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A Transformation at Harvard: Not-So-Independent Contractors Become Employees
/ Categories: Workers' Comp

A Transformation at Harvard: Not-So-Independent Contractors Become Employees

The status of independent contractors is one of the fundamental dividing lines in today's economy. Independent contractors receive no benefits. If it snows (and lord knows, it has snowed), contractors are not paid for missed days. There is no paid vacation, no paid sick leave, no retirement. In a word, independent contractors receive nothing beyond a raw payment for services rendered. So it matters a lot if a worker is paid as an independent contractor, but functions more like an employee.

Which brings us to an article by Katie Johnston in the Boston Globe concerning Harvard University's Center for Wellness. Kara Donohoe, a message therapist at the center, was classified as an independent contractor. Her activities, however, were tightly circumscribed: the university set her appointments, determined her payment rates and did not allow her to collect tips; the same approach was used for the center's acupuncturists. These workers enhanced the wellness of Harvard employees - and paid a significant price in doing it.

Alum Schools the University

In 2016 Donohoe became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit claiming that she and her 20 co-workers were, in fact, employees of the university. Her attorney, Shannon Liss-Riordan, appropriately learned her craft as a Harvard undergraduate and at Harvard Law School. Under the settlement negotiated by Liss-Riordan, workers at the school’s Center for Wellness will be reclassified as employees and will receive as much as $30,000 apiece in back pay. They will also enjoy the university's robust benefits package, which includes, of course, workers compensation. Perhaps most important, the settlement has opened the door to a reconsideration of independent contractors throughout the university. Liss-Riordan had high praise for her alma mater: “Harvard is a role model for many employers out there, and I hope other employers take note of how Harvard handled the situation.”

The article quotes Donohoe: "I’m really looking forward to being able to take a vacation and give my body a rest without giving my bank account a rest as well.” What a novel idea: ensuring the wellness of the Wellness Center's employees. Let's hope it catches on!

Jon Coppelman
Senior Workers Compensation Consultant

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