Gator in Your Basement? Nope, That’s Just the NLRB Sharpening Its Joint Employer Test

NBLRB joint employer new regulation 2020

“Be careful as you go down the stairs, officer. An alligator lives in my basement.”

Police in Madison Township, Ohio, last week found a 5-foot gator penned in the basement of a family home. The family said that “Alli” was a pet they’ve raised for 25 years, since purchasing him as an adorable little tot at a reptile shop. (My, how they grow.)

The family accepted responsibility and avoided legal liability because they allowed to police to remove the animal.

A larger battle over responsibility and legal liability was also decided last week, but this battle was over the meaning of “joint employment” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Here’s a quick Q&A to get you up to speed on the new regulation.

What happened?

On February 26, 2020, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a new regulation that changes the rules for determining whether a business is a joint employer under the NLRA.

What do you mean by joint employer?

When one business hires another business to provide services, the business providing the services is the primary employer. We see this often in staffing agency arrangements. The staffing agency is the primary employer. The primary employer is responsible for treating its workers as W-2 employees and doing all the things an employer is supposed to do.

If the business receiving the services exercises sufficient control over the workers, it can be deemed a “joint employer” of those workers. The workers would have two employers simultaneously.

Why should I care if I am a joint employer under the NLRA?

Being a joint employer creates rights and obligations under the NLRA on issues such as collective bargaining, strike activity, and unfair labor practice liability:

  • If the employees are represented by a union, the joint employer must participate in collective bargaining over their terms and conditions of employment.
  • Picketing directed at a joint employer that would otherwise be secondary and unlawful is primary and lawful.
  • Each business comprising the joint employer may be found jointly and severally liable for the other’s unfair labor practices.

Does the new rule make it harder or easier to be deemed a joint employer?

Much harder. The new rule significantly narrows the circumstances when a business can be deemed a joint employer.

What’s the new test?

Under the new regulation, a business can only be a joint employer of another employer’s employees only if it exercises “substantial direct and immediate control” over the “essential terms and conditions” of the workers’ employment.

What are essential terms and conditions?

Wages, benefits, hours of work, hiring, discharge, discipline, supervision, and direction.

Can you give me an example of how that works?

No.

Please?

Ok. I was just messing with you.

Let’s look at wages. You retain a staffing agency. You negotiate a cost-plus arrangement. You negotiate the rate you’ll pay the staffing agency per worker per hour, but the staffing agency determines the rate of pay each worker will receive. That’s not substantial and direct control because the staffing agency sets the wages of the worker.

Let’s consider discharge. You want to remove a staffing agency worker from the project. You instruct the agency to remove the worker. That’s not substantial control over whether the worker is discharged from employment. It’s up to the agency what to do with the worker next — reassign the worker, discharge the worker, tar and feather, etc.

How does this affect background checks and other terms in my contract with the primary employer?

Commonplace and routine clauses, like requiring the agency to perform background checks, are not evidence of joint employment.

In a dispute over whether there’s joint employment, who has the burden of proof?

The party asserting that an entity is a joint employer has the burden of proof.

Is the NLRB’s new joint employer regulation the same as the DOL’s new joint employer regulation?

Of course not. That would make this way too easy, and you wouldn’t need your lawyers as much.

In January 2020, the Department of Labor published a new regulation that sets up a new test for determining whether an entity is a joint employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). There are similarities in the tests. Both tests require the actual exercise of control for there to be joint employment. Previously, the mere right to exercise control was enough. But the tests are different.

You can read more about the DOL test here.

So now there are two tests for joint employment — one under the FLSA and one under the NLRA?

Ah, so naive. Who’s coming up with these questions, anyway?

Nope, there are lots of tests for determining who is a joint employer; and the tests differ based on which law we’re looking at — and based on who’s looking at it.

The DOL announced its new regulation for determining joint employer status under the FLSA, but unless you’re in a DOL audit, that doesn’t mean much. No court has adopted the new regulation yet, and we don’t know whether courts will defer to the regulation or disregard it. There will be litigation over whether the DOL has the right to redefine “joint employer” and limit the scope of a statute (the FLSA) passed by Congress.

