Health care registry companies provide families and their loved ones with peace of mind by providing matchmaking and referral services for qualified, pre-screened and vetted home caregivers. They often also provide administrative services. As part of the “gig economy,” health care registries often tread a fine line in classifying caregivers as independent contractors rather than employees. A new Field Assistance Bulletin (“Bulletin”), “Determining Whether Nurse or Caregiver Registries are Employers of the Caregiver,” issued on July 13, 2018, by the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”) of the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) to its field enforcement staff, provides a road map on how homecare, nurse, and caregiver registries relying on an independent contractor business model can ensure the caregivers remain independent contractors not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).
Relevant Factors to Maintain an Independent Contractor Business Model
The Bulletin restates the traditional “economic reality” test for determining independent contract staff, under which the WHD considers the totality of the circumstances when evaluating whether an employment relationship exists between a registry and a caregiver. No one factor is necessarily dispositive. It also notes that it historically has maintained that a registry that performs only referral and payroll services is not an employer of the caregivers whom it refers, but a registry that also directs and controls the work and sets the rate of pay may become an employer of the caregiver. The Bulletin then discusses specific business practices that could affect the determination of whether an employment relationship exists. The relevant factors flagged by the WHD and best practices are listed below:
- Background Checks: Registries can collect objective information such as a caregiver’s criminal history, credit report, licenses, credentials, or background checks pursuant to state or local laws without being designated as employers. However, screening that evaluates subjective criteria, such as interviewing a caregiver or obtaining a caregiver reference to determine likeability or suitability for a particular client, may imply that the registry is an employer.
- Hiring and Firing: Making the client the ultimate decision maker in hiring and firing the caregiver will help ensure no employment relationship exists between the registry and the caregiver. Thus, a registry that informs its client that a potential caregiver meets the client’s threshold parameters and preferences but leaves the client to decide whether to accept or decline services is not an employer of the caregiver. Conversely, exercising control over hiring and firing decisions, even by terminating the caregiver’s services at the request of a client, may have the opposite effect.
- Scheduling and Assigning Work: Leaving it to the client and caregiver to independently determine work schedules and assignments avoids triggering an employment relationship. In addition, communicating contact information to selected caregivers (screened by objective criteria such as whether the caregiver can work in a home with pets or smokers) about potential clients also does not indicate an employer-employee relationship. On the other hand, exercising control over the work schedules and assignments, or offering work assignments based on the registry’s own discretion and judgment based on subjective factors such as likeability, may suggest an employment relationship.
- Controlling the Caregiver’s Work: Controlling, monitoring, supervising or providing instruction on how to provide services, supervising or evaluating work performance, or even just monitoring the caregiver’s methods or work habits may cause a registry to be considered an employer of the caregiver. In addition, exercising control over the caregiver by such actions as limiting the number of clients or hours of work referred to a caregiver or prohibiting the caregiver from seeking work outside the registry may also have the same effect.
- Setting the Pay Rate: Requiring the client and caregiver to negotiate or determine rates of pay (or if Medicaid sets the rate) avoids creating an employment relationship between the registry and caregiver. A registry may, however, provide advice on typical pay rates in the area to serve as a benchmark for negotiations, or relay offers and counteroffers. On the other hand, the registry acts more like an employer by effectively setting the rate of pay, or dictating what a caregiver should charge for specific services.
- Continuous Payments for Caregiver Services: Registries seeking to maintain an independent contractor business model should consider charging one-time upfront fees for matching caregivers and clients, or charging fees solely for administrative and ministerial functions such as payroll processing or tax documentation. Conversely, a fee system based on the number of hours a caregiver works indicates the registry’s fees are based on an ongoing relationship and may create employer status.
- Paying Wages: A registry that provides payroll-related functions for its clients can avoid designation as an employer by transmitting only client-funded payments to the caregiver in the form of pay or benefits (by, for example, issuing checks or electronic deposits) chosen by the caregiver. The registry should avoid issuing direct payments by use of its own funds, even if it expects to be reimbursed by the client. Failing to heed this advice may trigger an employee-employer relationship.
- Tracking Caregiver Hours: A registry’s reliance on the caregiver and/or client for confirmation of hours by independent submissions of time records will not indicate the registry is the caregiver’s employer. The same is true if the registry requires the client or caregiver to submit correct time records through time sheets or an electronic time verification system provided by the registry. Conversely, verifying, creating, or confirming records of the caregiver’s hours worked may indicate supervision and control, and consequently an employer-employee relationship.
- Purchasing Equipment and Supplies: Investing in office space, payroll software timekeeping systems and other products to operate the business will not be regarded as forming an employment relationship between caregivers and a registry. Registries can also provide caregivers with an option to purchase discounted equipment or supplies from either the registry or a third party. However, registries should avoid investing in a caregiver’s training or pay for a caregiver’s licenses, insurance or medical supplies, as such actions indicate the registry is acting as an employer, instead of simply a referral service.
- Receiving Employer Identification Number (EIN) or 1099: Whether registries require an EIN (or a caregiver acquires one), or state law requires insurance or a bond, is irrelevant to a determination of employee status. Calling a caregiver an “independent contractor” or issuing an IRS 1099 form does not preclude the caregiver from being an employee for FLSA purposes.
The Bulletin makes it clear that other factors also may be considered and that all factors will be evaluated in any given case. Nonetheless, a registry that avoids all or most of the factors discussed above that can cause the loss of independent contractor status should have a significant degree of confidence that the WHD will not claim otherwise. At the same time, in addition to complying with the FLSA requirements, employers should also ensure they are complying with other tests, such as those imposed by state agencies that require unemployment insurance contributions, as well as the Federal Internal Revenue Service requirements for independent contractor status.
* Eduardo J. Quiroga, a Summer Associate (not admitted to the practice of law) in Epstein Becker Green’s New York office, contributed to the preparation of this Advisory.
See also the related article posted on our Wage and Hour Blog.