Articles Posted in Employee Misclassification

employment contractThe term “gig economy” has entered common usage in recent years. It broadly refers to alternatives, of sorts, to having a single 9-to-5 employer. This includes rideshare or delivery services, and services ranging from childcare to odd jobs through online platforms. It also includes selling goods through online marketplaces, and most kinds of freelance work. One supposed advantage of the gig economy is that it provides greater flexibility for workers than the traditional workplace. It also comes with certain disadvantages, including a lack of legal protections when compared to the traditional definition of “employment.” This summer, the New York Times reported on several studies examining the gig economy. While most of the workforce still holds traditional jobs, the gig economy is growing. The studies provide nationwide information, not figures on employment in New Jersey or any other specific state. As this type of work arrangement becomes more common, our system of employment laws may have to catch up. Speak to a New Jersey employment lawyer to discuss any questions you might have.

Minimum wage and overtime laws are among workers’ most important legal protections, but state and federal laws only apply to people who meet a specific definition of an “employee.” The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes a national minimum wage, overtime requirements, and limits on child labor. Its definition of an “employee” is simply “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). Gig economy workers are often considered to be independent contractors instead of employees, for FLSA purposes. The extent to which the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements apply to gig economy workers is a matter of ongoing dispute, with courts deciding cases in both directions and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently changing its position on the issue.

New Jersey’s Wage Payment Law expressly states that it only applies to “employees,” which it defines as “any person suffered or permitted to work by an employer.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-4.1. The statute specifically excludes independent contractors from that definition. The state’s Wage and Hour Law has a similar definition of “employee,” but without the specific exclusion of independent contractors. Id. at § 34:11-56a1(h). State regulations establish a test for determining whether an employee has been misclassified as an independent contractor. N.J.A.C. § 12:56-16.1. See also Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449 (N.J. 2015).
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New Jersey employment laws provide numerous protections for employees, including minimum wage, overtime, and prohibitions on discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. In order to qualify for the protections offered by New Jersey’s employment statutes, however, an individual must meet the legal definition of an “employee.” New Jersey uses an expansive definition of the term based on unemployment law. See Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449 (N.J. 2015). A recent decision from a New York appellate court uses a narrower definition of “employee” in an unemployment claim brought by a “gig economy” worker. Matter of Vega, 2018 NY Slip Op. 4610 (App. Div., 3d Dept.).Legal News Gavel

Incorrectly or falsely designating a worker as an independent contractor is commonly known as “employee misclassification.” The various employment statutes at the state and federal levels contribute to the problem by lacking a consistent and distinct definition of “employee.” One statute’s definition of the term might differ from another statute, or a statute may lack any useful definition. Courts often step in to provide definitions that could apply to certain types of claims, or all claims in which employee classification is an issue.

The ruling in Hargrove involved alleged violations of state wage laws by a company that employed the plaintiff and others as delivery drivers. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that courts should apply a three-part definition found in New Jersey’s unemployment laws. This definition states that an individual is an employee unless:  (1) they are “free from control or direction over the performance of” their job; (2) the job they perform is “either outside the usual course of the [employer’s] business, or it “is performed outside of all the [employer’s] places of business”; and (3) the individual works “in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 43:21-19(i)(6).

Legal News GavelInternships often allow students to gain “real world” experience before entering the job market, but they have been a subject of controversy in the area of employment law. New Jersey labor law provides a statutory test for determining when an individual may be considered an intern, who is not necessarily protected by state wage and hour laws, and when they are an employee who should receive a paycheck. N.J.A.C. § 12:56-2.1. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not expressly define the difference between an intern and an employee, so the job of interpreting the statute goes to the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. In January 2018, the WHD issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-2, which sets forth a new test for determining, in claims involving federal law, when an intern is actually an employee.