The states have their own tests for determining joint employer status under state employment laws. Some states might defer to the regulations, but many states won’t.

But the NLRB regulation is here to stay, right?

Maybe, maybe not. In late 2018, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NLRB has no right to redefine “joint employment,” since the question of whether someone is an employee under the NLRA is governed by the common law test of agency — essentially, a right to control test.

But the NLRB chose to disregard that decision and issued its new regulation anyway.

But how can the NLRB enforce a new regulation defining “joint employer” when a federal court has said it can’t do that?

Because the NLRB will just do it anyway. There are 12 federal circuit courts of appeal, and they often disagree. The NLRB has a longstanding practice of ignoring rulings by the federal courts of appeal, except as to the specific case and the specific parties before that specific court. The NLRB takes the position that it must follow rulings by the Supreme Court, not the federal circuit courts of appeal.

So what’s the real status of the new NLRB regulation?

The NLRB will apply this new regulation in all of its proceedings. The new regulation takes effect April 26, 2020, which is 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register.

If NLRB rulings are appealed to a court, it remains to be seen whether some courts will apply the new regulation. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals probably will not.

Is the new regulation permanent?

It’s intended to be. There are at least three ways it could be undone.

  • Future NLRB members with a more pro-worker orientation could enact a new regulation that changes the definition.
  • Congress could pass a statute that redefines joint employer status. The statute would override the regulation.
  • The Supreme Court could rule that the NLRB has no authority to create a joint employer test.

Until one of those three things happens, the new test will stick around for a while, like a pet alligator. The Board will apply the new test to NLRA issues.

What happened to the alligator?

It has been relocated to an animal sanctuary in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Despite its new residence, the gator was deemed ineligible to vote in last Saturday’s primaries.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NLRB Wants New Rule To Prevent Student Teaching Assistants From Joining Unions

Flip flops NLRB union graduate students 2019Summer may be over, but the National Labor Relations Board isn’t ready to put away its flip flops.

It’s been a busy few months, with the NLRB releasing a number of recent decisions that change Obama-era interpretations of federal labor law.

On Friday, the Board released a new proposed rule that would declare college teaching assistants to be non-employees, meaning they cannot form unions. The proposed rule would declare these graduate students to be just students under federal labor law, not both students and employees of their institutions. The new rule would apply even though the students are paid.

The Board’s explanation for the proposed rule is that graduate students are primarily students and the paid work is primarily for an educational purpose.

If this rule were to pass, it would reverse a 2016 NLRB decision, which found that Columbia University students assistants were also employees of the school because “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated.”

The 2016 decision reversed a 2004 George W. Bush-era Board decision, which found that Brown University student assistants were not employees because their relationship to the university was primarily educational.

The 2004 decision reversed a 2000 Clinton-era Board decision finding that NYU graduate student assistants were employees that could form unions.

The 2000 decision reversed a 1974 decision, which found that Stanford University graduate students were not employees because their paid roles as student assistants was primarily educational.

I think you see what’s happening here.

The new development is just that the Board has proposed a new rule. The rule, if enacted, would change the offical interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act to be that graduate student assistants are not employees. Notably, despite the flip flops listed above, the statute has not changed. But depending on which political party has a majority on the 5-member Board (currently 4-member Board), the Board’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act changes and changes again.

The current Board seems to think that by making its changes through rulemaking, rather than through Board decisions on actual cases, maybe its interpretation will be stickier in the long run. I doubt it.

Even if the proposed rule passes, it seems inevitable that whenever the next Democratic-majority Board is in place, it will switch back to the view that graduate student assistants are employees and can form unions.

There’s a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule, then the Board can decide whether to pass it as written, modify it, or scrap it.

In any event, students are back in school, and so far the weather seems good enough to keep using flip flops — at least in Washington, D.C., at the National Labor Relations Board.

