The freelance hiring and management platforms Fiverr and AND CO have teamed up to create a new standardized work contract for freelancers that they are calling the first of its kind to include built-in protections against sexual harassment, Ephrat Livni reported at Quartz on Wednesday:
The new contract explicitly states that harassment by clients or staff isn’t tolerated, which may seem obvious but isn’t a fundamental aspect of most freelance arrangements. The agreement also gives freelancers the right to terminate an arrangement if offending behavior continues after the client has been informed of it. A contractor who quits on these grounds must then be paid in full for the project or the month—depending on the terms of their arrangement with the client—and must receive that pay within 30 days.
Sounds decent, right? Well, it is. But it’s also not much, as the companies also admit. “We recognize this is a small step in a much longer journey, but it’s an important one,” they state.
After all, a big problem with harassment in the workplace is that it’s awkward to report in the first place, and all the more so when the perpetrator of the abuse is responsible for the paychecks. Despite the new clauses, contractors who are harassed by the clients who hired them aren’t very likely to feel comfortable demanding that abuses stop—not if they want to work for that client again. And few freelancers who are in an office on a contract basis will find it easy to complain about abusive staff with permanent positions.
These caveats highlight one of the fundamental perils of a labor market in which more workers are self-employed and fewer enjoy the protections that come with a formal employment relationship with a single organization. The #MeToo movement has sparked a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment and misconduct in US workplaces, which has sent organizations and governments scrambling to find better ways to protect workers against these crimes. Most of these laws and policies, however, focus on employees, with independent contractors getting less robust protection, if indeed they have any at all.
Writing these protections into contracts is one way to help address the abuse of freelancers; another is to enshrine them explicitly in the law.
The UK’s Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled last week in favor of a bicycle courier working for Addison Lee who sued claiming that the taxi and courier company had incorrectly classified him as a self-employed contractor rather than an employee, Jo Faragher reported at Personnel Today:
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) represented Christopher Gascoigne, who first took the taxi and courier firm to an employment tribunal last August. … The tribunal heard that Gascoigne had to re-sign his contract every three months, terms of which included: “You agree that you are an independent contractor and that nothing in this agreement shall render you an employee, worker, agent or partner of Addison Lee and you shall not hold yourself out as such.”
In dismissing Addison Lee’s appeal against Gascoigne’s claim, the EAT referred to the fact that Gascoigne had claimed he could get into a “tricky situation” for not accepting a job, and that his location was often tightly controlled so he was well placed for future deliveries during the day.
Gascoigne’s successful suit is the latest in a series of decisions to come out of the tribunal system against gig economy companies with businesses built on the contractor model, beginning with a ruling for Uber drivers in 2016 and for another bike courier for CitySprint in January 2017. Uber lost its appeal of the 2016 ruling last November, though the company said it would appeal again to higher courts, including the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is currently hearing an appeal by Pimlico Plumbers, which had lost a case brought against them in which one of their former plumbers was deemed a worker (a classification in UK law with more rights than “contractors” but fewer than “employees”), not self-employed.
The US Department of Labor under President Donald Trump and Secretary Alexander Acosta has been working over the past year to undo the regulations implemented by the Obama administration regarding the definition of “joint employers.” Acosta, like many employers and business associations, considers the previous administration’s standard too broad.
Now, the National Labor Relations Board is weighing a rulemaking process to update the standard, the board announced on Wednesday:
“Whether one business is the joint employer of another business’s employees is one of the most critical issues in labor law today,” says NLRB Chairman John F. Ring. “The current uncertainty over the standard to be applied in determining joint-employer status under the Act undermines employers’ willingness to create jobs and expand business opportunities. In my view, notice-and-comment rulemaking offers the best vehicle to fully consider all views on what the standard ought to be.”
Acosta’s Labor Department rescinded Obama-era guidelines on the joint employer standard last June, while the National Labor Relations Board’s regional directors were instructed in December to slow enforcement of the Obama administration’s standard. Shortly thereafter, the NLRB overturned its ruling in the landmark Browning-Ferris case, in which it had considered a company to be a joint employer with a subcontractor if it exercised “indirect” control over the terms and conditions of employment or had the “reserved authority to do so.”
In a ruling handed down on Monday, the California Supreme Court found in favor of drivers for the last-mile delivery service company Dynamex, who claimed to have been misclassified by the company as independent contractors when they were really its employees. Gizmodo’s Brian Menegus outlines the facts at issue in the lawsuit, first filed in 2005:
Starting in 2004, drivers were required to provide their own vehicles—and pay for all the incurred costs that came with that, like gas, maintenance, insurance, and tolls—while being “generally expected to wear Dynamex shirts and badges […] and/or the customer’s decals to their vehicles when making deliveries for the customer.” … They were converted from employees to this new, more precarious classification “after management concluded that such a conversion would generate economic savings for the company,” the ruling states, creating a deeply lopsided power dynamic.