The FLSA governs the payment of wages to employees and the hours they may be expected to work, including provisions for minimum wage and overtime compensation. It defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The statute’s equally unhelpful definition of “employ” is “to suffer or permit to work.” Id. at § 203(g). It does not provide a definition for “intern” or “internship.” The commonly accepted definition of an internship is a temporary position that allows a student to gain experience in a particular field. The actual job description of an internship varies widely from one industry and one company to another. Interns in one company might spend much of their days getting coffee and running other errands, while interns in another company might gain hands-on experience in the profession of their dreams. Internships are often unpaid, based on the rationale that interns gain experience and connections that will help them start their careers.

The WHD established a six-part test for determining whether an individual is an employee under the FLSA in 2010 in a document entitled Fact Sheet No. 71. While the WHD has since updated that sheet on its website to reflect the new test, some court decisions evaluating the old test include its original text. The test considered whether the internship (1) was similar to instruction the intern would receive at school, (2) primarily benefited the intern rather than the employer, (3) did not displace existing workers, (4) provided “no immediate advantage” to the employer from the intern’s activities, (5) included no promise of a permanent job, and (6) involved an understanding between both parties that no wages were to be paid. Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., 811 F.3d 528, 534-35 (2d Cir. 2016). An intern is not an employee if all six questions are answered in the affirmative.

Legal News GavelNew Jersey employment laws protect workers’ rights in multiple areas, including wages and hours of work, discrimination and harassment, and retaliation for reporting suspected wrongdoing by an employer. Many of these laws apply specifically to “employees,” but no single definition of “employee” exists. Some statutes only cover paid employees, while others also apply to independent contractors, unpaid interns, or volunteers. The legal status of unpaid workers, including both interns and volunteers, has been the subject of multiple court battles. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently held that the state’s whistleblower statute, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), does not apply to unpaid volunteers. Sauter v. Colts Neck Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2, No. A-0354-15T1, slip op. (N.J. App., Sep. 13, 2017). In light of this decision, it is worth reviewing how various employment statutes in New Jersey view unpaid volunteers and interns.

“Volunteer” Versus “Intern”

Some laws make a distinction between volunteers and interns. Generally speaking, an internship provides some form of educational benefit to the worker, possibly including course credit at an educational institution, and it may be paid or unpaid. Even when an internship is unpaid, the worker is considered to gain an educational benefit. A volunteer position, on the other hand, is usually undertaken for primarily altruistic reasons, or at least without the expectation of any specific return.

Legal News GavelWorkers asserting a cause of action against an employer under various employment statutes must establish multiple facts before any claim may proceed. Perhaps before anything else, they must demonstrate an employment relationship between the defendant and themselves. If a claimant is an independent contractor rather than an employee, the employer may have far fewer obligations, or none at all, under employment statutes and the common law. “Misclassification” involves classifying workers who meet a legal definition of an employee as independent contractors. A recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowed a New Jersey misclassification lawsuit to proceed, specifically addressing another early roadblock for complainants:  a contractual clause purportedly mandating arbitration of all disputes. Moon v. Breathless, Inc., No. 16-3356, slip op. (3d Cir., Aug. 17, 2017).

No precise definition of “employee” exists in state or federal law. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer,” and “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(e)(1), (g). Different jurisdictions have therefore developed their own definitions of “employee” and “independent contractor.” New Jersey’s definition is quite expansive, holding that an individual is an employee unless they meet a three-part test:  (1) the employer lacks control over how the individual performs their job; (2) the individual’s job either is substantially different from the employer’s usual business activities or is not performed at the employer’s regular place of business; and (3) the individual has an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business” that includes their work for the employer. Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449, 458 (N.J. 2015).

Many employment contracts include clauses stating that both parties agree to arbitration of any disputes, often precluding the option of going to court. The arbitration process involves submitting a dispute to an arbitrator, a private individual with specialized training in dispute resolution. The process may involve something resembling a trial, in which each side presents arguments and evidence, and the arbitrator makes a decision. Whether the arbitrator’s decision is binding on the parties depends on the terms of the arbitration clause.

