shows, it also cheats states of massive amounts of revenue. Increasingly, that model is under challenge in the states. Following the New Jersey demand for back taxes, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s Bhairavi Desai said in a statement, “New Jersey is sending a message that the state’s labor laws aren’t dictated by corporations. It’s time for New York to follow.” It is time, and that would be another major challenge for Uber. At some point, you have to wonder how many big states even a rich company like Uber can afford to keep battling for the right to violate labor laws.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor

How Does the Passage of AB 5 in California Affect Me and Others in the Gig Economy?

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

Today Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 5.  The untitled new law will have a significant impact on the gig economy in California.  It will be increasingly difficult to lawfully classify California workers as independent contractors.  With the exception of several significant carveouts, which I discuss below, the definition of “to employ” announced by the California Supreme Court last year in Dynamex v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 903 will define the relationship between the hired and the hirer moving forward.  The core of the new law takes effect January 1, 2020.

Dynamex is Now the Law of the Land (Most of the Land, At Least)

Assembly Bill 5 codifies the ABC Test adopted in Dynamex for most California workers currently classified as independent contractors.  The ABC Test states that a hiring party “employs” a person (as an employee) unless it can prove each of the following:

  • The hired person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.
  • The hired person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.
  • The hired person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

This three-pronged definition of “to employ” describes the prototypical independent contractor relationship:  a plumber, for example.  First, when I hire a plumber to fix a leak in my office, I do not exert any control of the performance of their work.  The plumber does their job based on their best judgment using their own tools.  Second, the plumber is not performing tasks that are within the scope of my law firm’s work.  While my legal practice is broad in scope, plumbing repairs is not something Kitchin Legal offers to any client.  Third, when the plumber finishes their work at my office, they will drive away in their company truck to another plumbing job for another client.  They are engaged in an independent trade.

But there are significant exceptions under the new law.  For a wide range of professionals exempted under AB 5, an older test of the employer-independent contractor will apply.  However, even the exemptions themselves have multiple requirements.

The Existing Borello Test Will Still Apply to a Substantial Number of Workers in California

Prior to the passage of Dynamex last year, California courts relied on the “economic realities test” or “Borello Test” to determine whether someone was engaged as an independent contractor or as an employee.  This test was announced in 1989 by the California Supreme Court in a case called S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal.3d 341.  In Borello, the high court set out a multiple-factor test for evaluating the relationship between the hirer and the hired.  While the most important indications of an employer-employee relationship under Borello are the hirer’s right to control the work of the hired person and the hirer’s right to terminate the worker at will, other factors are relevant to the determination as well:

  1. Whether the person performing work is engaged in an occupation or business that is distinct from that of the company;
  2. Whether the work is part of the company’s regular business;
  3. Whether the company or the worker supplies the equipment, tools, and the place for the person doing the work;
  4. The worker’s financial investment in the equipment or materials required to perform the work;
  5. The skill required in the particular occupation;
  6. The kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the company’s direction or by a specialist without supervision;
  7. The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his or her own managerial skill (a potential for profit does not include bonuses);
  8. How long the services are to be performed;
  9. The degree of permanence of the working relationship;
  10. The payment method, whether by time or by the job; and
  11. Whether the parties believe they are creating an employer/employee relationship.

Are You Excluded from the New Definition of “To Employ”?

Labor Code §2750.3 lays out the exceptions to the ABC Test for which the Borello Test will continue to apply.  Exempted from the new definition of “to employ” are insurance brokers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers, private investigators, accountants, human resource professionals, investment agents, marketing professionals, certain salespeople, commercial fishermen, repossession professionals, construction sub-contractors, referral agencies, motor clubs (think roadside assistance) and real estate professionals.  Freelance media-makers, including journalists, also are carved out of the ABC Test if they limit their contributions to any one media outlet to 35 pieces a year.  AB 5 directs the courts to use the Borello Test definition of “to employ” in cases involving these professionals, and not the ABC Test.

Who Will be Affected by AB 5?

The media are reporting that up to two million workers will be affected as they are reclassified under the law from independent contractor to employee.  While the media have focused primarily on the hundreds of thousands of Uber, Lyft and DoorDash workers who will affected, it is likely that the vast majority of affected workers currently work for small companies across the state.

Based on my experience representing misclassified workers in California, I have found that small companies, particularly tech start-ups, frequently classify workers as independent contractors because they believe it is easier and less expensive than hiring employees.  These employers fail to factor in the cost of the wage and hour lawsuit that may follow.

