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Federal Trade Commission joining independent contractor fray 

FTC intends to protect gig workers from ‘unfair, deceptive and anticompetitive practices’

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There is a new federal government player in the raging battle on how to define an independent contractor: the Federal Trade Commission.

The involvement of the FTC in the issue of defining the legal status of gig workers does not involve a new rule. Rather it comes from a statement released earlier this month by the agency, which features this broad goal: “Protecting (gig) workers from unfair, deceptive and anticompetitive practices is a priority, and the FTC will use its full authority to do so.”

The FTC’s intention to get involved in the gig worker debate was foreshadowed during the summer when the agency and the National Labor Relations Board announced their intention to work together on the gig worker issue. Both the FTC and the NLRB “recognize that continued and enhanced coordination and cooperation concerning issues of common regulatory interest will help to protect workers against unfair methods of competition, unfair or deceptive acts or practices, and unfair labor practices,” the two agencies said in a joint statement released in July.

“It is them telling the industry and the country as a whole that they are going to be spending the next little while using their resources and efforts enforcing existing law,” Thomas Scroggins, a partner with the employment-focused law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, told FreightWaves. 

In an online commentary on the FTC policy, the law firm of Fisher Phillips said the agency’s plan is to “take on businesses that misrepresent workers’ potential earnings, wrongfully use artificial intelligence to evaluate worker productivity and engage in wage-fixing with other gig companies.” Such actions could be viewed as “classic antitrust behavior that is getting increased attention under the Biden administration,” the law firm said. And antitrust violations have always been at the top of the FTC’s mandate.

Scroggins said the FTC’s move into the area of independent contractor status is clearly new. “The FTC generally stayed out of the IC relationship historically.” He said there have been some FTC actions against Amazon and Uber regarding worker pay, but those actions did not directly touch on worker status and whether they were ICs or employees.

In reviewing the FTC statement, Fisher Phillips said there are three “key situations” that would interest the FTC. One is “misrepresentation about the nature of gig work,” where a theoretically independent contractor is in fact controlled by the company that made the hire. A second is “diminished bargaining power,” when the amount of work available and the details of the work are vague. The third is “concentrated markets,” and Fisher Phillips believes that the FTC sees rideshare and food delivery as possible examples where there is “reduced choice for workers, customers and businesses.” 

“It’s really driven by this administration’s enforcement priorities,” Scroggins said. “They are taking a renewed interest in this particular issue.”

Federal involvement in questions regarding the status of independent contractor status generally have been the purview of the Department of Labor. “Why this issue isn’t just left to the Department of Labor, I’m not sure,” Scroggins said. “Maybe they are trying to bring more resources to bear on the issue.”

But the NLRB is an independent agency and not an arm of the Department of Labor. The agreement between the FTC and the NLRB, Scroggins said, suggests the two operations will “cross refer issues to one another and work together on employment related issues, particularly gig worker-related issues.”

The NLRB position in regard to IC status remains somewhat in limbo. It is reviewing its definition of independent contractor status, with a case known as Atlanta Opera serving as the test case. The workers in that dispute are hair and makeup artists.

And independent contractor status is also up in the air at the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor. A head-spinning series of events now has a Trump administration rule in place that is viewed as more favorable to the idea of defining workers as independent contractors, after it was first yanked by the Biden administration before being ordered by a federal judge to be reimplemented. 

The Biden administration is working on a new rule for the Wage and Hour Division that would replace the Trump rule. When the Biden administration withdrew the Trump administration rule, it did not have a proposal in place. 

Scroggins said it was “very likely” the Biden administration’s proposed rule for the Wage and Hour Division will include the ABC test, the three-pronged test that is at the heart of California’s AB5 law on ICs and the one seen as most favorable to defining workers as employees, not ICS. 

During a feedback session held by the Wage and Hour Division in June, the vast majority of callers expressed opposition to an ABC rule, even though the division has not publicly said inclusion of the ABC test is planned. 

Whatever happens is likely to be changed some time in the future, Scroggins said. “Labor law comes and goes with changes in the administration.” An incoming administration appoints board members and general counsels “and then the pendulum swings back the other way the law goes back to where it was before.”

Scroggins said the proposed new rule is likely to be released early in the first quarter of 2023.

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.