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Previously we have discussed the risks associated with contingent worker arrangements (engagements of independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, temporary staffers, and “as needed” workers, etc.).  These risks will continue to grow in the coming months, as more claimants emerge seeking damages, government agencies increase their enforcement efforts, and state and federal legislators create new restrictions and penalties associated with classifying workers as independent contractors.

Civil litigation over employment status is becoming increasingly common, perhaps because more employers are relying on contingent arrangements, economic conditions make it more difficult to find traditional full time employment, and more individuals and attorneys are aware of the issue following high profile verdicts, settlements, and fines.

Although enforcement of various laws by state and federal agencies has been spotty in the past, there are signs that enforcement efforts will increase.  With the economy in decline, there has been a heightened focus on capturing more revenue through employment taxes, which often is a reason why companies seek independent contractor arrangements.  A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, commissioned by several Congressional committees, called upon the U.S. Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service to step up their efforts to police classification of workers as independent contractors.

Some cases come to the attention of government agencies through routine audits, some come through complaints, and some come through other action on the part of the individual, such as filing a claim for unemployment benefits.  Increasingly, state and federal agencies are sharing information and coordinating their enforcement efforts.  In light of the discussion above, companies that utilize independent contractor arrangements can expect to encounter more challenges, and more intensive scrutiny, than they have in the past. 

More federal laws related to classification of contractors are likely on the way.  There is a bill in Congress (H.R. 3408: “The Taxpayer Responsibility, Accountability and Consistency Act of 2009”) that would increase penalties for misclassification and eliminate or sharply curtail the “safe harbor” provisions of Section 530 of the Revenue Code, which currently allows businesses to avoid tax penalties if they have a good faith reason to believe that a worker is an independent contractor, even if ultimately found to be an employee as a matter of law.  Within the past two years, there have been several other bills introduced in the House and Senate that would amend the Revenue Code and the Fair Labor Standards Act to make it more difficult to properly classify workers as independent contractors and to increase penalties for doing so incorrectly. 

Courts and government agencies use a variety of legal tests to determine whether a worker is properly classified.  These tests can vary according to what law is allegedly violated, and it is conceivable that a worker could be deemed an independent contractor for purposes of one statute but not for another.  Under any test, however, simply agreeing on a status such as “independent contractor” or “temporary worker” does not establish a non-employment relationship.  Instead, the proper classification is determined according to the specific facts of a particular case.  Depending on the test applied, factors considered can include:  who has the right to control the means and manner of performance; who provides the tools and equipment needed for the work; where the work is performed; whether the work is part of the recipient’s core business; whether the worker can bring in assistants or subcontract the work; and whether the worker is economically dependent on a single entity, or whether the worker is truly “independent” such that his or her work would continue for other clients if one relationship were discontinued.

The Labor and Employment Team at Hunton & Williams has ample experience litigating issues related to contingent workers, before state and federal agencies and in courts across the country.  We regularly take on difficult cases for clients in this area and provide preventive guidance to avoid litigation or enforcement where that is an option.