DOL Gets Aggressive with $5.6 Million Consent Judgment on Independent Contractor Misclassification

There’s an island in Quebec that’s larger in area than the lake in which it sits. René-Levasseur Island was supposedly formed by the impact of a meteorite 214 million years ago, although eyewitness accounts differ. The land mass became an island in 1970, when the Manicougan reservoir was flooded, merging two crescent shaped lakes that surrounded the area.

I like fun geography facts, and an island larger than the lake in which it sits is a fun fact. But feels a bit aggressive for the Canadians to merge two crescent shaped lakes to turn this land mass into an island. I’m sure they had their reasons. If nothing else, it looks good on a map.

The Department of Labor is also being aggressive, but they’re not flooding any reservoirs. Instead, they’re channeling their aggression toward independent contractor misclassification.

In a news release this month, the DOL announced that it had obtained a consent judgment for $5.6 million against a national auto parts distributor and an Arizona logistics firm for allegedly misclassifying 1,398 drivers as independent contractors. The award included back wages and liquidated damages.

The DOL had alleged that, by misclassifying the drivers, the companies failed to meet minimum wage requirements, failed to pay overtime rates, and failed to keep required timekeeping records. These failures each were violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The award covered an eight-year period between April 2012 and March 2020.

I see three takeaways here:

First, the DOL is being aggressive in filing lawsuits when it thinks independent contractors have been misclassified. This consent judgment shows how expensive these claims can be for companies that improperly classify workers. Companies using independent contractors needs to be proactive in evaluating their risks and taking steps to minimize those risks. There are lots of ways to reduce risk if you plan ahead, before you’ve been sued or investigated.

Second, this case is a reminder that companies who classify delivery drivers as independent contractors are at heightened risk. Federal and state agencies and the plaintiffs’ bar seem to be filing a disproportionate number of claims involving delivery drivers. If your business uses delivery drivers who are classified as independent contractors, you may be at an increased risk of an audit or lawsuit.

Third, remember the DOL’s proposed new rule for independent contractor classification under the FLSA? (Read more here, here, and here.) The DOL wants to change the current test for who is an employee under the FLSA, replacing a regulation adopted by the Trump Administration in 2020. But cases like this one show that the current regulation is not impairing the DOL’s ability to enforce what it perceives as misclassification. The DOL’s many recent successes — as posted in DOL news releases — show that the DOL is doing just fine under the current rule when it comes to misclassification enforcement. The new rule is a solution without a problem.

Large judgments like this one seem shocking, but they are a reminder of the substantial dangers of misclassification.

Learn more by joining me at the 10th Annual 2023 BakerHostetler Labor Relations and Employment Law Master Class, all virtual, one hour every Tuesday starting February 7, 2023. My program on Contingent Workforce issues will be on March 7, 2023. Registration is free.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When They Get Around To It: Update on the DOL’s Independent Contractor Rulemaking

In Denbighshire, Wales, the Howatson family lives in a small house that sits… wait for it… in the middle of a roundabout.

In the early 1980s, after the family had been in the house for 20 years, local authorities told them their property sat smack in the middle of where a roundabout was to be built. The family refused to sell, and they now have lovely 360-degree views of people driving around their house all day and night.

The Department of Labor is taking is a more direct approach in its effort to update the worker classification test under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But it’s a slow process, and it will be several more months before we see a final rule.

But this post will provide a status update. Long story short, we’ll see a new rule when the DOL gets around to it.

In October 2022, the DOL released its proposed new test for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The proposed rule generated more than 50,000 comments in response. I posted some initial reactions to the proposed rule in this article here.

The proposed rule identifies seven factors to consider when determining whether an independent contractor has been misclassified under the FLSA:

1. Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill;

2. Investments by the worker and the employer;

3. Degree of permanence of the work relationship;

4. Nature and degree of control;

5. Extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business;

6. Skill and initiative; and

7. Additional factors.

Under federal law, the rulemaking process involves three main steps. First, the agency posts a proposed new regulation. That’s what the DOL did in October.

