Backfired? New Ruling May Threaten NLRB’s Proposed Rule on Joint Employment

Joint employment bagpipe

The word “backfire” derives from the grooming practices of 15th century Scottish noblemen, who grew beautiful long fiery-red flowing back hair, which they brushed and braided into elaborate patterns, including the “Haggis Flow” and the “Scotch Tape.” Ok, not really. Efforts to rewrite history and change definitions can sometimes fall short of the mark.

The NLRB’s grand strategy for rewriting the definition of joint employment may have just backfired. A Court of Appeals decision issued late last week may jeopardize the Board’s rulemaking authority, even though that was not the issue before the Court.

Before we dive into the December 28, 2018 ruling, here is a quick refresher on how we got here:

  • In 2015, the Democratic-majority Board adopted a vastly expanded definition of joint employment, allowing a business to be deemed a joint employer (1) even if it did not control working conditions but merely retained the right to do so, or did so indirectly, such as through third party subcontracting, and (2) even if the working conditions that could be controlled were non-essential working conditions, not just the key terms and conditions like hiring, firing, and disciplining. This was the Browning-Ferris decision.
  • In early 2018, the newly constituted Republican Board tried to reverse its 2015 Browning-Ferris decision in a case called Hy-Brand, in which the Board enacted a much narrower, pro-business definition of joint employment, requiring direct and immediate control over essential terms and conditions of employment before a company could be deemed a joint employer.
  • Several weeks later, however, the Board reversed itself and rescinded the Hy-Brand decision after conflict of interest questions arose relating to one of the board members (Member Emanuel) who decided Hy-Brand. When the Board rescinded its Hy-Brand decision, the effect was to re-establish the expansive 2015 Browning-Ferris test as the operative definition of joint employer.
  • In light of its failed effort in Hy-Brand, the Board then chose to pursue a two-step Plan B for overruling Browning-Ferris and for narrowing the definition of joint employment.
  • Step 1 would be to enact a new regulation, creating a narrower definition of joint employment that would, in effect, overrule Browning-Ferris prospectively. That process is ongoing. Step 2 was to ask the D.C. Court of Appeals to reopen the otherwise mothballed appeal of the Board’s 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris, which adopted the current broad definition of joint employment.
  • In Step 2, the Board expected the Court of Appeals to find that the 2015 Browning-Ferris decision was an overreach and that the vastly expanded definition of joint employment could not survive. That ruling would have nicely positioned the Board to roll out its new regulation, which would substantially narrow the definition of joint employment, as it tried to do in the Hy-Brand case.

That brings us to this past Friday’s decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (Dec. 28, 2018) and the real meaning of the word “backfire.” Step 2 did not go the way the NLRB had planned.

The Court of Appeals’ Ruling and Its Effect on Joint Employment

According to the 2-1 majority opinion, the question of whether there is a joint employment relationship under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) must be answered by applying the common law test for whether there exists an “agency” relationship.  The Board has no special expertise relevant to defining the common law of agency. Therefore, according to the Court of Appeals, the Board is awarded no deference in this area. In other words, the Board does not have the right to define or redefine joint employment in a way that would be inconsistent with the common law meaning of “agency.”

The Court of Appeals said that the Board’s 2015 ruling in Browning-Ferris — that indirect or reserved control can be considered when determining whether a joint employment relationship exists — was appropriate because it is consistent with the common law of agency.  Under the common law, it is the right to control that matters, even if that control is not exercised. In fact, the Court of Appeals concluded that Board has no authority to prohibit the consideration of indirect or reserved control when evaluating whether there is joint employment. (That’s what the Board is currently trying to do through rulemaking.)  The reason the Board cannot prohibit consideration of indirect or reserved control is that the common law definition of agency examines whether an entity has the right to control how work is performed, regardless of whether that control is exercised. This last point is important for reasons that the D.C. Court of Appeals was not directly addressing. That point — if it hold true — would cast doubt on the Board’s ability to implement its proposed new regulation. The regulation would require a showing of direct and immediate control (not merely indirect or reserved control) before joint employment can be found.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals did not, however, give the Board’s 2015 Browning-Ferris ruling its full backing. Where the Browning-Ferris ruling went wrong, according to the Court of Appeals, was in allowing the consideration of indirect or reserved control over non-essential terms and conditions of employment.  The common law agency test requires control (or indirect or reserved control) over essential terms and conditions of employment (e.g., hiring, firing, disciplining).  The Court therefore ruled that the Board lacks authority to change that definition in a way that make a business a joint employer merely by entering into a standard subcontracting or staffing agency agreement. All such relationships involve some level of control over non-essential working terms, such as defining the type of work to be done by the subcontractor or staffing agency workers and dictating the desired result.

