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Alert: US DOL Issues Final Rule to Simplify Analysis of Workers in Gig Economy | Cooley LLP

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A critical and growing issue facing gig economy platforms and other similar business models is the failure of existing laws to reflect the realities of a modern, adapting workforce. In response to calls for action, the United States Department of Labor recently published a final rule providing a simplified framework to determine if a worker is an “employee” or an “independent contractor” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The final rule, scheduled to take effect on March 8, represents the latest DOL endorsement of the gig economy platform model.

Background

In its final rule, the DOL observed that the FLSA does not define the term “independent contractor.” Instead, the DOL long ago adopted the economic realities test to determine proper worker classification. The economic realities test ultimately evaluates the extent of a worker’s economic dependence on the putative employer: the more dependent the worker is on the business, the more likely he or she could be considered an employee of that business.

The DOL noted that there has been significant confusion regarding the meaning of economic dependence and increasing legal uncertainty against the backdrop of increasingly flexible work arrangements. The DOL therefore promulgated the final rule to provide greater clarity on its own worker classification test under the FLSA.

DOL provides five factors to determine a worker’s ‘economic reality’

In its effort to clarify the confusion caused by the ever-changing meaning of the “economic reality” of a worker’s engagement, the DOL provided five factors to assess a worker’s economic dependence. Although the factors below are not exhaustive, and no single factor is dispositive, the DOL has clarified that the first two factors “are the most probative as to whether or not an individual is an economically dependent ‘employee.’” If these two factors point to the same conclusion, the remaining three factors need not be analyzed in making the classification determination.

  1. The nature and degree of the worker’s control over the work. This factor examines whether the worker exercises substantial control over key aspects of the performance of the work, such as scheduling the hours worked, selecting projects and/or being able to work for competing companies. The DOL noted, however, that even if a business required a worker to comply with specific legal obligations – such as satisfying health/safety standards and carrying proper insurance, or contractually agreed-upon deadlines or quality control standards – this alone would not constitute “control” for the purpose of this factor.
  2. The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss. This factor focuses on the extent of the worker’s opportunity to earn profits or incur losses based on (i) his or her own managerial skill, business acumen or judgment, and (ii) management of his or her investment in or capital expenditure on helpers or equipment or material to further his or her work. By contrast, if a worker “is unable to affect his or her earnings or is only able to do so by working more hours or faster,” the more likely he or she is classified as an employee under the FLSA.

If these first two factors conflict, however, the following three remaining factors can serve as further guideposts for proper classification.

  1. The amount of skill required for the work. This factor examines whether the individual’s work requires specialized training or skill that the business does not provide.
  2. The degree of permanence of the working relationship. This factor examines whether the relationship is impermanent (i.e., finite or sporadic) or permanent (i.e., indefinite or continuous). If a worker’s engagement falls into the former category, this would be indicative of an independent contractor relationship.
  3. Whether the work is part of an “integrated” unit of production. This factor focuses on the extent the work is a component of the business’s “integrated production process” for a good or service. Significantly, in incorporating this rule, the DOL rejected the prior test’s assessment of a worker’s “integrality” – which focused solely on a worker’s “importance” or “centrality” – because it found that identifying the “‘core or primary business purpose’ is not a useful inquiry in the modern economy.” Instead, under this factor, the worker is not likely to be found to be an employee if they are not “integrated” into the business’s production process, which is composed of operational subparts working in coordination towards a “specified unified purpose.”

Also noteworthy, the DOL announced that offering health, retirement and other benefits to independent contractors in and of itself is not “necessarily indicative of employment status.” However, the DOL cautioned that offering the same benefits to both independent contractors and employees poses misclassification risks.

Will the final rule take effect?

This remains to be seen. While the final rule is scheduled to go into effect on March 8, 2021, the future of the final rule remains uncertain because the incoming Biden administration is expected to issue a directive to all agencies to delay the effective date of any pending regulation that is not yet effective. Further, under the Congressional Review Act, the Democratic majority in the Senate and House could rescind the final rule with presidential approval.

What does this all mean?

Unlike the DOL’s 2019 Opinion Letter supporting the gig economy, if implemented, the final rule constitutes binding authority that stands to alter how the DOL and adjudicative bodies analyze and ultimately classify workers under the FLSA. Although its practical impact can be limited by state laws with different and potentially more rigorous standards, the final rule represents another positive development for gig economy platforms and others businesses hampered by worker classification tests that fail to reflect, as the DOL describes it, the modern economy.

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Gig economy musn’t push labor back into 19th century – Deutsche Welle

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Gig economy firms ordered to give 60,000 riders contracts in landmark Italian ruling

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FOUR major gig economy firms in Milan have been ordered to employ 60,000 delivery riders and pay €733 million (£635m) in fines in a huge victory for workers’ rights.

The decision follows last Friday’s landmark Uber ruling in the British Supreme Court that found drivers for the company were workers and not self-employed.

