Determining Whether an Employment Relationship Exists: Is a Worker an Employee or Independent Contractor?
In order for the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions to apply to a worker, the worker must be an “employee” of the employer, meaning that an employment relationship must exist between the worker and the employer. The FLSA defines “employ” as including to “suffer or permit to work”, representing the broadest definition of employment under the law because it covers work that the employer directs or allows to take place. Applying the FLSA’s definition, workers who are economically dependent on the business of the employer, regardless of skill level, are considered to be employees, and most workers are employees. On the other hand, independent contractors are workers with economic independence who are in business for themselves.
A number of “economic realities” factors are helpful guides in resolving whether a worker is truly in business for himself or herself, or like most, is economically dependent on an employer who can require (or allow) employees to work and who can prevent employees from working. The Supreme Court has indicated that there is no single rule or test for determining whether an individual is an employee or independent contractor for purposes of the FLSA. The Court has held that the totality of the working relationship is determinative, meaning that all facts relevant to the relationship between the worker and the employer must be considered.
While the factors considered can vary, and while no one set of factors is exclusive, the following factors are generally considered when determining whether an employment relationship exists under the FLSA (i.e., whether a worker is an employee, as opposed to an independent contractor):
1) The extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business. If the work performed by a worker is integral to the employer’s business, it is more likely that the worker is economically dependent on the employer and less likely that the worker is in business for himself or herself. For example, work is integral to the employer’s business if it is a part of its production process or if it is a service that the employer is in business to provide.
2) Whether the worker’s managerial skills affect his or her opportunity for profit and loss. Managerial skill may be indicated by the hiring and supervision of workers or by investment in equipment. Analysis of this factor should focus on whether the worker exercises managerial skills and, if so, whether those skills affect that worker’s opportunity for both profit and loss.
3) The relative investments in facilities and equipment by the worker and the employer. The worker must make some investment compared to the employer’s investment (and bear some risk for a loss) in order for there to be an indication that he/she is an independent contractor in business for himself or herself. A worker’s investment in tools and equipment to perform the work does not necessarily indicate independent contractor status, because such tools and equipment may simply be required to perform the work for the employer. If a worker’s business investment compares favorably enough to the employer’s that they appear to be sharing risk of loss, this factor indicates that the worker may be an independent contractor.
4) The worker’s skill and initiative. Both employees and independent contractors may be skilled workers. To indicate possible independent contractor status, the worker’s skills should demonstrate that he or she exercises independent business judgment. Further, the fact that a worker is in open market competition with others would suggest independent contractor status. For example, specialized skills possessed by carpenters, construction workers, and electricians are not themselves indicative of independent contractor status; rather, it is whether these workers take initiative to operate as independent businesses, as opposed to being economically dependent, that suggests independent contractor status.
5) The permanency of the worker’s relationship with the employer. Permanency or indefiniteness in the worker’s relationship with the employer suggests that the worker is an employee, as opposed to an independent contractor. However, a worker’s lack of a permanent relationship with the employer does not necessarily suggest independent contractor status because the impermanent relationship may be due to industry-specific factors, or the fact that an employer routinely uses staffing agencies.
6) The nature and degree of control by the employer. Analysis of this factor includes who sets pay amounts and work hours and who determines how the work is performed, as well as whether the worker is free to work for others and hire helpers. An independent contractor generally works free from control by the employer (or anyone else, including the employer’s clients). This is a complex factor that warrants careful review because both employees and independent contractors can have work situations that include minimal control by the employer. However, this factor does not hold any greater weight than the other factors. For example, a worker’s control of his or her own work hours is not necessarily indicative of independent contractor status; instead, the worker must control meaningful aspects of the working relationship. Further, the mere fact that a worker works from home or offsite is not indicative of independent contractor status because the employer may exercise substantial control over the working relationship even if it exercises less day-to-day control over the employee’s work at the remote worksite.
There are certain factors which are immaterial in determining the existence of an employment relationship. For example, the fact that the worker has signed an agreement stating that he or she is an independent contractor is not controlling because the reality of the working relationship – and not the label given to the relationship in an agreement – is determinative. Likewise, the fact that the worker has incorporated a business and/or is licensed by a State/local government agency has little bearing on determining the existence of an employment relationship. Additionally, the Supreme Court has held that employee status is not determined by the time or mode of pay.
Requirements Under the FLSA When an employer-employee relationship exists, and the employee is engaged in work that is subject to the FLSA, the employee must be paid at least the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, effective July 24, 2009, and in most cases overtime at time and one-half his/her regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 per week. The FLSA also has youth employment provisions which regulate the employment of minors under the age of eighteen, as well as recordkeeping requirements.