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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Are Santa’s Elves Employees or Independent Contractors?

elves independent contractors or employeesFor roughly 200 years, Santa has been retaining seasonal help at his Arctic Circle workshop. His undersized non-union workers toil in an icy land that sits beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. employment laws, a wise move by Mr. Claus and his attorneys.

While children around the world ask silly questions like, Can I visit the elves? and What do elves eat? and How do they work so fast?this blog asks the serious question that all adult businesspeople want to know: Are elves employees or independent contractors?

Spoiler alert for the children: The answers are No, Caribou, and Amphetamines.

The adult question takes some analysis. Let’s peek behind the wintry curtain.

We know the elves are seasonal workers. The last few months of every year, they work their tiny asses off, manufacturing a few billion toys in a well-hidden workshop. Some small businesses make the mistake of thinking that short-term work means the worker can be classified as an independent contractor, but employment can be short-term too. If the other facts show control, economic reliance, etc., the elves will be employees. Doesn’t matter if the elves go back on the dole every January 1 for lack of work.

What about control? We know Santa gets a long list of demands from children, and many of these are detailed. Kids aren’t making vague requests for any old cell phone. They want the iPhone X with 256 GB of storage and an unlimited data plan. Santa needs to make sure the toys are build to spec. The elves cannot freestyle here. Santa supervises his staff, maintaining the right to control how they do their work.

Looking at other factors in the Right to Control Test, it’s really not a close call. The elves are told where to work (at Santa’s 10 billion sf workshop), when to work (23 hours a day, plus one hour in the yard for exercise), and they’re monitored every step of the way (little known fact: Mrs. C spends most of December knitting in front of a wall of security monitors). If Pete the Elf puts the wrong wheel on Little Johnny’s tricycle, you think Santa would stand for that? Heck no. The elves have no discretion. They work hard and are closely monitored. The only reason Santa’s workshop is not considered a sweatshop is that it’s in the Arctic.

Fortunately for the jolly taskmaster, U.S. wage and hour law doesn’t apply to enterprises at the earth’s geographic poles. Elves would surely be considered employees, not independent contractors, if the Fair Labor Standards Act applied. The Economic Realities Test determines whether elves are employees or contractors for minimum wage and overtime law, and this is an easy call. Elves are economically reliant on St. Nick to earn a living. You don’t see elves earning extra cash selling rasta beads at Jamaican resorts in February, do you? No. Elves earn all their green making toys up north.

Elves are employees, not independent contractors, even though they perform all their work in a few short months. The rest of the year they drink tiny cocktails and surf tiny waves in the tropics.

© 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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Why I Can’t Give You a Template Independent Contractor Agreement

Independent contractor vs employee template independent contractor agreement - generic independent contractor agreement - IMG_1112I am often asked for a sample Independent Contractor Agreement. I do a lot of work in this area, so I should have plenty, right? Well, sure, I have drafted dozens, but they won’t do you much good.

A generic Independent Contractor Agreement that includes a few boilerplate recitals is of little value. A generic agreement probably says something like, “We all agree that you’re an independent contractor and not an employee. We won’t pay employment taxes for you. We’re not paying into your Social Security account or providing you workers’ comp or unemployment coverage. We’re not giving you benefits. You’re lucky if we let you breathe the air in our building. No, you know what, bring your own oxygen tank. You can’t use our air. You agree to all of this and you’ll like it. And Thank you sir, may I have another?

As discussed here, applying the wisdom of a Dave Mason song, merely agreeing to be classified as an independent contractor doesn’t mean the worker is one. The determination of Independent Contractor vs. Employee is based on the facts, not what the parties agree. Remember: You can’t just agree to not to follow tax law, employment law, and employee benefit law. If the facts say the worker is an employee, then the worker is an employee — no matter what the agreement says.

So why even have an Independent Contractor Agreement?

Lots of reasons — if it’s customized to fit the facts of the relationship. Use the contract to highlight the facts that support independent contractor status. When drafting a meaningful Independent Contractor Agreement, consider the tests that might be applied to determine if the worker is really an employee or an independent contractor. These include Right to Control Tests, Economic Realities Tests, and ABC Tests, among others.

If the worker determines when and where to do the work, what days to do the work, whether to hire helpers, what equipment to use, etc., those are all facts that support independent contractor status. Put that in the agreement!

Or better yet, if you do not intend to exercise control over those decisions, don’t just write in the Agreement that the contractor gets to decide these things. Write that the business has no right to control these things. It’s a “Right to Control” Test you need to be concerned about. There is no “Exercise of Control” Test.