What Do Misclassified Workers Have in Common?

In all of my employee-side, misclassification cases, my clients were trained and controlled by the employers.  Their work hours were often scheduled by the employers.  They were subject to discipline if they failed to perform as expected.  They performed work directly related to the core business of the employers.  Many of them worked full time, had company business cards, company email addresses and in one case, a company credit card.  Almost all of them were paid by the hour.  One of them earned performance bonuses.  But, none of them was entitled to unemployment benefits based on their time working for these employers none was provided with workers compensation insurance coverage.

All of these workers ended their relationships with the employing parties because of a dispute over what and how they were paid, or over their opportunity to take meal and rest breaks.  While some of them had issues about how they were scheduled for work, most of them accepted fairly strict control over their work schedules in exchange for their earnings.  They all looked a lot like employees.

Finally, none of these clients fully understood the scope of the damages and penalties they were entitled to under California law until they spoke with an employment attorney.  Their hirers’ decisions to classify them as independent contractors led to a wide range of violations and valuable claims.

What Do Companies That Misclassify Employees Have in Common?

I also have represented a number of employers in several different industries who faced misclassification claims.  Based on my own experience, discussions with colleagues and the rich case law on the subject of the meaning of “to employ,” it is clear that companies that misclassify workers also share a number of characteristics.

First, most of these companies think they are saving money by avoiding the expenses of employing workers.  Second, many of these companies fail to put into place wage and hour policies that comply with California law.  Third, these companies typically do not have mandatory written sexual harassment and retaliation policies, and do not provide sexual harassment training to their workers as required by California law.  Fourth, most do not provide their workers with paid sick leave in compliance with state and/or local laws.  Fifth, these companies do not provide workers compensation insurance coverage.  Fifth, these companies fail to reimburse their workers for business expenses, including cell phone plans, internet costs and transportation costs.  Sixth, these companies do not comply with federal and state tax laws.  Seventh, all these companies are vulnerable to costly lawsuits and governmental audits.

What Do I think About the Law?

Subject to the section 2750.3 exceptions, classifying someone else as an independent contractor who performs work within your business establishment and within the usual course of your business operations still most likely violates the Borello TestIt certainly violates AB 5 and Dynamex.

Similarly, having someone perform work within the usual course of your business from a home office also likely creates an employer-employee relationship.  Under the ABC Test, it makes no difference whether the person signed an independent contractor agreement, sets their own hours, works relatively independently from direction or works from home.   The focus of the inquiry is much more limited.

As an employment attorney, I have always been suspicious of companies that have more independent contractors working for them than they have employees.  A disproportionate number of independent contractors might be evidence of an illegal scheme designed to avoid providing workers the benefits of employment: possible subterfuge.  Under the Borello Test (i.e., Economic Realities Test), the court should take into account what relationship the parties themselves were attempting to form when they entered into the working arrangement.  But the parties’ intentions do not matter under the ABC Test.  Even under Borello, however, the Supreme Court warned parties to classify workers with care. “The label placed by the parties on their relationship is not dispositive, and subterfuges are not countenanced.”

Finally, I have found that the harder it is to justify a decision to classify someone as an independent contractor, the more likely it is that the person is actually an employee entitled to all of the benefits given to employees under the law.

What Should a Misclassified Worker Do Now?

Claims for unpaid wages are governed by a three-year statute of limitations.  Under certain circumstances, a worker can reach back four years to recover unpaid wages pursuant to a misclassification claim.  If a person has been working as a misclassified worker for more than one year and has not been paid for all work time, and/or has worked overtime hours without overtime pay, and/or has not been provided meal and rest periods, and/or has not been provided complete and accurate paystubs, and/or has terminated for complaining about any of these things, that person should speak with a lawyer.

If a person is currently working as an independent contractor and wishes to make a smooth transition to becoming an employee of the hirer, they should also speak with an attorney.  As we move through this transition in California’s workforce, some employers are going to make efforts to pressure workers to sign illegal waivers of their right to obtain unpaid wages and penalties for past violations.  At this moment in our history, workers in transition should reach out to a competent lawyer for advice.

What Should an Employer Do Now?

The first step every employer who regularly relies on independent contractors should do is to consult with an employment lawyer.  This is a critical juncture for employers in California where risks that were once delayed for all sorts of reasons are at the door.  Assembly Bill 5 did not radically alter the law.  If a worker is deemed to be an employee under AB 5, it is most likely they will be deemed to have been an employee last week and last year in a lawsuit.