The court’s decision will have far-reaching consequences, as it ruled not only on the merits of these drivers’ complaint, but also on the manner in which the distinction between employees and contractors should be drawn. The judges significantly reinterpreted their predecessors’ ruling in the 1989 case of S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v Dept. of Industrial Relations, which had historically been cited as establishing a standard for classifying workers as contractors based largely on the degree of control a company exercised over their work. The court instead favored the “ABC” standard used in other jurisdictions like Massachusetts and New Jersey, which treats workers as contractors only under the following conditions:
The San Mateo, California-based online polling company SurveyMonkey announced last week that it has been offering the independent contractors it employs a suite of “gold standard” medical, dental, and vision benefits, identical to those of its regular full-time employees, since January, Phil Albinus reports at Employee Benefit News:
Under the medical plan, 80% of claim costs are paid by its insurance carrier and the third-party employer pays 85% of employee premium and 50% of dependent premium. Contract and third-party employees are entitled to 80 hours of vacation and 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, including seven paid holidays, 12 weeks of paid parental leave per year and 12 weeks of paid medical leave per year. These workers can also receive a monthly subsidy of up to $260 for public transit expenses.
The divide between employees and contractors in Silicon Valley is vast: Whereas Facebook, for instance, reported a median employee salary of over $240,000 in its latest proxy filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, that number does not include the army of contractors and subcontractors who provide security, custodial, catering, and other facilities management services for the social media giant. These contingent workers don’t enjoy anything resembling the plush benefits packages Facebook offers its full-time employees, and the impact of this inequality in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area has drawn growing criticism toward the tech sector (Facebook is by no means unique in this regard).
In our age of HR as PR, benefits inequality has become an increasingly popular subject of scrutiny on the part of investors, the public, and the press. Starbucks expanded parental leave benefits for its hourly store employees earlier this year after activist investors began asking pointed questions about the disparity in leave benefits between hourly and salaried employees and whether this difference put the company at risk for claims of discrimination. Interestingly, in the case of SurveyMonkey, the impetus to equalize benefits for contractors came not from investors or the press, but rather from employees:
A year ago, UK plumber Gary Smith won a case in the Court of Appeal against Pimlico Plumbers, where he had worked for six years and from which he contended he was unfairly dismissed after seeking to reduce his hours. Pimlico considered Smith a self-employed independent contractor and contended it had no obligations to him as an employee. The Court of Appeal accepted that he was not an employee, but ruled that he was properly classified as a worker, entitling him to some (but not all) the rights enjoyed by regular employees, such as holiday and sick pay.
The company chose to appeal that ruling further, and on Tuesday, the UK Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case, the BBC reports:
The case hinges on the distinction between Mr Smith’s status as either a self-employed contractor, or a worker for the company. He was VAT-registered and paying tax on a self-employed basis, but worked solely for Pimlico Plumbers. After he suffered a heart attack in 2010, Mr Smith, from Kent, wanted to work three days a week rather than five. Pimlico refused his request and took away his branded van, which he had hired. He claims he was dismissed. …
[Charlie] Mullins, the founder of London-based Pimlico Plumbers, says that plumbers were hired on the basis that they were self-employed, provided their own materials and did not have workers’ benefits, but were paid significantly more as a result. He argues that the case has nothing to do with the gig economy and that Mr Smith is not in the same as an Uber driver.
US Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley issued her ruling on Thursday in a case brought against GrubHub late last year by former food delivery driver Raef Lawson, who claimed that the company’s gig economy business model had violated his rights as an employee under California law. Corley was not persuaded, however, by Lawson’s argument that GrubHub exerted enough control over when and how he worked for him to qualify as an employee and instead found that the company was correct to treat him as an independent contractor, TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey reports:
A key element of the case centered around the Borello test, which looks at circumstances like whether the work performed is part of the company’s regular business, the skill required, payment method and whether the work is done under supervision of a manager. The purpose of the test is to determine whether a worker is a 1099 contractor or a W-2 employee.
On the basis of the Borello standard, Corley concluded that “GrubHub’s lack of all necessary control over Mr. Lawson’s work, including how he performed deliveries and even whether or for how long, along with other factors persuade the Court that the contractor classification was appropriate for Mr. Lawson during his brief tenure with GrubHub.” She also expressed concerns over Lawson’s honesty, noting that he misrepresented his education in his résumé and “intentionally manipulated the app to get paid for not working,” undermining the credibility of his testimony.
Being the first to weigh in on whether gig economy workers enjoy rights as employees, Corley’s ruling could set a precedent with implications for other gig economy companies. However, as Dickey notes, the judge hesitated to cast her ruling as dispositive with regard to the gig economy as a whole: