Amazon, Walmart and the “Shameless” Economy

Today’s post comes from guest author Rod Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

With holiday shopping in full swing, Gizmodo just ran a long article about how Amazon is using an Uber-like app to hire delivery drivers as independent contractors.

Back in June, I blogged about a Walmart program where Walmart employees were being used to deliver packages. I pointed out in the piece that at least Walmart delivery drivers would be treated as employees in contrast to Fed Ex drivers and now Amazon drivers who have no employment protections like workers compensation or unemployment insurance if they get hurt on the job.

On social media, I’ve pointed out that Walmart actually seems to be better on employee classification than Amazon. That’s a pretty startling admission from me as Walmart has long been a target of criticism for their employment practices from our firm and any other sentient employee rights advocate with a platform.

When I read the Gizmodo article about Amazon, I thought about an episode of Shameless where the ever enterprising Lip underbids illegal aliens on a construction job with a group of rich kids looking to do volunteer work to bolster their college resumes. Up until now, Walmart has been a leader in the low wage economy. But leave it to Amazon to underbid Walmart in the race to the bottom.

Is The NEW GIG A New Bargain For Workers?

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Lost among the din of Twitter feuds and even more serious reporting on tax reform, is attention to a tax bill about gig economy workers that could impact more than just tax policy.

The New Economy Works to Guarantee Independence and Growth Act (NEW GIG Act) essentially allows firms such as Uber to withhold income taxes for workers without that withholding being construed as evidence of an employee-employer relationship. Boston College of Law Professors Shu Yi Oei and Diane Ring perceptively point out that the NEW GIG Act will help define how gig economy workers are classified for purposes of laws that cover employees like anti-discrimination laws, unemployment insurance, wage and hour laws and possibly workers compensation laws. Their argument is that NEW GIG allows companies like Uber to define their workers as contractors within the tax code and that helps creates a presumption of independent contractor status.

Though NEW GIG creates a safe harbor for gig economy companies that collect income taxes, NEW GIG does not abolish the common law test that distinguishes an employee from an independent contractor. The common law test rests on an employer having control over the method and means of work. But the tax code is a critical piece to classification of workers. True contractors are able to deduct their expenses from their taxes because legally they are running a business. Courts hold that when a driver or any other worker is essentially running their own business, they are an independent contractor. NEW GIG uses the tax code to encourage workers to take deductions for expenses and hence self-classify as contractors rather than employees.

Federal employment laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act depend on the so-called common law test distinguishing between contractors and employees. State wage and hour laws, fair employment laws and workers compensation laws may not always rely on those definitions. In cases where a state doesn’t use a common law test to distinguish between employees and contractors, the question would be whether NEW GIG would pre-empt those state lawsNEW GIG does not appear to have an express preemption clause, so courts could tend to uphold state employment laws that would conflict with NEW GIG. Lack of express pre-emption language in NEW GIG may also mean that courts wouldn’t pre-empt state employment laws that rely on the common law test distinguishing contractors from employees. If courts read NEW GIG as just a way for gig economy companies to collect income tax from their workers without creating an employee-employer relationship, then its impact could be muted on state laws and possibly on federal laws.

NEW GIG is sponsored in the Senate by John Thune (R.-South Dakota). Thune has recently criticized Uber for customer data breaches and sexual harassment allegations within the company. Those concerns have been echoed by Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) who is a leading proponent of the gig economy. (11) The fact that supporters of the gig economy appear to be questioning the practices of Uber could show the gig economy companies may not have an easy time in fundamentally altering the relationship between companies and their workers.

But Uber is not the only gig economy company and public statements by our elected officials don’t always match up with their actions. Even if NEW GIG is just a tax bill there is power in the perceptions and presumptions that would be created if NEW GIG were passed. Advocates for employee rights would be well advised to keep a close watch over the NEW GIG bills in the House and Senate.

Failure to Provide Workers’ Compensation for Employees is a Crime

Today’s post comes from guest author Rod Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

I saw a recent newspaper story from New Jersey telling an employer was found guilty of a crime for filing to provide workers compensation benefits for the employees of his tree trimming service.

I can’t recall the last time I read of such a conviction, although virtually every state makes failing to provide workers compensation is a crime and wide spread employer evasion by labeling workers as independent contractor rather than employees. Recent studies find misclassification to occur a 30% rate. The costs of misclassification are in the hundreds of billions with workers being denied treatment and income replacement, government losing withholding taxes, unemployment benefit taxes and lawful employers paying higher insurance premiums for workers compensation and healthcare to name a few costs.