Legal News GavelFederal overtime rules seek to ensure that workers receive fair compensation for excess time spent working. Not all employees are entitled to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employees must be vigilant in identifying attempts by employers to avoid paying overtime, such as misclassification of employees under an FLSA exemption. In 2014, the Obama administration requested a review of certain FLSA overtime exemption categories, in an effort to bring them in line with the modern workplace. After the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) published a final rule, a group of state governments and business groups filed suit and obtained a preliminary injunction. Nevada, et al. v. U.S. Dept. of Labor, et al., No. 4:16-cv-00731, mem. op. (E.D. Tex., Nov. 22, 2016). Now, a group of workers in New Jersey have filed a putative class action testing the scope and extent of the injunction. Alvarez, et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., et al., No. 2:17-cv-04095, complaint (D.N.J., Jun. 7, 2017).

The FLSA requires employers to pay workers at least “one and one-half times the regular rate” for work time during any week that exceeds 40 hours. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). Some employees are exempt from this requirement, however, including anyone who works “in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity.” Id. at § 213(a)(1). The statute does not define “executive, administrative, or professional” (EAP), so the DOL developed definitions in 29 C.F.R. Part 541. These definitions have undergone multiple revisions since the FLSA was first enacted in 1938, most recently in 2004.

A memo issued by the White House in March 2014, addressed to the Secretary of Labor, sought “to modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations for [EAP] employees.” 79 Fed. Reg. 18737 (Apr. 3, 2014). The DOL published a Final Rule in May 2016, which was scheduled to go into effect on December 1 of last year. 81 Fed. Reg. 32391 (May 23, 2016). Several months later, 21 states and a number of business groups filed suit against the DOL over the new rule.

Legal News GavelProtections enjoyed by New Jersey employees under federal, state, and, in many areas, local employment statutes include minimum wage, overtime pay, and prohibitions on discrimination and workplace harassment. Legal protections for independent contractors, on the other hand, are mostly limited to the provisions of the contract between that individual and the employer. Wrongfully classifying an employee as an independent contractor violates federal law and can lead to damages for the misclassified worker. The exact definition of an “employee” varies from one state to another. This can complicate claims that cover multiple states. The New Jersey class representatives in an ongoing misclassification lawsuit have formally objected to a proposed settlement, arguing that it fails to account for specific New Jersey statutes and caselaw. In re FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. Emp’t Practices Litig., No. 3:05-cv-00595, objection (N.D. Ind., Nov. 14, 2016), see also No. 3:05-md-00527 (MDL).

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., sets minimum wage and overtime standards, and it also allows civil claims for misclassification. It defines an “employee,” with some exceptions, as “any individual employed by an employer.” Id. at § 203(e)(1). Since this definition is not especially helpful in adjudicating misclassification claims, courts look at state law to determine whether a claimant is an employee or an independent contractor.

New Jersey defines “employee” very broadly in the context of misclassification laws, thanks to a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449 (N.J. 2015). The court adopted the “ABC test,” which is based on provisions found in the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Act. An individual is an “employee” under the ABC test unless they meet three criteria:  (1) they are “free from control or direction over the performance of” their jobs by the employer; (2) their job is either “outside the [employer’s] usual course of…business” or “performed outside of all the [employer’s] places of business”; and (3) the individual’s job is part of their “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.” N.J.S.A. §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A) – (C).

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Legal News GavelThe traditional model of “employment” in the U.S., in which individuals work for an employer long enough to establish a career and secure retirement benefits, is a reality for fewer and fewer people. In many workplaces today, employees must fight simply to secure their status as employees—who are entitled to protection under various federal, state, and local employment laws—while their employers try to classify them as independent contractors. The “gig economy” is a relatively new concept of the last decade or so, in which people work as freelancers—i.e., independent contractors—for multiple clients. Unlike misclassified employees, freelancers accept that they are independent contractors, but they often lack the means to assert their contractual rights against much larger clients. These disputes can closely resemble wage and hour disputes between employees and employers. A bill pending in the New York City Council, informally known as the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, would protect the rights of freelancers to timely payment in full.