Second, there is a public comment period, in which anyone can submit a comment to the DOL. The most effective comments tend to assist the agency in evaluating its proposed rule, such as explaining likely unintended consequences or identifying concerns with how it is written. Comments can also offer legal arguments as to why the agency’s proposed rule is not consistent with the law it is supposed to be interpreting.

Finally, after reviewing the comments, the agency will publish a final rule. The final rule might differ from the proposed rule, or it could be the same. Or the agency can jettison the proposed rule entirely and do nothing. Here that last option is unlikely. The DOL will almost certainly issue a new rule.

On December 13, I submitted a lengthy comment on behalf of Flex, the trade organization representing app-based rideshare and delivery platforms. The full comment is available here, and I thought it might be helpful to summarize the main points for this audience.

The comment included two parts.

Part One argues that the DOL should not abandon the current rule (the 2021 Rule), which was passed less than two years ago. The 2021 Rule was adopted after a thorough rulemaking process and comment period, and the rule was developed based on a detailed analysis by the DOL of decades of case law. The 2021 Rule focused on two core factors, rather than offering a multitude of factors that have no pre-assigned weight. The 2021 Rule offered more predictability for businesses and contractors, and predictability in the law is — to put it bluntly — good. A regulation should add clarity, and the 2021 Rule added clarity.

Part One also pointed out that the 2021 Rule had done little to damper the DOL’s efforts at combatting misclassification. The DOL has published a long list of successes in obtaining settlements and judgments in the last three months alone.

Abandoning the 2021 Rule would also be arbitrary and capricious, meaning it might not survive a legal challenge, and we urged the DOL not to make a change.

Part Two argues that even if the DOL decides to abandon the 2021 Rule, the proposed new rule needs some work. Part Two focused on seven aspects of the proposed new rule that the DOL should change.

The key thing to remember is that the DOL wants to go back to a multi-factor test. Multi-factor tests have been around for a long time, but the devil here is in the details. If you read the DOL’s description of each factor and how it should be applied, the DOL is putting its fingers on the scale, taking every close call (and some that aren’t close) and resolving them in favor of employee status.

I will list the seven arguments below to provide a general sense of the key points. But, since this is supposed to be a quick read format, I’m not going to wade into the details. You can read the full comment if you like.

From the Table of Contents to Part Two:

1) In Factor #1, the Commentary about “Managerial Skill” Should Be Deleted or Revised Because It Fails to Account for the Realities of 21st Century Work.

2) Factor #2 Should Be Substantially Revised to Remove Provisions That Are Illogical, Incompatible with Economic Realities, and Contrary to FLSA Case Law.

3) Factor #4 Should Remove the Commentary That Legally Required Control May Be Relevant Evidence of Control Because This Commentary Is Contrary to Controlling Case Law, Contrary to this Department’s Own Guidance, and Not Probative of the Economic Realities of a Relationship.

4) In Factor #4, Use of Technology to Supervise Should Not Be Referenced as a Relevant Control Factor.

5) Factor #5 Should Preserve the Current “Integrated Unit of Production” Analysis and Should Not Adopt a Flawed “Integral Part” Analysis That is Contrary to Case Law and Legally Unsupported.

6) Any Final Rule Should Preserve the Helpful Subregulatory Guidance in Fact Sheet #13, Clarifying That Certain Factors Are Not Relevant.

7) Any Final Rule Should Replace the Term “Employer” with “Principal” or a Similarly Neutral Term.

You can read the complete arguments here.

And now onto Step Three of the DOL’s rulemaking process. Last week, the Biden Administration published its overall regulatory agenda for 2023. It included a May 2023 placeholder for a proposed final rule. That’s just a best guess at this point, and with more than 50,000 comments for the DOL to review, the actual release date may be several months later. But the DOL, at least at present, appears prepared to move forward with a new rule to determine independent contractor vs. employee status under the FLSA.

We’ll continue to monitor developments, in a roundabout way.

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© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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But the Onions! DOL’s Contractor Rule May Cause Companies Heartburn

Have you ever gone to a new restaurant that took over the space where one of your favorite restaurants used to be?
 
