NYC to Franchisors: We’re Going “Crazy on You”!

Barracuda NYCIn 1976, the band Heart released the album Dreamboat Annie. Soon after its release, the label (Mushroom Records) released a suggestive National Enquirer-style ad suggesting that sister Ann and Nancy Wilson might also be lesbian lovers. Ann’s outrage led her to write the song “Barracuda,” about ambush and false accusations.

A different Heart song title came to mind as I read the latest attempt by the New York City Council to hold franchisors responsible for acts they did not commit. 

A bill co-sponsored by 19 council members would amend the City’s anti-discrimination law to hold franchisors strictly liable for discriminatory acts by their franchisee. We have seen many attempts to expand the definition of “joint employer” to include franchisors, but this proposal goes beyond anything we’ve seen. This bill doesn’t even deal with the concept of “joint employment.” It just says that franchisors are liable for discriminatory acts of their franchisees, without any analysis of their involvement in the discriminatory acts or their level of control over the franchisee. It’s automatic.

That’s crazy. Holding one company strictly liable for the wrongful acts of another raises all sorts of legal concerns and, if passed, the bill will certainly be challenged in court.

Franchisors, the Council wants to go “Crazy on You.”

Now, truth be told, in the Heart song, going “Crazy on You” has a very different meaning than I intend it here. Ann Wilson and Roger Fisher (her bandmate, co-writer, and lover) meant it in an amorous way, but there is certainly no love between NYC and franchisors. The attacks by NYC on the franchisor-franchisee relationship are more like those of the sharp-toothed predator of the sea, the Barracuda.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Is this weird trick the key to defeating independent contractor claims? (Hahahahahaha. No.)

Weird trick to defeat independent contractor claims Jani-King

As everyone with an internet connection now knows, articles promising “one weird trick” to solve some real-world problem are everywhere. These articles are annoying. (It’s called clickbait.) You open up the article, and the “weird trick” is usually something you already knew anyway. Or the weird trick just doesn’t work.

So what’s the “weird trick” here?

Requiring independent contractors to form corporate entities. Then you have a business-to-business contract, not employment. Right?

Ok, it’s not weird at all. Lots of companies use this approach.

But does it work? Not necessarily.

Let’s consider the issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA requires employees to be paid a minimum wage and overtime (unless there’s an exemption) and requires employers to keep certain kinds of pay records.

The test for determining whether someone is an employee under the FLSA is Ye Olde Economic Realities Test. 

Dear Reader, hold onto your seat, because we’re about to see this test in action!

Can you defeat independent contractor misclassification claims by requiring workers to form legal entities? Let’s see…

A federal appeals court recently considered a dispute involving Jani-King and its franchise model for providing janitorial services. Under Jani-King’s business model, the individuals who provide cleaning services are not treated by Jani-King as its employees. Rather, Jani-King requires that anyone who wants to provide janitorial services under the Jani-King name must form a legal entity, like an LLC. Then Jani-King enters into a franchise agreement with the LLC, and the LLC/franchisee provides the cleaning services. There is no job offer or employment agreement between Jani-King and the individuals performing the services. It’s all treated like a business-to-business, franchisor-franchisee relationship.

The Department of Labor (DOL) is questioning the legitimacy of this model.  The DOL began an investigation and then filed a lawsuit, claiming that Jani-King’s franchisees are really Jani-King’s employees under the FLSA, and Jani-King therefore had to comply with FLSA record-keeping requirements, as well as its overtime and minimum wage rules.

The reason Jani-King’s “one weird trick” doesn’t necessarily work is because to determine whether someone is an employee under the FLSA, it doesn’t matter what you call the worker. You can call the worker a contractor or a franchisee, but using that tag doesn’t mean the worker is not an employee under the FLSA. That’s a legal determination made using the Economic Realities Test.

In this case, the trial court judge in Oklahoma had dismissed the DOL’s case, ruling that Jani-King’s contracts were with entities, not individuals, so there could not be an employment relationship. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said that’s not true. 

The Court of Appeals ruled that a six-part Economic Realities Test must be used to determine whether the individual franchisees who performed the janitorial work should be considered employees under the FLSA. Under the Economic Realities Test, a court must examine the economic realities of the relationship, not merely rely on the parties’ labels. 

In the Tenth Circuit (which covers Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming), here are the factors to consider under the Economic Realities Test:

1) The degree of control exerted by the alleged employer over the worker; 

2) The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; 

3) The worker’s investment in the business; 

4) The permanence of the working relationship; 

5) The degree of skill required to perform the work; and 

6) The extent to which the work is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

The not-so-weird trick of requiring workers to set up a legal entity does not necessarily work. It can be helpful, but only if the facts show that the entity is not economically reliant on the other party. The facts matter, not the labels.

This case is headed back to the trial court for some fact-finding to determine how these six factors play out.

In the meantime, remember that “one weird trick” to solve some real-world problem is probably not weird at all, and it may or may not work. But it may arouse your curiosity and cause you read the article. Here, Jani-King’s one weird trick aroused the DOL’s curiosity, which is not something a business should want to do.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Dept of Labor May Redefine Joint Employment with New Rule, Hints Labor Sec’y

DOL may issue new rule for joint employment

Rules are important for avoiding chaos, as I am reminded daily by one of my favorite twitter accounts, @CrimeADay. That’s where I learned that it’s a federal crime to operate a manned (or unmanned) submersible in national park waters without a permit, thereby ruining my weekend plans. (18 USC 1865 & 36 CFR 3.19). I also learned it is a federal crime to bring a child to a cockfight before his or her 16th birthday, thereby ruining my winter plans for father-daughter bonding activities. (7 USC §2156(a)(2)(B) & 18 USC §49(c).)

