Time to Dance? Momentum Builds for Proposed New Joint Employment Law

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Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy is a low-quality youtube video that has somehow amassed more than a million hits. In the video, a lone (possibly intoxicated) festival goer starts dancing in a field. After a minute or so, momentum builds and others join him, showing off their terrible dance moves in a video you’ll wish you hadn’t wasted three minutes watching. (Just speaking from experience here.)

Several weeks ago, the House began considering a bill that would rewrite the definition of “joint employment” under federal wage and hour law (Fair Labor Standards Act) and federal labor law (National Labor Relations Act). The Save Local Business Act would require “direct” and “significant” control over “essential terms” of employment before a business could be considered a joint employer of a worker employed by another business (such as a staffing agency or a subcontractor). Read more here and here.

Originally sponsored by Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama (you might think of Rep. Byrne as the original dancer in the Leadership video, but dressed as a conservative Southern gentleman), the bill now has 112 co-sponsors, including a few Democrats. Dance party!

The bill continues to gain momentum. On October 4, in celebration of  International Toot Your Flute Day, a House committee voted to advance the bill to a vote by the full House.

The business community has been active and vocal in supporting its passage. On October 26 (National Mincemeat Day!), as part of a coordinated effort by the International Franchise Association, franchise owners from 19 states sent letters to Congressional leaders urging passage of the Act. Other coordinated campaigns in support of the Act have been organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), National Waste and Recycling Association, and other pro-business groups.

On October 27, the Congressional Budget Office issued its report on the Act, finding that the Act would not affect direct spending, revenues, or the federal budget.

Chances of passage in the House appear strong, but no floor vote is scheduled. Businesses should follow the status of this bill, which may have profound effects on federal interpretation of the joint employment doctrine.

If the bill passes, businesses might join Mike Myers in celebration, proclaiming “Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!

[Update 11/8/17:  The House of Representatives approved the bill yesterday by a vote of  242-181, with 8 Democrats voting yes. Passage in the Senate, however, will be far more difficult.]

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

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Court Rules That Shadowing Dad at Work Might Require Payment

Shadow - Trainee or Employee  death-2577486_1280In the 1930s, the popular radio program The Shadow featured an invisible avenger who possessed “the mysterious power to cloud men’s minds, so they could not see him.” (He supposedly picked up this power in East Asia, which must have seemed mysterious in an era before Kung Pao Chicken was widely available.)

Eighty years later, “shadowing” has a different meaning. An unpaid trainee follows around a more experienced employee as a way to learn the business. Few trainees have mastered the power of invisibility [Note: only the best ones have, and they’re hard to find … ba-dum-bum], and often the nature of being a trainee involves getting in the way of the real work.

Scott Axel was a trainee who shadowed his father at an automobile wholesaler in Florida. He had no expectation of pay, and the business said it would not hire him. As a favor to his dad, the business let him learn the business by shadowing his dad.

Returning the favor, Scott then sued the wholesaler, claiming it failed to pay him minimum wage.

Dumb claim, right? Loser! (The claim, I mean, ahem.)

Anyway, a federal court of appeals was not so sure and ruled that it was a close call whether he was an employee or an unpaid trainee. Scott, apparently, had the mysterious power to cloud judges’ minds.

For much of the time, Scott just did work that his dad was doing, under his dad’s supervision. If that was all he did, though, the case probably would have been tossed out.

The company’s mistake was allowing Scott to do some wholesaling work that his father did not do, which arguably displaced a worker who would have performed the work if it were not for our hero. Scott posted vehicles on eBay and Craigslist, working under the direction of others, and he received a disciplinary warning for spending too much money on the listings. Scott testified that he spent more time on these tasks than on shadowing his dad.

The Appeals Court evaluated the case using a test for whether an unpaid trainee should be paid. The test is meant for educational internships and did not neatly fit the circumstances, so the court admittedly struggled with the analysis.

Ultimately, the Court decided it needed more information about how much time Scott spent performing the various tasks. The case was sent back to the lower court.

The lesson here for businesses who allow shadowing is to remember what a shadow is.  A shadow follows someone around.  A shadow does not do independent, productive work. (Except here.)

While there were several factors in this case that supported Scott being an unpaid trainee, too much gray area remained.

So what happens next?  The lower court might allow further briefing or might send the case to trial. Did the business do anything wrong? The ultimate question brings to mind the introduction from the radio program of long ago: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

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

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Would You Like Some Pepperoni with Your (Oops) Joint Employment?

