Harvard University has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over misclassifying workers as independent contractors and will adjust its labor policies university-wide as part of the settlement.
About 20 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, according to Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lawyer representing the workers. Lead plaintiff Kara Donohoe, a massage therapist who has worked at the center since 2004, said the center treated her as an employee under state law — setting her appointments, determining her rates, and forbidding her to accept tips — and she was therefore entitled to paid vacation and holidays and other staff benefits.
Massachusetts has a strict definition of what constitutes an independent contractor, including stipulations that a worker is “free from control and direction” and that the job must fall “outside the usual course of the business of the employer.”
In a statement, Donohoe said, “I was just talking with a co-worker about having to take so many snow days off this past two weeks without pay and how great it will be as an employee not to have to worry about that. . . . 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.”
Employees such as Donohoe who work at least 17.5 hours a week will also become part of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.
In a statement, Harvard said, “The settlement represents a mutually agreeable closure to the case in order to avoid protracted litigation, and it further underscores the contributions of the massage therapists and acupuncturists to the center’s mission.”
The school has convened a group to revise its independent-contractor policy to reflect state and federal law, according to the settlement agreement. Liss-Riordan, a Harvard alumna who has handled dozens of worker misclassification lawsuits, including a high-profile case pending against the ride-hailing service Uber, stressed that the revised policy could have a “far-reaching impact.”
“It is extremely challenging to obtain actual reclassification,” she said, noting that many companies she has sued over the issue move out of state or adjust their practices so they can continue to use independent contractors, which can lead to more lawsuits. “Harvard is a role model for many employers out there, and I hope other employers take note of how Harvard handled the situation.”
The state Appeals Court recently found that delivery drivers for the Patriot Ledger newspaper are employees of GateHouse Media, not independent contractors, but as of yet the company has not committed to reclassifying the drivers.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.