The Department of Labor (DOL) thinks rules are important too. Taking a page from the NLRB, which last week issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to redefine “joint employment” under federal labor law, the DOL may be about to follow suit.

In a speech to members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta disclosed that the DOL is working on a proposal to redefine joint employment, presumably under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires the payment of overtime and a minimum wage.

Joint employment is a hot button issue in the hospitality business, where outsourcing functions like housekeeping is commonplace, and where joint employment can mean the hotel operator is liable for for wage and hour violations by other entities who are supplying labor.

As we have discussed in previous posts, the tests for joint employment are different depending on which law is being applied. That means that even if the NLRB revises the definition of joint employment, that new test would not apply to the FLSA. The DOL would need to write a separate rule that would define joint employment under the FLSA.

According to Acosta, that new rule may soon be on the way.

Until then, remember that it is illegal to take a fishing boat into the danger zone of the Potomac near the Naval Surface Warfare Center while they’re firing guns, aerial bombing, using directed energy, or other hazardous operations, unless the patrol boats let you in. (33 USC §3 & 33 CFR §334.230(a)(2).)

Thanks, @CrimeADay!

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Loss of Control? New Trademark Bill Would Help Franchisors to Reduce Joint Employment Risks

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The Van Halen song, “Loss of Control,” supposedly is intended to poke fun at the punk rock scene, turning everything up to high volume and high frequency. It is not a song to fall asleep to. If the lyrics took more than ten minutes to write, I’d be as surprised and disappointed as if I found a brown M&M in the Van Halen dressing room.

The lyrics consist of a few basic lines and then repeating the phrase “Loss of Control” over and over and over again at high speed. A copy of David Lee Roth’s handwritten lyrics can be found here.

Franchisors constantly struggle with how much control they can exert over their business model and over franchisees without becoming a joint employer of the franchisee’s employees. On one hand, they need brand consistency to project an image to the public and to ensure that a reliable product or service is being offered, regardless of franchise location. On the other hand, day-to-day decisions like hiring and scheduling should be left to the individual franchise owner.

One area where franchisors absolutely must exert control is over their trademarks. They need to ensure that their marks are used consistently and appropriately and that individual franchise owners don’t use the marks in unapproved ways.

A new bill introduced in Congress aims to help franchisors protect their marks in a way that does not increase the risk of a joint employment finding.

The proposed Trademark Licensing Protection Act has bipartisan support, having been co-introduced by House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-OH) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX).

If passed, it would declare that when a mark is licensed to a related company (such as a franchisee), any control exerted over that mark “for the purpose of preserving the goodwill, reputation, uniformity, or expectation of the public of the nature and quality of goods or services associated with the mark” would not be evidence of an employer-employee relationship or of joint employment.

This clarification would be helpful to the franchise industry. Franchisors are under constant attack with claims of joint employment. This bill would help protect them against joint employment claims while helping them to avoid a loss of control.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Free Smells! Jimmy John’s Avoids Franchisor Joint Liability

Joint employment jimmy john’s overtime litigation

The famous bank robber Willie Sutton supposedly once said that he robs banks “because that’s where the money is.” I doubt he said that since it seems rather incriminating. (“I’m sorry, your honor. What I meant is ‘If I did it…” See, Simpson, O.J.). But that’s the legend anyway. You can read more here on whether it’s true.

The strategy for plaintiffs in overtime cases is much the same. Sue the deepest pockets. That’s where the money is. When the deepest pocket is not your employer, allege joint employment.

That’s what happened in the recent overtime lawsuit against some Jimmy John’s franchise owners (the direct employers) and the franchisor (corporate Jimmy John’s). The lawsuit is cleverly titled In Re: Jimmy John’s Overtime Litigation. Like many lawsuits, the case has dragged on for four years. It has not been freaky fast.

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Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead! NLRB Overrules Browning-Ferris

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Remember the good old days, way back in 2014? You recall the time — back when David Letterman was still on the air and it was not yet illegal in New York to take a selfie with a tiger.

Yes, that was life before 2015, when the NLRB waved its magic wand, rewrote the definition of joint employment, and forced several of the planets to spin out of orbit. The Board’s decision in Browning-Ferris erased decades of precedent and caused bloggers everywhere to vomit profuse amounts of text and doomsday predictions.

For those of you who missed the news in 2015 (understandable if you spent the year focused on following the saga of Winston, the Aussie python who swallowed salad tongs), allow me to offer this quick refresher: The 2015 Browning-Ferris decision declared that, under federal labor law, a business would be considered a joint employer if it retained the right to exercise even a teeny tiny bit of control, and even if it never actually exercised that control.

Good news, citizens of earth! The planets realigned on Thursday, when the Board reversed its 2015 decision and reverted back to the old standard. The new standard is the old standard. (Got it?)

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Time to Dance? Momentum Builds for Proposed New Joint Employment Law

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.47.09 AM

Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy is a low-quality youtube video that has somehow amassed more than a million hits. In the video, a lone (possibly intoxicated) festival goer starts dancing in a field. After a minute or so, momentum builds and others join him, showing off their terrible dance moves in a video you’ll wish you hadn’t wasted three minutes watching. (Just speaking from experience here.)

Several weeks ago, the House began considering a bill that would rewrite the definition of “joint employment” under federal wage and hour law (Fair Labor Standards Act) and federal labor law (National Labor Relations Act). The Save Local Business Act would require “direct” and “significant” control over “essential terms” of employment before a business could be considered a joint employer of a worker employed by another business (such as a staffing agency or a subcontractor). Read more here and here.

Originally sponsored by Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama (you might think of Rep. Byrne as the original dancer in the Leadership video, but dressed as a conservative Southern gentleman), the bill now has 112 co-sponsors, including a few Democrats. Dance party!

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