Is Working on the Sidelines Out of Bounds for UC?
As the economy remains precarious, unemployment compensation benefits remain vital to keeping many Pennsylvanians afloat. Of course, many applicants for unemployment compensation benefits attempt to make ends meet by doing some sort of job on the side, such as flea marketing or landscaping on the weekends for a few dollars here and there. The issue the courts have struggled with is attempting to determine whether that flea marketer or landscaper is an independent contractor or merely engaged in a sideline activity.
Under Pennsylvania unemployment compensation law, an independent contractor is considered to be self-employed and, therefore, ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits. An independent contractor is generally someone who is free from the control or direction of an employer but, rather, works for himself or herself. As the independent contractor is not an employee, he or she is ineligible for benefits if no further work is available under his or her contracts. The issue, of course, is that someone who works at a sideline activity is also similarly free from the control or direction of an employer. Would that person be similarly ineligible for benefits? The courts have generally indicated that engaging in a sideline activity does not render one ineligible for benefits, but the precise definition of what constitutes a sideline activity is still being developed.
The primary lines of distinction between independent contracting and a sideline activity include when the activity was first undertaken and whether someone is “customarily engaged” in the activity per the language of 43 P.S. Section 753(l)(2)(B) defining “employment.” The courts have ruled that earning money or engaging in a money-making enterprise for a few hours per week or month does not necessarily equate to independent contracting. The question is, after findings of fact, whether someone could be considered “customarily engaged” in the sideline activity. In fact, it is significant to note that a potential claimant engaged in a sideline activity may even consider himself or herself an independent contractor; however, this claimant’s self-identification is irrelevant, as the analysis is exclusively based on the factual underpinnings of each case.
For example, if someone, say a truck driver, loses his job and elects to work a few hours landscaping thereafter in order to earn some money to tide him over, does that make him a contractor or engaged in a sideline activity? It all depends on whether this former truck driver is now pursuing a new business venture as a landscaper or just trying to earn a little money to scrape by before he can engage actual employment. Obviously, the analysis to determine the difference between a new business venture and sideline activity is extremely fact-intensive and focuses on the number of hours spent at the work done and the amount of investment the person makes into the work. For instance, does this former truck driver help mow his neighbor’s lawns for $20 a cut every other week, or has he established “Ryan’s Lawncare” and purchased materials and advertising toward it? It likely goes without saying that the former is a sideline activity, which would not render him ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits, while the latter would be considered establishing a business (i.e., becoming an independent contractor), rendering him ineligible for benefits.
The other relevant issue in determining whether something is independent contracting or a sideline activity is when and how the work was established. If it began while one already had an established full-time job, it is more likely to be considered a sideline activity. For example, after a few years of practice, a full-time accountant may discover he enjoys doing Web design in the evenings or on the weekends for a few hours here or there for limited compensation. Would he be considered as customarily engaged as a Web designer? The likely answer would be no, as the Web designing a few hours per week arose while he was otherwise employed as a full-time accountant as opposed to after he became unemployed from his position as an accountant. Further, the accountant’s income and time is overwhelmingly because of being an accountant and, more than likely, when asked what he does for a living, he identifies as an accountant.
Finally, it should be noted that the precise number of hours or rate of compensation is not necessarily relevant to the analysis as neither is specified by the law. Take our accountant above as an example: If his five or six hours per week of Web design expanded to 10 or 15 after he lost his job as an accountant, the Web designing would likely remain a “sideline activity” and not render him ineligible for benefits. As far as compensation is concerned, someone who works on commission and, therefore, has compensation delayed for months, perhaps weeks, could be considered employed despite having no compensation for a long period of time, as compensation is contemplated in the future for the present work.
As the cases continue to be decided on the issue, the definition of “customarily engaged” will become more refined and clear. The fact pattern of each subsequent case will further refine and crystallize what a sideline activity is and help guide potential claimants in deciding whether to undertake such an activity. Of course, before embarking on an activity that could potentially risk one’s eligibility for unemployment compensation, it is always recommended that a claimant consult with an attorney first.
Some cases on this issue that the reader may find helpful include the following: Crocker v. Unemployment Board of Review, 63 A.3d 496 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2013), Minelli v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 39 A.3d 593 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2012), and Kelly v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 840 A.2d 469 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2004).
Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer Blog on August 2, 2013 and can be viewed here.