The 2015 Browning-Ferris case is now being remanded back to the Board to take another shot at it. That would be fine and dandy with the now-Republican-majority Board, except for the fact that the Board may now be impotent to make a meaningful pro-business change in this case, since Member Emanuel might be precluded from participating in the decision due to Littler’s representation of Leadpoint, the staffing agency in the Browning-Ferris dispute (or maybe he is not precluded now, since the one-year conflicts period has now lapsed). Member Emanuel was a shareholder in the Littler firm before his appointment to the Board in September 2017. Further complicating the possible recusal issue is the fact that Trump required his appointees to sign an Ethics Pledge that provided a two-year conflict of interest period, rather than the standard one-year period.

The most lasting effect of this Court of Appeals decision is likely to be that it calls into question whether the Board can, through rulemaking, redefine joint employment in a way that eliminates consideration of indirect or reserved control by a putative joint employer.  If the definition of joint employment under the NLRA is determined by the common law of agency, and the Board — according to this Court of Appeals — lacks the expertise to interpret the common law of agency, then the Board would lack authority to change the definition in the way it proposes.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, it may be that this decision has no lasting impact at all on the definition of joint employment under the NLRA. This was a 2-1 decision by U.S. Court of Appeals, not by the U.S. Supreme Court. The two judges in the majority were Obama appointees. The full D.C. Circuit could be asked to reconsider the issue in an en banc proceeding.  Or the matter could go to the Supreme Court (which seems unlikely).

Or, if past practice is any indicator of future behavior, the Board might just ignore the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, on the basis that there are 12 Circuit Courts and they often disagree. The Board is required to follow rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it often ignores legal opinions issued by the individual Courts of Appeal. The Board must, of course, follow the D.C. Court of Appeals’ ruling as it relates to this particular dispute, but it will not necessarily take the Court of Appeals’ broader rulings as controlling authority on what the Board can or cannot do.

So where are we?

We’ll see. But two things are certain.  First, the definition of joint employment will continue to evolve; and second, the definition of backfire has nothing to do with Scottish nobleman or their back hair.

And at the end of the day, joint employment continues to be a messy, messy situation.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Disco Meets “Permanent Temps”: NLRB Decides a New Joint Employment Issue

disco-297670__480On New Year’s Eve, Sister Sledge will be playing at the Seminole Casino in Coconut Creek, Florida. (You can buy tickets here.  You’re welcome.) The sisters will, of course, play the 1979 single, “We Are Family,” which is a disco song that it’s ok to admit you like. I don’t know what else they’ll play though.  It could be a long night.

“We Are Family” is also what happens when a company retains staffing agency temps for so long that they become, in that company’s words, “permanent temps.” It’s joint employment deluxe.

A recent decision by the NLRB examines what happens when a joint employer fails to apply a collective bargaining agreement to those “permanent temps.”

Orchid Paper Products Company in Pryor, Oklahoma, produces — wait for it — paper products. Their workforce is unionized and they make frequent use of staffing agency temps. The temps frequently remain on-site for long periods of time, at which point they acquire the status of “permanent temps.”

These workers are supervised and controlled by Orchid Paper, even though they are paid by their staffing firm. The Board found that under any test — Browning-Ferris or otherwise — they are joint employees.

One consequence of being a joint employee in a union environment is that the joint employer, Orchid Paper, has to follow the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as to those workers, even though they’re staffing agency workers. When Orchid Paper failed to follow the CBA as to those workers, it engaged in an unfair labor practice. So far, no big surprise.

The issue to be decided here, though, was the scope of the remedy that could be imposed.

As a result of an unfair labor practice, could the Board order a a remedy that held Orchid Paper to the entire CBA for its temps?

The Board said no, ruling that only certain parts of the CBA can be applied. In other words, “We Are Family, but Maybe Only Like Third Cousins.”

The Board ruled that an order intended to remedy an unfair labor practice had to be limited. The Board could only order the joint employer to apply the CBA provisions to the joint employees that related to the working conditions that Orchid Paper controlled.

My research in preparing this blog revealed that Sister Sledge, in fact, had two other Top 20 hits in 1979 — “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “Lost in Music.” Those of you who remember those two songs will thoroughly enjoy the New Year’s Eve Show. Bring your platform soles.

