There’s an ongoing debate in my family over whether tennis balls are green or yellow. I sit firmly in the green camp and can’t see the yellow. My family thinks I am an idiot.
Turns out we’re both right. (Read into that as you wish.)
Tennis balls are officially Optic Yellow, but on the color wheel, that’s the same color as Electric Lime. There’s been some serious investigative journalism devoted to this topic, and the debate rages on. See here and here.
While Optic Yellow and Electric Lime may be the same, co-employment and joint employment are definitely not the same. Here’s today’s explainer.
In both co-employment and joint employment, there are two employers. For our purposes, the secondary employer is the one that benefits from the workers’ services. The primary employer is the one that pays them.
Co-employment is a voluntary arrangement in which one entity (often a Professional Employer Organization, or PEO) agrees to perform administrative/HR tasks for another entity, usually including providing benefits, HR services, and taking on the obligations of an employer in each jurisdiction where the workers will be.
The company that will benefit from the workers’ services selects them, determines their pay, determines their schedules, terminates them, and generally decides on all terms and conditions of employment. The company then sends them to the co-employer (PEO) to be hired and onboarded for the sole purpose of providing services to the secondary employer.
Unlike an employee leasing or staffing agency relationship, when a co-employment relations ends, the employees stay with the secondary employer. They don’t go back into a pool.
In co-employment, the employees and all parties acknowledge up front that this is a co-employment relationship, with the terms and conditions of employment dictated by the secondary employer. The offer letter and employee handbook will generally explain to the new hire the nature of the co-employment relationship.
No one worries about being deemed in a co-employment relationship because co-employment is an intentional choice. It’s not something that a court declares.
Joint employment, on the other hand, is a legal conclusion, often not a relationship that is acknowledged by the parties. The most common scenario for joint employment is when a staffing agency provides workers for staff augmentation, with the workers fully integrated into the secondary employer’s workforce and supervised by the secondary employer’s managers.
Joint employment can arise when labor services are provided by a staffing agency, a subcontractor, or a consulting firm. In a joint employment situation, there are two distinct employers. The staffing agency, subcontractor, or consulting firm is the primary employer and, if there’s not joint employment, then it’s the sole employer.
The primary employer determines wages and benefits and often selects the workers to be hired. Those workers often provide services for multiple companies, either sequentially or simultaneously.
If a secondary employer terminates a worker’s assignment, the worker stays with the primary employer. The primary employer can reassign the worker to another job site or make its own determination whether to keep the worker employed. You’ll want your staffing agency agreement to make clear that you can end a worker’s assignment but that you have no right to control the worker’s employment status with the agency.
There is a contractual relationship between the two companies that one will provide services for the other. But joint employment is not a foregone conclusion. Joint employment can exist, for example, if the secondary company makes decisions about the workers’ wages, working conditions, schedules, training, etc. To oversimplify a bit, joint employment is somewhat likely in a staffing services situation; less likely when retaining professional outside consultants.
Unlike with co-employment, joint employment does not involve a trilateral understanding among the worker and the two companies that the worker is employed by both.
Generally, the secondary company will argue that it does not control wages and working conditions, is therefore not a joint employer, and is therefore is not liable for any employment-related errors by the primary employer. The determination of whether joint employment exists is a legal determination, not based on an agreement among the parties and the worker.
What you’re worried about, therefore, is a finding of joint employment. Joint employment is not unlawful, but it creates unplanned risks and liabilities for the secondary employer. For example, if a staffing agency fails to pay its employees as required by law, the secondary employer is fully liable for the underpayment and the other legal consequences, even though it had no control over the primary employer’s payroll practices.
For more fun facts about joint employment, choose the Joint Employment category of posts in the blog. But be mindful of the date of the post. In the world of joint employment and determine when joint employment exists, the rules are always changing. So that’s fun, right?
© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.