If hiring an employment attorney is not feasible, then employers should read about the new law.  Check with industry groups about the effect of AB 5.  Visit the website of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) at https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/ I expect the DSLE will be issuing advisories he help in this transition.

Will AB 5 Slow “the erosion of the middle class and the rise of income inequality,” as it Promises in the Preamble?

By passing AB 5 into law, California has taken a substantial step in addressing the burgeoning gig economy and its impact on workers’ rights.  The law is based on the assumption that most workers are better off as employees than independent contractors.  Guaranteed minimum wage, paid sick and family leave, workers compensation coverage, unemployment benefits will be seen by many as a fair trade for giving up a little, or a lot, of scheduling flexibility.

Major critics of the law dispute this assumption and argue that this new law will be a jobs killer and will undermine the flexibility and profitability of the on-demand economy.  In June, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Lyft co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer, co-wrote an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronical in which they stated, “…, most drivers prefer freedom and flexibility to the forced schedules and rigid hourly shifts of traditional employment; and second, many drivers are supplementing income from other work.”  The new law, they have argued will require them to undertake a fundamental change in their business model and they warn of adverse effects on their operations and profits.

I am not certain who will be proved right over time.  This is only day one, but I am leaning heavily in favor of any law that provides additional benefits to workers and helps to level the economic playing field.  What is certain is that AB 5 is now one of the most complicated labor laws on California’s books.  The core of the new law, Labor code § 2750.3, is nearly 4,000 words long, has a total of 109 separate paragraphs and makes reference to a host of other California codes and regulations.  AB 5 also defines two distinct employment tests by reference to two California Supreme Court decisions separated in time by 30 years.  Borello has a lengthy citation history as appellate courts have wrestled with its meaning and application.  Already, Dynamex has been cited in nearly a hundred court decisions.  Of course, no matter how clearly written, no appellate decision is immune from different interpretations by parties advocating from different positions over different interests.

The way these two pivotal cases and Assemble Bill 5 are applied to the thousands of employee misclassification claims that will be made in the coming years will define the nature and scope of the employment relationship in California with every-increasing clarity—at least many of us hope for that.

 

 

About the Author: Patrick R. Kitchin is the founder of Kitchin Legal APC, a San Francisco, California employment law firm. He has represented tens of thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

 

California moves one step closer to reining in the gig economy and expanding worker protections

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

A million California workers are denied key workplace protections—including the minimum wage—because their employers falsely label them as independent contractors. But that came one step closer to changing on Friday when the state Senate’s appropriations committee passed Assembly Bill 5, a plan to crack down on that misclassification of workers.

AB5 is based on a 2018 decision by the California Supreme Court that imposed a stricter test for whether a worker could be considered an independent contractor. Companies can’t call workers independent contractors if the work they do is central to the company’s mission or if the company substantially directs their work, the court ruled. The legislation will make enforcement significantly easier, but it also includes a lot of exemptions for professions such as doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, accountants, insurance agents, hairstylists, and more.

The trucking industry and app-based companies like Uber and Lyft have been screaming for exemptions but so far, their efforts are in vain. “Trucking has some of the worst violators,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “We are not going to strip out employee protections.” Uber, Lyft, and others are threatening to pour $90 million into a campaign for a ballot measure exempting them, which could become a massive fight in 2020.

Other workers who will be covered by AB5 include janitors, construction workers, manicurists, strippers, and some in the tech industry. Being an employee means protections including the minimum wage, overtime, workers comp, sick leave, family leave, and more, in addition to employer payments for Social Security and Medicare. Companies also don’t pay payroll taxes on independent contractors, shorting the state of California by an estimated $7 billion a year on misclassified workers.

The bill, which passed the state Assembly, heads to the full Senate for a vote that’s expected to succeed. According to a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, “The governor is supportive of addressing the misclassification of workers, which for decades has been a driver of income inequality.”

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

California Assembly votes to rein in gig economy abuses, this week in the war on workers

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

The so-called gig economy often rests on exploiting workers by misclassifying them as independent contractors, which means they don’t get minimum wage, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, overtime pay, or other protections that regular employees are guaranteed (at least in theory). That may be about to change in California, where the state Supreme Court ruled to clarify how workers are classified last year, and the Assembly passed a bill this week tackling the issue.

