When officials go to meetings, they sometimes “learn” misinformation, repeated over and over, resulting in costly and unpleasant consequences. And so it is with the oft-repeated, soothing bromide — “Officials are independent contractors, by law.”
A recent state workers compensation appeals board decision has joined other judicial and administrative rulings that illustrate the rather draconian consequences of adherence to mythical concepts as a substitute for legal and risk management advice and counsel.
State labor laws in many states identify some, but not all sports officials, as independent contractors under certain circumstances — and then only for certain purposes.
Associations sometimes compound their difficulties by handling the defense of claims against the organization as a “do-it-yourself” project rather than getting legal assistance. Such was the case when a multi-sport assigning agency was faced with a workers’ compensation claim from a staff official who was injured while working a high school football game.
Manage risk by consulting counsel
The association maintained the official was an independent contractor and not an employee. The judge disagreed, in part because the state law, as it turns out, only makes officials “independent contractors” for workers compensation purposes when they are officiating either for an entity sponsoring an intercollegiate or interscholastic sports event; or for a government agency, or a nonprofit organization that sponsors an amateur sports event.
The officiating organization, for which the official worked, was a proprietary business that paid officials to officiate several high school sports — at schools within a conference. Each school was charged a set-up fee and officials were paid game fees and mileage reimbursement by the assigning organization. Payroll processing was the contractual obligation of the organization, as was the training of and assigning of officials. To cement the relationship with its officials, the group even had its officials sign an “independent contractor agreement.”
And because the association was not a business for which the official would be excluded as an employee under the law, other factors were evaluated by the court. This determination resulted in a finding that the official was an employee of the association — primarily because the association’s business was principally to officiate sports — and because the association paid the official and, said the court, had the right to control the manner and means of the work. These and certain other factors weigh on such determinations in the state involved.
Arguments that would have militated against a finding that the official was an employee could have been pointed to factors, such as: (1) that officiating is a distinct occupational business where the official was free to and, in fact, did contract with other schools and organizations to officiate; (2) the officials do not work under the supervision of the organization; and (3) the personal skill and specialized knowledge of an official indicates a “special skill” characteristic of independent contractors.
Whether your officiating association is a nonprofit membership association or a proprietary enterprise, manage risk by consulting counsel before legal complications arise.
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