You’ve been wanting to try the new restaurant. You get there and the menu looks similar, so you order the fettucine with shrimp because that dish was always really good at the old place. It arrives and it looks the same but you’re not sure that it tastes quite the same.
 
Maybe the sauce tastes a little different but it’s hard to tell for sure. Then, you get home later that night and you feel a little queasy. You realize that the new restaurant must have put onions in the sauce. You probably didn’t notice because when the dish was served it looked just like it did at the old restaurant.
 
But you’re not supposed to eat onions, and now you have to wait and see if you’re going to start cramping up from eating the onions or if you’re going to be just fine. You really just don’t know. It could just as easily go either way, and now all you can do is wait.
 
That’s kind of how I feel after reading the Department of Labor’s proposed new independent contractor rule, released earlier this week.

Click here to read the rest of the story, originally published in Law360 on 10/13/2022.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Garbage Bird? Don’t Get Poisoned By A Double Hit of Misclassification and Joint Employment

Photo: Benjamin Freeman/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

The natives of Papua New Guinea call the hooded pitohui a “garbage bird,” and they don’t eat it or touch it. As Westerners learned more recently, there’s a good reason for the islanders’ hostility.

The hooded pitohui is the first bird confirmed to be poisonous. The bird‘s feathers emit batrachotoxins, which causes numbness and burning in low concentrations. A heavier does can cause paralysis, cardiac arrest and death. In other words, there’s good reason for keeping the hooded pitohui off the menu.

Numbness and burning may also describe the impact of a recent DOL enforcement action on two contractors in Louisiana. They were dealt a double hit—the DOL found independent contractor misclassification and joint employment.

After an investigation, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division found that hundreds of painters and drywall workers had been misclassified as independent contractors. The company that retained the workers, PL Construction, failed to pay overtime and failed to maintain accurate time records, both violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Adding to the pain, the DOL found that a higher tier contractor, Lanehart, was the workers’ joint employer. That meant Lanehart was jointly liable for the violations—even though it had no control over PL Construction’s pay practices.

The DOL recovered more than $240,000 in overtime back wages for 306 workers.

There are several lessons here, both for companies that retain independent contractors directly and for higher tier contractors that engage subcontractors that use ICs.

1. The DOL considers independent contractor misclassification an enforcement priority. The agency is actively looking for violations.

2. The DOL publishes its wins. That means you can expect a press release naming and shaming your company if the DOL finds that there’s a practice of misclassifying workers. Have you heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? It’s not true.

3. Higher tier contractors are taking a risk if they put their head in the sand and disregard misclassification by their lower tier subs—especially if they plan to direct the work of the lower tier sub’s workers.

Here, the DOL found that Lanehart, the higher tier contractor, supervised PL’s workers and maintained records of who worked when. Lanehart’s supervision and direction made it a joint employer of PL’s workers. Under the FLSA, a joint employer is fully liable for wage and hour violations, even where it had no control over how the lower tier sub paid its workers.

4. A lawsuit is not the only way misclassification claims arise. Federal and state agencies can initiate investigations too. And while arbitration agreements with class action waivers can prevent class action litigation, they can’t stop a federal agency from pursuing claims on its own.

The DOL made its position pretty clear in its press release: “Our investigation shows the costly consequences employers face when they or their subcontractors fail to comply with the law. When we determine a joint employment relationship exists, the Wage and Hour Division will hold all responsible employers accountable for the violations.”

Misclassification hurts. Joint employment doubles the pain. The DOL can inflict an uncomfortable burning sensation, even without sending a a hooded pitohui your way.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Inedible Food: DOL Starts New Rulemaking Process to Toughen FLSA Independent Contractor Test

I saw this truck while driving home last week from my daughter’s college graduation. Now I’m no livestock dietician (I failed that course in law school), but this seems like the worst possible thing to feed your animals.

Whoever’s behind the labeling also needs some help with marketing. I know I wouldn’t buy that.

I’m also not buying the DOL’s recent announcement that it’s holding two public forums to help it decide what to do about a new independent contractor misclassification test. I think we all know what the DOL is going to do already.

The DOL will hold an Employer Forum on June 24, then a Worker Forum on June 29. Anyone can attend. RSVP links are here (6/24) and here (6/29).

