On February 1, 2010, President Barack Obama released his federal budget for the coming fiscal year, including $117 billion for the United States Department of Labor, of which $25 million was set aside expressly to help the DOL combat employee misclassification. This includes, specifically, identifying and litigating against employers that categorize workers as independent contractors when, in fact, they are employees, and that classify as exempt from overtime those employees who do not meet the requirements of the White Collar Exemptions under Part 541 of the Wage and Hour Regulations.
The DOL will use a large portion of these funds to hire hundreds of investigators and other enforcement staff. The new Department of Labor Solicitor, Patricia Smith, will pursue a "Misclassification Initiative" to obtain, for misclassified employees, the wages, overtime pay, unemployment insurance benefits, social security contributions and health, welfare and pension benefits available to employees, but not to independent contractors.
Smith, it should be noted, was most recently Commissioner of Labor in New York State. In that capacity, she publicly identified misclassification as one of the most serious workplace problems today, and created a dedicated taskforce to attack the problem, encompassing representatives from a number of state government agencies, including labor, tax, unemployment insurance, workers compensation and labor relations.
Now, more than ever, employers must have programs in place to insure the validity of their classification of workers as independent contractors or as exempt from overtime, and must have a clear strategy for handling government audits and enforcement actions.
Employers should engage in proactive self-audits, in order to seek out and eliminate vulnerability. Companies should take the appropriate first steps to limit liability and protect their businesses, without raising "red flags." Employers should check their IRS Form 1099s to identify those they have been paying as independent contractors. They should then audit their outside contractor and employee job descriptions, actual job duties and functions, and the degree of day-to-day control exerted by management, to determine who, in fact, is an independent contractor and who is an employee, and whether the employees are exempt or non-exempt under applicable wage and hour tests.
Employers should pay particular attention to matching duties and functions with the requirements for exemption under the managerial/supervisory, administrative and professional white-collar exemptions. Getting the company's house in order before the government's "knock on the door" may save time, attorneys fees and the actual and intangible cost of administrative and civil litigation.
The consequences of worker misclassification, both as to independent contractors and overtime exempt employees, may be severe. Individual, class and collective actions concerning workers' status are proliferating. Companies are facing larger judgments, ramifications and costs, as one case sparks another. The expense to employers can be staggering, including back-pay with interest, liquidated damages, stock options awarded at years-ago, lower prices and legal fees. Misclassification cases are lucrative for plaintiffs' lawyers, particularly when they can assert class and collective claims and work on a contingent-fee basis. The announcement of additional funds made available to the DOL under the president's budget and the confirmation of Patricia Smith as Solicitor of the Department of Labor should provide a wake-up call to employers.
For additional information, please see Mr. Spelfogel's published article titled: "Misclassification: The Profusion, The Cost, and the Remedy" (NYSBA L&E Newsletter, Vol. 34, No. 1 at page 7, Spring 2009).