If the bill becomes law, employers could only classify workers as independent contractors if they could prove that the workers truly controlled their own schedules and working conditions, weren’t doing work central to the company’s business model, and had their own “independently established” business or role. That would have huge ramifications for huge companies like Uber, Lyft, and Amazon, but would also apply to workers at many small businesses. The bill does exclude many jobs, though, such as doctors, real estate agents, lawyers, and some hairdressers.

AB 5 passed 53 to 11 in the Assembly and now heads to the state Senate. “Big businesses shouldn’t be able to pass their costs onto taxpayers while depriving workers of the labor law protections they are rightfully entitled to,” tweeted Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, one of the bill’s authors, in celebration of its passage.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Delivery Drivers Sue Amazon Over Misclassification, Failure to Pay Overtime and the Minimum Wage

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

With wage and hour lawsuits becoming increasingly common across the country, there was little reason for the lawyers at Amazon.com’s Seattle headquarters to be surprised when one landed on their doorstep recently. But they may have been concerned to learn that their newest legal adversary is “Sledgehammer Shannon” Liss-Riordan, a Boston attorney who gained legal fame by beating corporate giants like FedEx and Starbucks in just these kinds of contests.

The new lawsuit against Amazon is similar to one of Liss-Riordan’s best known cases—a suit against FedEx that charged the company was misclassifying delivery drivers as independent contractors when the workers were, as a matter of law, regular employees. Liss-Riordan won that fight and, this year, FedEx announced that it would give up on a series of related legal fights and pay $240 million to some 12,000 drivers in 20 states.

Liss-Riordan took the fight to Amazon in a suit filed October 4 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It charges Amazon and Amazon Logistics Inc. with violating the minimum wage law in Seattle, state labor law in Washington and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Liss-Riordan explains that Amazon is experimenting with a delivery system where the company contracts with individuals to use their own cars to pick up parcels at Amazon warehouses and deliver them to local customers. The drivers typically sign up for a specific work shift and are paid an hourly wage. They are not compensated, however, for expenses like gasoline, car maintenance, telephone calls, or other incidentals. When subtracting these expenses, drivers often end up earning less than the minimum wage and are denied overtime pay, she says.

That description of delivery methods was echoed by Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Along with co-author Olivia LaVecchia, Mitchell has just completed a major study of Amazon’s business practices that warns that the giant corporation is killing good jobs in local economies as it seeks to monopolize different sectors of the retail business.

“Amazon has substantially expanded its warehouses in recent years and is experimenting with the so-called ‘last mile’ of the delivery system. They are increasingly using on-demand drivers, and also regional couriers, to move goods,” Mitchell says. “In the past, this sort of ‘last mile’ delivery was typically done by the U.S. Postal Service or United Parcel Service. USPS and UPS jobs are good-paying union jobs, and Amazon is undermining these with its gig economy model.”

In These Times reached out to Amazon to comment on the lawsuit. Spokesman Jim Billimoria provided the following response:

“The small and medium sized businesses that partner with Amazon Logistics have their own employees and are required to abide by applicable laws and Amazon’s Supplier Code of Conduct, which focuses on compensation, benefits, and appropriate working hours. We investigate any claim that a provider isn’t complying with these obligations.”

Liss-Riordan says this sort of a defense is typical of large corporations, many of which have lost wage and hour lawsuits in court.

“It’s not what you say that counts, it’s what you do,” she said. “We’ve been able to demonstrate, time and time again, that a lot of these corporations just don’t live up to their stated policies when it comes to real-life employment practices on the ground. That’s why you see more and more of these suits.”

Indeed, a 2015 report from the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP described an “onslaught” of litigation resulting in a record high number of federally-filed wage and hour cases in 2015. According to the firm, there were 8,781 such cases in 2015, compared to only 1,935 in 2000.

Asked about her nickname “Sledgehammer Shannon,” Liss-Riordan laughed out loud.

“It’s sort of silly. Mother Jones magazine did an article last year about a case I have against Uber, and I get a lot of jokes. I don’t care. The fact is, we will take on cases like this and fight them for 10 years if we have to.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on December 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Uber And Lyft Drivers Organize To Fight Exploitation

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

“Gig economy” corporations depend on a low-wage economy in which lots of people are looking for ways to get by. Their business model requires disposable people willing to take low-wage jobs with long hours and no benefits so they can pay the rent, doing things for people who need to save as much as they can, so they can pay the rent.