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

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Amazon Users (espec. Cindy, Amy & kris), Please Don’t Submit Comments On the NLRB’s Proposed Joint Employment Rule

Joint employment rule NLRB comment period extended

Amazon has a popular feature that allows users to post questions about a product, and then anyone can then post an answer. But is that really such a good idea?

Should literally anyone be allowed to post a comment? Allow me to introduce you to Cindy C., who recently purchased an ice machine and is (I think) trying to be helpful to others who are considering purchasing the same brand of ice machine:

PNG image

 

Thank you Cindy. Not a helpful comment. If you decide to try the extension cord, first get out of the bathtub. Otherwise, the next post containing your name could be here.

Then there’s Amy N., who has neither Alexa nor an ounce of common sense:

6B1055D9-4CEB-45B0-A880-D540798F108A

Thank you Amy N. It’s really nice to hear from you and, best of all, now I know what to get you for Christmas!

Then there’s my favorite user comment, courtesy of kris:

8FB1A0FA-0C54-43AE-B088-8911A3FF77A6

Dear kris, we didn’t think that you did. And we still don’t. Not this thing or any other thing. You may resume finger painting.

Amazon is not the only democratic institution that invites all living, breathing creatures to provide public comments.

As we’ve written here, the NLRB is pursuing the administrative rulemaking process to craft a new definition of “joint employment.” As part of that process, there is a public comment period, during which anyone (even kris) can post a comment about the proposed rule.

So far, there have been about 8,000 comments posted, many cribbed from a cut-and-paste pro-union comment drive that invites adherents to write, “Dear _, I strongly oppose….” Many other comments, fortunately, include well-considered and thoughtful opinions, both for and against the rule. It’s the thoughtful comments that are the most helpful, kris.

The NLRB has extended the comment period through January 14, 2019, with an additional reply period through January 22 in which people can reply to a previously posted comment.

If Amy N. asks, comments may only be submitted via Alexa.

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

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What does the NLRB’s Proposed New ‘Joint Employment’ Rule Mean for Businesses?

360 degrees joint employment NLRB new rule

True story. Late 1980s. Early days of fantasy baseball. One of my high school buddies — we’ll call him The Beast — finishes last but decides he’s ready to turn things around. The Beast stands up at the next year’s draft and announces his new team name, intending to show us that he’s about to reverse last year’s standings: 360 degrees.

No one had the guts to say it. Only later did someone tell him he probably meant 180 degrees. He finishes last again. The Beast no longer plays fantasy baseball but lives a comfortable life as a tax lawyer in Florida.

A complete turnaround may now be in the works when it comes to defining “joint employment.” Recent actions by the National Labor Relations Board signal an upcoming 180-degree shift.

Click here to read the rest of the story, recently published in Westlaw’s Journal Employment and Practitioner Insights.

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

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New Definition of Joint Employment Still Appears Likely, Despite Efforts to Smack NLRB Chair in Face with an Octopus

octopus kayaker seal joint employment NLRB nature-3262715_1920

When this kayaker was slapped in the face by an octopus wielded by a seal, he just laughed it off. It didn’t seem to hurt, and I guess that’s just a thing that seals sometimes do.

Q. Now, Lebowitz, how are you going to work that intro back into something related to joint employment?

A. Watch this!

Similarly, it didn’t take long after the NLRB proposed a new regulation that would redefine joint employment (see this post) for two prominent Democrats to try to octo-seal-slap the NLRB’s Chair into backing off. Not gonna happen. The Board will not abandon its kayak.

Last week, Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott sent a letter to Board Chair John Ring, arguing that there is “scant research or analysis” to support the Board’s call for a new joint employment standard. Um, so everything in the joint employment world has been peaches and cream? Heck, there’s so much uncertainty in the joint employment world right now that someone could devote a whole blog just to that topic!

In an effort to stall the rulemaking process, Murray and Scott asked the Board to extend the comment period on the proposed new rule by another 60 days (because no one saw this coming?) and demanded that the Board produce of all sorts of records relating to joint employment cases filed over the past several years. They also tried to re-raise concerns that there might be a conflict of interest affecting two of the three Republican Board members. The letter demanded the production of 21 categories of documents within 12 days, including asking for the name and case number of every joint employment case during the past six years fitting into various categories.

