H.B. 1440 could decimate the survey, opinion and marketing research profession in Washington state[1] by creating the legal presumption that anyone receiving respondent incentives for participating in a bona fide research study is an employee of the research company conducting the study. The burden to refute that presumption would lie with the research company, not the government.

This would impose massive administrative overhead, as well as costly payments into workers comp and unemployment compensation funds on behalf of every respondent receiving an incentive for participating in a research study. Research companies in Washington would have to do all that until they are able to provide sufficient evidence to the Department of Labor and Industries that the respondents are not employees. Upon receiving such evidence, the State would then have to refund the money that was erroneously collected from the company or organization.

Respondent incentives are a common research tool
To achieve a representative sample of participants, some survey, opinion and marketing research studies must provide incentives that attract, retain, and compensate participants for their time and effort. Careful experimentation has shown that respondent incentives can improve a survey’s quality and efficiency. The amount of incentive payment can depend on the length and circumstances of the study, the specialized knowledge or background of the participant, etc.

Respondent incentives are a widely used tool, particularly in focus groups, ethnographic and longitudinal studies, one-on-one interviews, and online panels. In fact, an estimated 25 percent of all federal government survey research involves respondent incentives.

Can a person make a living as a research participant? Could they be an employee?
No. In fact, the research profession goes to great lengths to prevent individuals from participating in too many research studies, referred to as “cheater-repeaters.” Individuals that attempt to make a living this way produce skewed data instead of representative data. Cheater-repeaters also threaten the integrity of research results because they frequently get into studies by using fake identification and information, and similarly provide fake or erroneous responses to questions.

The laws and regulatory tests meant to help differentiate employees from nonemployees were drafted with classic jobs and professions in mind. Unfortunately, while it might appear viscerally obvious that research participants are not employees, H.B. 1440 would start from a presumption that research participants are employees.

MRA seeks to amend H.B. 1440 to affirmatively exclude individuals receiving incentive payments for participation in survey, opinion and marketing research.

[1] The most recent estimates from the Census Bureau indicate 114 survey, opinion and marketing research companies in Washington employing more than 2,000 people. That does not even include the many researchers working within non-research companies (e.g., Microsoft and Starbucks), or researchers in academia, non-profits and government agencies.