For example, if you’re driving for “ride share” companies like Uber or Lyft, those companies are making serious money. Meanwhile you’re probably working a lot of hours just to make rent. You drive for them, you obviously are an employee, but they say are a “contractor.” Contractors are basically employees who don’t get benefits, have to pay much more into Social Security, have to withhold their own taxes and pay them quarterly, can’t claim unemployment, don’t get Workers Compensation if injured on the job and many other disadvantages. There isn’t even a limit on the hours they work and they can’t get overtime.

The drivers (and other “contractors” around the country) say they are employees and deserve the rights and benefits of employees. Uber and other big corporations that exploit their workers as a business model claim their employees are “contractors” with no rights. Various courts, agencies, departments, etc are working to determine if they will be classified as employees or contractors.

Uber and Lyft Drivers Fighting To Unionize

Uber and Lyft drivers are fighting to do something about this and the best way to do something when you are being exploited on the job is to join a union so you are not fighting alone. In New York, for example, 14,000 Uber and Lyft drivers have signed up to say they want to join the local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) branch.

ATU’s website says,

“Founded in 1892, the ATU today is comprised of over 190,000 members, including: metropolitan, interstate, and school bus drivers; paratransit, light rail, subway, streetcar, and ferry boat operators; mechanics and other maintenance workers; clerks, baggage handlers, municipal employees, and others.”

Buzzfeed has the Uber/Lyft/ATU story, in Nearly 14,000 Uber And Lyft Drivers Sign Union Cards In New York

Nearly 14,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in New York have signed up to join the local branch of the Amalgamated Transit Union, according to a union spokesperson. The group plans to rally at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) headquarters next week to demand a formal vote on unionizing.

The 14,000 sign-ups exceed the 30 percent threshold that federal regulators say must trigger an official vote, the union says. The cards signed by drivers indicate that they seek ATU membership and authorize the union to act as their collective bargaining agent.

The ATU’s Local 1181 is asking the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TCL) to force Uber and Lyft to allow a union vote. Crain’s New York Business explains why, in Union seeks to organize rideshare drivers in NYC,

In a letter to the commissioner that was delivered on Tuesday, Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello asked the TLC to “schedule and conduct a free and fair election for the drivers of these corporations to determine whether they choose to be represented” by the union.

“We make this demand in conformance with the stated mission of the TLC,” he wrote, citing its status as “the agency responsible for licensing and regulating” the city’s taxis and car services.

In an interview, Cordiello added that Tuesday’s rally was only the first step in the union’s strategy.

“There are a lot of other ways we can accomplish this, such as legislation,” he said in a reference to the ordinance passed in December in Seattle that entitled Uber and Lyft drivers to union representation. “We are unfolding what we believe will be a new direction for labor and for the technology work force.”

Drivers and the ATU Local held a rally Tuesday at the TLC office in Long Island City. Vice News covered that, in NYC Uber and Lyft drivers are protesting for union rights,

Drivers for the ride-hailing service Uber turned out in the streets of Queens on Tuesday morning, demanding their right to unionize outside the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission in Long Island City.

“We demand living wage fares, no pool fares, protection from exploitation, union representation,” read one big green sign held up by one Uber driver, a middle-aged black man with a tan jacket and blue pork pie hat.

The ride-share workers — categorized as “independent contractors” rather than employees by tech companies like Uber and Lyft — had joined up with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents city bus drivers. Copies of over 14,000 signed union cards sat in a fat bundle on the table in the center of the demonstration, 10,000 cards thicker since May.

The rally had the flavor of a protest,

It was an old-fashioned rally. The ride-share workers, joined by bus drivers, marched in front of the Taxi Commission barking out chants from a bullhorn. Cop cars flanked either side of the street as people who worked inside the Commission building slowed down to check out the protest.

A few passing Uber and Lyft drivers liked what they heard and waded into the demonstration to sign union cards.

“I support this,” said Jaydip Ray, 36, a skinny guy with a blue hoodie, moments after walking away from joining up, as another young man took his place. “We need benefits. Without benefits, we don’t have any future.”

