As a result of California’s Assembly Bill 5, effective January 1, 2020, the California Supreme Court’s ABC test is now the standard for evaluating independent contractor classifications for purposes of the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders, California Labor Code, and the California Unemployment Insurance Code. That dramatically ups the ante for companies that rely on independent contractors, particularly those that have not re-evaluated such classifications under the ABC test.
Misclassification cases can be devastating, especially for misclassified non-exempt employees, and can result in minimum wage violations, missed meal and rest periods, unpaid overtime, unreimbursed business expenses, record-keeping violations, steep penalties, attorneys’ fees, and even criminal liability, among other consequences. Misclassifying workers creates enormous risks for companies and is fertile ground for class actions and representative actions under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA).
The Costs Of Misclassification Are Expensive, And Hope Is Not A Strategy
Many business owners I speak to understand AB5 has caused the ground to shift beneath their feet and recognize the resulting risks of misclassifying workers. Despite these risks, companies often balk at taking the necessary steps to evaluate their classifications and mitigate the risk of an adverse classification finding.
The most common reason I hear from resistant companies is the worker does not want to be reclassified as an employee and the company trusts the worker (“I’ve worked with her for years; she won’t sue me because she wants to be a contractor”). I get it. Making the change from contractor to employee results in less flexibility and greater administrative burden for everyone involved. While I’m sympathetic, the government is not. Reluctance to change while acknowledging the associated risks amounts to a strategy based on hope. As we say in the Marine Corps, however, “hope is not a strategy.”
Aside from the sometimes foolhardy belief that a misclassified worker can be trusted to not file suit after a business breakup (when the deposits stop and mortgage bill comes due, guess who’s a prime target), companies often fail to recognize the numerous ways in which their classification decisions can be challenged even when they are in agreement with their (misclassified) contractors. Here are just three examples of how your classifications can be scrutinized despite the lack of a challenge by the worker:
- Auto Accidents:Whether delivering products, making sales calls, or traveling between job sites, independent contractors often perform work that requires driving. Of course, sometimes drivers are involved in automobile accidents. When accidents happen, insurance companies step in and look for sources of money to fund claims, attorneys’ fees, costs, and settlements. One potential source is your insurance. “But the driver isn’t my employee!,” you say. You better buckle up because the other motorist’s insurance carrier is about to challenge your classification in an attempt to access your insurance policies.
- EDD Audits:During the course of the last several years, the California Employment Development Department (EDD) has increased the number of verification (random) audits it performs in search of additional tax revenue. One reason government agencies prefer hiring entities classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors is it’s a more efficient tax collection method; employers collect employees’ taxes on the government’s behalf, which increases collection rates and reduces government collection costs. The consequences of misclassification include pricey fines, penalties, and interest.
- Unemployment Insurance, Workers’ Compensation, and Disability Claims:In addition to verification audits, the EDD performs request (targeted) audits. Targeted audits may result when a contractor files an unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, or disability claim because independent contractors are ineligible for such benefits. Request audits, like verification audits, can result in costly fines, penalties, and interest if the EDD concludes you have misclassified your workers. Even so, that may not be the worst of it: the EDD often shares its findings with the Internal Revenue Service.
Your Action Plan
AB5 has changed the measuring stick, misclassification costs are high, and you do not have complete control of when the government or others can challenge your classifications. So what can you do? Here are several steps all prudent companies should take if they are using independent contractors:
- Conduct an audit of current classification practices;
- Review written independent contractor agreements;
- Implement written independent contractor agreements;
- Update workplace policies;
- Update organizational charts;
- Reclassify independent contractors as employees if necessary.
As Seen In Forbes.