It’s official: I’m a worker!

Photo by Daniel Monteiro on Unsplash

Almost two years ago, I mentioned the English Court of Appeal’s decision in Uber BV & Ors v Aslam & Ors [2018] EWCA Civ 2748 on appeal from UKEAT/0056/17/DA), where individuals working as taxi drivers for Uber were to be classified as workers not self-employed individuals.

This decision was a significant defeat for Uber, but it was hardly going to be the last word in the story and so it proved. An appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court was always going to be on the cards and, on Friday 19 February, the Justices issued their judgement (see Uber BV & Ors v Aslam & Ors [2021] UKSC 5).

The Supreme Court was asked to consider two questions by Uber:

  1. Whether the drivers (the Respondents) were “workers” providing personal services to the Second Appellant.
  2. If the Respondents were “workers”, what periods constituted their “working time”.

The result? Uber drivers are workers not self-employed individuals. Essentially, the Supreme Court has approved the earlier decision of the English Court of Appeal.

Although Uber drivers won’t acquire full employment status, this decision is, nonetheless, highly significant. It will, for example, mean that Uber drivers will be protected under the National Minimum Wage legislation and the Working Time Regulations.

Paragraphs 94 to 102 of the Supreme Court’s decision are really instructive. The Court found the following matters extremely significant:

  • The rates of pay for taxi drivers was set solely by Uber
  • The contractual terms were dictated solely by Uber
  • Uber constrained or restricted the ability of drivers to decline jobs
  • Uber strictly vetted the type of vehicle which drivers could use for jobs and the technology used by drivers was “wholly owned” by Uber
  • The communication between a driver and a passenger was severely restricted by Uber in order “to prevent drivers from establishing any relationship with a passenger capable of extending beyond an individual ride.”

As Lord Leggatt (who delivered the unanimous judgement of the Court) stated at paragraph 102:

Taking these factors together, it can be seen that the transportation service performed by drivers and offered to passengers through the Uber app is very tightly defined and controlled by Uber. Furthermore, it is designed and organised in such a way as to provide a standardised service to passengers in which drivers are perceived as substantially interchangeable and from which Uber, rather than individual drivers, obtains the benefit of customer loyalty and goodwill. From the drivers’ point of view, the same factors – in particular, the inability to offer a distinctive service or to set their own prices and Uber’s control over all aspects of their interaction with passengers – mean that they have little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill. In practice the only way in which they can increase their earnings is by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance.

A link to the judgement can be found below:

https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2019-0029-judgment.pdf

Workers or independent contractors?

Worker is a term which is widely used in EU equality and employment law, but a single definition does not exist. As a result of the U.K.‘s long relationship with the EU, the term has entered the British legal systems and, in the interim period, Brexit will not change this fact.

In Allonby v Accrington and Rossendale College (Case C-256/01) [2004] ICR 1328; [2004] ECR I-873 the Court of Justice made the following observation:

“… there must be considered as a worker a person who, for a certain period of time, performs services for and under the direction of another person in return for which he receives remuneration …”

In Syndicatul Familia Constanta v Directia Generala de Asistenta Sociala si Protectia Copilului Constanta (Case C-147/17) EU:C:2018:926; [2019] ICR 211, the was strongly of the opinion that the relationship between employer and worker was of a “hierarchical” nature. This was a view echoed by Lord Clarke in the Supreme Court’s decision of Hashwani v Jivraj [2011] UKSC 40; [2011] 1 WLR 1872 where he identified the relationship as one of “subordination” in favour of the person receiving the services.

That said, Baroness Hale in a later Supreme Court decision – Clyde and Co LLP and Anor v Bates van Winkelhof [2014] UKSC 32 – stated that “while subordination may sometimes be an aid to distinguishing workers from other self-employed people, it is not a freestanding and universal characteristic of being a worker”. This remark was quoted with approval by Lord Leggatt in the Uber decision at paragraph 74 of his judgement.

In other words, such a feature is merely to be deployed as one of the many possible tests that can be used by the courts to analyse a relationship between two parties.

The Employment Rights Act 1996

Section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 contains the definition of who precisely is an employee i.e. someone who has a contract of service. If you don’t have this type of contractual arrangement (you’re not an employee), you may well be working under a contract for services. This is one of the most important distinctions in employment law in the United Kingdom.

Section 230(3) of the Act also defines in law an individual who is a ‘worker’. This can include someone who provides services under an employment contract – and, crucially, some individuals who fall into the self-employed category.

Conclusion

Individuals working under a contract for services – precisely because of their lack of employment status – are often denied access to the sorts of legal rights which employees routinely take for granted e.g. unfair dismissal protection, redundancy protection, family friendly rights.

There are notable exceptions (aren’t there always?): high earning British television celebrities (e.g. Lorraine Kelly) or a number of BBC news journalists have preferred to be treated as freelancers or self-employed persons. Why? They can then minimise their exposure to income tax liability in a way (often via the medium of personal service companies) that would not be possible because if they were employees they would almost certainly be taxed at source on a PAYE (pay as you earn) basis. 