The “gig economy” means that big corporations make billionaires, while their workers are called “contractors” who have no rights and don’t make squat. It’s one more way the system has been rigged.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on September 30, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Uber Drivers Learn that Sometimes the Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

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Courts have an important responsibility to approve class action settlements and ensure that the plaintiffs and their attorneys are not selling out the class by colluding with the defendants. Sometimes, though, in their zealous protection of the absent class members, courts wind up forgetting the old aphorism attributed to Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Uber drivers may wind up with pebbles rather than somewhat flawed diamonds. Crushed pebbles may make concrete, but even flawed diamonds could help pay a lot more bills.rough-diamonds

When veteran wage-and-hour litigator Shannon Liss-Riordan sought court approval for a $100 million settlement on behalf of a class of 385,000 Uber drivers in California and Massachusetts, she was denounced by some objectors for the compromise she reached, even after she volunteered to cut her fee in half. Then Judge Edward Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last month denied approval of the proposed settlement of the drivers’ independent-contractor-misclassification claims, finding that the settlement was not “fair, adequate, and reasonable,” as required to grant preliminary approval.

Judge Chen is one of the most careful protectors of absent class members and one of the most thoughtful jurists when it comes to adjudicating wage protections. In denying preliminary approval for the proposed independent-contractor-misclassification settlement, Judge Chen expressly endorsed the view that district court review of class action settlements should not be too lax – and particularly that the court’s review at the preliminary (as opposed to the final) approval stage should be more searching.  But, in this case, his decision disapproving the settlement may have unintended consequences.

In disapproving the settlement, Judge Chen acknowledged the risk posed by Uber’s previously-rejected arbitration provisions, stating: “The most obvious risk to Plaintiffs is, of course, that the Ninth Circuit [which sits as the Northern District of California’s reviewing court] will uphold the validity of the arbitration provision contained in the 2013 and/or 2014 agreements, which this Court found was invalid as a matter of public policy.” This is exactly what happened.

Last week’s decision from the Ninth Circuit upholding Uber’s arbitration agreements (which contained class waivers) in another case may mean that the vast majority of those 385,000 drivers will get nothing. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Judge Chen had erred in previously declaring Uber’s arbitration agreements unenforceable, and that in doing so, he had “ignore[d]” circuit precedent.

Now, to get anything at all, each driver may need to bring an individual arbitration against Uber and win, showing that he or she was more like an Uber employee than an independent contractor. This will be a tough showing and, as Uber well knows, the vast majority of drivers will never step forward to assert the risky claims at all.

Denying approval for the $100 million settlement, Judge Chen found that the settlement reflected a 90% discount on the full value of the drivers claims, with the exception of the claim under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), for which the Court indicated that the settlement was a mere 0.1% of their full value. In particular, Judge Chen expressed concern that the PAGA claim had recently been added to the lawsuit to induce Uber to settle. Furthermore, Judge Chen questioned the value of the nonmonetary relief in the settlement, such as the provision that would allow drivers to accept cash tips (as opposed to in-app tipping as with Lyft), suggesting that riders accustomed to a cashless experience are unlikely to reach for their wallets.

It is possible that each of these terms was a compromise that was less than ideal for the Uber driver class members. Of course, any settlement of a wage-and-hour class action (or more broadly, any settlement of any lawsuit) is going to consist of a mix of terms, both good and bad for both sides of the dispute. But surely getting some money in a settlement – even an imperfect settlement – would be much better for hundreds of thousands of Uber drivers than getting nothing at all.

These Uber disputes raise central questions about the level of scrutiny a district court should apply to a class settlement – particularly given Judge Chen’s criticism of “lax review” – and whether the Court or class counsel is in a better position to evaluate the risks of non-recovery. While the court is charged with preventing collusive settlements to protect absent class members, ultimately, seasoned and responsible class counsel and class members both tend to care most about the bottom line, in light of the risks. With the benefit of hindsight, Liss-Riordan appears to have been right about the risks of proceeding with the litigation, and the settlement’s objectors were misguided.

The case is not over. Liss-Riordan has been signing up Uber drivers to pursue individual arbitrations in California. The PAGA claims on behalf of California drivers may not be compelled to arbitration. Nonetheless, the likelihood of a recovery nearing $100 million, or getting money for all 385,000 Uber drivers, looks bleak.

When reviewing class action settlements that were negotiated at arm’s length by experienced class counsel, where class counsel is able to articulate the rationale for their position, courts should be hesitant to second-guess counsel’s risk assessment. The perfect is often the enemy of the good in these cases, where a court – with a single decision – can erase years of work to obtain a successful result, absent some kind of an agreement between the parties. Particularly in the employment context, where workers should be recovering more than nominal amounts in any class resolution, those who do not wish to participate can always opt-out of a deal and pursue their own claims if they are so inclined. For the rest, though, receiving flawed diamonds might be a whole lot better than the alternative – getting dirt.

