Employee Classification Risks

The way people view and perform work is changing and Canadians must be ready to respond. Short-term engagements, temporary contracts and independent contracting characterize this type of workforce. Organizations often rely on contractors to fill key positions, help maintain labour flexibility and keep overhead costs under control. However, any organization that uses independent contractors or is considering doing so, need to be aware of the associated risks and seek the advice of experienced legal counsel.

This article sets out to use a recent Uber class action, Uber v Heller, as a precedent to exemplify the legal and financial risks associated with how companies classify workers. We will look at how the courts make decisions on classification of workers, what protection is available to independent contract workers; and finally suggest some ways businesses can build practices to protect themselves.

Workers need to understand how they are classified, what it means; and take action when there is an issue. Employers need to understand how to create and maintain proper practices to accurately assess and classify their workforce.

Let’s look at Uber v Heller more closely.

In the Uber Class Action, the plaintiffs seek $400 million in damages as well as a declaration that Uber drivers are employees (not contractors) of Uber and therefore entitled to the benefits and protections afforded by the Employment Standards Act (ESA).

Uber brought a preliminary challenge to the proposed class action on the basis that its drivers, including Mr. Heller, were precluded from proceeding through the courts as they had instead agreed to resolve any disputes through private arbitration in the Netherlands. In the end, the action was stayed in favour of arbitration. For a more detailed review of this decision see my earlier article Arbitration Clause in Employment Contract puts the Breaks on the Uber Class Action in Ontario

Mr. Heller appealed the stay decision to the Court of Appeal claiming that the arbitration clause in Uber’s driver services agreement represents an unlawful contracting out of the ESA and that the clause is unconscionable and thus invalid at law. The Court of Appeal accepted both arguments and overturned the decision of the motion judge. I also wrote about this Court of Appeal decision: Uber Class Action Given the Green Light to Proceed by Ontario Court of Appeal

So, are Uber Drivers now classified as Employees?

The Ontario courts have yet to answer the question of classification — whether Uber drivers are classified as employees. The ruling on the classification is the larger issue in the Uber case litigation. However, at this time, the court is still determining the preliminary issues of jurisdiction and the enforceability of the arbitration clause. The Supreme Court of Canada – the highest court in our country – has granted to hear Uber’s appeal.

This case clearly demonstrates the significant impact of improper classification claims on a large company. Regardless of the outcome of the Uber case in terms of classification, the case demonstrates that clarity and enforceability of the classification system used by an employer is very instrumental in protecting employers against costly litigation such as what Uber is currently involved in.

Employers must become proactive in taking action to sharply review and assess workforce compositions and ensure that appropriate classifications are in place. Employers must also understand that a worker’s title does not determine whether they are an employee or independent contractor but that it is the nature of their employment relationship that determines the classification. As well, a worker’s actual classification may differ from what the contract specifies.

How do the courts determine worker classification?

In Sagaz Industries Canada Inc., the Supreme Court of Canada outlined some of the factors to consider in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. In the decision, the Supreme Court of Canada makes the point that there is no single test that provides a clear answer to ever-changing variables of workforce relations (hence classification of employee versus independent contractor) and that people must examine all possible factors in the relationships to form a picture of the total relationship of the parties.

Canadian courts and tribunals have developed common law tests associated with the employment relationship to determine who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. The following are key factors considered in these tests:

  • Control
  • Ownership of tools
  • Chance of profit/risk of loss
  • Business integration
  • Payment
  • The factors are weighed and considered together in determining whether a person is an employee or independent contractor.

As an example, if the relationship looks like an employment relationship wherein the employer controls working conditions and the worker is economically dependent on the employer, the worker will likely be found to be an employee.

Worker Classification Example:

The case Fisher v Hirtz, 2016 ONSC 4768 details the scope of review and analysis necessary in determining the true legal nature of employment relationships and employee classifications therein and the impact of that classification on dismissal claims.

In this case, the plaintiff sues a company for wrongful dismissal. In the end, her claim was dismissed because the court determined she should be classified as an independent contractor not an employee. Had she been deemed an employee or dependent contractor, the court would have concluded, among other things, that she did not quit but was dismissed without cause and was entitled to pay in lieu of reasonable notice.

Employee versus contractor cases result in varying decisions on classification — there is no set formula to determine classifications. Decisions must be on a case-by-case basis involving close attention to the factors in each case. In the end, the true legal nature of the employment relationship must be identified and clarified.

In determining the true legal nature of relationships the courts look at:

  • The intentions of the parties
  • How the parties themselves regard the relationships
  • The behaviour of the parties toward each other
  • The manner of conducting their business with one another.

In Fisher v Hirtz, the court followed the tiered analysis and applied the above legal principles of established methodologies and criteria. In the end, the worker was deemed a contractor as her employer assigned the work, as it did to other trades persons, but she controlled whether she would accept the assignment.

The first stage of analysis will end once the worker is determined to be an employee. If the worker is determined to be a “contractor” the analysis will continue through a second stage to decide if they are a dependent contractor or an independent contractor.

In the case cited above, during the second stage of the analysis, the court determined she was an independent contractor as she had only provided varying amounts of services over a sixteen-month period during which she also carried on business as a sole proprietor. There was little evidence of any long-term dependency.

General Overview of Independent Contractors

Essentially, contractors are self-employed service providers who manage their own businesses.

An independent contractor has more freedom to choose how they complete work but are responsible for paying their own taxes, getting their own health insurance, and paying into unemployment and workers compensation funds. The most important factor is the level of control an employer has over the worker.

In contrast, an employee works under the control of an employer and has certain benefits provided by the employer including workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and health insurance.

Protection for Contract Employees

Canadian law has not yet caught up with changes in the labour market and contract workers are generally excluded from the protections and benefits that accompany traditional paid employment.

Gig workers are generally treated as independent contractors with none of the employment rights guarantees available in more regular jobs. The Employment Standards Act (ESA) does not apply to independent contractors, volunteers or other individuals who are not considered employees under the ESA.

How can businesses and employers protect themselves?

Practice development tips:

  • Take a proactive approach to reviewing the workforce and classifying employees accordingly. This can save a lot of headaches, potential penalties and even mitigate the risk of litigation.
  • Make sure employees are not misclassified as contractors when they should be recognized as regular staff with rights under the Employment Standards Act — contact an experienced employment lawyer for advice if necessary.
  • Regularly monitor the relationship to ensure the contractor’s independent status doesn’t change. For example, a company might hire an independent contractor who becomes more engaged in the company over years. If the company’s reliance on the individual’s services grows, the individual could be deemed an employee.

Workforce Tips:

  • If there are independent contractors who are actually being treated like employees, it may be time to change their classification.
  • At time of hiring, if a worker insists that they want to be an independent contractor and not an employee, it is advisable to investigate the situation and seek legal advice before agreeing.
  • In the event of a challenge, the practical reality will govern the classification and not what is written in a contract.

Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

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