Many major employers (including several large tech firms) have been called out for treating contractors unfairly for years. For instance, Google was recently accused of pressuring subcontracted temps and contractors to work unpaid overtime.
Fortunately, things are starting to change for the better—slowly. Learn what your rights are as an independent contractor (IC) or agency contractor, as well as the protections resulting from recent legislation.
Rights of Agency Contractors
Right to Be Paid for Hours Worked
Whether you are classified as an employee or an IC is important when it comes to knowing your rights. For instance, contractors who are assigned to companies through staffing or consulting firms are usually classified as employees of the hiring agency.
Federal and state employment and labor laws apply to all employees, even those who work through agencies, explained Laura Padin, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project. So even if your job duties or hourly pay rate exempt you from overtime rates, you are entitled to be paid your regular rate for all the hours you work, she said.
Don’t let your supervisor pressure you into working for free. You have the right to speak up about wages that are owed to you. In most states, it is illegal for your employer to punish you over the issue.
Right to Workplace Fairness
In most cases, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protect contract employees. Plus, you have the right to file a complaint with the EEOC or a lawsuit if you are discriminated against or harassed by a supervisor or co-worker.
And unlike independent contractors, you are entitled to benefits for job-related injuries and illnesses, as well as unemployment benefits when your assignment ends. What’s more, five states (California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and Washington) mandate paid family leave for employees regardless of status (with more states considering legislation).
Agency contractors can join together to advocate for better working conditions, and many have done just that. As a result, companies are extending perks to their contracted workers, and requiring staffing firms to provide extended vacation and sick pay beyond mandated levels.
Rights of Independent Contractors
Right to Work When and Where You Choose
As an independent contractor, you have the right to determine how you will work, where you will work, how much you’ll charge, and the equipment you’ll use. You also have the right to work for multiple clients and to subcontract out work, such as testing or website copywriting, to other freelancers.
In fact, since you aren’t an employee, your clients can’t make you sign non-compete agreements or supervise your work.
If the client tries to dictate how you work, then you should be classified as an employee, not an IC, advised Stephen Fishman, attorney, legal expert and author of “Working for Yourself.”
“You have the right to be classified correctly,” Fishman added. “So if an employer controls how, when, and where the work is done, and you’re injured on the job or fired, you should file a claim to see if you have been misclassified as an IC and are eligible for benefits.”
Right to Own Your IP
Under the Copyright Act of 1976, you own the designs, source code or solutions you develop unless you sign a contract stating otherwise. You also have the right to work for competing companies, as long as you don’t disclose trade secrets or confidential information to another firm.
“Always try to use your own contract,” Fishman advised. “If you are forced to use the client’s agreement, read carefully and try to negotiate any unfavorable terms before you sign.”
Right to Timely Payment
If a client doesn’t pay or breaks the terms of a contract agreement, contractors can sue for breach of contract or file a complaint. In fact, New York City led the way by enacting the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” in 2017, which gives ICs “the right to a written contract, timely and full payment and protection from retaliation.”
In the law’s first year, the Department of Consumer Affairs received more than 250 complaints and helped recover more than $250,000 in lost wages.
Increasing Protection from Harassment and Discrimination
Generally, independent contractors and freelancers aren’t protected from sexual harassment or racial or gender discrimination; fortunately, that's also starting to change. California, Pennsylvania, Washington state and New York City have all extended some protections to freelancers, and other states are considering similar actions.
An IC may not have all the same rights as a traditional employee, but there are still options for legal recourse. You may wish to consult an attorney if you feel that you are being mistreated.