I run into these scoff law employers all too frequently. If more prosecutors treated as the criminals, they are perhaps more working people would be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Kent, WA Landscaper with History of Illegal Contracting Charged in Consumer Scams

Today’s post comes from guest author Kit Case, from Causey Wright.

A Kent man faces criminal charges in a scheme that left consumers with unfinished and botched landscaping projects despite paying thousands of dollars.

Honorio Mendez-Ortega, 42, faces four counts of performing or offering to perform work as a construction contractor without being registered by the state.

Mendez-Ortega has pleaded not guilty to the charges in King County District Court. He goes by multiple aliases, including Honorio “Orio” Mendez, Antonio Mendez, Honorio Mendez Ortega, and Honorio Ortega Mendez.

The King County Prosecutor filed the charges based on contractor compliance investigations by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I).

Unregistered contracting is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and $5,000 fine.

“It’s horrible when someone uses elaborate lies and deception to fool consumers,” said Elizabeth Smith, assistant director for L&I’s Fraud Prevention & Labor Standards. “But we see it all too often. Even if a friend or a home referral service recommends a contractor, you still need to do your homework and check with us for tips.”

Consumers should always hire contractors registered with L&I, and never pay in full until the job is done right.

Renton couple pays $32K for job that was never finished
Consumers found Mendez-Ortega through an online, construction referral service and Craigslist ads. He’s accused of using company names and contractor licenses that were registered to other people.

In the most recent case, investigators say Mendez-Ortega accepted more than $32,000 from a Renton couple last year. According to the charges, he agreed to build an outdoor kitchen and patio and to landscape their yard even though he was not a registered contractor.

Charging papers say that Mendez-Ortega quit in the middle of construction and refused to finish or return the couple’s money. What little work Mendez-Ortega’s crew had done was so poor it had to be redone.

Mendez-Ortega told the couple his business was Best Way Services LLC, a construction company that turned out to be registered to a man in California. The couple wrote two checks to the company, court papers said, and at Mendez-Ortega’s direction, wrote the remaining $17,000 in checks to him personally.

Victims in Kirkland, Maple Valley, Bellevue and Seattle lose $27K
Mendez-Ortega was recently arrested on a bench warrant for three unregistered contracting charges that were filed last year for incidents around King County in 2014 and 2015. The arrest warrant was issued after he failed to appear for arraignment.

According to charging papers, Mendez-Ortega failed to finish landscape projects for two of the customers, and never even showed up for work after accepting deposits from two other homeowners.

He falsely told those victims that his business was Spike Services LLC, charging papers said. Though he didn’t own the company, he introduced himself using the real name of the owner. It turned out the owner was a college student from Seattle who was attending classes in Jakarta, Indonesia, when many of the incidents occurred.

Long history with L&I

Since 2013, L&I has cited Ortega-Mendez with 11 civil infractions for unregistered contracting. He owes L&I more than $84,000 in fines, in unpaid employee wages, and workers’ compensation insurance premiums. He owes the state Department of Revenue more than $151,000 in unpaid taxes.

Ortega-Mendez originally used his own name to register two contractor businesses from 2003 to 2011. The registrations were suspended partly because of $83,000 in court judgments to harmed customers. He could not register again until he paid the judgments and met all other requirements.

State law requires construction contractors to register with L&I. The department confirms they have liability insurance, a business license, and a bond – requirements that provide some financial recourse to consumers if problems arise.

L&I can issue violators a civil infraction, refer them for criminal prosecution or both.

Hiring a contractor? Hire smart.

*         Verify contractor registration at ProtectMyHome.net<http://protectmyhome.net/>.

*         Get three written bids.

*         Beware if you’re asked to write checks to an individual, instead of a company.

*         Don’t pay large deposits or entire costs up front.

*         Check out contractor references and credentials.

*         Get more tips at ProtectMyHome.net or call L&I at 1-800-647-0982.

Photo by jamelah on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Uber: A Tale of Two Cities

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

While London’s ban of ride-hailing service, Uber, seems poised to continue for the forseeable future, Lincoln, Nebraska may soon lessen formal regulation for Uber drivers.

