What is the Test for Joint Employment? It Depends.

Joint employment together

There are lots of ways to be together. Some are good, some less good.

Let’s compare:

  • By the end of the movie Grease, the graduates of Rydell High have decided that they “go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.” That, I think, is supposed to mean good.
  • In The Fox and Hound 2, a direct-to-video DisneyToon generally rated as “not terrible,” our four-legged heroes sing that they “go together like wet dog and smelly peanut butter jelly fleas on my belly.” That sounds less good.

In employment law, being together can be good or bad, depending on your perspective.

When a company retains someone else’s employees to perform work, it sometimes becomes necessary to decide whether the first company is a “joint employer” of the second company’s employees. Being a joint employer is not illegal, but it means that if the primary employer violates employment laws, a “joint employer” is liable too — even if it wasn’t primarily responisble for the unlawful act.

The test for joint employment varies depending on which law was violated and depending on the state you’re in. (Here’s a map that illustrates the madness.) For example…

In this post we discussed how you determine if someone is a joint employer under federal wage and hour law (the Fair Labor Standards Act) (FLSA).

In these posts, we discussed how you currently determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act) (NLRA). In this post, we discuss how and when that test is likely to change.

In today’s post, we’ll examine how you determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal employment discrimination and breach of contract law. For these laws, the test for joint employment looks to the common law of agency.

A recent decision by the federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reminds us that different tests apply to different laws. Applying the joint employment test for FLSA claims, the trial court had ruled that a citrus grower was the joint employer of migrant workers after the primary employer who hired them did not properly pay them.  (The farm-labor contractor who hired them allegedly demanded kickbacks from the migrant workers’ wages under threat of deportation. Today’s Tip: Don’t do that.)

The migrant workers had another claim too. They alleged breach of contract under federal law (the contract was part of the federal visa process), and it tried to sue both the farm-labor contractor who was demanding the kickbacks and the citrus grower at whose fields they picked delicious fruit.

For the breach of contract claim, the Court of Appeals ruled that the proper way to determine whether someone is a joint employer is to use a Right to Control Test.

There are different versions of Right to Control Tests, but they all try to determine whether a hiring party retains the right to control how the work is performed. If the answer is “yes they do,” then the hiring party is a joint employer under that law. If the answer is “no they don’t, they care about the achieving the result but not how the work is performed,” then the hiring party is not a joint employer.

This Court of Appeals decided that there are 7 factors that should be used to determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal breach of contract law. (The same test would generally apply to federal employment discrimination claims.) State laws may differ. Here are the 7 factors that this court used to determine whether someone is a joint employer under federal breach of contract law:

1. Does the alleged joint employer have the right to control how the work is performed?
2. Does the alleged joint employer provides the tools?
3. Is the work being performed at the worksite of the alleged joint employer?
4. Does the alleged joint employer provide employee benefits?
5. Does the alleged joint employer have the right to assign additional work?
6. Does the alleged joint employer have discretion over when and how long the workers work?
7. Is the work being performed a part of the alleged joint employer’s regular business?

In this case, applying the 7 factors, the Court of Appeals ruled that the citrus grower did not exert much control and therefore was not a joint employer for the breach of contract claim — even though it was a joint employer for the FLSA claim. (The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test, not a Right to Control Test, to determine whether someone is an employer.) That’s right — different tests, different results.

The citrus grower did not want to be a joint employer because it was not part of the alleged kickback scheme and did not want to be held jointly responsible. Nonetheless, it was found to be a joint employer under the FLSA but not under the breach of contract claim. Confusing stuff.

When making music, being together seems so much simpler, although much more prone to nonsense words. Just ask the Turtles, who in 1969 were “so happy together Ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba.”

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

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