The issue of worker misclassification is a hot topic for employers, with state and federal authorities as well as class action suits challenging whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. But what about the differences in background screening for independent contractors? Are they subject to the same disclosure and authorization requirements, adverse action notices, and dispute rights that apply to employees?

The answer: it depends.

While the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) doesn’t directly address independent contractors, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued two advisory opinions stating that they should be afforded the same rights as employees. The FTC also reiterated this view in its staff report published in July 2011, stating that the FCRA’s broad definition of the term “employment purposes” extends beyond traditional employment relationships. (FTC Staff Report at 32.)

The Allison Letter (a response to an inquiry from a Georgia worker named Herman L. Allison) addressed the issue in the context of a trucking company that hired drivers who owned and operated their own equipment. Characterizing the situation as a “business relationship” and not an “employment relationship,” Allison asked whether the protections of the FCRA still applied.

Taking a broad interpretation of the term “employment,” the FTC said that treating independent contractors differently than employees would hamper the goals of the FCRA. Even a homeowner who conducts a background check on a handyman or other worker hired as an independent contractor should follow the FCRA requirements, the agency wrote.

In a second letter, the FTC considered a query from Harris K. Solomon, an attorney in Florida. A client wished to conduct background checks on individuals selling its insurance products and handling title exams. Again, the agency said the checks would trigger the requirements of the FCRA.

The FTC’s advisory letters – both issued in 1998 – as well as the staff report, are advisory and non-binding on other parties. But they provide insight into how federal authorities would address the rights and protections owed to an independent contractor as the subject of a background check.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, a Wisconsin federal court judge in 2012 held that the disclosure obligations of the FCRA do not apply to independent contractor relationships. The case involved a sales rep who sued EMS Energy Marketing Service after he was terminated. The plaintiff claimed that the company failed to provide him with either the written notice of his rights or a copy of the report as required by the statute. But the court granted summary judgment for the employer, ruling that Lamson was hired as an independent contractor, not an employee, and therefore, the FCRA did not apply. The language of the statute refers only to employees and if a worker is not an employee “it necessarily follows that he or she is not covered by the FCRA,” the court wrote in Lamson v. EMS Energy Marketing Service. The court also distinguished the FTC letters as advisory opinions, adding that the “letters, in and of themselves, are of limited, if any, persuasive power.”

To read the Allison Letter, click here.

To read the Solomon Letter, click here.