Employment LawScene Alert: Creation of New Task Force Signals Increased State Scrutiny of Wisconsin Worker Classification

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April 15, 2019 marked not only the end of the 2018 personal income tax season, but also the beginning of a new era of enforcement of Wisconsin employment practices. On that date, Governor Tony Evers issued an Executive Order creating a Joint Task Force on Payroll Fraud and Worker Misclassification (the “Task Force”). This Task Force will focus on workers who should be classified as employees but are misclassified as independent contractors.

The Task Force will be chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Workforce Development (“DWD”) and will be staffed by representatives from the DWD, including its Worker’s Compensation and Unemployment Insurance divisions, the Department of Revenue, and the offices of the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Insurance.

Similar task forces have been implemented in recent years in Connecticut and Massachusetts (2008), New York (2016), Colorado, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia (2018), and Michigan (2019).

One of the catalysts for the Wisconsin Task Force creation was the finding, under DWD audits from January 2016 through April 2019, of 5,841 misclassified employees and the related under-reporting of nearly $70 million in gross wages and $1.8 million in unemployment insurance taxes. Misclassification of employees also results in the underpayment of Social Security and Medicare-related employment law taxes.

Another impetus for the new interagency coordination is the concern that employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors gain an unlawful competitive advantage that allows them to under-bid or out-compete law-abiding employers.

Prior reviews of employer practices reported by the National Employment Law Project posit that audits of Wisconsin employers have typically revealed worker misclassification in 44% of investigated cases.

Task Force Mandates
The new Task Force is required to report annually to the Governor by March to describe its accomplishments and recommendation for the prior year. Specifically, the Task Force report must include the amount of wages, premiums, taxes, and other payments or penalties collected as a result of coordinated agency activities, as well as the number of employers cited for misclassification and the approximate number of affected workers. The Task Force must also identify administrative or legal barriers impeding more effective agency coordination. After consultation with representatives of business, organized labor, members of the legislature, and other agencies, the Task Force will also propose changes to administrative practices, laws, or regulations appropriate to:

  • reduce agency coordination barriers;
  • prevent worker misclassification from occurring;
  • investigate potential violations of laws governing worker classifications;
  • improve enforcement where such violations are found to have occurred; and
  • identify successful mechanisms for preventing worker misclassification.

Key Take-Away
The Wisconsin Task Force is being implemented at a time when recent federal decisions by the National Labor Relations Board and the United States Supreme Court appear to be permitting some gig economy companies to more easily classify workers as independent contractors, rather than as employees.

As a result of the creation of the Task Force, however, Wisconsin employers should expect increased scrutiny from the DWD and Department of Revenue regarding independent contractor relationships.

The Employment Law team of O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman, DeJong & Laing recently presented client seminars in Pewaukee and Green Bay on the many aspects of worker classification and are well-positioned to assist Wisconsin employers in reviewing current arrangements or discussing how the law applies under various circumstances.

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