Independent Contractor Agreements can be helpful in memorializing a legitimate independent contractor relationship and can be valuable evidence in a hearing or trial if the worker’s status as an independent contractor is challenged. But they are helpful only if they are customized to fit the facts of the relationship.

Generic recitations of independent contractor status are of little value. They’re the Canadian pennies of the contract world. Make your Independent Contractor Agreement work for you.

© 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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Court Serves Up Reminder that Contractors Can Be Properly Classified and Misclassified – At The Same Time.

elephant-reminder pennsylvania court joint employment joint empoyer construction workplace misclassification act

A recurring theme in this blog has been that when trying to determine Who Is My Employee?, there are different tests under different laws. Different tests can yield different results.

A recent court decision from Pennsylvania emphasizes this point. In the Keystone State (proud home of Dunder Mifflin and Hershey Park), contruction workers are considered employees for workers compensation purposes unless they (i) have a written contract, (ii) have a place of business separate from their general contractor’s site, and (iii) have liability insurance of at least $50,000. This strict test is courtesy of the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (CWMA), an Act whose name shows a disappointing lack of creativity.

I might have gone with “Construction Occupation Workers’ Act Regarding Designations In Classifying Employees” (COWARDICE) or “Law About Misclassifying Employees” (LAME) or, if I was hungry for shellfish, then maybe “Construction Law About Misclassification for Builders And Keeping Employees Safe” (CLAMBAKES).

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, that whack-a-doodle misclassification test for construction workers. As my loyal readers know, that’s not even close to the tests used for determining Employee vs. Independent Contractor under most other laws. Other more common tests, like Right to Control Tests or Economic Realities Tests, rely on entirely different factors and weigh them, rather than requiring three specific factors to be met.

The court noted that the CWMA test was very different from the common law test and that the result under one test was not necessarily going to lead to the same result under the other test.

So remember, the task of deciding whether a worker is misclassified is hard and no fun. The task of writing names for laws, however, should be embraced with joy and creativity.

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

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Consultants Can Take Steps to Avoid Joint Employer Liability

Joint employer ;liability management companiy consultant IMG_1097Companies in distress sometimes retain management consultants to try to turn them around. Sometimes the plan works, sometimes not. When the turnaround effort fails and the company shuts down, can the management company be held liable as a joint employer?

This issue arose recently in a WARN Act case. The federal WARN Act requires an employer, before ordering a plant shutdown or mass layoff, to provide 60 days’ notice and pay to its employees.

Here’s what happened. A nursing home with multiple Medicare and Medicaid violations retained a consulting firm to try to solve its many problems. The consulting firm resolved most of the issues, but one sticky wicket remained, and the nursing home abruptly decided to shut down. The home did not provide the 60 days of notice required under the WARN Act, and its employees filed suit, seeking 60 days of pay.

Because the nursing home was bankrupt, however, the employee also sued the management company, arguing that it was a joint employer and therefore shared responsibility under the WARN Act to ensure that employees received 60 days’ notice and pay before the shutdown.

Can a management company be liable when its client orders a plant shutdown without providing sufficient WARN Act notice? In theory, yes. In this case, no.

The answer in this case turned on an analysis of five factors, which seek to determine whether two companies are either a single common employer or joint employers. Either conclusion would have made the management company jointly liable for the WARN Act violation.

The five factors that would suggest joint liability are:

  • common ownership
  • common directors and/or officers
  • de facto exercise of control
  • unity of personnel policies emanating from a common source
  • the dependency of operation

Other factors may be considered too, and the test is a balancing test. There is no set number of factors that must be satisfied. These factors are listed in the WARN Act regulations. Notably, these are different factors than those used in joint employment tests under various other statutes.

The court ruled that the management company was not jointly liable because (a) it was sufficiently distinct from the nursing home, and (b) it did not exercise enough control over the nursing home’s employees and policies. The court also noted that the management company did not “order” the closing of the nursing home and, under the language of the WARN Act, that was another factor weighing against joint liability.

The lesson here for management companies or consultants is to remember the potential for joint employment liability.

Tip: Management companies wishing to limit their exposure to joint employment claims should try to avoid exercising direct control over its clients’ employees and policies. Instead, make recommendations and have the client/employer adopt and implement those recommendations.

Contract language can also be used to protect the management company. A contract can clarify that the management company can only make recommendations relating to the client’s policies, practices, and employees; but ultimately, all decisions are to be made by the client/employer.

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

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