After this charade open-minded exchange of viewpoints, the DOL will get to work preparing a new rule for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The current regulation, issued by the Trump DOL, refocuses the traditional Economic Realities Test inquiry on two core factors: (1) the nature and degree of the individual’s control over the work, and (2) the individual’s opportunity for profit or loss. The Biden DOL tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent the Trump rule from going into effect, but a federal court ruled that the Biden DOL’s attempt to dismantle the rule was flawed, and the Trump rule therefore went into effect.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves. Just because a court told the Biden DOL that it’s stuck with this Trump-made rule doesn’t mean anyone at the DOL is actually applying it. The Biden DOL has said it plans to rewrite the rule, pronto. The new rule will make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors under the FLSA. We already know that’s going to happen, even if we don’t know the precise language to be used.

In late 2022, the DOL will issue its new rule, which will be like the old rule that we had before the Trump DOL’s new rule. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And with each new administration, it will become harder then easier then harder to be classified as a contractor under the FLSA.

So I will not be wasting my time listening in on these forums. I expect they’ll be as useful as inedible food. Which cannot be good for the GI tract.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”: Senate Rejects Weil (& Join Me Tuesday for a Free Webinar)

(Action shot from the Senate floor!)

Those who have seen me present on independent contractor issues know that I like to incorporate song references by The Who. There are so many song titles and lyrics that help the presentation flow.

On Tuesday, it’s my turn to co-present at the annual BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law. The session is called Answering Tough Questions About Independent Contractors, Joint Employment and the Contingent Workforce, Using Songs by The Who. The session is free, 2-3p ET on April 5. Register here.

If you join me, you’ll get gems like this when we update you on 2022 developments, such as David Weil’s nomination to serve as Wage and Hour Administrator of the DOL:

Democrats: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Republicans: We won’t get fooled again.

David Weil was the Wage and Hour Administrator in the DOL during the Obama Administration. He published two Administrator’s Interpretations expressing the view that most independent contractors were misclassified and that joint employment should be much easier to establish. He wrote about the problems with the “fissured workforce,” meaning the expansion of non-traditional, non-employee labor. He was not a friend of the business community and especially disliked by the franchising community.

In 2021, Biden nominated him to reclaim that post.

Last week, the Senate voted 53-47 to block the nomination.

In the independent contractor space, it’s been a busy few months for the DOL, and I would imagine the administration would like to fill this role as quickly as possible.

Last month, a federal court took issue with the Biden DOL changing its tune on the Trump DOL’s test for independent contractor misclassification. The court declared The Song Is Over and rejected the Biden DOL’s change, reinstating the Trump-era test for worker classification under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). More details here.

In January, the DOL and the NLRB signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which they agreed to share information to combat independent contractor misclassification.

Join me and my colleagues Margaret Rosenthal and Vartan Madoyan on Tuesday for more updates, tips, previews, and Who-themed lyrics. There’s no charge to attend. I’m Free.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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It’s There, Even If You Can’t See It: Court Reinstates Trump-Era Independent Contractor Test, and It’s Effective Now.

There’s an optical illusion known as a negative afterimage. If you stare at the red dot on this woman’s nose for about 15 seconds, then look at a blank wall, you’ll see the woman on your wall – but in full color and with dark hair. And yet, there is no woman on your wall. 

You see what isn’t there because the illusion tricks the photoreceptors in your retina.

Monday’s ruling by a federal judge in Texas also has us seeing what isn’t there – or what was there and then wasn’t there – or something like that, but with respect to the test for independent contractor classification. 

In early January 2021, the Trump DOL issued a new regulation that sought to provide clarity on how to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Even though the FLSA is a federal law that is supposed to apply everywhere, different courts around the country used different versions of the FLSA’s Economic Realities Test to make that determination.

Under the new regulation, 29 CFR Part 795, there would be just one test. It was simple, and the same rule would apply all over the country. The regulation was scheduled to take effect March 8, 2021. But a few days before the effective date, the Biden Administration postponed implementation of the new rule. Then in May, they rescinded it. They replaced it with nothing. If you go to the Code of Federal Regulations, there is no 29 CFR Part 795. (Here, try it!)

