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?)

Effective December 14, 2017, here is the standard for determining joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act:

For all these reasons, we return today to pre-Browning-Ferris precedent. Thus, a finding of joint-employer status shall once again require proof that putative joint employer entities have exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having “reserved” the right to exercise control), the control must be “direct and immediate” (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is “limited and routine.”

From today forward (or at least until the next administration reconfigures the Board and they go back to the old-new-old Browning-Ferris standard), businesses will not be deemed joint employers under the NLRA unless (a) they actually exercise control, (b) the control they exercise is over essential employment terms, and (c) the control is direct and immediate. Here is the decision, titled Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors.

This is a practical, workable standard, just in time for the holidays. Thank you, Santa.

Now if only we could get Pluto back on the roster of planets.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Did You Know You Can Be Cited for OSHA Violations for Non-Employee Workers?

osha violations joint employment

Can OSHA cite your business for conditions that affect another company’s employees? Maybe.

OSHA’s Multi-Employer Citation Policy addresses who gets cited for violations that occur on a multi-employer worksite. If your company hosts staffing agency workers, that may include you.

The policy has been subjected to several legal challenges, though, based on an argument that OSHA obligations extend only to an employer’s own employees. One of these challenges is currently pending in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, based on a dispute over an Austin, Texas, construction site.

While we wait for a decision, though, here’s what OSHA has to say about its authority to issue citations on multi-employer worksites:

OSHA applies a two-step process for determining whether to cite more than one employer for a hazardous condition that violates an OSHA standard.

First, it must be determined whether the business is a “creating, exposing, correcting, or controlling employer.” If so, it may have at least some obligations under OSHA. The extent of this obligations vary based on which category applies.

Second, depending on the category, it must be determined whether the employer satisfied its obligations.

A “creating” employer is one that caused a hazardous condition that violates an OSHA standard. Employers who create hazardous conditions may be cited even if the employees exposed are employees of another employer at the site.

An “exposing” employer is an employer whose own employees are exposed to a hazardous condition. If the exposing employer created the condition, it may be cited. If the condition was created by another employer, the exposing employer may still be liable if it knew (or should have known) of the condition and failed to take reasonable steps to protect its employees.

A “correcting” employer is a business engaged in a common undertaking, on the same worksite, as the exposing employer and is responsible for correcting a hazard. This can happen when an outside business is brought onsite to install or repair equipment. The correcting employer’s duty is to exercise reasonable care in preventing and discovering violations and to meet its obligations related to correcting the hazard.

A “controlling” employer is one who has general supervisory authority over the worksite, including the power to correct safety and health violations itself or require others to correct them. Control can be established by contract or by the actual exercise of control. A controlling employer must exercise reasonable care to prevent and detect violations on the site. The controlling employer has less of a duty with respect to other employers’ employees than it does with respect to its own employees. For example, the controlling employer is not normally required to inspect for hazards as frequently or to have the same level of knowledge of the applicable standards or of trade expertise as the employer it has retained.

If you host employees of another business, dig deeper to examine the extent of your obligations under OSHA. Your duties may not be the same as for your own employees, but you may still have important responsibilities when it comes to maintaining a safe worksite.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Be Kind, Rewind: Here’s Why the Browning-Ferris Joint Employment Standard Is Going to Be Reversed

AF6DB19D-A636-4AB4-BFA8-7D592D57137FRemember when you used to go to the video store to rent VHS tapes and there was that little sticker on the tape cheerfully reminding you to “Be kind! Rewind!”  I know, half of you have no idea what I am talking about, but there used to be these things for watching movies before Netflix — no, not DVDs, before that — no, no, not cave drawings, after that.

Anyway, take my word for it. The point was, when you were done with your movie, you were supposed to rewind the tape so the next viewer could start over, back at the beginning of the film. It was the courteous thing to do.

With last week’s confirmation of Peter Robb as the new General Counsel of the NLRB, the pieces are now in place for a rewind of the 2015 Browning-Ferris joint employment decision, which made it much easier under federal labor law to find joint employment. The 2015 decision changed the standard so that indirect and tangential control was sufficient to establish a joint employment relationship, rather than the previous standard requiring a more direct exercise of control.

The changed standard was a product of two factors: (1) a majority-Democratic, pro-union NLRB, and (2) a Democratic, pro-union NLRB General Counsel. A few weeks ago, the NLRB was reconstituted to bring back a Republican majority. Last week, a new General Counsel was confirmed. To overstate how this works, the General Counsel decides which cases to bring to the Board. The Board then decides those cases.

With these two recent developments, it’s almost time to Be Kind (to Businesses) and Rewind, back to the pre-2015 joint employment standard.