This blog appeared on Bryan Schwartz Law on September 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Logan Starr is an associate at Bryan Schwartz Law, focusing on employment discrimination, whistleblower, and wage-and-hour claims. Previously, Mr. Starr served two years as a law clerk to the Honorable L. Patrick Auld, United States Magistrate Judge for the Middle District of North Carolina.

 Bryan Schwartz Law is an Oakland, California-based law firm dedicated to helping employees protect their rights in the workplace. Mr. Schwartz and his firm have fought to prohibit discrimination, retaliation, and harassment obtained reasonable accommodation for disabled employees, vindicated whistleblowers’ rights and ensured that corporations pay workers all wages they are owed. Bryan Schwartz Law has successfully litigated individual and class action complaints nationwide, helping to recover millions of dollars for thousands of employees, forcing corporations and Government agencies to change their practices and punish wrongdoers. Bryan Schwartz Law is also one of the few Bay Area-based law firms with extensive experience representing Federal employees in their unique Merit Systems Protection Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.

Uber Drivers Could Gain Thousands in Pay, Benefits as Full-time Employees

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

NerdWallet logoUber drivers in six major U.S. cities would receive paid holidays and health care benefits worth an average of $5,500 a year, plus thousands more in mileage reimbursement, if the company provided them with the same benefits as its full-time employees, according to a new NerdWallet study.

The California Labor Commissioner’s Office ruled in June that Barbara Berwick, who worked as an Uber driver for just under two months, was an employee of the company rather than a contractor. The ruling ordered Uber to reimburse Berwick $3,878 for mileage and tolls plus $274 in interest.

Similarly, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity decided in May that former Uber driver Darrin McGillis had been an employee, entitling him to unemployment benefits, according to a report in the Miami Herald.

While both decisions apply to the individuals involved only and Uber is appealing, if upheld, drivers across the nation could be motivated to seek status as full-time Uber employees.

The decisions related specifically to expenses and unemployment insurance. Drivers stand to gain even more if Uber recognizes them as full-time employees. Based on what Uber offers employees, drivers might expect:

  • Fully covered health insurance, including dental and vision benefits
  • Nine paid holidays
  • Business-driving reimbursement

Although the current rulings only apply to a few individuals, it may set a precedent for all drivers in the future. This analysis, while an estimate, is still an indicator of how much money is at stake.

Jeffrey Chu is an analyst covering insurance for NerdWallet. NerdWallet staff writer Aubrey Cohen contributed to this articleNerdWallet is a consumer-focused website dedicated to saving people money every day by helping them make better, more informed financial decisions.

 

California Labor Ruling Deals A Blow To Uber’s Strategy For Denying Drivers Benefits

Friday, June 19th, 2015

AlanPyke_108x108Uber must pay its drivers benefits, overtime, working expenses, and other standard compensation that the company has thus far avoided providing, the California Labor Commission has ruled.

The decision is not self-executing across the state and can only be directly applied in one specific driver’s case. But it signals to the company’s other employees that the body charged with adjudicating California labor law views Uber to be an employer with all the obligations that come with the label. Uber notes in a statement that the same commission had ruled the opposite way in a 2012 case, and that neither of those rulings would be binding in any other individual lawsuit over similar complaints by other drivers.

The ridesharing start-up, whose market value recently hit $50 billion, has relied upon paying drivers as though they were independent contractors rather than employees. Classifying a worker as a contractor negates most provisions of federal labor law, saving an employer thousands of dollars per year for each person they treat as a contractor.

If a company treats a contractor like an employee by exerting substantial control over day-to-day job activities, though, it risks being found guilty of misclassifying workers. Misclassification is a widespread problem, with complaints popping up everywhere from trucking to strip clubs to beauty parlors.

In California, Uber argued that its relationship with drivers is not controlling enough to constitute an employer-employee relationship, pointing out that they don’t set drivers’ hours or require a minimum number of trips in a shift. But California’s definition of the line between employment and contract work is primarily based on whether the worker is providing a service that’s integral to the main line of business of the company paying her. Labor commission lawyers examined Uber’s policies for drivers and overall business model and found the company’s argument weak.

“Defendants hold themselves out as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation. The reality, however, is that defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation,” the commission ruled. By vetting would-be drivers, requiring them to register their vehicles with Uber, and terminating them if their approval ratings dip too low, the state found, Uber positioned itself as an employer rather than a non-controlling party to a contract.

