Kicking them while they’re down: Bill to treat former substance abusers as independent contractors is wrong

Kicking them while they’re down: Bill to treat former substance abusers as independent contractors is wrong

Sacramento State Capitol of California Building

By Sami N. Khadder

A new effort is underway to deprive a certain class of workers of the most basic benefits and protections of employment.

Last month, Assemblymember Marie Waldron (R-San Diego) introduced AB 500, which would allow employers to hire workers who have successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program following conviction of a non-violent felony as independent contractors rather than employees for a period of two years.

The targets of this bill are workers for whom steady and fair employment is a means to rebuild a life and to prevent a relapse of the ravages of addiction. AB 500 is a cynical bill that would codify discrimination and perpetuate mistreatment of this already vulnerable group.

For starters, the language of the bill violates existing federal anti-discrimination law. The Americans with Disabilities Act  considers those who have received treatment for drug or alcohol abuse as qualified individuals with a disability who are entitled to reasonable accommodation. Contrary to the express purpose of the ADA, AB 500 stigmatizes individuals who have completed a substance abuse rehabilitation program by denying them, for a period of two years, the legal protections normally offered to employees in California. Stigmatizing people with disabilities is what gave rise to the disability rights movement to begin with.

Codifying second class status for workers with a substance abuse history is bad enough, but the effect of the bill is even more insidious. Under California law, a person who provides services for another person or entity is presumed to be an employee of that person or entity – as opposed to an independent contractor. The distinction is meaningful. Independent contractors are not entitled to the protections of the California Labor Code, which means they have no minimum wage or overtime protections and no entitlement to meal and rest breaks. Independent contractors are also exempted from the laws prohibiting discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, and they are not entitled to unemployment insurance or Social Security contributions. The bill would also allow employers to avoid the cost of carrying workers’ compensation insurance, leaving independent contractors unprotected in the event of a workplace injury.

Employers often complain that the cost of providing these benefits to their workers has grown too high and some may look with favor at the proposed economic windfall — being able to hire rehabilitated drug offenders for two years for less than the minimum wage, without having to provide overtime pay, workers’ compensation insurance or protections from unlawful discrimination.  But these benefits are essential to providing a fair and safe work environment for California workers. Without these protections, the State would invariably end up shouldering much of the costs, while the employers would reap all the benefits.

Some advocates of the bill may believe that the bill encourages employers to give people with a history of substance abuse an opportunity to work their way into full employment status.  But AB 500 would require applicants to disclose to potential employers that they have been convicted of a crime. Such disclosure is currently prohibited under certain circumstances.  More importantly, there is ample evidence that qualified applicants who disclose their criminal history are just as likely to be denied employment altogether, a result directly contrary to the intended result.

Others may take a harder line toward former substance abusers, believing that second class status in the workplace is appropriate because substance abusers should suffer the consequences of their poor decisions. But how does stripping anti-discrimination protections, overtime, and workers’ compensation achieve any policy goal related to rehabilitation or substance abuse prevention?

What is undeniable is that AB 500 targets a vulnerable constituency. And if the move to strip their rights is successful, it could embolden employers to seek further erosions of the benefits and protections of employees. Who would be next?  The long-term unemployed, veterans, the homeless? For those already struggling to become productive members of society, our goal should be to eliminate obstacles, not create them.

Sami Khadder

About Sami Khadder

Sami N. Khadder is the founder of the Khadder Law Firm. He has a decade of litigation experience, with the majority of his career dedicated to fighting for the rights of employees and individuals. Mr. Khadder began his career as an intellectual property defense attorney, but soon realized that the pursuit of justice on behalf of those who need it most was a far more gratifying use of his legal education and experience. Mr. Khadder looks forward to continuing the fight for justice.

The buck starts here: Living wages and sustainable employment

The buck starts here: Living wages and sustainable employment

Large furniture warehouse

By Anne Richardson

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.

Anne Richardson

About Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the Associate Director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a project aimed at eliminating economic injustice on behalf of underrepresented workers, students, and families throughout California and nationwide. Previously she was a partner at Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick representing plaintiffs in all varieties of employment discrimination and civil rights matters for over twenty years. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has been named to the Top 100 Lawyers in Southern California and has received numerous honors for her work.

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