We have seen an explosion in the type of work that is often characterised or labelled as the ‘gig economy’. This work is often characterised by a distinct lack of employment rights; irregular working patterns; chronic insecurity; lack of long term career progression; and low pay. It is often impossible for such individuals to complete the necessary periods continuous service to acquire employment rights. 

Companies such as Deliveroo, Lyft and Uber have become synonymous with the ‘gig economy’, as have whole sectors of the employment

There’s now a growing awareness on both the part of the UK Government (The Taylor Review) and the European Union (the forthcoming EU Directive on Transparent and predictable working conditions) that people on contracts for services deserve greater levels of work-place protection.

It’s not just in the UK that debates about employment status are currently playing out. At the tail end of 2019, it was with particular interest that, in 2019/20, I was following a story from the United States which highlighted many of the issues which I have just been discussing in this Blog.

The US State of California enacted a law, Assembly Bill 5 2019 or AB5 (known more popularly as the gig economy law) giving those individuals working in the gig economy more employment rights. The law came into force on 1 January 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the lack of employment protection for workers and the self-employed. Only last March, I was writing about the fact that the U.K. Government’s reforms to Statutory Sick Pay would would not include approximately 2 million individuals – a situation that Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC was quick to highlight.

Related Blog articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/strippers-are-workers-too-discuss/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/13/california-dreamin/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/05/state-of-emergency/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/04/sick-pay-or-the-coronavirus-conundrum/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/19/the-gig-economy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/07/22/good-work/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/22/hello-im-lorraine-and-im-definitely-self-employed/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/21/employee-or-not/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/01/17/employment-status/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/08/call-me-an-uber/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/strippers-are-workers-too-discuss/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/horses-for-courses-the-equine-flu-

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 21 February 2021

State of emergency

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In a Blog published yesterday, I discussed the issue of entitlement to sick pay as a result of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak.

Related Blog article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/04/sick-pay-or-the-coronavirus-conundrum/

State of emergency

Governor Gavin Newsom of the US State of California declared a state wide emergency on Wednesday 4 March 2020 in order to counter the spread of the virus.

Please see a link below to an article in the Los Angeles’ Times concerning Governor Newsom’s announcement:

https://www.latimes.com/california/newsletter/2020-03-05/coronavirus-cruise-emergency-newsletter

How are the recent developments in California linked to events in the UK?

It should be recalled that Governor Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 5 of 2019 in January of this year. You don’t remember this? Well, Assembly Bill 5 is better known as the Californian Gig Economy law which, in effect, gives thousands of workers employment status. Significantly, this means that many of these affected individuals will now benefit from greater levels of employment protection – including entitlement to sick pay.

Now, think about this: had the COVID-19 outbreak occurred last year, many Californian workers would have had absolutely no entitlement to receive sick pay if such individuals were forced to self-isolate or take time off because they had been infected. No doubt many of these workers turned employees will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that they are now covered by Assembly Bill 5.

Related Blog article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/13/california-dreamin/

The UK approach

Turning our attention to the UK, the British Government has taken a less generous approach to the issue of entitlement to sick pay. True, employees and other workers who already benefit from entitlement to statutory sick pay (SSP) should now be able to claim this from day 1 of sickness absence. It should be emphasised that this is a temporary measure justified on emergency grounds.

Previously, statutory sick pay was payable only from day 4 of the employee’s absence until Prime Minister Johnson’s announcement in the House of Commons on Tuesday 3 March 2020.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the opposition Labour Party, immediately asked the PM if zero hours workers and self-employed individuals would have this benefit extended to them. The PM’s response to Mr Corbyn’s question will have disappointed many of these individuals. No entitlement to statutory sick pay for them. The problem for these individuals is that they do not meet the eligibility threshold where they earn £118 per week (the Lower Earnings Limit).

There is also the small fact that employment status (which is linked to entitlement to sick pay) is defined by the Employment Rights Act 1996. Section 230 of the Act defines an employee as an individual who has a contract of service. Many employment rights flow from this status and this means that many individuals who are engaged on a contract for services will simply not be eligible to claim statutory sick pay.

A link to an article in The Mirror newspaper about the exchanges in the House of Commons between PM Johnson and Mr Corbyn about SSP entitlement can be found below:

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/breaking-new-coronavirus-sick-pay-21629942

An evolving position?

… and yet, the UK Government’s thinking on this issue may be quickly evolving. On the BBC’s Question Time television programme broadcast on Thursday 5 March 2020, Matt Hancock MP, the UK Health Secretary said that people on zero hours contracts and self-employed persons should not be financially penalised for doing the right thing i.e. self-isolating themselves or being honest about having the virus.

