Gator in Your Basement? Nope, That’s Just the NLRB Sharpening Its Joint Employer Test

NBLRB joint employer new regulation 2020

“Be careful as you go down the stairs, officer. An alligator lives in my basement.”

Police in Madison Township, Ohio, last week found a 5-foot gator penned in the basement of a family home. The family said that “Alli” was a pet they’ve raised for 25 years, since purchasing him as an adorable little tot at a reptile shop. (My, how they grow.)

The family accepted responsibility and avoided legal liability because they allowed to police to remove the animal.

A larger battle over responsibility and legal liability was also decided last week, but this battle was over the meaning of “joint employment” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Here’s a quick Q&A to get you up to speed on the new regulation.

What happened?

On February 26, 2020, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a new regulation that changes the rules for determining whether a business is a joint employer under the NLRA.

What do you mean by joint employer?

When one business hires another business to provide services, the business providing the services is the primary employer. We see this often in staffing agency arrangements. The staffing agency is the primary employer. The primary employer is responsible for treating its workers as W-2 employees and doing all the things an employer is supposed to do.

If the business receiving the services exercises sufficient control over the workers, it can be deemed a “joint employer” of those workers. The workers would have two employers simultaneously.

Why should I care if I am a joint employer under the NLRA?

Being a joint employer creates rights and obligations under the NLRA on issues such as collective bargaining, strike activity, and unfair labor practice liability:

  • If the employees are represented by a union, the joint employer must participate in collective bargaining over their terms and conditions of employment.
  • Picketing directed at a joint employer that would otherwise be secondary and unlawful is primary and lawful.
  • Each business comprising the joint employer may be found jointly and severally liable for the other’s unfair labor practices.

Does the new rule make it harder or easier to be deemed a joint employer?

Much harder. The new rule significantly narrows the circumstances when a business can be deemed a joint employer.

What’s the new test?

Under the new regulation, a business can only be a joint employer of another employer’s employees only if it exercises “substantial direct and immediate control” over the “essential terms and conditions” of the workers’ employment.

What are essential terms and conditions?

Wages, benefits, hours of work, hiring, discharge, discipline, supervision, and direction.

Can you give me an example of how that works?

No.

Please?

Ok. I was just messing with you.

Let’s look at wages. You retain a staffing agency. You negotiate a cost-plus arrangement. You negotiate the rate you’ll pay the staffing agency per worker per hour, but the staffing agency determines the rate of pay each worker will receive. That’s not substantial and direct control because the staffing agency sets the wages of the worker.

Let’s consider discharge. You want to remove a staffing agency worker from the project. You instruct the agency to remove the worker. That’s not substantial control over whether the worker is discharged from employment. It’s up to the agency what to do with the worker next — reassign the worker, discharge the worker, tar and feather, etc.

How does this affect background checks and other terms in my contract with the primary employer?

Commonplace and routine clauses, like requiring the agency to perform background checks, are not evidence of joint employment.

In a dispute over whether there’s joint employment, who has the burden of proof?

The party asserting that an entity is a joint employer has the burden of proof.

Is the NLRB’s new joint employer regulation the same as the DOL’s new joint employer regulation?

Of course not. That would make this way too easy, and you wouldn’t need your lawyers as much.

In January 2020, the Department of Labor published a new regulation that sets up a new test for determining whether an entity is a joint employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). There are similarities in the tests. Both tests require the actual exercise of control for there to be joint employment. Previously, the mere right to exercise control was enough. But the tests are different.

You can read more about the DOL test here.

So now there are two tests for joint employment — one under the FLSA and one under the NLRA?

Ah, so naive. Who’s coming up with these questions, anyway?

Nope, there are lots of tests for determining who is a joint employer; and the tests differ based on which law we’re looking at — and based on who’s looking at it.

The DOL announced its new regulation for determining joint employer status under the FLSA, but unless you’re in a DOL audit, that doesn’t mean much. No court has adopted the new regulation yet, and we don’t know whether courts will defer to the regulation or disregard it. There will be litigation over whether the DOL has the right to redefine “joint employer” and limit the scope of a statute (the FLSA) passed by Congress.

The states have their own tests for determining joint employer status under state employment laws. Some states might defer to the regulations, but many states won’t.

But the NLRB regulation is here to stay, right?

Maybe, maybe not. In late 2018, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NLRB has no right to redefine “joint employment,” since the question of whether someone is an employee under the NLRA is governed by the common law test of agency — essentially, a right to control test.

But the NLRB chose to disregard that decision and issued its new regulation anyway.

But how can the NLRB enforce a new regulation defining “joint employer” when a federal court has said it can’t do that?

Because the NLRB will just do it anyway. There are 12 federal circuit courts of appeal, and they often disagree. The NLRB has a longstanding practice of ignoring rulings by the federal courts of appeal, except as to the specific case and the specific parties before that specific court. The NLRB takes the position that it must follow rulings by the Supreme Court, not the federal circuit courts of appeal.

So what’s the real status of the new NLRB regulation?

The NLRB will apply this new regulation in all of its proceedings. The new regulation takes effect April 26, 2020, which is 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register.

If NLRB rulings are appealed to a court, it remains to be seen whether some courts will apply the new regulation. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals probably will not.

Is the new regulation permanent?

It’s intended to be. There are at least three ways it could be undone.

  • Future NLRB members with a more pro-worker orientation could enact a new regulation that changes the definition.
  • Congress could pass a statute that redefines joint employer status. The statute would override the regulation.
  • The Supreme Court could rule that the NLRB has no authority to create a joint employer test.

Until one of those three things happens, the new test will stick around for a while, like a pet alligator. The Board will apply the new test to NLRA issues.

What happened to the alligator?

It has been relocated to an animal sanctuary in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Despite its new residence, the gator was deemed ineligible to vote in last Saturday’s primaries.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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