California’s Dynamex Decision: What it Means for ERISA Plans

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The California Supreme Court ruled on April 30, 2018 that, for purposes of coverage under California wage orders, employers must start with the presumption that a worker is a common law employee, and then may properly classify him or her as an independent contractor only if all of the following three criteria are met:

  1. The worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring business in connection with the performance of the work;
  2. The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
  3. The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

Although the Dynamex ruling is limited to classification of workers under the California wage orders, it’s practical effect is likely to be much broader, as employers are unlikely to use one definition of employee for wage and hour purposes, and another definition for, say, reimbursement of business expenses, or benefit plan eligibility.

Speaking of which, what is the likely impact of the Dynamex ruling on employee benefit plans? Will employers have to offer coverage retroactively to the hire date of the now-reclassified independent contractors? Must they offer coverage going forward?

ERISA plans look to the federal definition of common law employee, which in turn looks to federal case law and an IRS multi-factor test.   So the Dynamex decision does not itself create eligibility under an ERISA plan.   What if individuals who were reclassified as employees under the ABC test were to claim retroactive eligibility under an ERISA plan, however?  As a starting point, it is helpful to look at how most plan documents currently define “eligible employee” and how they treat the issue of workers who were engaged as independent contractors, but later are classified as common law employees.

Most prototype 401(k) plan documents – and some health plan documents in use by “self-insured” employers – contain what is commonly referred to as “Microsoft language” — under which plan eligibility will not extend retroactively to individuals who are hired as independent contractors, even if they later are classified as employees. The language came into common use after the Ninth Circuit ruling in Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp., 120 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied.522 U.S. 1098 (1998), which held that long-term, “temporary” workers, hired as independent contractors, were employees for purposes of Microsoft’s 401(k) and stock purchase plan.[1]

For example, a prototype 401(k)/profit sharing plan that is in wide use provides as follows:

“Eligible Employee” means any Employee of the Employer who is in the class of Employees eligible to participate in the Plan. The Employer must specify in Subsection 1.04(d) of the Adoption Agreement any Employee or class of Employees not eligible to participate in the Plan. Regardless of the provisions of Subsection 1.04(d) of the Adoption Agreement, the following Employees are automatically excluded from eligibility to participate in the Plan:

(1) any individual who is a signatory to a contract, letter of agreement, or other document that acknowledges his status as an independent contractor not entitled to benefits under the Plan or any individual (other than a Self-Employed Individual) who is not otherwise classified by the Employer as a common law employee, even if such independent contractor or other individual is later determined to be a common law employee; and  (2) any Employee who is a resident of Puerto Rico.

And a self-insured group health plan document from a well-known provider states as follows:

The term “Employee” shall not include any individual for the period of time such individual was classified by the Employer as an independent contractor, leased employee (whether or not a “Leased Employee” under the Code section § 414(n)) or any other classification other than Employee. In the event an individual who is excluded from Employee status under the preceding sentence is reclassified as an Employee of the Employer pursuant to a final determination by the Internal Revenue Service, another governmental entity with authority to make such a reclassification, or a court of competent jurisdiction, such individual shall not retroactively be an Employee under this Plan. Such reclassified Employee may become a Covered Person in this Plan at such later time as the individual satisfies the conditions of participation set forth in this Plan. (Emphasis added.)

The Microsoft language, if present, may resolve the issue of retroactive coverage. What about coverage going forward? If a worker has provided services as an independent contractor but cannot retain that status under the ABC test, and is hired as a common-law, W-2 employee, does the first hour of service counted under the plan begin the day they become a W-2 employee, or the date they signed on as an independent contractor? The Microsoft provisions quoted above would suggest that service would start only when the common-law relationship starts, however employers are cautioned to read their specific plan documents carefully and to consult qualified employment and benefits law counsel for clarification. If the desire is to credit past service worked as an independent contractor, it may be advisable to seek IRS guidance before doing so, as fiduciary duties require that plan sponsors act in strict accordance with the written terms of their plan documents.

Finally, what about insured group health and welfare documents, such as fully insured medical, dental, vision, disability or life insurance? The policies and benefit summaries that govern these benefits probably won’t contain Microsoft language and may define eligible status as simply as “you are a regular full-time employee, as defined by your [Employer].”

Employers that are “applicable large employers” under the Affordable Care Act must count individuals who have been re-classified as common-law employees under the ABC test toward the group of employees to whom they offer minimum essential coverage; this group must comprise all but 5% (or, if greater, all but 5) of its full-time employees.  Unfortunately, there is potential ACA liability for failing the 95% offer on a retroactive basis. Public comments on the final employer shared responsibility regulations requested relief from retroactive coverage when independent contractors were reclassified as common-law employees, but the Treasury Department specifically failed to grant such relief, noting in the preamble to the final regulations that doing so could encourage worker misclassification.  Whether the customary 3-year tax statute of limitations would apply in such situations is not entirely clear; also unclear is whether employers could successfully argue that workers that fail the ABC test still somehow could classify as non-employees for federal common-law purposes.

Bottom line? Every California employer paying workers other than as W-2 employees should be re-examining those relationships under the ABC test and should be consulting qualified employment law counsel, and benefits law counsel, about the consequences of any misclassification, both on a retroactive basis (particularly with regard to the ACA), and going forward (all benefit plans).

[1] Another Ninth Circuit case, Burrey v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., 159 F.3d 388 (9th Cir. 1998), essentially followed the Microsoft ruling, but with specific regard to “leased employees” as defined under Internal Revenue Code § 414(n). A discussion of leased employees is beyond the scope of this post.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, Employer Shared Responsibility, Gig Economy, Independent Contractor, PPACA, Worker Misclassification

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