But Monday’s ruling said to stare a little harder. It’s there.

The court ruled that the Biden Administration’s effort to delay and then withdraw Part 795 was unlawful and violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The delay provided too short a comment period, failing to offer the public a meaningful period to provide input. The withdrawal was improper because the DOL failed to consider alternatives and instead “left regulated parties without consistent guidance.” 

Because the delay and withdrawal of the Trump era rule were deemed unlawful, the court ruled that Part 795 did, in fact, go into effect March 8, 2021, and “remains in effect.”

Who knew?

So now you probably want to know what the rule is, since you cannot find it online in the Code of Federal Regulations – at least as of Tuesday night.

The test in Part 795 identifies two “core factors” for determining the independent contractor vs. employee question under the FLSA. If both factors point in the same direction, the issue is generally decided. If the core factors point in different directions, three “other factors” are considered.

The Two Core Factors

As we explained here, The core factors are:

• The nature and degree of the individual’s control over the work; and

• The individual’s opportunity for profit or loss.

The control factor supports independent contractor status if the worker “exercises substantial control over key aspects of the work,” including setting schedules, selecting projects, and being allowed to work for others.

The profit or loss factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the worker has the opportunity to earn profits or incur losses based on the exercise of initiative, managerial skill, business acumen or judgment, or based on management of his or her own investments or capital expenditures. Examples of investments may include hiring helpers or buying equipment. 

Other Factors

If the two core factors do not determine the issue, three other factors are to be considered:

• Amount of skill required for the work;

• Degree of permanence of the working relationship between the individual and the potential employer; and

• Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production.

Amount of skill required. This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work requires specialized skill or training that the potential employer does not provide.

Degree of permanence. This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work is definite in duration or sporadic. This factor supports employee status if the work is indefinite. Work that is seasonal by nature does not weigh in favor of independent contractor status, even though it’s definite in duration.

Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production. This factor is likely to receive the heaviest criticism from worker advocates. The “integrated unit of production” factor comes from a pair of 1947 U.S. Supreme Court cases. Over the years, this factor has morphed into the question of whether the work is “integral” to the potential employer’s business. Part 795 takes a firm stance here, saying that — based on the 1947 Supreme Court decisions — the relevant question is whether the work is “integrated,” not whether it is “integral.”

This factor weighs in favor of independent contractor status if the work is “segregable” from the potential employer’s processes for a good or service. For example, a production line is an integrated process for creating a good. A software development program may require an integrated process for creating a computer program. Work that is performed outside of an integrated unit of production is more likely performed by an independent contractor.

What Happens Now?

First, the DOL can appeal the decision to the Fifth Circuit. We expect that will happen. In the meantime, a stay might be issued or might not be issued.

Second, Part 795 is now in effect, unless a stay is issued. 

Third, it’s a fair question how much this really matters anyway. The test was not intended to change the outcome in most instances. It was instead intended to articulate more clearly how these determinations were already being made. The two “core factors” were already determinative in almost all cases, even if courts were not explicitly identifying two factors as being most important. Also, the Circuit Courts of Appeal do not have to adopt the DOL’s interpretation of the test. They can go on using their five-part and six-part tests, or they can apply the Part 795 analysis. 

The Part 795 should now be the applicable test. But we shall see.

If you stare hard enough at your handy copy of the Code of Federal Regulations, and then look at a blank wall, Part 795 just might appear.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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That’ll Cost You 96 Camels: Court Headlocks Staffing Agency with $7.2M Misclassification Judgment

Mom feeding a non-wrestling camel, May 2010

If you weren’t in Turkey last month, you missed the annual Selçuk Efes Camel Wrestling Festival, which featured 162 competitors in four categories.

The camels are paired by weight and skill, and their techniques include tripping their opponents with foot tricks or applying headlocks then sitting on their opponents. Some just push until the other camel gives up. A winner is declared when one camel scares away the other, making him scream or collapse. The camels are muzzled so there is no biting.