It will be interesting to see how the story develops and what changes to UK employment law may follow as a result.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 5 March 2020

Sick Pay? (or the Coronavirus Conundrum)

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Coronavirus (COVID-19) isn’t just a potential threat to your health; it could also mean that your earnings take a hit.

How so?

If you have to take time off from work (i.e. self-isolate yourself) because you have (or might have) been infected by the virus, will you be entitled to receive sick pay from the organisation that you are working for?

It depends very much on your employment status …

… if you are a zero hours worker or genuinely a self-employed person, the answer is an emphatic no.

If you are deemed to be an employee (an individual who works under a contract of service) within the meaning of Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, you may be fortunate in that you have an entitlement to receive either contractual sick pay or statutory sick pay.

Contractual sick pay

If a contractual sick pay scheme applies to your employment, you might receive, at its fullest extent, 6 months full pay and then 6 months at half pay. This generous arrangement, of course, will not apply from day 1 of the employment and employees will have to build up their continuous service in order to be eligible for the maximum level of contractual sick pay. It is probably the case that an employee with just over a year’s service would receive 1 month at full pay for sickness absence and then 1 month at half pay.

An example of entitlement to contractual sick pay arrangements taken from the Collective Agreement (the National Working Practices Agreement) between Scottish Further Education lecturers and their employers can be seen below:

Statutory sick pay

What about statutory sick pay or SSP? This is relevant in situations where employees are not entitled to receive contractual sick pay.

It’s also worth pointing out that contractual sick pay is often much more generous than SSP and, even then, not all employees will be entitled to receive this benefit because they fall outside the eligibility criteria. The current weekly rate of sickness pay (in March 2020) is £98.25 and could be paid by employers for a maximum of 28 weeks.

Ordinarily, it becomes payable only from 4th day of sickness absence, but as of Wednesday 4th March 2020, the UK Government has announced that employees who self-isolate themselves because of suspected Coronavirus infection, will be paid SSP from day 1 of their sickness absence.

This is a temporary measure which will apply only for the duration of the current COVID-19 emergency, but people who are off sick with a medical condition other than the virus will also be entitled to benefit from these changes.

See links below to articles on the BBC website about sickness pay entitlement and COVID-19:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51628524

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51738837

The change in Government policy will not be extended to the self-employed; and to zero hours workers (who will not be able to meet the threshold conditions for eligibility). Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has stated that as many as 2 million workers may not be eligible for SSP under the current system.

There has been some concern expressed that individuals in these categories may continue to go to work – if they have the virus or suspect as much – because they will not receive SSP during their absence.

Eligibility criteria for SSP

In 2019-20, in order to qualify for SSP you must be an employee earning at least £118 per week or £512 per month (before tax). This is known as the Lower Earnings Limit.

In April 2020, SSP will rise to £95.85 per week, but individuals’ earnings must fall within any of the following bands in order to qualify:

  • £120 per week
  • £520 per month
  • £6,240 per year

Again, this will mean that many zero hours contract workers will simply fail to qualify for SSP payments.

More problems …

There is also another complication concerning eligibility for sickness pay which the COVID-19 outbreak has raised:

Let’s assume that you do qualify for either contractual sick pay or SSP, but you have decided to take the precautionary measure of self-isolation so as not to expose your colleagues to potential risk.

It may be that you have recently returned from a destination such as China or Italy where the virus has been particularly prevalent and you decide to play it safe by not going into work. You contact your HR Department or employer to inform them of your decision; you are thanked for being extremely considerate and responsible; and then you are told that you are not entitled to receive sick pay because you haven’t actually been diagnosed with the virus.

Matt Hancock MP, UK Government Minister for Health, thinks that current legislation does cover such situations and individuals who take precautionary measures, as outlined above, should benefit from sick pay provisions.

With all due respect to Mr Hancock, what he thinks and what current legislation or a contract of employment states might be entirely different realities. That said, Mr Hancock does have the support of the highly regarded Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) which is recommending that employers pay self-isolating employees who have taken such a precautionary measure (see link below).

https://www.acas.org.uk/acas-publishes-new-advice-on-handling-coronavirus-at-work

Conclusion

Clearly, COVID-19 is presenting a number of challenges to traditional practices or orthodoxies in the field of employment law. This is a serious issue given that recent estimates are predicting that up to 20% of the UK workforce could be in danger of contracting the virus and, consequently, they will be absent from work.

In some respects, the UK Government has been caught napping on the issue of extending employment protection e.g. entitlement to sick pay to people who do not have a contract of service and the COVID-19 outbreak has really exposed this shortcoming.

As Jonathan Rennie of law firm, TLT, had noted (as recently as this week) the UK Government has failed to implement any of the recommendations of the Taylor Review which favoured extended employment protection to workers who did not have a contract of service. It is somewhat ironic that the virus outbreak has forced the Government to break cover and extend some employment protection rights.

A link to an article on the BBC website about the predicted impact of COVID-19 on the UK workforce can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51718917

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 4 March 2020