Don’t Get Sued – Avoid Coemployment Liability
The issue of coemployment and worker misclassification came into the national spotlight in the late 1990s because of Vizcaino v. Microsoft. This lawsuit, which was filed by a group of independent contractors who claimed they were common law employees, accused the company of improperly withholding benefits.1
Microsoft eventually settled the lawsuit after the Internal Revenue Service found they misclassified the temporary workers.1 The lawsuit and settlement has had a lasting impact on how organizations prepare for and hire contract labor.
Fast-forward to today – as organizations begin tapping into the gig economy, understanding coemployment and the associated risks are more relevant than ever. Especially since the State of California recently approved a law changing the policies and definitions for how gig companies like Uber and Lyft classify their independent contractors.
What is coemployment?
Coemployment occurs when two or more employers have legal responsibilities for the same employee or group of employees (usually a staffing agency and their client). With temporary workers, liability may arise when the client performs a role that the staffing firm should perform – important tasks such as withholding applicable taxes, maintaining payroll/employee records, and resolving employee grievances and complaints.
As seen in the Microsoft lawsuit, the independent contractors argued that since they were treated like permanent employees, they should have been eligible for specific benefits only offered to their permanent counterparts.
Outlining separate hiring and employment policies for temporary and permanent employees is not only helpful but crucial to setting expectations for all parties.
How does coemployment liability happen?
Liability may arise when the client performs a role that the staffing firm – as the “employer” – should perform. For example, if a worker is hired by a staffing agency to fill an open position at a client company and is on-boarded by the client instead of the staffing firm, the client is treating the worker the same way as it would a permanent employee. This action, in itself, could result in a lawsuit.
Specific to the Microsoft case, the independent contractors were treated as if they were permanent employees. Microsoft required them to work on-site, paid for office supplies, assigned them to teams, were supervised by the same managers as permanent employees, and set working hours. 1
On the other hand, economic advantages of flexible staffing outweigh coemployment risks, which can be minimized with proper management.
How can risks associated with coemployment be minimized?
The simplest way to mitigate risk associated with coemployment is to position the staffing agency as the primary employer for temporary employees. This means they have all employer responsibilities such as salary negotiation, healthcare coverage, HR issues, and terminations. The primary responsibilities of client companies are to establish length of assignment and supervise as well as direct their day-to-day work.
Client companies must create clear differences between their processes for temporary workers and permanent employees to protect themselves from coemployment liability and associated legal consequences.
Before a client company selects a staffing agency, it’s important to ensure the agency is knowledgeable about labor laws and mitigating the risks associated with coemployment. Some agencies will provide an additional Employer of Record service to further reduce coemployment risks. This includes:
- Pre-screening and running all background checks.
- Enforcing clients’ internal practices and policies for differentiating permanent employees.
- Incorporating staffing companies who provide employee benefits, and do not use 1099 independent contractors.
- Mandating insurance coverage such as unemployment, workers compensation, general and professional liability.
- Regularly scheduled employee reviews.
- Outplacement and termination of employees.
- Tax reporting and delivery of year end W-2s.
- Time and expense tracking with a cloud-based Vendor Management System.
As organizations continue to increase their use of staffing agencies and independent contractors, it’s important for them to engage in proper hiring and management practices to avoid pricey lawsuits.
1 Renate M. de Haas, Vizcaino v. Microsoft, 13 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 483 (1998)