What is the Joint Employment Test under the FLSA? (And Why Are There So Many?)

In the Muppet Movie, Kermit famously wondered, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”

Articles in Psychology Today and Remind Magazine have attempted to answer this question. A blog post on the Tough Pigs website almost took a contrary view in a post titled “Why There AREN’T So Many Songs About Rainbows,” but that was a twitter gimmick asking for wrong answers only.

Turns out there are quite a few songs about rainbows. You can google it. There’s also a pretty good band called Rainbow (“Man on the Silver Mountain,” “Since You Been Gone”), and the University of Hawaii’s teams are the Rainbow Warriors, f/k/a just the Rainbows, which probably didn’t frighten much of their football competition in the Mountain West.

I’m inspired by Kermit’s lyrical question, but my thoughts stray in a different direction: Why are there so many … joint employment tests, just under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Shouldn’t courts applying a federal law use the same test in every jurisdiction? Of course they should, but they don’t.

Here are the current tests for joint employment under the FLSA, in a nutshell:

The First, Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits apply a four-factor test based on a 1983 case called Bonette. The test considers whether the putative joint employer (1) can hire and fire employees, (2) controls employees’ work and employment conditions, (3) determines rates of pay, and (4) maintains employment records. Bonnette v. Cal. Health & Welfare Agency, 704 F.2d 1465 (9th Cir. 1983).

The Second Circuit rejects the Bonette test as too focused on agency, instead applying a non-exclusive six-factor test. Zheng v. Liberty Apparel Co, Inc., 355 F.3d 61, 71-76 (2d Cir. 2003).

The Eleventh Circuit applies an eight-factor test that includes the Bonette factors and adds factors related to economic dependence. Layton v. DHL Express (USA), Inc., 686 F.3d 1172, 1176-78 (11th Cir. 2012).

The Fourth Circuit is having none of what the other circuits are having and goes in an entirely different direction. The Fourth Circuit’s test compares the two putative employers to determine whether they are “completely dissociated.” Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d 125 (4th Cir. 2017); Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757 (4th Cir. 2017). The Fourth Circuit’s test is so far off the mark that it relies on a (mis)interpretation of a federal regulation that no longer exists.

And speaking of federal regulations that no longer exist, the Department of Labor’s regulation defining joint employment under the FLSA? You guessed it. It no longer exists.

In 2021, the DOL rescinded the joint employer regulation that had been adopted by the Trump DOL in 2020. The 2020 regulation has rescinded the previous regulation, which had been around for decades. No new regulation has been adopted, and so there is no regulation. Part 791 of Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, formerly home to the DOL’s joint employment regulation, is empty.

So, why are there so many tests for joint employment? No good reason. There just are.

But that could change. Following a recent Ninth Circuit decision tagging Los Angeles County as a joint employer, L.A. County has petitioned the Supreme Court to reconsider the joint employment test. So we’ll see what happens there. A conservative Supreme Court majority might recognize how absurd it is that one federal statute can be interpreted so many different ways. Maybe they’ll take the case and announce one test for everyone.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for the joint employer test under the FLSA, you’ll need to look in several places. The test depends on where you are. All of us under its spell. We probably know that it’s ma-gic!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.