Here’s something we hear all the time: “I worked for this company but I’m not an employee because I signed a contract saying I was an independent contractor.” In Massachusetts, that’s not the way it works, which comes as a surprise for many workers and employers.
In reality, you might be an “employee” under the law even though you and your boss thought that you were an independent contractor. Although this area of law can get complicated, here’s a basic summary of how it works.
First, let’s back up and talk about why it matters.
Normally, when you work for someone else, you will be either an “independent contractor” or an “employee.” These are legal terms, so you’ll probably need some guidance from a lawyer to figure out which one you are.
If you are an independent contractor, you are usually not protected by laws that are designed to help employees, including laws about the minimum wage, overtime, discrimination, harassment, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, and more. If you are an employee, on the other hand, then you are protected by all of those laws, which can make a real difference.
What does that mean in practice?
Let’s say you did work for a company and are owed $3,000. The company refuses to pay. If you did the work as an independent contractor, you could bring a breach of contract claim against the company, but the most you could recover is $3,000 plus whatever other remedies the contract provides for – if it provides for any remedies at all. You’re probably going to have to pay more than $3,000 to hire a lawyer, so you may end up in the hole even if you “win” the case.
But if you really were an employee, you could be entitled to a range of statutory remedies. These include triple or “treble” damages – in other words, three times the amount you are owed – plus interest, plus attorneys’ fees. It’s going to be much easier to find an attorney, and to make the other side pay, when you have that kind of leverage.
What makes someone an independent contractor?
People often think that they have no wage rights because they signed a contract saying that they were an “independent contractor,” or because the company they worked for hired them as a “contract worker.”
But that’s not alway the case because Massachusetts strictly regulates who qualifies as an independent contractor for purposes of the wage and employment laws.
In fact, if you provided services to a company, then you most likely were the company’s “employee” unless the company can prove each and every one of the following three different things:
(1) that it had no right to control how you did your work,
(2) that the work you did was different from what the company usually does, and
(3) that you had your own independently established business to do that kind of work. If the company can’t prove all three of these things, then you were its employee under the Massachusetts wage laws.
Under this test, it does not matter if you called yourself an “independent contractor.” It also does not matter if you signed a written agreement saying that you were an “independent contractor.” The law determines who is an independent contractor and who is an employee, not the worker or the company.
If you were called an independent contractor but think you might have been an employee, feel free to reach out to us to find out more about your rights.