See you at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Employees Say They’ve Been Robbed! NLRB Says Independent Contractor Misclassification Does NOT Violate the National Labor Relations Act

Burglar roomba misclassification

Sheriff’s deputies in Washington County, Oregon, responded with guns drawn, expecting they were responding to a burglary in progress. A woman had called 911, saying that someone had broken into her house and locked themselves in the bathroom. She could hear rustling noises from behind the bathroom door, even though she knew she hadn’t allowed anyone into her home.

The officers entered the home and heard it too. They demanded that the suspect come out of the bathroom, hands raised. But no one responded. They busted open the door, ready to take down the suspected burglar by force.

What they found instead was a Roomba. The homeowner’s robotic vacuum cleaner had gotten stuck in the bathroom.

Calling the Roomba a burglar didnt make it a burglar, and calling in a suspected burglary did not make the woman a victim.

People make mistakes, and calling something the wrong thing can be an excusable mistake.

That’s essentially what the National Labor Relations Board ruled late last week, in a major pro-business decision.

In a case called Velox Express, The Board ruled that to misclassify a worker as an independent contractor — when the worker should have been an employee — is not a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the Act).

The Board reasoned that The Act prohibits interfering with employees’ Section 7 rights. Section 7 rights refer to employees’ right to engage in protected concerted activities, such as banding together to complain about their treatment. The Board said that by misclassifying employees as independent contractors, a company is merely stating a legal opinion about what the worker is. Telling workers they are contractors does not, by itself, interfere with their ability to organize or engage in protected concerted activity. If they’re really employees, they still can. It’s only if the company coerces or threatens the workers that the company interferes and then violates the Act.

The Board further reasoned that it’s hard sometimes to tell whether a worker is a contractor or an employee, and Congress did not intend to punish companies for making a mistake.

This decision will be blasted by worker advocates and, frankly, it’s surprising even to me.

The ALJ Decision That Led to This Ruling

We wrote about this case previously here, when an Administrative Law Judge made three important rulings.

First, the ALJ found that Velox exercised significant control over how its delivery drivers performed their work, which made them drivers under the NLRB’s Right to Control Test.

Second, the ALJ ruled that Velox violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act when it discharged driver Jeannie Edge for raising group complaints that Velox exercised too much control over its drivers.  (In a somewhat ironic twist, Edge wanted to be an independent contractor but had perceived, correctly, that Velox was treating its drivers more like employees, even though it was calling them contractors. Edge wanted Velox to treat the drivers more hands-off, the way contractors would typically be treated.)

Third, the ALJ ruled that misclassifying an independent contractor was, by itself, a violation of the NLRA. The ALJ’s reasoning was that by misclassifying workers as independent contractors, the company was in effect telling the workers they had no rights under the NLRA, since that Act protects only employees, not independent contractors.

NLRB’s Decision

The case was appealed to the full Board, which agreed that (1) the Velox drivers were really employees under the common law Right to Control Test, and (2) Velox violated Section 8(a)(1) when it discharged Edge for engaging in protected concerted activity.

But the Board rejected Finding #3, ruling instead that misclassifying workers as independent contractors is, ho-hum, merely expressing a legal opinion. Section 8(c) of the Act says it’s not a violation to express an opinion.

The Board recognized that the outcome would be different if the company misclassified its workers as contractors for the purpose of interfering with employees’ Section 7 rights or to coerce them not to exercise those rights. But misclassification alone is not a violation of the NLRA.

So, Is Misclassification Now Lawful? Hey Man, Are You Gonna Shut Down the Blog?

No! and No! This decision says only that the act of misclassification is not an automatic violation of the NLRA. That’s just one law.

When a company misclassifies an employee as an independent contractor, every other law related to employees still applies. A company that misclassifies employees as contractors can still be violating tax law by not withholding from wages; can be held liable for violating wage and hour law by failing to pay a minimum wage or overtime or failing to provide meal and rest breaks; can still be in violation of state workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance law by failing to pay into those systems; can be in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act by failing to offer the type of leave available to employees; and can still find itself in violation of every other law that grants rights to employees when the company does not grant those rights.

Misclassification can still violate the NLRA too, if a company engages in misclassification for the purpose of interfering with employees’ rights.

