W-2 or 1099? Misclassifying workers ‘is a problem’

Baseball saga inspired HR veteran's journey through Coca-Cola, Amazon and now Bluecrew

W-2 or 1099? Misclassifying workers ‘is a problem’

It’s the best time of the year for baseball fans, as they pack bars and huddle around the TV to watch the Fall Classic.

One Yankee diehard cherishes this season more than most because in 1994, he didn’t get a World Series. And that’s what caused Steve Johnson to pursue a career in HR.

After graduating from SUNY Geneseo with a bachelor’s in communications, the Long Island native continued his education at the New York Institute of Technology. Inspired by the Major League Baseball strike of the ‘90s, which was the longest stoppage in MLB history and the first time a major American professional sports league lost an entire postseason, Johnson studied HR management and labor relations, earning his master’s in 1996. At the dawn of the millennium, he graduated from St. John’s University School of Law with a Juris Doctor degree (J.D.) in employment and labor law.

“The Yankees were having a winning season for the first time in a long time and the strike had essentially stolen a potential playoff run,” Johnson told HRD. “I was fascinated by labor relations, which opened my horizons to the broader HR spectrum and working on systems, programs and processes that enhance employee experience and drive business value.”

Read more: Inside the ‘silent meeting’

Kicking off his career as HR manager at a New York-based health care firm, Johnson then spent more than a decade at Coca-Cola. He spent his last three years at the juggernaut as group director of labor relations – global business functions, addressing challenges of 72,000 employees across approximately 600 facilities. In 2013, he jumped to another powerhouse: Amazon.

Johnson built an in-house platform called Amazon Connections, leveraging technology to create an ongoing conversation with employees around the world to develop leaders and improve the employee experience. The platform asked employees a question or two each day about various aspects of the company. “The theory was we wanted to create a dynamic way for workers around the world to provide feedback reaching Jeff Bezos’ level,” Johnson says. “Our goal was to understand the employee experience, focus on trends and address questions in real time.”

In 2017, Johnson transitioned to global director of associate career development. He led Amazon Career Choice, a program enabling working adults to go to school for a vocational or technical education and then enter into a skilled career path. “I’m still passionate about hourly employee development and the ability for them to upskill and improve their standard of living,” Johnson says.

Workforce development has been a major focus during the Great Resignation, as HR leaders struggle to find qualified talent in an extremely tight labor market. Thus, the onus has been on companies to train and nurture their current employees for leadership roles, emphasizing promotions rather than costly recruiting and onboarding. Liberty Mutual, for example, has invested in a robust set of learning opportunities in Cloud, Agile, cybersecurity, data and software engineering designed to meet individuals where they are. Meanwhile, Claro Enterprise Solutions, a technology services provider in Miramar, FL, has launched an emerging leaders program.

Read more: Liberty Mutual SVP: ‘There’s a war for talent’ despite layoffs

In 2021, Johnson began his current role as chief people and compliance officer at Chicago-based Bluecrew, a tech firm bringing an app-based solution to W-2 workers. Coincidentally, Bluecrew CEO Stephen Avalone worked as a general manager and director at Amazon during Johnson’s tenure. “A mutual acquaintance told me Steve was going to a new tech company intent on disrupting the staffing industry,” Johnson says. “They were building a tech platform that would provide workforce-as-a-service to companies, as well as empower workers and match them to flexible jobs.”

As the gig economy continues to boom, employers are faced with increasing concerns surrounding safety and compliance, especially regarding classifying W-2 employees versus 1099 independent contractors. According to Johnson, these companies often fail to adequately assess whether a worker is appropriately classified as a non-employee, opening them up to fines and legal ramifications.

“As tech marketplaces have continued to proliferate, the opportunity to misclassify workers in the interest of expediency has been recognized as a problem,” Johnson says. “Bluecrew is hoping to change that by building a platform that takes marketplace principles and flexibility and transforms that into transparency and empowerment. Also, anybody that a workplace receives through Bluecrew is a W-2 employee with appropriate protections and a vetted background check background, managed in compliant manner.”

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