It will take some time, but it now seems almost inevitable that at some point during the next couple of years, the right case will be brought to the Board (courtesy of Mr. Robb), and the new Republican-majority Board will vacate the 2015 standard and return to the requirement that direct control must be shown before a business can be deemed a joint employer under federal labor law.

It’s too early right now for businesses to disregard Browning-Ferris. For now, it’s still the law, and Administrative Law Judges are likely to follow it (although that too may change, with the Browning-Ferris decision currently on appeal).

Anyway, stay tuned for further developments. And meanwhile, please fix the blinking green “12:00” on the face of your VCR.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Don’t Wear Pajamas to Work: Be Careful Using “Statutory Minimum” Workers Comp Clauses in Subcontractor Agreements

Pajamas - Independent Contractor Agreements and Workers Compensation ClausesHave you ever had the dream where you show up at work or school in your pajamas or underwear? You’re exposed and embarrassed in the dream, and you can’t figure out why you forgot to put on regular clothes, right? (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s had this dream. Please?)

You may be living this dream inadvertently in your vendor or subcontractor agreements. (And this is not what people mean when they say, “I’m living the dream!”)

Here’s the problem:

It’s commonplace in vendor and subcontractor agreements to include a section requiring insurance. You might require $1 million in commercial liability coverage, for example. Insurance clauses usually (and should) require the vendor or subcontractor to carry workers’ compensation coverage too. But sometimes these clauses are written in a way that may leave you exposed. Here’s an example:

“Subcontractor agrees to provide workers’ compensation coverage to its workers in the minimum amount required by law.”

You’re good, right? Depends on the state — and the circumstances.

The “minimum amount required by law” may be none.

First, if the worker retained by your vendor or subcontractor is its independent contractor (and not its employee), then there is probably no coverage required at all. State laws impose standards for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee, but usually there is no requirement to provide any coverage to a true independent contractor.

Second, even if the worker is your vendor’s employee, the “minimum amount required by law” in the state might be none:

In Texas, for example, workers’ compensation coverage is generally optional. The minimum amount required by law is none.

Several states do not require employers to carry coverage unless they have a minimum number of employees. According to this chart from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), an advocacy organization for small businesses, the following states require employers to provide workers’ compensation coverage only if they have at least this number of employees:

VA – required if 2 or more
GA, NC, WI – required if 3 or more
RI, SC – required if 4 or more
MS, MO – required if 5 or more

Some states have different requirements for construction and non-construction businesses:

NM – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 3 or more
FL – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 4 or more
TN – construction: required if 1 or more; non-construction: required if 5 or more

In some states, such as Ohio and New York, workers’ compensation might not be required for sole proprietors who have no employees other than themselves.

So what does all this mean for your agreements?

1. Depending on how your contract is written, you might be wearing pajamas to work. In other words, your agreement might leave you exposed, inadvertently, since the minimum amount of required workers’ compensation coverage for your vendor or subcontractor’s employees might be “none.”

2. Please don’t rely on the thresholds I have listed above. I have not examined the workers’ compensation laws state-by-state and I am merely listing state law summaries from the web. I have not checked these for accuracy. Check the laws in your state and check with legal counsel.

The point here is that the state-minimum required amount of coverage might be “none.” Things can go south for your business in a hurry if your vendor or subcontractor has insufficient coverage. If one of their workers is severely injured, the worker may bring a lawsuit against your business as an alleged joint employer. If the injury is severe enough and there is no workers’ compensation coverage, liability could be in the millions.

Keep this risk in mind when drafting the insurance sections of your vendor and subcontractor agreements. Draft carefully, and be sure you are fully covered.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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

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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!

The bill continues to gain momentum. On October 4, in celebration of  International Toot Your Flute Day, a House committee voted to advance the bill to a vote by the full House.

The business community has been active and vocal in supporting its passage. On October 26 (National Mincemeat Day!), as part of a coordinated effort by the International Franchise Association, franchise owners from 19 states sent letters to Congressional leaders urging passage of the Act. Other coordinated campaigns in support of the Act have been organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), National Waste and Recycling Association, and other pro-business groups.

On October 27, the Congressional Budget Office issued its report on the Act, finding that the Act would not affect direct spending, revenues, or the federal budget.

Chances of passage in the House appear strong, but no floor vote is scheduled. Businesses should follow the status of this bill, which may have profound effects on federal interpretation of the joint employment doctrine.

If the bill passes, businesses might join Mike Myers in celebration, proclaiming “Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!

[Update 11/8/17:  The House of Representatives approved the bill yesterday by a vote of  242-181, with 8 Democrats voting yes. Passage in the Senate, however, will be far more difficult.]

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Would You Like Some Pepperoni with Your (Oops) Joint Employment?

