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Articles Posted in Employee Misclassification

Both federal and state employment laws in New Jersey protect employees’ rights to a minimum wage and overtime pay. While the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not set the minimum wage as high as New Jersey law, it provides workers with useful enforcement tools. A worker can bring a “collective action” on behalf of other workers with similar federal wage and hour claims. An FLSA collective action is similar to a federal class action, with a few important differences. A recent decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals limits the use of FLSA collective actions when the plaintiffs come from more than one state. The ruling should not affect collective actions in which all members of the group are from New Jersey. If you have concerns about possible wage or overtime pay violations, make an appointment with a New Jersey employment lawyer today.

The most recent increase in the federal minimum wage occurred over twelve years ago. It reached its current level of $7.25 per hour on July 24, 2010. The rules for overtime compensation, which require payment at time-and-a-half for time worked over forty hours in a week, have remained the same for decades. These rules only apply to employees who are not exempt under the FLSA. They also do not apply to independent contractors. A wrongful claim that an employee is either exempt or an independent contractor is a violation of the FLSA known as employee misclassification.

The FLSA allows employees to file lawsuits against their employers for alleged wage and hour violations. Notably, § 16(b) of the FLSA allows employees to file suit on their own behalf and on behalf of “​​other employees similarly situated.” The requirements for a collective action under the FLSA are similar to those for a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. One important difference is that, while many class actions automatically include people who meet the description of class members and receive notice of the suit, the FLSA requires all plaintiffs to consent to participation in a collective action in writing. To put that another way, people may have to “opt out” of a class action and “opt in” to a collective action.
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New Jersey’s employment laws protect workers whose employers try to classify them as independent contractors instead of employees. Independent contractors do not enjoy the full range of safeguards offered by state law. Wage and hour laws, for example, only apply to employees. Some employers may try to misclassify employees as independent contractors as a way of avoiding various legal obligations. Employment misclassification is a violation of state law. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled against a business in a misclassification claim. It ruled that workers who operated as separate business entities were still employees under state law.

A 2015 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court applied a three-part test, known as the “ABC test,” to the question of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The test is notable for being very favorable toward workers claiming to be employees and placing the burden of proof on employers. It gets its name from the definition of “employment” found in the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law, codified at N.J. Rev. Stat. § ​​43:21-19(i)(6)(A) through (C).

The ABC test presumes that an individual is an employee unless an employer can establish all three of the following:
A. The employer does not direct or control how the worker does their job.
B. The services provided by the worker are either outside of the scope of the employer’s usual business activities, or performed somewhere other than the employer’s regular place of business.
C. The worker’s services are part of a business or trade that the worker has established apart from the employer.
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New Jersey’s employment laws guarantee a minimum wage and overtime compensation for millions of workers. They protect employees from various forms of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. They bar employers from retaliating against workers who object to unlawful or unethical conduct. In order to enjoy the benefits of state and federal employment laws, however, a worker must be an “employee.” The definition of “employee” can be ambiguous and subject to debate. Employers may try to describe an employee as an independent contractor in order to avoid obligations set by state wage and hour laws and other statutes. New Jersey has developed a test for determining whether an individual is an employee. A federal judge recently granted summary judgment for a plaintiff in a wage and hour dispute.

Wrongfully categorizing an employee as an independent contractor is known as “employee misclassification.” It is considered a violation of wage and hour laws when an employer does it in order to avoid obligations established by those laws. New Jersey has adopted the “ABC test” to determine whether a worker is an employee or not. The test receives its name from the definition of “employment” found in New Jersey’s Unemployment Compensation Law at N.J. Rev. Stat. § 43:21-1(i)(6)(A) through (C).

A worker is presumed to be an “employee” under the ABC test unless they meet all three of the following criteria:
A. The employer does not exercise “control or direction” over the worker’s job duties and job performance.
B. Either the services the worker performs are “outside the [employer’s] usual course of…business,” or they perform those services “outside of all the [employer’s] places of business.”
C. The worker’s services are normally part of their own “trade, occupation, profession or business,” which is separate from the employer’s business.
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State and federal laws protect New Jersey employees’ rights to minimum wage and overtime compensation. The term “employees” is important here, because these laws’ protections are not available to independent contractors. The distinction between an employee and an independent contractor has been the subject of much employment litigation, both in New Jersey and around the country. Employers may attempt to classify employees as independent contractors in order to avoid various legal obligations, a practice known as “employee misclassification.” New Jersey has developed a reasonable clear definition of “employee.” Federal law lags behind, with different definitions for different statutes. Recent litigation addressed the definition of “employee” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which sets a national minimum wage and standards for overtime pay. The current White House administration withdrew an employer-friendly definition of “employee” put in place by the previous administration. In March 2022, a federal judge vacated this move, reinstating the earlier rule.

The FLSA defines “employee” in quite general terms as “any individual employed by an employer.” It defines “employ” as “​​to suffer or permit to work.” The FLSA’s definition of “employee” goes into more detail for individuals employed by the government. It excludes most elected officials, political appointees, and volunteers for government agencies. The statute also exempts employees in various roles from its provisions on minimum wage and overtime pay. For workers who are neither excluded from the definition of “employee” nor exempt from the FLSA’s protections, questions often still remain as to whether they are “employees” in the specific context of the FLSA.

New Jersey uses the “ABC test” to determine whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor. The test is named for the three-part definition of “employee” found in §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A) through (C) of the New Jersey Revised Statutes. New Jersey employment law presumes that a worker is an “employee” unless the employer can establish all three of the following:
A. The worker has control over how and when they do their job;
B. The worker performs the services away from the employer’s usual premises, or their services are not part of the employer’s regular business; and
C. The worker has an “independently established” business.
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New Jersey employment laws ensure that employers pay minimum wage to all non-exempt employees, as well as a greater rate of pay for overtime hours. These laws only apply to “employees.” Employee misclassification happens when an employer wrongly classifies an employee as an “independent contractor.” State law has a clear definition of “employee” for the purposes of wage and hour law, which sets strict limits on employers’ ability to designate someone as an independent contractor. At the federal level, the definition is not as clear. Beginning in late 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) developed a rule defining “employee” and “independent contractor” for the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The final rule, published in January 2021, was far more favorable to employers than New Jersey’s rule. When the new presidential administration took over in late January, it postponed the effective dates of all new administrative rules. The DOL has since sought to withdraw the new rule.

The FLSA requires employers to pay their non-exempt employees a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and to pay them at one-and-a-half times their usual rate for work that exceeds forty hours in a week. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 206(a)(1), 207(a). Exemptions include people employed in professional or executive capacities, and various other specific jobs. Id. at § 213. The statute is specific about only applying to “employees,” but it does not provide particularly clear definitions of “employ” and related terms. It defines “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work,” and “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer,” with some exceptions. Id. at §§ 203(e)(1), (g).

New Jersey law states that employers should consider their workers to be employees unless they meet all three parts of the “ABC test,” named for the definition of “employee” found in N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A), (B), and (C):
A. The worker, not the employer, controls the time and manner of their work;
B. The worker’s services are either not part of the employer’s “usual course of business,” or they do their work away from the employer’s regular business premises; and
C. The worker has their own “independently established” business operation.
This definition tends to favor classification as an employee. The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted it for wage and hour claims in a 2015 decision. State regulators and the New Jersey Legislature have incorporated it further into state law.

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The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes a national minimum wage and sets standards for overtime compensation. While New Jersey has set a higher minimum wage than the federal rate, the FLSA still plays a critical role in many New Jersey wage and hour disputes. It allows workers to file “collective actions,” which are similar in many ways to class actions. A petition for certiorari is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and asks the justices to address ambiguity in the FLSA’s provision on collective actions. The employer in the case filed the petition in August 2020, but both parties have asked the court to defer consideration of the petition while they engage in settlement negotiations. If they reach a settlement, the employer has indicated that it will withdraw the petition, meaning that the court will not hear the case.

The federal minimum wage has been at its current level, $7.25 per hour, since July 2010. See 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). The provisions regarding overtime have remained largely unchanged since Congress first enacted the statute in 1938. Employers must pay non-exempt employees at one-and-a-half times their regular rate for work time during a week that exceeds forty hours. Id. at § 207(a)(1).

Employers who violate the minimum wage or overtime provisions of the FLSA may be liable for the amount of unpaid wages, plus an equal amount as unliquidated damages. If, for example, an employer withholds $1,000 in overtime compensation from an employee, a court may order them to pay that employee $2,000 in damages. The FLSA allows an employee to file suit on their own behalf and for other “similarly situated” employees who have consented in writing to inclusion in the lawsuit. Id. at § 216(b). The statute does not define “similarly situated.”

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New Jersey employment laws protect workers against many different types of misconduct by employers, from discrimination and harassment to withholding of earned regular and overtime wages. These laws generally only apply to “employees.” Employee misclassification occurs when an employer designates an employee as an independent contractor. While employees have legal remedies when this occurs, problems can arise with the precise meanings of terms. The definition of an “employee” varies from one state to another, and sometimes even from one statute to another. A 2015 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court established a clear definition of “employee” for the purpose of wage and hour claims under state law. The New Jersey Legislature enacted several laws that include this definition, and that impose penalties on employers that misclassify their employees. A new law that took effect in spring 2020 requires employers to post notices of employees’ rights regarding misclassification.

What Is Misclassification?

In its 2015 decision on employee misclassification, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that the “express purpose” of wage and hour laws is to provide “greater income security for workers.” Employees are entitled to protections under state and federal law that may, in some cases, increase employers’ financial obligations. This could include overtime compensation, paid or unpaid leave, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, and federally-protected benefits, to name but a few. Employers are also responsible for withholding employees’ federal income taxes and payroll taxes from their paychecks, and matching the amount of payroll taxes. Employers have few or none of these obligations for independent contractors.

