Labor Department Adds State Unemployment Insurance To War Against Worker Misclassification

The already significant enforcement risks of employers caught misclassifying workers as independent contractors, leased employees or in some other non-employee status are set to rise more as a result of more than $10 million in grants to 19 states announced today (September 15, 2014) by the U.S. Department of Labor (Labor Department).  The grants add a new wrinkle to the ever-expanding campaign waged against employers that fail to fulfill legal responsibilities with respect to employees as a result of the misclassification of workers that the Labor Department and other federal and state agencies.

Grants To Help States Employers That Underpay Unemployment Insurance Taxes Due To Misclassification

In the latest wrinkle in its ever-expanding war against employers that avoid providing rights, paying taxes or fulfilling other employer responsibilities toward certain workers misclassified by the employer as independent contractor or in other non-employee statuses, the Labor Department awarded $10,225,183 to 19 states to implement or improve worker misclassification detection and enforcement initiatives in unemployment insurance (UI) programs. For a chart showing the grant recipients and amounts announced today, see here.

“This is one of many actions the department is taking to help level the playing field for employers while  workers receive appropriate rights and protections,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “Today’s federal grant awards will enhance states’ ability to detect incidents of worker misclassification and protect the integrity of state unemployment insurance trust funds.”

According to the Labor Department’s announcement of the grants, states will use the funds to increase the ability of state UI tax programs to identify instances where employers improperly classify employees as independent contractors or fail to report the wages paid to workers at all. The states that were selected to receive these grants will use the funds for a variety of improvements and initiatives, including enhancing employer audit programs and conducting employer education initiatives.

While several states have existing programs designed to reduce worker misclassification, this is the first year that the Labor Department has awarded grants dedicated to this effort. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014  authorized this grant funding for “activities to address the misclassification of workers.

Under an innovative, “high-performance bonus” program, four states will receive a share of $2 million in additional grant funds due to their high performance or most improved performance in detecting incidents of worker misclassification. The remaining $8,225,183 was distributed to 19 states in competitive grants. The maximum grant available under the competitive grant award process was $500,000.

Broader War Against Employee Misclassification By Employers

The grants to help states detect and prosecute employer that underpay unemployment insurance contributions is part of a broader and growing campaign against employers that fail to fulfill employment, immigration, tax or other laws by misclassifying workers who by law properly should be treated as common law employees but that the employer treats as working as independent contractors, leased employees or in other non-employed capacities.

Under the Obama Administration, Labor Department, Immigration, tax and other agencies increasingly are successfully identifying and prosecuting businesses for violating the law by misclassification of certain workers as not employed by the business who under the facts and circumstances the agencies view as common law employees of the business.  See.g.,  Boston Furs Sued For $1M For Violations Of Fair Labor Standards Act; Record $2.3 Million+ Backpay Order; Minimum Wage, Overtime Risks Highlighted By Labor Department Strike Force Targeting Residential Care & Group Homes; Review & Strengthen Defensibility of Existing Worker Classification Practices In Light of Rising Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny; 250 New Investigators, Renewed DOL Enforcement Emphasis Signal Rising Wage & Hour Risks For EmployersQuest Diagnostics, Inc. To Pay $688,000 In Overtime Backpay; Employer Faces $2M FLSA Lawsuit For Alleged Worker Misclassification; OIG 2013 Top Management Challenges List Signals Tightening of Labor Department Enforcement; New Employee Smart Phone App New Tool In Labor Department’s Aggressive Wage & Hour Law Enforcement Campaign Against Restaurant & Other Employers; 12 Steps Every Employer With A Health Plan Should Do Now No Matter Who Wins the Election.

The rollout of new health benefit mandates as part of the sweeping reforms enacted under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is further expanding the liability of misclassification and the risk of enforcement against employers.

Among other things, the employer mandates of ACA soon will require certain large employers either to provide health coverage meeting the requirements of ACA or pay the “employer penalty” established under Internal Revenue Code Section 4980H.  While the rule now is delayed until 2015 for employers with more than 100 or more full-time and full-time equivalent employees and 2016 for employers of 50 or more full-time and full-time equivalent employees, ACA generally relies on the common law employment tests used under the FLSA and other federal and state laws determine which employers are considered large employers.  It also requires employers provide other rights to workers who are considered common law employees under these rules.

Employers Should Strengthen Practices For Defensibility

 To minimize exposure under the FLSA, employers should review and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and take other actions to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws.  Steps advisable as part of this process include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Audit of each position current classified as exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
  • Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
  • Review the characterization of on-call and other time demands placed on employees to confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
  • Review of existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
  • If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, self-initiation of proper corrective action after consultation with qualified legal counsel;
  • Review of existing documentation and record keeping practices for hourly employees;
  • Exploration of available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees; and
  • Re-engineering of work rules and other practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations and enforcement exposures.

Because of the potentially significant liability exposure, employers generally will want to consult with qualified legal counsel before starting their risk assessment and assess risks and claims within the scope of attorney-client privilege to help protect the ability to claim attorney-client privilege or other evidentiary protections to help shelter conversations or certain other sensitive risk activities from discovery under the rules of evidence.

For Help With Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs

If you need help in conducting a risk assessment of or responding to an IRS, DOL, Justice Department, or other federal or state agencies or other private plaintiff or other legal challenges to your organization’s existing workforce classification or other labor and employment, compliance,  employee benefit or compensation practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872 .

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 23 years of work helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer often has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters.   She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For more information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  All other rights reserved.

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