Joint employment pizza 31E83EC5-E554-428A-A5D6-37F13905C3B9According to pizza.com, “There are approximately 61,269 pizzerias in the United States.” That number seems pretty precise to me, not an approximation, but who am I to question something I read on the internet?

Approximately 4 of the 61,269 pizzerias are owned by a New Yorker named Paola P., who runs each of the 4 under a different LLC. Paola’s employees can be assigned to any of the 4 pizzerias on their workdays. Seems boring so far, but stay with me. Now say this three times fast:

Paola’s practice prompted problems since Paola P’s pizzerias were impermissibly positioning personnel to prevent paying overtime. 

Pity.

Workers were being assigned to work roughly 50 hours a week, but they would work at two or three locations, less than 40 hours at each site. They received paychecks from the various LLCs (remember, each pizzeria was run as a separate company), which by itself is ok, but Paola’s mistake was that she failed to aggregate the hours from the 4 locations and failed to pay overtime when any individual exceeded 40 hours of total work.

Because the pizzerias shared ownership, management, and commingled employees, the workers were considered joint employees of the four companies. For those keeping score at home, that’s what we call “horizontal joint employment.”

Paola’s companies were liable for failure to pay overtime to each worker in any week when an employee worked more than 40 hours in the aggregate, even if no worker reached 40 hours at any individual location.

A federal court determined that the violation was flagrant and imposed the three-year statute of limitations, instead of the ordinary two-year statute.

This was a $360,000 mistake, half of which was for liquidated (double) damages.

According to our friends at Guinness, the world’s most expensive pizza can be ordered for $2,700 at Industry Kitchen in New York. This magical pie contains stilton (it’s a cheese, I had to look it up too), foie gras, caviar, truffle, and 24K gold leaves. Paola could have ordered 133 of these and still had some money left for dessert.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NLRB Shifts to Republican Majority; Change in Joint Employment Doctrine Is Likely

NLRB joint employment william emanuelWatching the National Labor Relations Board is like riding a see-saw (a very slow one, and not a very fun one, but stay with me here).

Board members serve five-year terms and, when they expire, the President has the right to appoint a successor, with confirmation by the Senate. Predictably, under Democratic administrations, the Board tips toward union workers’ rights, and under Republican administrations, the Board tips toward protecting businesses.

With the late September confirmation of William Emanuel to the Board’s fifth (and tie-breaking) seat, the see-saw tipped back toward the side of protecting businesses.

Emanuel joins the Board from a defense firm that represents many large companies in labor disputes. Firms that represent companies in labor disputes typically do not also represent employees because doing so would create philosophical conflicts between the firm’s clients. You’d be arguing to interpret the law one way for an employee client, then another way for an employer client. Emanuel’s background therefore, has been pro-business.

As I wrote here, that background caused several Democrats to express concern. It was little surprise, then, that he was confirmed by a partisan vote of 49-47, winning by a safety when the Democratic quarterback was sacked in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.

Emanuel joins Republicans Philip Miscimarra and Marvin Kaplan, giving Republicans a 3-2 majority on the Board for the first time in almost 10 years.

The Board does not decide which cases to bring. The NLRB General Counsel does that. But the Board acts as the main decision-making body for labor law disputes, with its decisions appealable to the U.S. Courts of Appeal.

One of the Board’s most controversial decisions in the past five years was the Browning-Ferris decision in 2015, which drastically lowered the bar for finding joint employment in a relationship. You know those playground monkey bars you used to have to jump to reach? The Board lowered those to knee level. You’d have to limbo to get under them. They are no fun to play on. Under the new standard, a business can be a joint employer even if it exerts only indirect and minimal control. You can read more about that decision here.

The Browning-Ferris case is currently under appeal in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. It might be affirmed, might be reversed. But here’s what you should remember: The NLRB tends not to follow the rulings of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. The NLRB’s decisions cover all 50 states, but each Court of Appeals covers only a handful of states, and so its rulings do not have widespread reach.

So no matter what the Court of Appeals does in Browning-Ferris, the NLRB is likely to continue to apply the standard it wants to apply. Under the Obama Board, that standard was to lower the monkey bars to your knees. Under the new Board, the standard for finding joint employment is expected to be raised back up to the point where you can swing freely from bar to bar without your feet ever touching the mulch below. The new Board is likely to re-establish the old joint employment standard, in which more direct control over workers is required for a finding of joint employment under federal labor law.

This change won’t happen right away. It may be a while before the right case gets to the new Board and the new Board has the opportunity to change course. But it is expected to happen.

Employers concerned about being tagged as joint employers for labor law purposes should remain cautious and continue to follow developments. Even if the labor law standard changes, though, there are still different tests for joint employment under different laws, so a change will have limited effect. For now, the indirect Browning-Ferris standard remains in place, but probably not for too much longer.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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