Joint employment pizza 31E83EC5-E554-428A-A5D6-37F13905C3B9According to pizza.com, “There are approximately 61,269 pizzerias in the United States.” That number seems pretty precise to me, not an approximation, but who am I to question something I read on the internet?

Approximately 4 of the 61,269 pizzerias are owned by a New Yorker named Paola P., who runs each of the 4 under a different LLC. Paola’s employees can be assigned to any of the 4 pizzerias on their workdays. Seems boring so far, but stay with me. Now say this three times fast:

Paola’s practice prompted problems since Paola P’s pizzerias were impermissibly positioning personnel to prevent paying overtime. 

Pity.

Workers were being assigned to work roughly 50 hours a week, but they would work at two or three locations, less than 40 hours at each site. They received paychecks from the various LLCs (remember, each pizzeria was run as a separate company), which by itself is ok, but Paola’s mistake was that she failed to aggregate the hours from the 4 locations and failed to pay overtime when any individual exceeded 40 hours of total work.

Because the pizzerias shared ownership, management, and commingled employees, the workers were considered joint employees of the four companies. For those keeping score at home, that’s what we call “horizontal joint employment.”

Paola’s companies were liable for failure to pay overtime to each worker in any week when an employee worked more than 40 hours in the aggregate, even if no worker reached 40 hours at any individual location.

A federal court determined that the violation was flagrant and imposed the three-year statute of limitations, instead of the ordinary two-year statute.

This was a $360,000 mistake, half of which was for liquidated (double) damages.

According to our friends at Guinness, the world’s most expensive pizza can be ordered for $2,700 at Industry Kitchen in New York. This magical pie contains stilton (it’s a cheese, I had to look it up too), foie gras, caviar, truffle, and 24K gold leaves. Paola could have ordered 133 of these and still had some money left for dessert.

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

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When to Embrace Joint Employment, and When to Run Like Hell (Pink Floyd, 1979)

Joint employment risks dangers choices joint employer IMG_1101Life is full of serious questions. For example, Should I stay or should I go? (The Clash, 1982). Or, Will you love me forever? (practically every song ever, but for now, we’ll go with Meatloaf in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, 1977).

When engaging non-employee workers, businesses must also confront a serious question: Embrace joint employment, or try to avoid it? (Frank Zappa confronted a different kind of serious question in Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?, 1979, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.)

Many of my posts have been geared toward strategies for trying to avoid joint employment. There is another way, though. Sometimes, it may be better to embrace joint employment. But know the pros and cons.

Here are some things to consider:

Pros:

So, you’re thinking of embracing joint employment? That’s certainly an option. If you go in this direction, you can exert all the control you want over your non-employee workers. Tell them how to do the work, supervise them, discipline them, make them follow all your rules. Let them have a company email address and fancy name badge. If the workers are going to be joint employees anyway, there’s no reason to hold back.

You still have the benefit of having another company handling the administrative burdens like payroll and onboarding. You avoid adding to employee headcount, and you probably maintain some extra flexibility in setting staffing levels if your business is experiencing ebbs and flows.

Cons:

The biggest downside to joint employment is the risk of joint liability for errors you didn’t make. Did the staffing agency underpay overtime? Or miscalculate hours worked? Or fail to pay for time worked off the clock? Or hire illegal aliens? Or fail to file proper tax forms?

You get the picture. If you are a joint employer, your business is equally responsible for the consequences of any of these errors, even though you had nothing to do with them.

Yes, you can include an indemnity provision in your contract, but that should provide only limited comfort. Is the staffing agency adequately insured? Will they stand behind their promise? Do you want the hassle of defending an audit or lawsuit, then trying to rely on a contract to recover your losses? (Read more on the dangers of joint employment here.)

Joint employment can still be full of nasty little surprises, even when you go into it with your eyes open to the risks.

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

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Joint Employment Legislation Needs to Be Expansive — If It’s to Be Effective

IMG_1093On Monday, we wrote about the Save Local Business Act — proposed legislation that, if passed, would create a new definition for joint employment under the NLRA and FLSA. But would that law go far enough?

No. Not at all.

On the bright side for businesses, the law would provide some predictability in that staffing agency workers would most likely be excluded from bargaining units. It would also remedy the current unfairness that results when a staffing agency makes payroll and overtime miscalculations but the company using the workers is held responsible as a joint employer.

But much more needs to be done to provide real clarity and predictability for business owners.

