The Wyoming Legislature convened its 2014 Budget Session on February 10. Most of the Legislature’s time will be consumed with the state’s finances, but a few significant employment measures have been proposed. If any of these bills can obtain the two-thirds vote required for introduction of non-budget bills, Wyoming employers may need to call their legislators!
Criminal Penalty for Misclassification of Employees as Independent Contractors. House Bill 16 is the most concerning measure proposed this session, and it is a surprise that the measure was approved by the Joint Corporations Committee. It would create a misdemeanor criminal penalty for “knowingly failing to properly classify an individual as an employee” to reduce the employer’s unemployment contributions or to reduce or avoid the payment of benefits to an employee. The offense would permit a sentence of up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $750.00. The measure would add the same language to the workers compensation statute, making it a misdemeanor offense to knowingly fail to properly classify an employee on a workers compensation payroll report or generally in connection with workers compensation coverage.
Employers should aggressively resist this proposal because it would greatly raise the stakes of classification decisions that are rarely clear cut. One of the three factors in the definition of an independent contractor for unemployment and workers compensation purposes – whether the individual “represents his services to the public” – is not even in the employer’s control, and could change without the employer’s knowledge. A second factor in the definition – whether the worker is free from control or direction over the details of performance of the services – often depends on the perspective of the person looking at the relationship. Independent contractor relationships are not “check the box” decisions. While an employer could not be convicted of the proposed crime unless they “knowingly” misclassified an employee, the determination of whether a decision was “knowingly” incorrect is the stuff of jury trials. Also, the measure is not needed. Employers already face aggressive auditing by the Employment Tax Division about the independent contractor classification of workers, and audits can result in civil liability and substantial administrative costs.
Finally, don’t buy the argument that the criminal penalty will only be pursued in the worst cases – if a criminal penalty for misclassification is adopted, it will remain a subtle and unspoken threat to employers whenever the Department of Workforce Services conducts an audit and questions independent contractor relationships, and employers may need to “lawyer up” and protect themselves at an entirely new level whenever the Department audits those relationships.
Update: Although House Bill 16 failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to be introduced during the budget session, it was proposed by the Joint Corporations committee and is likely to be raised in future legislative sessions.
Minimum Wage Increase. House Bill 45 is a perennial attempt to raise the minimum wage for employees not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The measure would increase the standard minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $9.00 per hour, and increase the minimum hourly wage for tipped employees from $2.13 to $5.00. As in past years, this bill is not likely to make much progress.
Repeal of Vacation Pay Amendment. Last year, the Legislature amended the wage collection statute to give employers the flexibility to offer paid vacation that was forfeited upon termination of employment, rather than being considered unpaid wages which were required to be paid out after termination. House Bill 57 would repeal the language adopted last year. We expect this measure also has a dim future.
Bottom Line. Employers should pay attention to House Bill 16 and watch if it is proposed again in future legislative sessions. If it makes any progress, employers will want to contact their legislators. You can track the progress of these and all the measures before the Legislature here through the link entitled “2014 Bill Tracking Information.”