The Lincoln City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance on October 16th that would formally eliminate a requirement that Uber and Lyft drivers pass a physical, background check and test about Lincoln that taxi cab drivers currently have to pass in order to drive a taxi in Lincoln.

According to city officials, this requirement is not currently being enforced. The ordinance has the public support of Mayor Chris Beutler and at-large City Councilwoman Leiron Gaylor-Baird. Supporters of the ordinance cite a decrease in drunken driving from ride hailing as well as a decrease in traffic and increase in downtown parking.

Taxi cab companies state the ordinance lets unqualified drivers on the street and presents unfair competition to traditional taxi cab companies. What hasn’t been eluded to in the debate over ride hailing litigation in Lincoln, but has played more prominently in the London debate, is the fact that ride-hailing companies treat their drivers as contractors which excuses them from paying basic employee benefits like unemployment and workers compensation insurance. This allows services like Uber to undercut traditional taxis on price.

The City of Lincoln doesn’t have a workers’ compensation ordinance. But allowing Uber competitive advantages over taxi cab companies indirectly impacts workers compensation because if Uber takes market share away from traditional taxi cabs fewer drivers will be covered under workers compensation.

Lincoln does a have a human rights ordinance that covers more employees than either state or federal anti-discrimination laws. By allowing Uber a competitive advantage over traditional taxi cab companies, Lincoln is potentially excluding workers from coverage of that ordinance since Uber denies it is an employer. Traditional taxi cab companies are subject to Lincoln’s human rights ordinance.

Many business observers have argued that Uber’s biggest innovation is “regulatory arbitrage.” Regulatory arbitrage is a fancy word for lobbying. Uber hired former Obama advisor David Plouffe. In the United Kingdom, Uber’s chief lobbyist is the godfather to one of the children for former Prime Minister David Cameron. It’s safe to state that a lot of Uber’s supposed innovation stems from old-fashioned lobbying.

Other cities, most prominently Austin, Texas, have attempted to regulate Uber by imposing the same requirements on ride hailing drivers that they do on taxi drivers. Uber was able to successfully lobby the Texas Legislature to pass a state law that preempted municipal regulation of ride-hailing services.

Though the tech sector is regarded by some as an advocate for LGBT rights, Uber was willing to accept an amendment to the Texas preemption legislation that promoted discrimination against transgender individuals.

Wisconsin Workplace Deaths on the Rise

Today’s post comes from guest author Charlie Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

There is a bad trend in Wisconsin: Deaths on the job are on the rise.

Specifically, OSHA (on December 18, 2017) issued a release that there were five Wisconsin worker deaths in the last 22 days!:

  • (Madison):  On November 27, 2017, a 26 year old employee was abrasive blasting and cut his inner thigh (femoral artery) with the abrasive blasting nozzle.  Reference OSHA’s Abrasive Blasting web page for safety and health related information regarding abrasive blasting operations.
  • (Eau Claire):  On December 1, 2017, a 60 year old employee working on a logging site was struck by a backing forwarder (skidder) machine.  Reference OSHA’s Logging web page for safety and health related information regarding logging operations.
  • (Milwaukee Area Office):  On December 5, 2017, a 32 year old employee was struck in the head when an approx. 50 lb. part being worked on flew out of a CNC machine. 
  • On December 5, 2017, a 59 year old employee was struck in the abdomen by a piece of wood that had kicked back from a table saw.  Reference OSHA’s Woodworking web page for safety and health related information regarding woodworking operations.
  • (Milwaukee Area Office):  On December 9th, 2017, a 36 year old employee was struck-by a materials van and pinned between the van and loading dock the van was being backed up to. Employers are encouraged to review dock areas to identify hazards and take necessary corrective actions.  Reference OSHA’s e-Tool on Powered Industrial Trucks (Forklift) for information on dock safety.

These recent workplace deaths are in the same year as the devastating plant explosion in Cambria, Wisconsin, on May 31, 2017, resulting in the death of 5 workers and injuring many more.  OSHA proposed a $1.8 million fine related to this fatal explosion.

Sadly, these workplace deaths are on the rise in our country as a whole.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its latest report on fatalities in the workplace, with data through 2016.  Unfortunately, the number of fatalites is the highest ever since 2008.  An informational chart can be found here.

While employers indicate there are ever-increasing safety measures at workplaces, accidents–even catastrophic ones–still happen.  And they are happening with more frequency.