Authorities in Italy’s largest city gave Deliveroo, UberEats, JustEat and Foodhino-Glovo 90 days to comply with their order.

Deputy Prosecutor Tiziana Siciliano said: “The vast majority of these riders are employed with occasional self-employment contracts … but it emerged without a shadow of a doubt that they are fully included in the organisation of the company.”

Ms Siciliano also said an IT platform that managed the workers, ranking them according to performance, forced them to labour like slaves without basic employment rights.

“This system actually forces the rider to accept all orders in order not to be demoted in the ranking and get less work,” she said. “This is the reason why it is impossible to take holidays or sick leave.”

Prosecutor Francesco Greco declared that the ruling meant “it is no longer the time to say that they are slaves. It’s time to say that they are citizens.”

The order also places obligations to provide safe bicycles, accident compensation and training to the riders.

 JustEat said it was launching an internal investigation into its workers’ safety and said it had made changes to its business model to “introduce a safer, more controlled and direct system with our workers — as employees.”
 
 But UberEats, Deliveroo Italy and Foodhino-Glovo said they did not agree with the order.
 
“The online food delivery is an industry that operates in full compliance with the rules and is able to guarantee an essential service,” they said.

A worldwide boom in food delivery because of lockdowns imposed by coronavirus has put the spotlight on the plight of couriers worldwide who often lack proper employment rights.

The European Commission launched a public consultation on the rights of gig economy workers on Wednesday. The standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress also began consideration of a draft law strengthening legal protections for workers in “flexible” employment last month following protests over the mistreatment of gig economy workers.

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How does the Uber decision impact the gig economy as a whole?

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The Supreme Court held that “Uber drivers were not in business on their own account”

We take a deep dive into this judgment which has had a final say on whether Uber drivers (and potentially other gig economy individuals) are workers.

A. ISSUES

  • Were Uber drivers working under workers’ contracts (and therefore qualify for the national minimum wage, paid annual leave and other workers’ rights)?
  • If so, were the drivers working under such contracts whenever they were logged into the Uber app (and not just when they were driving passengers to their destinations)?

B. PROCEEDINGS BELOW

  • The employment tribunal found that the drivers were “workers” as defined under s.230(3) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA), more commonly known as the limb (b) workers. The tribunal further found that the drivers were working for Uber London during any period when a driver had the Uber app switched on, was within the territory in which he was authorised to work and was able and willing to accept assignments.
  • The EAT and the Court of Appeal dismissed Uber’s appeal of the tribunal decision and the issues ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court. The case was heard on 21 and 22 July 2020 and the judgment was handed down on 19 February 2021.

 

C. BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE

Section 230(3) ERA

The term “worker” is defined by s.230(3) as:

an individual who has entered into or works under (or, where the employment has ceased, worked under) –

(a) a contract of employment or

(b) any other contract, whether express or implied and (if it is express) whether oral or in writing, whereby the individual undertakes to do or perform personally any work or services for another party to the contract whose status is not by virtue of the contract that of a client or customer or any profession or business undertaking carried on by the individual;

and any reference to a worker’s contract shall be construed accordingly.

Limb (b) has three elements:

(i) a contract whereby an individual undertakes to perform work or services for the other party;

(ii) an undertaking to do the work or perform the services personally;

(iii) a requirement that the other party to the contract is not a client or customer of any profession or business undertaking carried on by the individual

This case was concerned with the first element of limb (b) viz., whether there was a worker’s contract. There was no dispute between the parties as to whether the services were performed personally (which they were) and that Uber was not a client or customer of the drivers.

The issue of whether there is a right of substitution in the contract and whether this was actively utilised in practice by the workers is an issue that is more pertinent to the second element of limb (b). This issue did not arise in this case (see below Section E Analysis).

Bates van Winkelhof v Clyde & Co

Lady Hale Bates van Winkelhof maintained that employment law distinguishes between three types of people:

  • those employed under a contract of employment;
  • those self-employed people who are in business on their own account;
  • intermediate class of workers who are self-employed but who provide their services as part of a profession or business undertaking carried on by someone else.

D. SUPREME COURT JUDGEMENT

ISSUE 1: WERE DRIVERS WORKING UNDER WORKERS’ CONTRACTS (AND THEREFORE QUALIFY FOR THE NATIONAL MINIMUM WAGE, PAID ANNUAL LEAVE AND OTHER WORKERS’ RIGHTS)?

The central plank of this judgment centres whether Uber drivers are to be regarded as working under contracts with Uber whereby they undertook to perform services for Uber as opposed to in business on their own account. The conclusion that Uber drivers are workers and not in business on their own account is based on three premises which will be considered below.

1. THAT WRITTEN TERMS OF A CONTRACT BETWEEN THE DRIVERS AND UBER ARE NOT A STARTING POINT IN DETERMINING THEIR WORKER STATUS.