Currently, no law in New Jersey or New York specifically addresses the circumstances faced by freelancers. Laws regarding employee misclassification offer a good starting point for understanding these issues. Employers may see an incentive in classifying workers as independent contractors. Employees are generally protected by a wide variety of laws dealing with minimum wage, overtime compensation, workplace discrimination and harassment, family and medical leave, unemployment benefits, and other matters. Independent contractors’ rights are mostly limited to whatever is addressed in their contract—assuming they have a written contract.

New Jersey has adopted a standard for employee classification that is favorable to the employee. The New Jersey Supreme Court applied a test known as the “ABC test,” based on a provision of the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law. An individual is an independent contractor, rather than an employee, if they are “free from control or direction” by the employer with regard to their job duties, their work is “outside the usual course of the business” or “performed outside of all the [employer’s] places of business,” and they regularly work “in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.” N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A) – (C); Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449, 453 (N.J. 2015).

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cell phoneRidesharing companies like Uber are relative newcomers to the marketplace, but they have already had an enormous economic and legal impact. In numerous employment law claims, drivers are alleging that they are misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees. The last year has seen several important court decisions and settlements that offer good news for ridesharing drivers. Courts have ruled in plaintiffs’ favor in cases from California to Massachusetts, and putative class actions are currently pending in New Jersey and New York

Many of the lawsuits against Uber, generally considered the leading ridesharing company, assert claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., which governs minimum wage and overtime pay for many employers. Employees are entitled to payment of a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and non-exempt employees must be paid time-and-a-half for hours worked in excess of 40 per calendar week. Employers might violate the FLSA simply by failing to pay overtime, or they may do so less obviously, such as by imposing obligations on employees outside the time that they are “clocked in.” This can result in uncompensated overtime, or an hourly rate of pay that, when calculated for the amount of time actually worked, is less than minimum wage.

Drivers for Uber are challenging their status as independent contractors in lawsuits and administrative complaints around the country. A key distinction between an employee, who is entitled to the protection of statutes like FLSA, and an independent contractor is the degree of control the employer has over the person’s work. Just over one year ago, the California Labor Commissioner ruled that an Uber driver is an employee in Berwick v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. 11-46739, order (Cal. Lab. Comm, Jun. 3, 2015).

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Legal News GavelThe term “wage theft” refers to a broad range of unlawful employment practices that deprive employees of wages they have earned. This might include under-reporting of hours worked, underpayment for reported hours, illegitimate paycheck withholdings, requiring employees to work extra hours without pay, or even outright theft of tips. Employment statutes at the federal and state levels, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (NJWHL), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a et seq., require employers to pay a minimum wage, pay extra for overtime, and keep detailed payroll records. None of these protections, however, applies to independent contractors, who are defined as independent of any one employer but are also just as susceptible to wage theft. A bill pending in the New York City Council would remedy this situation for independent contractors, including thousands of people who identify as freelancers, within the city.

The FLSA requires employers to maintain payroll records for all exempt and non-exempt employees. These records must include personal information like name and address, and non-exempt employee records must identify hourly rates, days worked, and hours worked each day, amounts owed for regular and overtime hours, itemized amounts deducted from paychecks, and dates and amounts of all paychecks. 29 C.F.R. §§ 516.2, 516.3. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) enforces these regulations.

Payroll records assist regulators investigating alleged wage theft, as well as employees asserting claims for themselves. Employees can bring claims for underpayment or non-payment of wages under the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the FLSA and the NJWHL, and the WHD and New Jersey officials may also enforce these laws on workers’ behalf. In addition to civil liability for back wages and other damages, penalties under the FLSA include a fine of up to $10,000 and, for repeat offenders, imprisonment for up to six months. 29 U.S.C. §§ 215(a)(2), 216(a).

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