The California Supreme Court recently decided an important decision on the issue of when a worker is properly classified as an independent contractor or employee for purposes of California wage orders.  On April 30, the Court decided in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, that drivers for a delivery service were employees “for purposes of California wage orders, which impose obligations relating to the minimum wages, maximum hours, and a limited number of very basic working conditions (such as minimally required meal and rest breaks) of California employees.”

The Court held that when classifying workers for purposes of California wage orders, employers must start with the presumption that the worker is an employee and to classify a worker as an independent contractor the worker must pass a three-pronged ABC test.   Failing any prong means the worker is an employee.  The Court said to be classified as an independent contractor the employer must show: “(A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact, (B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, and (C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business, the worker should be considered an employee and the hiring business an employer under the suffer or permit to work standard in wage orders”.

Clearly this test leans toward employee status.  Prongs B and C are very difficult to meet for a business that substantially uses independent contractors.  For example, drivers for a delivery company, taxi company or private ride requesting company would generally fail these prongs.

Aaron Silva, a partner in Murphy Austin’s Labor & Employment practice group and host of the Murphy Austin HR LegalCast said of the decision, “Importantly, this new case is not a “universal” independent contractor test.  The Court even says it is possible for someone to be an independent contractor for purposes of one law, like workers’ compensation, but not another, like the wage orders.  Regardless, businesses need to be cautious when deciding whether to retain someone as an independent contractor rather than an employee, because the consequences can be severe.”

So what does this mean for employee benefits governed by ERISA?  First, the case says it is limited to wage orders.  Second, ERISA preempts state law.  Therefore, the Dynamex decision would not govern whether a worker is an employee as defined under ERISA.  In fact, the United States Supreme Court has said that one should apply the common law test of agency surrounding the right to control the manner and means by which the work is accomplished to determine if a worker is an employee for ERISA purposes.  Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. v. Darden, 112 S. Ct. 1344 (1992).  The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, of which California is a part, adopted the common law test for ERISA from Darden in Burrey v. Pacific Gas & Electric, 159 F3d 388 (Ninth Cir. 1998).

Additionally, a worker that is re-classified for California wage order purposes as an employee most likely will not be retroactively eligible for ERISA covered benefits plans because the plan document likely has “Microsoft” language in its eligibility provisions.  This is language resulting from another Ninth Circuit case, Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp., 120 F.3d 1006 (Ninth Cir. 1997).  In that case, the IRS, on audit, reclassified certain workers from independent contractor to employees based on the common law test and Microsoft agreed with the reclassification.  The workers then sued for retroactive benefits and the court held they were entitled to them.  Since the Microsoft case, most plans contain language stating that workers who agree they are independent contractors will not be retroactively eligible for plan benefits if a government agency determines they were misclassified and retroactively classifies them as employees.  This Microsoft language is in virtually all pre-approved retirement plans.  However, the language of the plan should always be checked, especially if it is an individually designed plan.  Additionally insured health plans that don’t have a “wrap” plan document, probably won’t have Microsoft language.

Thus, it is possible, especially in this gig economy, for a worker to be eligible for minimum wages, break periods, and overtime and not be eligible to participate in the employer’s 401(k) plan.  Therefore, employers should really consider all factors when deciding whether to attempt to classify workers as independent contractors.