Independent Contractor v. Employee: Law of Economic Realities

In cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a question sometimes arises as to whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. The answer can be important, as an employee may have rights to minimum wage and overtime compensation that an independent contractor performing the same basic job tasks does not.  

To determine whether a worker is an employee under the FLSA, courts in the Fourth Circuit look to the “economic realities” of the relationship between the worker and the putative employer.

McFeeley v. Jackson St. Entm’t, LLC, 825 F.3d 235, 241 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Schultz v. Capital Int’l Sec., Inc., 466 F.3d 298, 304 (4th Cir. 2006)). The touchstone of the “economic realities” test is whether the worker is “economically dependent on the business to which he renders service or is, as a matter of economic [reality], in business for himself.” Id. If the practical economic reality is that the worker is “economically dependent” on the putative employer and not “in business for himself[,]” the worker will generally be considered an employee qualified for FLSA rights. Id

Economic Realities Test

In making this determination, courts applying the economic realities test consider six factors:

(1) [T]he degree of control that the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed;

(2) the worker’s opportunities for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill;

(3) the worker’s investment in equipment or material, or his employment of other workers; 

(4) the degree of skill required for the work; 

(5) the permanence of the working relationship; and 

(6) the degree to which the services rendered are an integral part of the putative employer’s business. 

McFeeley, 825 F.3d at 241. These factors are often called the “Silk factors” in reference to United States v. Silk, 331 U.S. 704 (1947), the Supreme Court case from which they derive. See Schultz at 305.

Generally speaking, the greater the degree of control the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed, the greater the permanence of the working relationship, and the greater the degree to which the worker’s services are an integral part of the putative employer’s business, the more likely the worker is an “employee” under the economic realities test. Similarly, the fewer opportunities the worker has for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill, the less the worker invests in equipment, material, or employment of other workers, and the lower degree of skill required for the work, the more likely the worker is an “employee” under the economic realities test. 

Application

For example, in Schultz, the plaintiff security workers worked jointly for a Saudi prince and a security firm. The Fourth Circuit found the prince and security firm exercised nearly complete control over how the workers did their jobs. Further, the workers had no opportunity for profit or loss dependent on their managerial skills, as they were paid a set rate per shift. Additionally, the firm and prince supplied the workers with all the necessary equipment, including cell phones, cars, firearms, and cameras. With respect to the fourth factor, although some security duties required special skills, others did not. As to the permanence of the relationship, the prince employed some workers for several years and preferred to hire workers who would stay with him over the long term. And the services rendered by the workers were integral to the security firm’s business, as the firm’s only function was to provide security for the prince, and workers were hired specifically to perform that task. Considering these facts under the economic realities test, the Fourth Circuit concluded the security workers “were not in business for themselves” and “thus were thus employees, not independent contractors.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 309.

Similarly, in McFeeley, the plaintiff exotic dancers worked for dance clubs. The Fourth Circuit found that the clubs exercised significant control over how the dancers performed their work. That control included dictating dancers’ schedules, imposing written guidelines that all dancers had to obey during working hours, setting fees the dancers were supposed to charge patrons for private dances, and dictating how tips and fees were handled. Further, the dancers’ opportunities for profit or loss depended far more on the clubs’ management and decision-making than their own; the club owners’ investment in the clubs’ operation far exceeded the dancers’ investment; the job duty of dancing at the clubs required a relatively minimum degree of skill; and the dance clubs could not function without exotic dancers. Therefore, the dancers were employees of dance clubs under the FLSA, rather than independent contractors. McFeeley, 825 F.3d 235, 242-244.

And in Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d 125 (4th Cir. 2017), the plaintiff drywall installers worked for a subcontractor of a larger company that offered general contracting and interior finishing services, including drywall installation, carpentry, framing, and hardware installation. The workers were economically dependent on the subcontractor alone, making them necessarily economically dependent on the contractor and subcontractor jointly. Due to the contractor’s daily supervision of these workers, it exercised greater control over their work than the subcontractor exercised alone. Further, the contractor provided all of the materials, supplies, tools, and equipment that workers used for their work. On these facts, the Fourth Circuit determined the drywall installers were employees covered by FLSA, rather than independent contractors, based on their entire employment for both the framing and drywall installation subcontractor and general contractor. Id. at 150-151.

Summary

In summary, Fourth Circuit courts determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor by looking to the “economic realities” of the relationship between the worker and the putative employer. The outcome is important because an employee may have rights to minimum wage and overtime compensation under the FLSA that an independent contractor performing the same basic job tasks does not. The “economic realities” test turns on whether the worker is economically dependent on the business to which he renders service or is, as a matter of economic reality, in business for himself. If the practical economic reality is that the worker is economically dependent on the putative employer and not in business for himself, the worker will generally be considered an employee qualified for FLSA rights. 

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