The case that generated the ruling will only cost Uber about $4,000 in reimbursement payments to a driver named Barbara Ann Berwick. But its consequences could be much grander. If it cannot successfully appeal the finding, it will have to choose between fielding further individual lawsuits or reclassifying all its California drivers as regular employees to pre-empt the suits. That means paying unemployment insurance and other payroll taxes that aren’t triggered for contractors, as well as potentially being subject to overtime rules and made to reimburse drivers for work expenses like gas, tolls, and some traffic tickets.

Any multi-billion-dollar corporation should theoretically be able to absorb such costs. But they threaten to turn Uber into a much smaller-margin enterprise, one more akin to the traditional taxi company business model that the firm has made so much money disrupting. And because Uber’s market value is a fluid, on-paper number that depends on investor confidence and market analyst’s reading of the economic tea leaves, the California ruling could lead to some shrinkage in the car service’s worth and ability to raise private funds.

The ruling isn’t the end of the story, either. There are other civil cases outstanding in California and elsewhere that touch on similar issues and could be decided differently. And the sheer variety of different driver experiences, from people who drive a few hours a week for supplementary income to those who log long hours in vehicles leased from the company itself, suggests that it’s hard to pin down the entire category of workers with either the “employee” or “contractor” label that the law provides.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Alan Pyke. Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

Justice Gets Delivered To FedEx Workers

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Emily-Foster_avatarFedEx says it “lives to deliver.” Last Friday, more than 2,000 of its workers finally received a delivery of justice from a federal judge.

A settlement in the case filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the workers, Alexander v. FedEx Ground, means the company will pay $277 million to resolve the claims of FedEx Ground and FedEx Home Delivery workers who were victims of worker misclassification since the year 2000. These are workers FedEx classified as “independent contractors” but treated largely as if they were on the company payroll.

We first wrote about this last August, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that FedEx’s employees (in California and Oregon, and likely many states with similar employee-protection laws) are, in fact, “employees as a matter of law” – not independent businesspeople who had the level of control over their jobs that a self-employed person would expect to have.

“The drivers must wear FedEx uniforms, drive FedEx-approved vehicles, and groom themselves according to FedEx’s appearance standards,” the ruling said. “FedEx tells its drivers what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times. Although drivers may operate multiple delivery routes and hire third parties to help perform their work, they may do so only with FedEx’s consent.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, worker misclassification is an increasingly common problem, “a business model for unscrupulous employers who use it to avoid employment-related obligations and save on labor and administrative costs.”

EPI says independent contractor misclassification occurs “when a worker who should be considered a direct employee of a business is treated as a self-employed contractor.” Françoise Carré, in his June 8, 2015 report for EPI titled “(In)dependent Contractor Misclassification,” workers who are misclassified are “ineligible for unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, and overtime, and are forced to pay the full FICA tax and purchase their own health insurance.” Misclassification also “undermines their bargaining power and leaves workers more vulnerable to wage theft.”

Carré also wrote that misclassification leads to the federal and state governments losing revenue from necessary income taxes, while unemployment insurance, workers compensation and disability insurance systems are “adversely affected.”

It also makes it easy for companies to bypass requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

The report points out that worker misclassification is most common in professions where “work is performed in isolation,” which FedEx drivers exemplify.

The ruling found that the company owes its drivers “for illegally shifting to them the costs of such things as the FedEx branded trucks, FedEx branded uniforms, and FedEx scanners, as well as missed meal and rest period pay, overtime compensation, and penalties.” Drivers were required to pay out of pocket for the trucks, uniforms, and scanners, and even the wages of other employees the company asked the drivers to hire.

After the settlement, the 2,000 workers were granted the rights and benefits entitled to employees under California’s laws. FedEx Ground’s independent contractor model was deemed unlawful, and the settlement is considered as one of the largest in recent history – showing that mislabeling workers can be economically catastrophic to a business.

That doesn’t mean that FedEx isn’t still trying to game the system so it doesn’t have to treat its workers as workers. The company has since 2011 implemented a new system in which delivery drivers are employees of a subcontractor to FedEx, and the trade publication Transport Topics quoted a FedEx spokesperson as saying that the company would “complete the transition to a new independent service provider agreement later this year.”

After Friday’s settlement, FedEx did tweet that new job openings were available. We’ll see if FedEx has learned its lesson about worker misclassification – or if the company is absolutely, positively delivering new ways to scam its workers.

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on June 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Emily Foster. Emily Foster is a regular contributor to Our Future.

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