For the last few years, one of the top priorities for the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) has been the fight against the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. In the agency’s latest effort, it released new guidance for employers when classifying workers, using six factors to consider.
The Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1 focuses on the issue of whether the worker is “economically dependent on the employer or truly in business for him or herself.” The more the worker relies upon an employer for income stream, business skills, and supplies, the more likely he or she is an employee – and entitled to all of the benefits included in that classification, such as overtime or worker’s compensation.
In “The Application of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s ‘Suffer or Permit’ Standard in the Identification of Employees Who Are Misclassified as Independent Contractors,” the DOL started with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (the “FLSA”) definition of “employ:” “to suffer or permit to work.” Under this broad definition, “most workers are employees,” the agency stated unequivocally.
With that in mind, the DOL turned to the six factors of the economic realities test commonly used by courts when considering whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The agency noted that the labels used by an employer are not determinative of the nature of the relationship and neither are tax filings.
“All of the factors must be considered in each case, and no one factor (particularly the control factor) is determinative of whether a worker is an employee,” the DOL wrote. “Moreover, the factors themselves should not be applied in a mechanical fashion, but with an understanding that the factors are indicators of the broader concept of economic dependence. Ultimately, the goal is not simply to tally which factors are met, but to determine whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer (and thus its employee) or is really in business for him or herself (and thus its independent contractor).”
Is the work an integral part of the employer’s business? If a worker is economically dependent upon the employer, he or she is likely an employee, while a “true independent contractor’s work, on the other hand, is unlikely to be integral to the employer’s business.” Recognizing the increasing use of telecommuting and other flexible work schedules in today’s economy, the DOL added that work can be integral even if it is performed away from the employer’s premises.
The second factor considers whether the worker’s managerial skill affects the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss. A worker in business for him or herself not only has the opportunity to profit but also to experience a loss, the DOL explained. The question isn’t whether a worker is on the job more hours or earns more money but if the worker makes decisions and exercises skill and initiative – hiring other workers or advertising his services, for example – to move the business forward.
In the third factor, the worker’s relative investment as compared to the employer’s investment should be evaluated. “The worker should make some investment (and therefore undertake at least some risk for a loss) in order for there to be an indication that he or she is an independent business,” according to the guidance. Simply purchasing tools or other equipment may not constitute an investment, the agency added, when considered relative to the employer’s investment.
Fourth: does the work performed require special skill and initiative? Technical skills alone will not indicate that a worker is an independent contractor, the DOL said. Instead, business skills, judgment, and initiative should be evaluated. For example, a highly skilled carpenter who provides his services to a construction company may simply be providing skilled labor as an employee. On the other hand, if the carpenter decides which jobs to take, advertises his services, and determines what materials to order, he is more likely to be classified as an independent contractor.
The length of the relationship between the worker and the employer is the focus of factor five. A permanent or indefinite relationship signals an employee, the DOL said. “After all, a worker who is truly in business for him or herself will eschew a permanent or indefinite relationship with an employer and the dependence that comes with such permanence or indefiniteness,” the agency wrote. The length of time should be considered in the context of the industry, however – seasonal positions may not always indicate an independent contractor relationship, for example.
In the sixth factor, the DOL advised employers to think about control. While the control factor should not receive more weight than the other factors in the economic realities test, the nature and degree of the employer’s control should be considered in light of the ultimate determination whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer or an independent contractor. Employers do not need to look over a worker’s shoulder every day to make them an employee, the guidance cautioned, as technological advancements permit many employees to work off-site and unsupervised.
Employers should review the new guidance and be prepared for agency oversight on the issue of worker classification, keeping in mind that the DOL repeatedly emphasized that “most workers are employees.”
Read the Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1.