The Pitfalls of Employee Misclassification

Bill Weil , December 15, 2015

The misclassification of employees is both against the law and damaging to the employee and employer. Employees lose significant wages when they are misclassified, while employers are confronted with large class action lawsuits and potentially hefty monetary judgments awarded against them. Generally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires an employer to pay employees the federally mandated overtime premium rate of one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for every hour worked in excess of forty (40) hours per workweek. 29 U.S.C. § 207. However, there are exceptions that apply to workers in certain industries, which can require the worker to receive higher wages or be exempt from receiving overtime pay.

Two recent cases demonstrate the difficulty in classifying employees correctly. For example, a service specialist for Ecolab, Inc., a provider of pest elimination services to commercial and non-commercial customers, brought suit against Ecolab, Inc. claiming he and other service specialists were misclassified as exempt from overtime pay. As a result, the service specialists were not paid the overtime rate of not less than one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek. The employees asked for a class of over 1,000 service specialists to be able to proceed to trial.
Ecolab, Inc. objected, stating certain employees are exempt from overtime pay if they receive “bona fide” commission payments and are paid at least one and one-half times the minimum wage for all hours worked in a week involving overtime hours. Nonetheless, the court certified the class and allowed the jury to decide the following: 1) whether Ecolab correctly classified its employees as exempt; and 2) whether Ecolab’s compensation policy permitted employees to actually earn twice the minimum wage. This case outlines the improper classification of non-exempt employees as exempt employees. Generally, an employee is entitled to overtime when they are not employed in an executive, administrative, or professional capacity, and their true exempt status is determined primarily by their duties. Therefore, exempt employees usually have some type of managerial duties, like hiring, firing, and deciding on employee wages and salaries, as well as creating work policies and procedures. If these duties are not exercised by the worker, then it is likely he or she is non-exempt and should be afforded the protections of the law. Eventually a settlement agreement was reached, whereby Ecolab, Inc. agreed to settle the claims for $7,500,000.

Another example is the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) investigation into DirecTV’s employment practices of how they paid their cable installers. DirecTV and their installation contractor, Advanced Information Systems, were accused of violating the minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping laws. DirecTV’s payment practices caused the cable installers to be paid on a piece-rate basis, which caused their hourly rates to fall below the federal minimum wage. The installers were not paid overtime at a rate of one and one-half times for hours worked over 40 per week, nor were they paid for all hours worked. Further, the installers were not paid for unsuccessful installations, time in the office, or travel time, and they were not reimbursed for business expenses.

DirecTV claimed the installers were not their employees, but rather employees of DirecTV’s subcontractor Advanced Information Systems. However, the DOL found the installers only worked on DirecTV installations, drove DirecTV vans, wore DirecTV clothing, and DirecTV specified all conditions of employment. The DOL asserted DirecTV attempted to avoid employer liability by structuring the installers’ employment relationship like they did. However, the court ruled that DirecTV was a joint employer of the installers and responsible for any FLSA violations. Therefore, DirecTV was ordered to pay damages and back wages in the amount of $395,000 to 147 installers.

This case illustrates the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. Generally, to be an independent contractor, one usually has the right to control the manner and means in which they perform their job. Once an employer begins dictating how the work should be accomplished or performed, or in what order the work should be completed, the worker is more likely an employee and not an independent contractor. Independent contractors do not have to be paid minimum wage, overtime, or break time, and they do not have the same protections under the law that an employee has. Thus, classification of a worker as an employee or an independent contractor is a choice that must be made carefully and in compliance with the laws and regulations.

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