First, the law fails to address who is a joint employer under other federal employment laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Vast uncertainty in these areas would remain.

Second, the law does nothing to address the patchwork of standards under state and local laws. Businesses are subject to those laws too, and it’s fairly common that state and local standards for determining joint employment differ from state-to-state and law-to-law.

Businesses that operate in multiple locations would still be subject to different standards under different laws in different locations. The HR Policy Association has recommended that any legislation intended to clear up the messy patchwork of joint employment standards should include federal preemption or a safe harbor provision — something to ensure that businesses can rely on one set of rules to know whether they are a joint employer or not. That would make much more sense.

The newly proposed legislation has a long way to go. It might never even get to a vote. Let’s hope, however, that the introduction of this bill is just a first step, and that through the amendment process or through a Senate bill, its shortfalls will be addressed.

Business deserve the certainty that would come from a more comprehensive piece of legislation.

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

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Congress May Rewrite “Joint Employment” Definition

IMG_1092Congress may finally provide some clarity in determining who is a joint employer. In legislation introduced last week, the House proposed a bill that would rewrite the definition of “joint employer” under federal labor law (National Labor Relations Act) and federal wage and hour law (Fair Labor Standards Act).

The Save Local Business Act — despite lacking a fun-to-say acronym — would create a new standard for determining who is a joint employer under these two laws. The proposed new standard would allow a finding of joint employment “only if such person [business] directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a routine and limited manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment….”

The definition provides examples of what are “essential terms and conditions,” including:

  • Hiring employees;
  • Discharging employees;
  • Determining individual employee rates of pay and benefits;
  • Day-to-day supervision of employees;
  • Assigning individual work schedules, positions, and tasks; and
  • Administering employee discipline.

No longer would a business be deemed a joint employer for exercising indirect or potential control, as permitted by the NLRB in its 2015 Browning-Ferris decision, which is currently on appeal. (Read more about that here.)

The bill would also overrule a recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that vastly expanded the scope of joint employment under the FLSA, but only for a handful of Mid-Atlantic states.  Read more on that dreadful decision here.)

As illustrated in this colorful map, the current standard for who is a joint employer varies by which law is being applied and by where you live. The bill, if passed, would provide much-needed clarity in the law — or, at least in some of the laws. The bill would not affect the FMLA, federal anti-discrimination law, or any state or local standards. (In other words, loyal reader, you’ll still need this blog. Ha!)

The bill was introduced by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), but already shares some bipartisan support, with co-sponsors including Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Luis Correa (D-Calif.).

Here’s the current bill.  It’s short, so don’t be afraid to click.

No one knows whether this proposed law will take effect or will even reach a vote (except perhaps Carnac the Magnificent!).  But we can expect significant support from the business community, which may create some momentum toward consiuderation and passage. The National Association of Home Builders has already issued a press release praising the proposed legislation.

If Congress wants to make a positive impact on businesses large and small, this bill could do it. So now let’s all sit back and watch how they screw it up.

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

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The DOL Wants You to Know Its Opinions (Here’s Why That’s Good News!)

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Everybody has an opinion, so why not share?

This week, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta announced that the WHD will resume its prior practice of issuing opinion letters to advise on difficult wage and hour issues. This is good news for companies and employees because it increases predictability.

An opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the WHD of how a particular law applies to a specific set of circumstances presented by an employer or employee. The benefit to the general public is that opinion letters are published and may be relied upon.

The practice of issuing opinion letters had persisted for more than 70 years before being discontinued in 2010, when the WHD began issuing occassional general guidance memos instead.

The return of the opinion letter means more predictability and less “Gotcha!

If the proper public role of the DOL is to promote voluntary compliance (as it should be!) and not merely to sack wrongdoers, then this announcement is a big step in the right direction.

This announcement comes shortly after Secretary Acosta’s recent decision to withdraw the WHD’s 2015 and 2016 general guidance memos on independent contractor misclassification and joint employment. Presumably, these would be topics that are now ripe for new opinion letters.

With a new Labor Secretary, employers can expect a shift toward more business-friendly interpretations that respect the existence of independent contractor relationships and decrease the incidence of joint employment findings. As discussed here, the determination of Independent Contractor vs. Employee under the wage and hour laws (e.g., the Fair Labor Standards Act) is made using an Economic Realities Test.

Employers can click here or here to see whether prior opinion letters have been published on any particular wage and hour topic.

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

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