The game is still very much on.

So What Impact Will This Decision Have?

Probably not much. It sounds like a doozy, and it is; but as a practical matter, it probably doesn’t change a whole lot. Independent Contractor Misclassification still has significant legal consequences, and companies who misclassify workers as independent contractors when they should really be employees still face liability under a long list of employment, tax, and benefit laws. Violations of these laws continue to result in massive liabilities, often in the many millions of dollars.

This pro-business decision by the Board may result in fewer unfair labor practice disputes, but even that outcome seems unlikely. Disputes over employee vs. independent contractor status usually arise because there’s a real dispute over how a company is treating its workers, not merely because it used the wrong terminology. Any failure by a company to grant employees rights they are entitled to receive is still a violation of law, even if it’s no longer a violation of the NLRA merely to call an employee an independent contractor.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Future of “Joint Employment” Test May Be at Issue, as NLRB Chair Files Complaint Against NLRB’s Inspector General.

F35D8CDD-3497-4FCC-83D8-732CC87B195A

From the county sheriff’s scratch-and-sniff twitter account

Police officers in Clay County, Missouri were searching for a suspect wanted for felony possession. They brought out the K9 crew. The suspect was hiding and, so far so good. But then…

According to Fox 4 in Kansas City, the suspect passed gas so loudly that he gave his location away. The police sniffed him out and cuffed him. Stinks for that guy.

There’s another search-and-destroy mission going on at the NLRB. It’s a power struggle that could be described as a complicated game of cat vs. mouse vs. cat, and — bizarre as it seems — the result of this internal power struggle may ultimately decide the test for joint employment.

Board Chairman John Ring is trying to sack NLRB Inspector General David Berry, who is trying to disqualify Republican-appointed Board member William Emanuel from participating in two key joint employment cases. Member Emanuel is likely to be the deciding vote in favor of a stricter, more pro-business definition of joint employment in either of two significant joint employment cases before the Board. (The cases are Hy-Brand and McDonald’s.)

According to this piece of excellent reporting by Bloomberg Law’s @HassanKanu, Chairman Ring has filed a formal complaint against Inspector General Berry, seeking to have him removed from his post for inappropriate conduct. The complaint, according to Kanu, alleges that Berry has mistreated agency employees, and it references an EEOC complaint filed againt Berry.

So how does this affect joint employment?

Inspector General Berry has been the driving force behind efforts to disqualify Member Emanuel (R) from participating in two key joint employment cases — the Hy-Brand case (in which the Board tried to overturn the Browning-Ferris joint employment test) and the pending McDonald’s case.

Berry claims that Member Emanuel has a conflict of interest that prevents him from particpating in these two cases, stemming from Emanuel having been a partner at the Littler law firm.

If Berry is removed, a new Inspector General may view the conflict issue differently.

From my point of view, there’s no conflict and Member Emanuel should be allowed to participate. For those of you who like to peek behind the curtain, here is a copy of the amicus brief that I filed on behalf of the Restaurant Law Center. The brief argues in support of McDonald’s position that Member Emanuel should not be recused. (There have been similar efforts to try to recuse Ring too.) But that issue remains unresolved.

If a new Inspector General concludes that there is no conflict, then a three-member Republican majority of the Board is likely to rule, at its first opportunity, that the test for determining joint employment should be changed.

The Hy-Brand decision in late 2017 described the test the Republican majority wants to implement. Read more here. The test the Board wants to implement would make it much harder to prove that joint employment exists under federal labor law. Although the Board adopted the new test in the Hy-Brand case, it later withdrew the Hy-Brand ruling because of the conflict issue. The Board wants to go back to the Hy-Brand test but needs to clear up the conflict/recusal issue first.

If Inspector General Berry is forced out, the recusal obstacle could go away.

The recusal issue could also go away if the Board just sits on the pending McDonald’s case until October. September 2019 marks two years since Member Emanuel was appointed to the Board, and any conflict issue related to his previous role as a partner at the Littler firm should drop off. There are two ethics rules in play. One has a one-year lookback period, and the other has a two-year lookback period. If the Board delays deciding the McDonald’s case, the conflict issue might just go away because of the passage of time. (More detail in the amicus brief, here.)