The Supreme Court maintained that to state that a contract is a starting point is at odds with the purpose of statutory protection afforded to workers. Employers are often in a position to dictate contract terms and the individual performing the work has little or no ability to influence those terms that give rise to the statutory protections stipulated under the National Minimum Wage Act or the Working Time Regulations.

This approach is further supported by the fact that there is prohibition on contracting out of such statutory protections as can be found under s.203 (1) ERA which renders as null and void any provision or agreement that purports to exclude or limit the operation of the statute.

2. THE STARTING POINT FOR DETERMINING WORKER STATUS IS THAT ENDORSED IN THE CASE OF CARMICHAEL V NATIONAL POWER.

The House of Lords decision in Carmichael v National Power [1999] 1 WLR 2042 stated that where there is no written contract between the parties or at least where the written contract did not represent the true nature of the relationship, it would be appropriate to look at the following factors:

  • the language of the correspondence between the parties;
  • the way in which the relationship had operated;
  • evidence of the parties as to their understanding of it.

The Supreme Court stated that although written terms should not be ignored they are not to be treated as a starting point for analysis, especially where the bargaining power of the parties means that the individual had no say in drafting the terms and the written agreement would not represent how the parties actually conducted themselves. The Court also maintained that often the objective of the written terms is to circumvent altogether the statutory protections that would otherwise be afforded to the individuals concerned.

3. IN DETERMINING THE STATUS OF AN INDIVIDUAL WORKER, THE DEGREE OF CONTROL EXERCISED EMPLOYER IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE: THE GREATER THE CONTROL, THE MORE LIKELY THE INDIVIDUAL WILL BE CLASSIFIED AS A WORKER.

Key indicators of this control are subordination and dependence upon another person (employer) in relation to the work done. The greater the subordination and dependence, the greater the degree of control exercised by the employer.

CONCLUSION

Applying the above analyses, the Supreme Court identified five aspects of the employment tribunal’s findings to support the conclusion that Uber drivers were working for and under contracts with Uber.

  • The remuneration paid to the drivers is fixed by Uber and the drivers have no say in it.
  • The contractual terms under which they work are dictated by Uber.
  • Once logged onto the Uber app, the driver’s choice of accepting or rejecting requests is constrained by Uber, for example if the acceptance rate falls below a certain percentage then a penalty is imposed on the driver by way of being logged out for 10 minute before they can be logged back on.
  • The way the services are delivered by the drivers is tightly controlled by Uber, for example under the rating system, if it falls below a certain level for a period of time Uber can effectively terminate the contract with that driver.
  • Restriction of communication between driver and customer means that the drivers have little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill other than working longer hours whilst constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance.

ISSUE 2: WERE THE DRIVERS WORKING UNDER WORKERS’ CONTRACTS WHENEVER THEY WERE LOGGED INTO THE UBER APP (AND NOT JUST WHEN THEY WERE DRIVING PASSENGERS TO THEIR DESTINATIONS)?

Put the question another way: during what periods where the drivers working?

The tribunal at first instance found that a driver was working under a worker’s contract when:

  • he had the Uber app switched on;
  • he was within the territory in which he was authorised to use the app; and
  • he was ready and willing to accept trips

Uber argued that the drivers were only working under workers’ contracts when they were actually driving passengers to their destinations. This is because, they argued, the driver had a right to turn down work even when they were logged onto the app and so the driver had no contractual obligation to undertake work for Uber whilst logged onto the app.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument on several grounds:

  • that the driver has the right to turn down work does not preclude a finding that he is employed under a worker’s contract so long as there is an “irreducible minimum of obligation” i.e. if there is an obligation to do some work, then the right to turn down work is not fatal.
  • the Welcome Packet issued to drivers at the start referred to logging onto the Uber app as “going on duty” and instructed drivers that “Going on duty means you are willing and able to accept trip requests“.
  • in reality, there was more than an irreducible minimum of obligation because a penalty would be imposed on those who turn down work too often.

E. ANALYSIS

This judgment is consequential not least because it does not just affect Uber but the companies in the wider gig economy which will have to (if haven’t done so already) review and rearrange their working model, in some cases quite drastically. As part of this effort, any analysis that relied on previous judgments that focused on the right of substitution will have to be adjusted to take into consideration this judgment. Although the substitution analysis is relevant to the second element of limb (B) under s.230(3) ERA (namely, personal service), this judgment will form the bedrock of determining the worker status going forward.

A key takeaway is that the Supreme Court has somewhat relegated the importance of written agreements between the parties as a mere factor to consider, and not a starting point for substantial analysis. This does not mean that employers should pay less attention to the written agreement but it does mean that the employers have to place greater weight and effort into aligning the written agreement with the actual practical aspects of how the workers work.

Another key commercial impact of this judgment is that attempts to maintain the quality of their brand will likely be construed as tools for control that enhance subordination and dependence of workers on the organisations.

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