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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