So where does that leave us? Ring is going after Berry, who is trying to interfere with Ring’s effort to adopt a new pro-business definition of joint employment. Sound complicated? That’s high drama within the NLRB!

Will Berry survive the complaint? Will Ring oust his rival? Will Emanuel be allowed to participate in joint employment decisions? Will the Board find a way to implement its desired new definition of joint employment? Can the whole recusal issue be avoided if the Board just waits until October before doing anything? Can the Board get around the whole recusal issue by relying on the rulemaking process to implement a new test for joint employment?

There’s a lot to keep watching here. A change to the test for joint employment would be welcomed by the business community.

Until then, keep checking here for the latest developments on joint employment, and keep checking Fox 4 in K.C. for the latest developments on suspects who fart away their hiding places.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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New ABC Test Under Federal Labor Law? Dem-Sponsored Bill Would Make That Change

Independent contractor misclassification NLRB peacock

All eyes on me!

According to The Atlantic, when a peacock spreads and shakes its elaborate feathers, it shakes them at 26 times a second, which creates a pressure wave that is sensed by a female peahen through the crest atop her head. This precise frequency causes the female’s crest to vibrate in a way that is apparently very sexy for peafowl. The male seeks attention and, with just the right vibrations, he lets all the single pea-ladies know that he wants some action. Note to pea-fellas: If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.

In a crowded field of Democratic Presidential hopefuls, something similar is happening, but it’s less pretty, less sexy, and less appealing for businesses across the country.

As Democratic legislators vie for union support in the upcoming 2020 election, they’re making sure to signal to workers and unions that they’ve got pretty feathers and they’re not afraid to use them. A new bill co-sponsored by Presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris (Calif.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) would amend the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to redefine “employee” and “joint employment.”

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019 would impose a strict Dynamex-style ABC Test for determining Who Is My Employee? under the NLRA. A worker would be deemed an employee under the NLRA by default and could only be deemed an independent contractor if all three of the following could be proven:

(A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact, and
(B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, and
(C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

This is the same strict ABC Test adopted by the California Supreme Court in Dynamex and by the Massachusetts legislature for its state wage and hour claims.

The Act would also redefine joint employment. It would require that an entity be deemed a joint employer under the NLRA if it “codetermines or shares control over the employee’s essential terms and conditions of employment.” So far, so good. But then there’s this: “In determining whether such control exists, the Board or a court of competent jurisdiction shall consider as relevant direct control and indirect control over such terms and conditions, reserved authority to control such terms and conditions, and control over such terms and conditions exercised by a person in fact.”

The Act would stymie the NLRB’s current effort at passing a new regulation that would limit “joint employment” to situations where actual control is exerted (not merely reserved) and where that control is exerted over essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, firing, and pay.

Most damaging of all (but not related to independent contractor or joint employment issues), the bill would fundamentally change the collective bargaining process by imposing binding arbitration on the parties to resolve any disputes in contract negotiation. That change, if it were ever adopted, would change the nature of bargaining as we know it, potentially removing much of the incentive for unions to bargain in good faith.

If the Act emerges from committee, it will likely pass the House but has no chance of success in the Senate. Even if it passed, it would almost certainly be vetoed by Trump anyway.

For now, the Act is a political move intended by the Democratic Presidential hopefuls to demonstrate their pro-worker, pro-union credentials. For a certain audience, the Act looks pretty and may vibrate some crests. But for at least the next two years, this display of feathers is not likely to lead to any action.

Bonus feature: For another peacock-related post, click here.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Say It Like You Mean It! NLRB Says Uber Drivers are Independent Contractors

All You can Eat Seats - Independent contractor misclassification

Section 223 looks delicious!

I was in Phoenix last week and saw this sign at a Diamondbacks Game. The seats in Section 223 were probably plastic and hard to chew but otherwise looked pretty tasty. Still, I don’t think I could eat more than a few at a time.

