Judge Says 40-Year Newspaper Carrier Is an Employee, Not Contractor

(CN) — A newspaper carrier was improperly classified as an independent contractor by the Hearst Communications media company, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Paul Martel has been delivering the San Francisco Chronicle to customers throughout Northern California for nearly 40 years. It’s a job that typically brings him to warehouse at 1 a.m., where he packages and loads newspaper after newspaper on to his vehicle for delivery. He spends the next four hours on his route, ensuring subscribers of the Chronicle have been supplied with a clean and readable paper, before returning home to monitor an online delivery portal for any redelivery notices, service check updates or complaints.

While Martel initially delivered for the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, the Chronicle was later bought by Hearst Communications, an American mass-media company that owns a series of newspapers and television channels and publishes magazines including Cosmopolitan and Esquire.

Martel signed a new contract after Hearst bought the Chronicle in 2008 that officially transitioned him from a newspaper carrier to a newspaper dealer, and he signed several contracts with Hearst since then.

But based on the contracts and the new responsibilities the contracts gave him, Martel believed he was not being fairly classified by Hearst. So he sued the company in May 2019, claiming he had been unfairly and wrongfully misclassified not as an employee, but as an independent contractor. Martel’s claims included eight violations of California Labor Code and he sought compensatory and economic damages, among others.

Hearst denied Martel’s claims, leaving U.S. District Judge William Alsup to decide the matter. On Thursday, the Bill Clinton appointee sided with Martel and ruled Hearst had improperly classified the man as an independent contractor.

In his 11-page ruling, Alsup found Martel’s claims hinge on the precedent in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations. The judge in that case found a group of harvesters were employees and not independent contractors because of how much control their employer had over the manner and means in which they did their work. In other words, if an employer controls enough different factors in how a worker does their job, that worker is in fact an employee.

Alsup noted the contract between Hearst and Martel clearly outlines what is expected of Martel and how he is to do his job. The contract states that the Martel must deliver the papers in a “clean, dry, undamaged and readable condition” no later than 6 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 7:30 a.m. on Sundays.

The contract also lays out how and when the newspapers will be made available to Martel for delivery. There are specific hours that the newspapers will be ready for Martel to pick up at a warehouse, and that any failure to pick or deliver the newspapers on time could be deemed a breach of contract.

While Hearst argued the terms of its contract with Martel offer him some freedom in how he does his job — he can choose what vehicle he uses, the order in which he runs his route and where he sorts the newspapers before delivery — Alsup found otherwise.

“In reality, however, there are crucial restrictions in the way plaintiff completes his job,” Alsup wrote.

He found Martel lacks control over the facilities needed to complete his delivery tasks, while the vehicle he uses to complete his deliveries really comes down to Martel’s ability to afford a delivery vehicle separate from a personal-use vehicle. Even the space that Martel uses to sort the papers is not under his full control, as the area that he uses is subleased from Hearst, Alsup found.

These facts, coupled with the extraordinary length of time Martel has been delivering the San Francisco Chronicle, make it clear that Martel was improperly classified as an independent contractor.

In an interview, Martel’s attorney Benjamin Weisenberg said he is happy with the ruling and looks forward to seeing where the case goes from here.

“We’re very pleased with the court’s ruling. We look forward to getting the defendant any additional information that they believe is necessary to identify how much money Mr. Martel is owed, and moving the case forward,” Weisenberg said.

Representation for Hearst Communications did not respond to request for comment by press time.

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