The massive push toward subcontracting and supply chains I wrote about in my prior post didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly won’t be fixed overnight either. There are many pieces to this puzzle, all in the service of one big overarching principle: Lead companies must take their fair share of responsibility for the pain and misery that is generated when they squeeze too much from their suppliers and subcontractors. Here are some of the pieces:
1. Challenge Payroll Fraud. What used to be called “misclassification” of employees as independent contractors is really the practice of defrauding employees out of social security, overtime, worker’s compensation, health and safety protections, family and medical leave, unemployment insurance, protections against discrimination, and the right to bargain collectively, among other things. In addition to losing these protections, employees who become “independent contractors” have to cover their own costs.
Cases challenging bogus “independent contractor” status have been multiplying as more and more businesses adopt this practice in order to cut their payroll costs. Last August, the Ninth Circuit held that thousands of FedEx truck drivers were employees, even though FedEx called them independent contractors. Recently, the judge in a misclassification case against Uber ruled that a jury should decide whether the drivers employees of the company, and noted that “many of the factors in that test appear outmoded” in the “context of the new economy.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has proposed that, instead of waiting for the courts to decide these cases one-by-one, the IRS and Department of Labor adopt a new, simpler test: “Any corporation that accounts for at least 80 percent or more of the pay someone gets, or receives from that worker at least 20 percent of his or her earnings, should be presumed to be that person’s employer.”
2. Treat Lead Companies as Joint Employers. Every federal circuit and many state courts have their own version of the “joint employer” test to determine when one company should be liable for the wage and hour violations of another – including subcontractors or franchisees. Some of these tests are being re-examined to take into account the ways in which “lead companies” maintain control.
In December 2014 the National Labor Relations Board issued complaints naming McDonald’s Corp. as a joint employer of workers at its franchises. In another case, the NLRB has proposed a “totality of the circumstances” test that would impose joint employer status on any company that wields sufficient influence over the working conditions of the other company’s employees, to make meaningful bargaining impossible in its absence. A similar rule in state and federal courts would recognize the significant power and control that is exerted from the top.
3. Enforce Supply Chain Liability. Regulators and legislators are also coming to recognize the need to affix responsibility at the top of an industry. California Labor Code Section 2810.3, which became effective January 1, 2015, provides that an employer must share responsibility for wages, taxes, and workers compensation with the middlemen who provide the labor to the employer. In a similar vein, a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act known as the “hot goods” provision, prohibits the selling or transporting in commerce any goods produced in violation of the FLSA’s wage and overtime provisions.
Decent wages and safe working conditions are not just an idealistic goal. The lack of a healthy middle class hurts all of us. Public health researcher Richard Wilkinson has reported that the average well-being of modern societies — including health, lifespan, literacy levels, crime levels, and so on — is no longer correlated with national income or economic growth, but with the extent of income inequality. The Center for American Progress has just issued an exhaustive report on “inclusive prosperity,” concluding that nations succeed when their middle class is secure in the expectation that those willing to work are able to work and that standards of living will increase.
Clearly, more work needs to be done. It is time to invest in living wages and sustainable employment, instead of pioneering ever more ways to create dead-end jobs that benefit only those at the very top.