independent contractor

It’s been nearly six months since the California Supreme Court announced that employers and government agencies were using the wrong test to determine who’s an independent contractor. In Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, the court declared that employers must meet the three-prong ABC test to overcome the presumption of employment status. But Dynamex left a number of questions unanswered. A decision filed this week,  Garcia v. Border Transportation Group, LLC, takes a tentative initial step to address those open questions.

There, the trial court granted summary judgment for the employer on the basis that Garcia was an independent contractor. Some of those claims (but not all) were based on the IWC Wage Orders, which guarantee employees a minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, and more. The employee appealed and, while the appeal was pending, the CA Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dynamex.

Since the employer could not show that the plaintiff had an independently established business (part C of the ABC test), the court of appeal reversed the summary judgment on the claims based on the Wage Orders. These included claims for unpaid wages, minimum wage violations, failure to provide meal and rest periods, failure to furnish itemized wage statements, and a claim that the foregoing constituted unfair competition.

The court upheld summary judgment on claims for wrongful termination, waiting time penalties, and an unfair competition claim based on those violations. The court reasoned that, while Dynamex applied to claims based on the Wage Orders, the test for the remaining claims still involved the extent of control the employer exercised over the worker.

In a footnote, the court also questioned whether the Dynamex decision applies retroactively. The parties had not raised the issue and the court therefore said it would not address it. But in declining to address it, the court noted: (1) the general rule that judicial decisions have retroactive effect; (2) that there could be exceptions where the parties reasonably relied on the previously existing law; (3) that the Dynamex court declined a request to apply its ruling only prospectively; and (4) that Dynamex came as no greater surprise than a number of decisions that routinely apply retroactively. That’s quite a bit for an issue the court said it would not address.

While this decision doesn’t hold out much hope for Dynamex not applying retroactively, it at least says that it may be an open question. The greater value for employers comes in the decision’s reinforcement that (at least in this appellate court on this day), Dynamex is limited to claims under the Wage Orders. As to when we’ll have greater clarity on those issues, that remains to be seen.

Determining whether a California worker is an independent contractor or an employee has always been difficult. Judges deciding the issue have complained that the test used by California courts “provides nothing remotely close to a clear answer.” Then there was the nail salon that was told by one state agency that its workers were employees and by another that they were independent contractors. So there’s no question that the law in this area has been messy.

On Monday, it got considerably messier. That’s when the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. For years — even decades — judges, government agencies, and lawyers have interpreted the law to say that the key to distinguishing between employees and independent contractors was whether the company had the right to control the manner and means by which the worker accomplished the desired result. So if drivers for a gig-economy car service decided what days to work, when to start work on a particular day, where to work, what to wear, when to take breaks and for how long, and when to quit for the day, there was an excellent chance that they’d be considered independent contractors,

Under the California Wage Orders, which guarantee employees a minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, and more, that is no longer the case. Now, according to the California Supreme Court, companies must meet a three-prong test to establish independent contractor status (“the ABC test”).

  • A) The company must not be able to control or direct what the worker does, either by contract or in actual practice. This is similar to the test used in the past.
  • B) The worker must perform tasks outside of the hiring entity’s usual course of business. So if you’re a driver for a ride service, a delivery person for a delivery service, or a seamstress for a clothing company, you can’t be an independent contractor no matter how little control the company has over you.
  • C) The worker must be engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. It’s not enough that the company doesn’t prohibit the worker from having his own business or working for others. Instead, the court will look at factors such as whether the business is incorporated or licensed, whether it’s advertised, and whether it offers services to the public or other potential customers.

It is the employers burden to satisfy all three prongs to establish that the worker is an independent contractor. If it fails to establish one, the worker is entitled to be treated as an employee under the Wage Orders. (The Wage Orders themselves are not particularly helpful in this regard. For example, they circularly define “employee” as ” any person employed by an employer.”)

The Court spent 80+ pages explaining its rationale. Nowhere in that lengthy analysis was any recognition of the upheaval this opinion will cause. Millions of workers in the state that were considered independent contractors will now be deemed employees. This will require employers who have done everything they could to follow the law as it was then understood to reevaluate the nature of the relationship with many of their workers and either modify the relationship or provide them the pay and treatment required by the Wage Orders. They also face litigation, including potential class actions, from workers complaining that they were misclassified. And since this case only addresses the wage order definition, they need to apply different standards (which can lead to different conclusions) in deciding how to characterize workers for purposes such as workers compensation and payroll taxes. As I said, a messy situation just got messier.

In recent years, California and federal agencies have highly scrutinized independent contractor status.  While that scrutiny may be abating somewhat on the federal level, it is still alive and well in our golden state.  In fact, the issue has been popping up quite a bit lately in the context of audits by the Employment Development Department (EDD).

Copyright conceptOne issue that trips up many employers involves a standard provision many companies include in their independent contractor agreements to protect their intellectual property rights.  The standard language involves a statement that any work product developed by the contractor is deemed a “work made for hire“ under the meaning of the US Copyright Act, and is therefore owned exclusively by the company.  In lay terms that means that the company retains the intellectual property rights to works developed under contract.

Unfortunately, under California Unemployment Insurance Code Section 686, that language also means that the contractor is presumed to be an employee.  Yes, that’s right.  Even if the contractor meets none of the common law factors of an employee (i.e. works independently, the company doesn’t control how they do the work, they are paid by project, etc.), and wants or even requests to be a contractor, California’s EDD requires that the contractor be deemed an employee for purposes of unemployment and state disability taxes.

When and if the company is audited, the EDD will ask for copies of all independent contractor agreements, and if those four words are in there, “work made for hire,” the EDD will find the contractor (or group of contractors) should be taxed as employees.  That translates into back taxes, penalties and interest, as well as the potential of a pretty unhelpful precedent for related legal claims.

There is a possible work-around for this language — to use very specific assignment language instead; although this could have serious copyright implications under the “termination of transfer” provisions of the Copyright Act, so please consult a copyright lawyer before going forward with such a work-around.  Companies can also be proactive and remind departing contractors that they are not entitled to unemployment, which might dissuade a contractor from inadvertently triggering an audit.

For companies that rely on independent contractors, including consulting and entertainment businesses, it is especially important to review your contractor agreements for those four “work made for hire” words.  Oh, and if you use independent contractors and don’t have a signed contractor agreement on file, well you have much more risk than just an EDD audit on this one four-word technicality!