Ok, I know what the sign intended, but my reading is a fair one too. Right? The message wasn’t quite clear.

The NLRB was much more clear in the message it sent last week in an Advice Memorandum from the Office of the General Counsel. The Board opined that UberX and UberBLACK drivers were independent contractors, not employees of the ride-share app.

The opinion letter applies only to federal labor law (the NLRA), not to wage and hour law, employee benefits law, tax law, or the vast potpourri of state laws, but it’s another sign that the current administration is intent on protecting independent contractor relationships — if the relationships are properly structured.

The memo applied the same Right to Control Test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee that the Board used in January in its SuperShuttle decision. In SuperShuttle, the Board ruled that a group of airport van drivers were independent contractors, not employees, under the National Labor Relations Act. The ten-factor Right to Control Test used by the Board is explained here.

This NLRB Advice Memorandum arrives less than three weeks after a similar opinion letter from the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL’s April 29 letter concluded that service providers who use “virtual marketplace” apps to find customers are independent contractors, not employees. While the letter doesn’t identify the app it reviewed, the DOL’s analysis seems to apply to Uber and other ride-share apps and to the service providers (drivers) who use these apps to find customers. The DOL’s letter addressed only the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which applies a six-factor Economic Realities Test for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee. Different law, different test. 

Here are four takeaways from the two letters, viewed together:

  1. Different tests apply to different laws, even for similar circumstances. That’s been a consistent theme in this blog, and these two letters — one interpreting the NLRA and the other interpreting the FLSA — reinforce the different approaches. Click here for a chart showing the different tests for Independent Contractor vs. Employee, as of January 2019.
  2. The current administration and its executive agencies are much friendlier toward independent contractor relationships than their Obama-era predecessors. The Obama DOL and NLRB were outright hostile toward independent contractor relationships (see examples here for DOL and here for NLRB), so this is a major change.
  3. These are not court decisions and do not bind the federal courts, even as to NLRA and FLSA cases.
  4. These opinions apply only to the NLRA and the FLSA — two of the many federal laws that apply only to employees, not independent contractors. The opinions do not directly impact federal tax law or employee benefits law, and they do not impact any of the myriad state laws. In other words, the states don’t care.

The area of independent contractor misclassification and the never-ending quest to determine Who Is My Employee? continues to evolve at a pace that should keep readers on the edge of their seats. Just don’t sit too close to the edge, because if you abandon your seat, someone at a D-Backs game might try to eat it.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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What is the Test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee? (Jan. 2019)

what is the test for independent contractor misclassificationSeems like a simple question, but it isn’t. My question to your question is, “Why do you ask?” That’s because the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee is different under different laws.

And worse, the tests keep changing, as we saw in Monday’s post about the NLRB’s SuperShuttle decision.

As of today, January 31, 2019, here’s where we stand:

The current tests for determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee are:

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)

Right to Control Test (SuperShuttle version, as of 1/25/19)

Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), ERISA

Right to Control Test (Darden version, or some variant of it, as applied circuit by circuit)

Internal Revenue Service

Right to Control Test (IRS version)

Affordable Care Act

Right to Control Test (emphasis on particular factors, based on regulation)

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Economic Realities Test (which different courts articulate differently)

California, Massachusetts wage & hour laws

ABC Tests (strict version of Part B)

New Jersey wage & hour

ABC Test (regular version of Part B)

California state laws other than wage & hour

S.G. Borello & Sons Test (customized hybrid version of Right to Control & Economic Realities Tests), we think, for now

State Unemployment and Workers Comp Laws

Pick a card, any card. Tests vary substantially state to state. Some are Right to Control Tests, some are ABC Tests, some are entirely made-up, customized tests that require consideration of — or proof of — specific factors

Other State Laws (wage & hour, discrimination, tax)

Tests vary significantly state by state, law by law

This chart may be a helpful start, but three significant challenges remain, when trying to determine Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

  1. Fifty Shades of Gray.  These tests, for the most part, are balancing tests. Courts and agencies must weigh multiple factors. In most instances, some factors will favor contractor status and some will favor employee status. Different courts may reach different conclusions, even with the same facts.
  2. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Multi-state employers face the added challenge of having to deal with different tests in different states. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, states generally apply different tests for different state laws. Sometimes different tests apply in different industries too. Transportation workers, for example, may be subject to different tests than construction workers.
  3. Into the Wild. The tests keep changing. In January 2019, the NLRB changed its test in the SuperShuttle case. In 2018, California changed its test under state wage and hour law from the S.G. Borello balancing test to a strict ABC Test. In 2015, New Jersey switched to a different version of an ABC Test for its state wage and hour law. The times they are a-changin.

