Senator Dan Quick has introduced employee-friendly legislation
Last weekend’s Big 10 Conference football championship game between Ohio State and Wisconsin contained some off-the-field controversy when former Wisconsin Badger and current Cleveland Browns player, Joe Thomas, criticized the fact that Ohio State starting quarterback J.T. Barrett was playing in the game six days after arthroscopic knee surgery.
While Barrett lead the Buckeyes to victory with 211 passing yards and 60 rushing yards, Thomas argued that college players should have the option of a second opinion when it comes to major surgeries like players do in the NFL. Thomas argued that team doctors are overly influenced by coaches who want players to return to action as soon as possible and that college players are over eager to return to the field.
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.
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.
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.
Back in June, I blogged about a Walmart program where Walmart employees were being used to deliver packages. I pointed out in the piece that at least Walmart delivery drivers would be treated as employees in contrast to Fed Ex drivers and now Amazon drivers who have no employment protections like workers compensation or unemployment insurance if they get hurt on the job.
On social media, I’ve pointed out that Walmart actually seems to be better on employee classification than Amazon. That’s a pretty startling admission from me as Walmart has long been a target of criticism for their employment practices from our firm and any other sentient employee rights advocate with a platform.
The Lincoln City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance on October 16th that would formally eliminate a requirement that Uber and Lyft drivers pass a physical, background check and test about Lincoln that taxi cab drivers currently have to pass in order to drive a taxi in Lincoln.
The City of Lincoln doesn’t have a workers’ compensation ordinance. But allowing Uber competitive advantages over taxi cab companies indirectly impacts workers compensation because if Uber takes market share away from traditional taxi cabs fewer drivers will be covered under workers compensation.
Lincoln does a have a human rights ordinance that covers more employees than either state or federal anti-discrimination laws. By allowing Uber a competitive advantage over traditional taxi cab companies, Lincoln is potentially excluding workers from coverage of that ordinance since Uber denies it is an employer. Traditional taxi cab companies are subject to Lincoln’s human rights ordinance.
Unfortunately, U.S. employment laws are not equipped to deal with the day-to-day mental strains placed on retail workers. Workers compensation laws generally do not compensate purely mental injuries. Workplace bullying or harassment is only legally actionable if the harassment is severe or pervasive and motivated by an unlawful factor like race, religion, nationality, sex, disability, etc.
Changing employment laws to encourage so-called “portable benefits” is an idea that goes hand in hand with finding new ways to classify gig economy workers. These proposals are being pushed in a growing number of states. These proposals also enjoy support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. These proposals could also radically alter workers’ compensation in the United States.
The idea of third classification of worker between employee and independent contractor is to give so-called “gig economy” workers some protections and benefits without employers having to bear the full costs of employment – including unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance. Sometimes this third class of workers is described as “dependent contractors.
Portable benefits are usually discussed in the context of contractors because traditionally benefits such as unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance have been provided by employers. So-called portable benefits, are detached from employers. The Affordable Care Act increased portability of health insurance benefits through the use of exchanges Portability of health insurance was touted as a way to help create new businesses because potential entrepreneurs were not tied to an employer for health insurance.
Becker and others point out that the drive to create a new class of workers is being driven by tech companies such as Uber as a way of reducing labor costs. The real risks of creating a new classification of workers is shared even by some who promote the sharing or gig economy. Gene Zaino, founder and CEO of MBO Partners, a firm that provides services to independent workers, stated that any new classification of independent workers should only include workers who earn more than $50 per hour. Under such a scheme lower-paid workers would still retain the benefits and protections of the employment relationship.
Advocates for state-based workers’ compensation laws likely have little constitutional grounds to overturn any federal legislation that would substitute “portable benefits” for so-called “independent workers” for state-based workers’ compensation benefits. Some critics who argue, correctly, that many state-based laws inadequately compensate injured workers could also be open to or even welcome a federal substitute for insufficient state workers’ compensation laws.
The issue of whether Uber drivers and other so-called “Gig Economy” workers are employees or independent contractors is a hot topic among lawyers and policy makers. But last week independent contractors in the Gig Economy and beyond had a more mundane but no less serious dilemma:
Independent contractor status can be helpful for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. But for those who just want to support themselves and family, involuntary independent contractor status can mean higher taxes, more paperwork and more risk of trouble with the IRS and state revenue agencies. Future tax days could be even more stressful if more workers are forced into independent contractor status in order to support themselves and families.