Among those missing the spectacle were the owners of Steadfast Medical Staffing, a Virginia-based firm that maintains a database of nurses and pairs them with healthcare facilities. That’s because they were in federal court, defending against a lawsuit by the Department of Labor. The DOL alleged that they had misclassified the nurses as independent contractors in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

After a bench trial, the judge agreed with the DOL and ruled that the nurses — which included CNAs, LPNs and RNs — were employees of the staffing agency. The Court applied the Economic Realities Test, which is the proper test for determining who is an employee under the FLSA.

The Court considered all relevant factors, then applied camel-style headlocks while sitting on the defendant, causing the staffing agency to either scream or collapse (unclear from the opinion). The Court ruled that the staffing agency failed to pay overtime and failed to comply with FLSA record keeping requirements. The agency will be liable for approximately $3.6M in back wages plus another $3.6M in liquidated damages.

Following the judgment, the DOL issued a statement with quotes from the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, and the Solicitor of Labor, Seema Nanda, that the DOL was sending an “unequivocal message” to Steadfast and other staffing companies that the DOL is serious about pursing independent contractor misclassification.

Staffing agencies that treat workers as independent contractors are on notice that the DOL is serious about enforcement. Remember, the facts of the relationship determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, not how the parties choose to characterize the relationship.

More than 1,100 nurses will share in the award, with a healthy-but-to-be-determined amount of fees headed to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

A prized wrestling camel can be sold for more than a million Turkish lira. That’s about $75,000. Large awards like this for systemic misclassification are not surprising. This one will cost the staffing firm about 96 wrestling camels.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Low-Hanging Fruit? DOL and NLRB Join Forces to Fight Misclassification

Much has been written about the phrase low-hanging fruit. The metaphor’s origins are fairly obvious, referring to obtaining quick wins through minimal effort.

But how good is the metaphor? For harvesters, starting with the lowest hanging fruit is not the best strategy. Fruit near the top of a tree is generally riper and ready to eat, due to better sun exposure. Fruit can also be heavy, and harvesters who start at the top of the tree can work their way down as their bags grow heavier. Then there’s this insightful warning from one author’s mother, who cautioned that the blackberries near the bottom of the bush are the ones most likely to have been peed on by an animal.

Pee notwithstanding, the Department of Labor and the NLRB have seized on the low-hanging fruit strategy as a way to go after companies that misclassify independent contractors.

Last month the two agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to share information and better coordinate investigations when they suspect there have been violations of the law.

While the DOL and NLRB apply different tests to determine Who Is My Employee?, it’s likely that a relationship failing one test also fails the other. Violators of one law are the low-hanging fruit.

What does that mean for businesses? It means that if the NLRB believes your company misclassified its independent contractors, they’ll share that information with the DOL, which would be pleased to piggyback on the NLRB’s finding and tag you with wage and hour violations as well. And vice versa.

The information sharing arrangement raises the stakes for alleged violators. Companies found to be in violation of one law are more likely to be found in violation of multiple laws. And that means more fines, more assessments, and more disruption to your business.

For the DOL and NLRB, the information-sharing arrangement means they’ll go after each other’s targets and seek to double up on penalties. For companies whose independent contractors may resemble employees, it means you’re the blackberry that’s about to get peed on.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Welcome to Turkmenistan: Joint Employment Rules Rescinded, Leaving Massive Crater in FLSA Regulations

Tormod Sandtorv – FlickrDarvasa gas crater panorama CC BY-SA 2.0

No visit to Turkmenistan would be complete without a visit to the Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell. This massive crater formed decades ago after a Soviet drilling rig collapsed. Roughly 40 years ago, the Soviets lit the crater on fire to burn off the methane. But Turkmenistan has some of the largest gas reserves in the world, which meant you couldn’t just make the gas go away.

The fire still burns today, and the massive fiery hole is an impressive sight.

A massive hole can also describe what the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”) just created.

On July 29, the WHD formally announced the rescission of all of the regulations that define when joint employment exists under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The regulations, which can be found in Part 791 of 29 C.F.R., have existed in some form since 1958, which is right around the tenth anniversary of a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that killed up to 10% of the entire population of Turkmenistan.

