New California Law Regarding Willfully Misclassifying Employees as Independent Contractors

March 13, 2012, by Tamara B. Pow

As a corporate and business lawyer in San Jose, I have been busy speaking with Silicon Valley business owners about a recent California law affecting companies that have misclassified employees as independent contractors. When the 2008 economic crisis hit, large high tech companies and small start-ups in San Jose, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, among other cities, adapted by hiring workers as independent contractors to avoid paying payroll taxes and offering benefits to the new hires. Unfortunately, some companies may have inadvertently misclassified employees as independent contractors.

There has been a lot of publicity around the new IRS program allowing businesses to voluntarily correct the misclassification and pay only a low penalty. However, there has not been quite as much news about the recent California law (Senate Bill 459 signed into law by Governor Brown in October, 2011) which makes the willful misclassification of employees and independent contractors illegal and subject to severe penalties. Under the California law, the Labor Commissioner can impose penalties not just on the employer, but also on the employer's accountant or other paid advisor (other than employees or attorneys). These penalties range from $5,000 to $15,000 for each misclassified person, or $10,000 to $25,000 per violation if there is a "pattern and practice" of violations. There are still more penalties for employers that charge their misclassified employees a deduction against wages for any purpose (including space rent, goods, materials, services, equipment maintenance, etc.), which is considered as another attempt to wrongfully treat them as independent contractors.

What does "Willful Misclassification" Mean?
The definition of willful misclassification in the law is: "avoiding employee status for an individual by voluntarily and knowingly misclassifying that individual as an independent contractor." (California Labor Code Section 226.8 (i)(4).)

Contractors Beware
The labor agency is required to notify the Contractors State License Board if a contractor is determined to have willfully misclassified workers, and the new law requires the Contractors State License Board to initiate discipline against the contractor.

Everyone Beware
The new law also provides for public embarrassment by requiring employers who have willfully misclassified employees and independent contractors to prominently display a notice on their website (or if they do not have a website, then in an area accessible to all employees and the general public) saying that they have committed a serious violation of the law by willfully misclassifying employees, that they have changed their business practices so as not to do it again, that any employee who thinks they may be misclassified may contact the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (with contact information), and that the notice is being posted by state order.

It is not just the employer that needs to worry about misclassification. If you provide paid advice to an employer, knowingly advising the company to treat a worker as an independent contractor to avoid employee status, you can be held jointly and severally liable for the misclassification. This rule does not apply to business lawyers like myself, because attorneys providing legal advice are exempt from this liability, as are people who work for the company and provide advice to the employer.

Contact Structure Law Group, LLP if you would like assistance with employment agreements, independent contractor agreements or other business contracts.