Lost among the din of Twitter feuds and even more serious reporting on tax reform, is attention to a tax bill about gig economy workers that could impact more than just tax policy.
The New Economy Works to Guarantee Independence and Growth Act (NEW GIG Act) essentially allows firms such as Uber to withhold income taxes for workers without that withholding being construed as evidence of an employee-employer relationship. Boston College of Law Professors Shu Yi Oei and Diane Ring perceptively point out that the NEW GIG Act will help define how gig economy workers are classified for purposes of laws that cover employees like anti-discrimination laws, unemployment insurance, wage and hour laws and possibly workers compensation laws. Their argument is that NEW GIG allows companies like Uber to define their workers as contractors within the tax code and that helps creates a presumption of independent contractor status.
Though NEW GIG creates a safe harbor for gig economy companies that collect income taxes, NEW GIG does not abolish the common law test that distinguishes an employee from an independent contractor. The common law test rests on an employer having control over the method and means of work. But the tax code is a critical piece to classification of workers. True contractors are able to deduct their expenses from their taxes because legally they are running a business. Courts hold that when a driver or any other worker is essentially running their own business, they are an independent contractor. NEW GIG uses the tax code to encourage workers to take deductions for expenses and hence self-classify as contractors rather than employees.
Federal employment laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act depend on the so-called common law test distinguishing between contractors and employees. State wage and hour laws, fair employment laws and workers compensation laws may not always rely on those definitions. In cases where a state doesn’t use a common law test to distinguish between employees and contractors, the question would be whether NEW GIG would pre-empt those state laws. NEW GIG does not appear to have an express preemption clause, so courts could tend to uphold state employment laws that would conflict with NEW GIG. Lack of express pre-emption language in NEW GIG may also mean that courts wouldn’t pre-empt state employment laws that rely on the common law test distinguishing contractors from employees. If courts read NEW GIG as just a way for gig economy companies to collect income tax from their workers without creating an employee-employer relationship, then its impact could be muted on state laws and possibly on federal laws.
NEW GIG is sponsored in the Senate by John Thune (R.-South Dakota). Thune has recently criticized Uber for customer data breaches and sexual harassment allegations within the company. Those concerns have been echoed by Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) who is a leading proponent of the gig economy. (11) The fact that supporters of the gig economy appear to be questioning the practices of Uber could show the gig economy companies may not have an easy time in fundamentally altering the relationship between companies and their workers.
But Uber is not the only gig economy company and public statements by our elected officials don’t always match up with their actions. Even if NEW GIG is just a tax bill there is power in the perceptions and presumptions that would be created if NEW GIG were passed. Advocates for employee rights would be well advised to keep a close watch over the NEW GIG bills in the House and Senate.