Under Wisconsin worker’s compensation law, there are no pain and suffering damages for those family members left behind by the deceased worker.  A dependent (generally a surviving spouse or children under the age of 18) can bring a claim for death benefits–which are four times the worker’s annual earnings.  This amount can be (and can feel) woefully inadequate following a worker’s death.

U.S. DOL and TX Pottery Manufacturer Reach Settlement Following Worker Fatality

Today’s post comes from guest author Kit Case, from Causey Wright.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Marshall Pottery, Inc., have reached a settlement agreement including a penalty of $545,160, after the death of an assistant plant manager.

On April 16, 2017, investigators determined that the manager was servicing a kiln and became trapped inside when it activated. The company was cited for six willful violations and 21 serious violations. Citations were issued following OSHA’s investigation into failures to implement confined space and lockout/tagout programs.

“This company was cited for similar violations in 2008 after another fatality at the plant,” said OSHA Area Director Basil Singh, in Dallas. “Failures to implement lockout/tagout and confined space programs are unacceptable. Employers must use all required safeguards and procedures to prevent the recurrence of similar tragedies.”

The company had 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Upon receipt of the citations and penalties, the company scheduled an informal conference with the OSHA area director.  At the meeting, OSHA and the company reached a settlement. As part of the settlement, the company also agreed to abate the violations. 

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.

OSHA News Release: 11/28/2017
Contact Names: 

Chauntra Rideaux

Phone Number: 
Contact Name: 

Juan Rodriguez

Phone Number: 
Release Number: 
17-1383-DAL

Workers Compensation for the Work Camper

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

The Washington Post ran a feature story about “Work Campers” – senior citizens who live in campers and travel around for temporary jobs. The story noted that many, if not most, work campers were forced into the lifestyle by inadequate retirement savings and Social Security retirement benefits that have lost 30 percent of their purchasing power since 2000. The story also noted that the number of senior citizens working has increased from 4 million to 9 million during that same time period.

The idea of a growing number of senior citizens essentially acting as migrant laborers strikes many as odd and even dystopian. But work campers will present interesting challenges to the workers compensation system.  Though some studies show that older workers are less likely to get hurt on the job, this finding is attributed to older workers having more experience on the job. Since work campers tend to hop from temporary job to temporary job, their chances of injury could increase as temporary workers are more likely to get hurt.

This growing development in the workforce raises many issues for work campers who are hurt on the job because workers compensation laws are state specific so benefits and eligibility for benefits vary from state to state.

Here are some questions that will face work campers when they are injured on the job.

Which states and jurisdictions can you collect benefits?

Employees may be eligible to claim benefits in the state where they are injured, their state of permanent residence, the state their employer is based or the state they were hired. Employees may also be able to claim benefits in multiple states. Employees may also be able to bring claims under the Jones Act or Longshore Act if they were hurt on a ship or a navigable body of water. It helps to get advice from a qualified workers’ compensation lawyer as the decision as to where an employee should claim benefits should be driven by where they have the best chances of recovery.

Which states limit permanent benefits for older workers?

Iowa recently limited workers over the age of 67 from receiving permanent disability benefits for more than 150 weeks. A work camper who was covered under Iowa law and seriously injured could only receive 2 ½ years of benefits.

What is the law on pre-existing conditions?

Many elderly workers have preexisting conditions. In some states those preexisting conditions may impair the ability of an injured work camper to collect benefits. In Missouri employees need to show an injury is a “prevailing factor” in the disability whereas in Nebraska employees merely show the work injury was a “contributing factor” to the disability. In other words, it would be more difficult for a work camper to collect benefits in Missouri for the aggravation of an old injury than it would be in Nebraska.

How do you determine earnings?

Disability benefits are based on earnings or what is called average weekly wage.  The work campers profiled in the Washington Post were fairly low wage employees. However some work camping contracts include provisions for benefits like lodging that have a real monetary value. In some states, like Nebraska, those non-cash benefits can be included in the average weekly wage. Short term work assignments also present difficulties in determining average weekly wage because they might not accurately reflect an employee’s actual earning capacity. There could also be questions as to whether employment is seasonal or weather dependent which could also alter the average weekly wage.

Again, calculations of earnings can vary state by state, so work campers injured on the job should contact a member of WILG who specialize in workers compensation and regularly communicate with workers compensation specialists in other states.