The plaintiffs, according to the court, alleged that misclassification “creates significant societal costs” because of “billions of dollars in lost revenue to state and federal governments.” Several amici curiae stated that misclassification of employees “is now common in many industries,” and that this has had “a cumulative societal effect” in which workers have fewer protections and governments receive less revenue. The court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, and adopted a formal definition of “employee.”

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New Jersey passed significant legislation in 2019 taking on wage theft by employers. The new law provides not only civil and administrative penalties, but also criminal consequences for employers that fail to pay their employees what they are owed. A series of bills passed in early 2020 addresses New Jersey employee misclassification, a related issue that deprives employees of their legal rights. Misclassification can also cause underfunding of important state programs, including the unemployment and disability insurance funds. One of these bills amends the wage theft law to add new means of holding employers liable for violations of state employment tax laws due to misclassification. This new law does not provide employees with a cause of action, but it benefits them by allowing state regulators to ensure employers are paying their share of employment taxes.

Employee Misclassification

Employee misclassification effectively strips workers of legal protections. Multiple statutes at the federal, state, and local levels protect employees by, to name only a few, guaranteeing a minimum wage and overtime compensation, regulating workplace safety, and prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment. Legal protections for independent contractors are limited to the rights enumerated in their contracts and the general principles of contract law. Some employers see an incentive to classify workers as independent contractors when they are actually employees, since they owe fewer legal duties to independent contractors.

Employers contribute to multiple programs that benefit employees through the payment of employment taxes. At the federal level, this includes a share of payroll taxes that go to the Social Security and Medicare programs. State employment taxes fund unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and workers’ compensation. Misclassification results in employers not contributing to these programs, potentially leaving them without adequate funding. Since independent contractors are considered “self-employed,” it can also result in misclassified workers having to shoulder their employers’ share of those taxes themselves.

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New Jersey labor laws protect workers’ rights to a minimum wage, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, a workplace free of discrimination and harassment, and other matters. These laws regulate the relationship between employers and employees. Unfortunately, some employers try to evade their responsibilities by classifying employees as independent contractors. Employee misclassification is a violation of state law. New Jersey employment law places most of the burden of proof on employers to establish that an individual is not an employee. Legislation signed by the Governor in January 2020 assesses penalties for misclassification and requires employers to post notices of workers’ rights. In late 2019, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD) demanded almost $650 million in unpaid employment taxes and interest from a rideshare company that has frequently been the subject of misclassification complaints.

Employees in New Jersey are covered by a rather vast array of federal, state, and local employment laws. They cover issues ranging from wages and hours to workplace safety. Some statutes only apply to employers with a minimum number of employees, while others apply to all employers. Independent contractors are not covered by these laws. Their legal protections are largely limited to the terms of their contracts and contract law. Many statutes do not provide a particularly helpful definition of an “employee.” The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, for example, defines an employee as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1).

State law fills in gaps left by federal statutes. In 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a definition of “employee” known as the “ABC test,” based on §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A) through (C) of the New Jersey Revised Statutes. An individual is presumed to be an employee unless the employer can establish three elements:

1. The employer does not exercise control over how the individual performs their job, both in the text of the contract and in actual practice;
2. The individual’s job is outside the scope of the employer’s regular business, or the individual performs their job away from the employer’s business premises; and
3. The individual works in their own separate business or trade.

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The court system encourages litigants to attempt alternative dispute resolution (ADR) before taking their cases to court. Many employment contracts in New Jersey and nationwide include clauses requiring arbitration before (or instead of) going to court. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) strongly favors these clauses, but it exempts certain groups of workers. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently vacated an arbitration order in a New Jersey employment class action. It found that the plaintiff, a driver for a major rideshare company, could be part of an exempt group under the FAA.

The Third Circuit case deals with alleged misclassification of employees as independent contractors, a common issue with rideshare companies and other “gig economy” employers. Employees are protected by multiple local, state, and federal statutes governing wages, hours of work, working conditions, paid and unpaid leave, discrimination and harassment, and more. Independent contractors do not enjoy most of these legal protections. Under New Jersey law, a worker is considered an employee unless they meet the “ABC test,” which looks at the degree of control the employer may exercise over the worker, and the extent to which the worker has their own established trade or business. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A), (B), (C).

ADR offers some advantages over litigation, but for employees seeking relief under New Jersey’s employment statutes, it can also have disadvantages. The parties must pay all of the costs associated with ADR, including the fees charged by arbitrators, mediators, or other ADR specialists. This can give employers with deep pockets an advantage. The FAA sets a very high bar for challenging, modifying, or vacating an arbitration award. In order for a court to compel arbitration in an employment lawsuit, however, an employer must first demonstrate that the FAA applies to its employees.

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