Independent contractors still out of luck when it comes to tapping into the state's wages collection
If your employer has short-changed you on pay, the state has a system to help you collect the money you're owed.
But that doesn't work for independent contractors, such as freelance writers or consultants, because state law specifically says that "independent contractors or subcontractors shall not be considered employees."
Lincoln Chafee, during his campaign for governor in 2010, pledged to change that during his first hundred days, giving them access to the Department of Labor and Training's wage claim system. When we last looked at this promise we rated it "In the Works" because the Chafee administration said it was going to introduce legislation in the 2013 General Assembly session to fix the loophole.
We couldn't find any evidence that such legislation was filed.
As we said when we last visited the issue, the DLT will investigate complaints that an employer has shortchanged a worker and the agency can order the employer to pay up. If the amount in question is more than $1,500 and the employer is not responding, the DLT can refer the case to the attorney general's office for prosecution. If either side objects to the DLT's decision, they have 30 days to appeal it to Superior Court.
But thanks to the wording of the law, the only option for independent contractors who have been short-changed is to file a civil lawsuit.
Yet despite his pledge, Chafee has not managed to change the law. Independent contractors are still out of the loop.
When we contacted the DLT, spokesman Michael Healey said a new task force has the power to address the issue. The group, called the Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification, has had met several times since the group was authorized earlier this year by Article 16 in the proposed state budget. It was later renumbered to be Article 8 in the adopted budget.
However, it's clear that the group has a much broader objective than helping solve the problem Chafee wanted to fix.
Its statement of purpose declares, "The general assembly finds and declares that this state's economy, its workers and its businesses is harmed by the existence of an illegal underground economy in which individuals and businesses conceal their activities from government licensing, regulatory and taxing authorities."
When we wrote back to ask how the task force was relevant to Chafee's promise, Healey responded, "For clarity, this task force is not addressing the issue of putting independent contractors on an equal footing with employees. Unless state law changes, they're very different and RI employers need to know that legally, they're obliged to treat these workers differently."
He said that "the Governor's and DLT's legislative directors discussed this issue at length before the last session of the General Assembly and recommended that in its remaining time, the administration should address a much bigger problem: the misclassification of employees as independent contractors."
Given what we found, we rate this as a Promise Broken.
PolitiFactRI.com, "Legislation to help freelance workers under development for 2013 General Assembly session," July 25th, 2012
RILIN.state.RI.us, "Labor and Labor Relations; Payment of wages," Section 28-14-1," Rhode Island General Laws, accessed Nov. 18, 2014
Budget.RI.gov, "An Act Making Appropriations for the Support of the State for the Fiscal Year Ending June 20, 2015," accessed Nov. 19, 2014
Emails, Michael Healey, spokesman, Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, Nov. 19, 2014
Legislation to help freelance workers under development for 2013 General Assembly session
When he ran for governor in 2010, Lincoln Chafee promised to push for changes in state law to help the state's independent workers, such as freelancers and contract workers. Specifically, he pledged to give them access to the Department of Labor's wage claim system.
Currently, when workers discover that an employer has shortchanged them, they can file a complaint with the DLT, which will investigate. If it finds the complaint warranted, it can order the employer to pay up.
If the missing wages amount to more than $1,500 and the employer is not responding, the DLT can refer the case to the attorney general's office for prosecution. If either side objects to the DLT's decision, they have 30 days to appeal it to Superior Court.
However, independent workers such as freelance writers or consultants cannot take advantage of that system. If they get shortchanged or aren't paid at all for a job, their only alternative is to file a civil lawsuit.
The reason: the DLT system only covers traditional employees. State law specifically says that "independent contractors or subcontractors shall not be considered employees."
Chafee pledged to change that. But that hasn't happened yet.
Chafee spokesman Christine Hunsinger said the governor cannot unilaterally change the system; it requires a revision of state law.
She said the governor's office is discussing the best ways to do that. According to an April 11, 2012, memo from a legislative analyst for Chafee, one challenge is to refine the definition of an "employee" because that definition affects unemployment benefits and workers' compensation issues (and taxes).
Hunsinger said the governor now plans to introduce legislation to fulfill the promise during the 2013 General Assembly session.
As a result, we rate this promise as In the Works.
RILIN.state.RI.US, "Labor and Labor Relations, Section 28-14-1, Definitions," accessed July 19, 2012
ChafeeForGovernor.com, "The First One Hundred Days Plan for Jobs," accessed Jan. 20, 2011
Interview, Laura Hart, spokeswoman, Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, July 19, 2012
Interview, Christine Hunsinger, spokeswoman, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, July 19 and 24, 2012
Scribd.com, "Independent Contractors and Wage Claim Rights," April 11, 2012, accessed April 24, 2012.