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The ABC’s of Employment

The California Supreme Court has handed down an important decision that explains how to distinguish between an employee and an independent contractor, for purposes of enforcing California’s wage orders. In Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, Case No. S222732 (Apr. 30, 2018), the Court adopted the “ABC” test. That test assumes an individual who does work for another person is an employee of that person, unless the person proves (A) that the worker is free from the other person’s control and direction in connection with the performance of the work, and (B) that the worker is performing work that is outside the usual course of the other person’s business and (C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.

The California wage orders adopted by the Industrial Welfare Commission are quasi-legislative regulations that have the force of law. Among other things, they establish the overtime rules, and define the exemptions from those overtime rules. All but one of the 17 contains the following definitions: “employ” means “to engage, suffer, or permit to work;” “employee” means “any person employed by an employer;” and “employer” means “any person as defined in Section 18 of the Labor Code, who directly or indirectly, or through an agent or any other person, employs or exercises control over the wages, hours, or working conditions of any person.” All the wage orders may be accessed from this page on the website of the Department of Industrial Relations.

The Dynamex opinion discusses three earlier Supreme Court opinions that dealt with the distinction between employees and independent contractors.

  1. S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal.3d 241. The narrow ruling in this case was that farmworkers hired by a grower to harvest cucumbers under a “sharefarmer” agreement were employees for purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act. Many decisions since Borello have cited that case as applying the common law test for employee. The decision identified a number of factors to be considered in making that determination. Those have come to be known as the “Borello factors,” and have routinely been applied in a number of contexts, including wage and hour litigation, to determine whether or not an individual is an employee. For a recent example, see Linton v. DeSoto Cab Co., Inc. (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 1208. The Dynamex decision says that Borello should be understood as adopting a “statutory purpose standard,” rather than a universally applicable multi-factor test.
  2. Martinez v. Combs (2010) 49 Cal.4th 35. Seasonal agricultural workers sued a strawberry grower and produce merchants who bought strawberries from the grower for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime. The Supreme Court stated that the wage orders contain three alternative definitions of employment: (1) to exercise control over the wages, hours or working conditions, (2) to suffer or permit to work, or (3) to engage, thereby creating a common law employment relationship. The produce merchants could not be considered employers under any of the definitions.
  3. Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 522. Newspaper carriers claimed that a newspaper company had misclassified them as independent contractors. Because both sides had agree that the Borello test was the applicable standard, the Supreme Court did not consider the scope of the definition of employment in the wage orders.