Let’s be realistic. This letter is basically outreach by Sen. Murray and Rep. Scott to labor unions, showing that they’ve got their back on the joint employment issue (to the detriment of businesses). I expect the letter will have no real effect on the process for rulemaking or on the timetable for adoption.

While few people may read that letter, the Go-Pro video of the seal smacking the kayaker in the face with an octopus has received a boatload of hits. I highly recommend watching. It is far more entertaining than this blog.

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

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Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment

Everyone knows that two’s company but three’s a crowd. Except, of course, for Three’s Company with Jack, Janet, and Chrissy (or Cindy or Terri). But how many of you recall that one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do? Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one. I know this because of Three Dog Night.

For musical tastes, the number four can mean Tops, Seasons, or Non Blondes.

But today’s number is FIVE.  Here are Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment.  (click here to download the PDF.)

Five things You Should Know About Joint employment - page 1 screenshot

Five things You Should Know About Joint employment - page 1 screenshot

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

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NLRB Proposes New Definition of Joint Employer; 60-Day Comment Period Starts Now

NLRB logoWhen seeking musical inspiration for a post on the NLRB’s joint employment standard, look no further than the Barenaked Ladies’ 1994 album, Maybe You Should Drive. Like an on-again, off-again relationship, the Board keeps changing its joint employment standard. Between 2015 and today, the test has been, at various times:

  • Direct control (pre-Browning-Ferris, 1984-2015),
  • Indirect control (Browning-Ferris, 2015-Dec. 2017),
  • Direct control (Hy-Brand overrules Browning-Ferris, Dec. 2017-Feb. 2018), and
  • Indirect control (Board vacates Hy-Brand, restoring Browning-Ferris, Feb 2018-present).

But with this newest change coming in the form of a proposed regulation, the proposed change can be expected, once it’s enacted, to remain in effect long term.

Cue the Barenaked Ladies, in “Everything Old Is New Again” (1994):

Everything old is new again, everything under the sun.

Now that I’m back with you again,

We hug and we kiss, we sit and make lists,

We drink and I bandage your wrists.

The proposed new standard would make it much more difficult to establish that a business is a joint employer.

The new test will help franchisors, who need to protect their brand and marks, but do not exercise day-to-day control over hiring and scheduling of a franchise owner’s employees. The new test will help businesses that subcontract labor and that want to ensure certain tasks are performed but do not exercise day-to-day control over how the work is performed or over how subcontractor hires, schedules, and supervises its employees.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released late last week, the NLRB proposes a new regulation to interpret the National Labor Relations Act. New 29 CFR §103.40,which would define joint employer.

Under the proposed regulation, an employer may be considered a joint employer of a separate employer’s employees only if the two employers share or codetermine the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, and direction. A putative joint employer must possess and actually exercise substantial direct and immediate control over the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment in a manner that is not limited and routine.

There’s a lot packed into that definition:

  • The proposed joint employer must share or codetermine the workers’ terms and conditions of  employment;
  • These terms have to be essential terms of employment, such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, and direction;
  • It is not enough to have the right to control these terms; the proposed joint employer must actually exercise this control;
  • The control must be direct, substantial, and immediate; and
  • It is not sufficient to exert control that is limited and routine.

“Limited and routine” control means directing another business’s employees as to what work to perform, or where and when to perform it. Under the new rule, that will not be enough to show joint employment. Control that is not “limited and routine” would include providing direction on how to do the work — in other words, supervision.

For those of you asking, “So what? Who cares?” (my parents, for example), here’s why the change matters.

Under the new rule, a business that retains another company to perform work but has no control over that company’s hiring, compensation, scheduling, or supervision:

  • Will no longer be obligated to collectively bargain with that other company’s unionized workers;
  • Will no longer be held jointly liable for that other company’s unfair labor practices; and
  • Will no longer be drawn into collective bargaining or unfair labor practice disputes with that other company’s employees.

It’s a big deal. Unions won’t like it since the new rule will reduce their influence, but the new rule is a common sense, pro-business proposal that will add predictability and certainty to economic and legal relationships.

So what’s next?

There is a now a 60-day period for comment. The Board will then have the opportunity to consider the comments and revise or reject the proposed rule.  The soonest the rule can be implemented is late 2018 but more likely early 2019.

Then, assuming the rule is implemented, we go back to the standard that existed before Browning-Ferris, but with a lot more clarity and permanence. Everything old is new again. But this time, the change should be long-term since it will be memorialized in a  federal regulation.

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

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