In 2020, the Trump Administration revised the regulations to provide more clarity about who is a joint employer and when. The 2020 regulations listed specific factors that should be applied. The new rule sought to create consistency in place of the patchwork of different factors used by different courts in different circuits. The 2020 regulations also included 11 helpful illustrations of how the new rules would be applied in various situations.

Pro-business groups liked the new rule because it provided clarity and made it harder to be a joint employer. Pro-employee groups hated the rule because it provided clarity and made it harder to be a joint employer.

In March 2021, the Biden Administration announced an intent to rescind the 2020 regulations. On July 29, the rescission was formally announced. The rescission takes effect September 28, 2021.

In the formal rescission notice, the WHD notes that few courts had followed the new test and that a federal district court in New York had ruled that the 2020 regulations were invalid. (That case is now on appeal to the Second Circuit.)

What does the rescission mean?

Welcome to Turkmenistan! The rescission doesn’t reinstitute the 1958 regulations. It doesn’t provide new regulations. Instead, it strikes all of Part 791 and leaves an empty hole.

The new guidance is that there is no guidance.

No kidding. Here’s what the notice says:

Effect of Rescission

Because this final rule adopts and finalizes the rescission of the Joint Employer Rule, part 791 is removed in its entirety and reserved. As stated in the NPRM, the Department will continue to consider legal and policy issues relating to FLSA joint employment before determining whether alternative regulatory or subregulatory guidance is appropriate.

The WHD notice reminds us that courts have set forth their own tests, and those tests can be followed.

So where does that leave us? What’s the rule? Well, it depends where you live. Really! Different courts apply different tests. But for the most part, they are similar.

In general, there are two types of joint employment – vertical and horizontal.

Vertical joint employment is when one employer, such as a staffing agency, provides workers for the benefit of a second entity. Joint employment under the FLSA means that both entities are legally responsible for ensuring that the workers are properly paid a minimum wage and overtime. Both are also jointly liable for any FLSA violations, even though the staffing agency likely has full control over payroll. 

Based on court decisions, vertical joint employment will follow an Economic Realities Test, and joint employment will exist when “the economic realities show that the employee is economically dependent on, and thus employed by the other employer.” Multiple factors go into this analysis. These typically include:

  • Right to direct, control and supervise work;
  • Right to control employment conditions;
  • Permanency and duration of relationship;
  • Repetitive or rote nature of the work;
  • Whether the work is integral to the business;
  • Whether the work is performed on premises; and
  • Which entity performs the administrative functions characteristic of an employer (payroll, workers compensation, etc.)

Different courts articulate the test in different ways, but that’s a reasonable summary of the factors most commonly applied.

Any new interpretive guidance from the Biden WHD is almost certainly going to be that joint employment should be widespread and easy to establish. 

Horizontal joint employment is when two businesses under common control employ the same individual. This issue arises when a worker spends 30 hours at Business 1 and 30 hours at Business 2. If the businesses are joint employers, then the worker is entitled to 20 hours of overtime for the combined 60 hours of work.

The 2020 regulations did not materially change the test for horizontal joint employment. The 1958 version of the regulations looked at whether the two entities were “completely disassociated” from each other. Courts typically look at common control and common management as evidence of horizontal joint employment. That is not likely to change, but that regulation’s gone too.

Will There Be New Regulations?

Maybe. It seems more likely to me that we’ll see a re-issuance of the 2016 Administrator’s Interpretation on Joint Employment. The 2016 AI adopted an expansive view of joint employment, finding that it’s fairly easy to establish. The 2016 AI was issued by David Weil, who ran the WHD under Obama.  President Biden has nominated Weil to head the WHD in the current administration, so it would not be a surprise to see the 2016 AI or something similar re-issued.

Businesses should expect an expansive definition of joint employment, with little guidance or help from the WHD. With all regulations gone, and with different courts applying different tests, the landscape on joint employment resembles a massive crater filled with burning methane. It’s not a hospitable climate.

What Should Businesses Do?

Businesses should review their arrangements with vendors who provide labor and revisit those contracts and relationships. Steps can be taken to provide contractual protection against joint employment, even where the law will find a joint employment relationship.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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