What to do about it? (Free tips!)

  1. Know the tests that apply where your business operates.
  2. Construct your independent contractor relationships in a way that tends to favor the factors supporting independent contractor status. Inevitably, business considerations will get in the way, and tough decisions will have to be made about how much control can be relinquished and how the relationships need to be structured. Adjust the facts of the relationship.
  3. Use a customized independent contractor agreement that emphasizes the factors that support independent contractor status. Avoid off-the-shelf agreements. Merely reciting that everyone agrees the relationship is an independent contractor relationship is only a teeny bit helpful. “Teeny bit helpful” is not the gold standard.
  4. Re-evaluate existing relationships, and make changes from time to time.
  5. Implement a gatekeeper system to prevent operations managers from entering into contractor relationships that may be invalid. Require any retention of a contractor to be approved by a point person, who can issue spot and seek help in evaluating whether a contractor relationship is likely to withstand a misclassification challenge.
  6. Seek legal help before you get audited or sued. Now is the time to review and modify relationships to reduce the likelihood of a misclassification claim. Once a claim is made, your business can only play defense. Create your playbook now, before the defense has to take the field.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NLRB Changes Independent Contractor Test (Again). Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!

changes independent contractor test super shuttle nlrbThe word of the day is change. Not the kind I needed Saturday morning when it required 37 quarters to drive 50 miles on the Florida Turnpike. (Thank you Walgreens, for the roll of quarters!) No, I mean the David Bowie kind. Turn and face the strange.

On Friday, the Trump-appointed, Republican-majority NLRB issued an important pro-business decision, changing the test for Independent Contractor vs. Employee under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The case is called SuperShuttle DFW and involves independent contractor airport shuttle drivers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The new test is the old test. Or as Roger Daltrey might say, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

The new test is the traditional common law Right to Control Test, which had been the test until 2014. In 2014, a Dem-led Board made it harder to prove independent contractor status by changing the test in a case called FedEx Home Delivery. The FedEx test asked whether the worker was “in fact, rendering services as part of an independent business” and essentially adopted an Economic Realities Test, rather than the Right to Control Test that had always been applied.

Friday’s decision brings back the old test — a traditional Right to Control Test.

A Right to Control Test asks who has the right to control the manner and means by which the work is completed. More control by the hiring party tilts toward a finding of employment. Less control means more entrepreneurial opportunity for the worker, which tilts toward a finding of independent contractor.

The Right to Control Test re-adopted in the Super Shuttle decision is a balancing test, and here are the factors the NLRB will consider:

(a) The extent of control which, by the agreement, the master may exercise over the details of the work.

(b) Whether or not the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business.

(c) The kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a specialist without supervision.

(d) The skill required in the particular occupation.

(e) Whether the employer or the workman supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work.

(f) The length of time for which the person is employed.

(g) The method of payment, whether by the time or by the job.

(h) Whether or not the work is part of the regular business of the employer.

(i) Whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relation of master and servant.

(j) Whether the principal is or is not in business.

In this case, the Amalgamated Transit Union was trying to organize 88 shuttle drivers, each of whom owned their vehicles and paid a flat fee for the right to transport passengers to and from the airport. Drivers kept the money they received for each fare, providing them with the opportunity for profit or loss, depending on how much they chose to work and which rides they chose to accept. Drivers could work when they wanted and could accept or decline rides.

The union argued that the drivers were subject to extensive rules about how they operated, including what they wore, the communication system they used, background check and training requirements, and the appearance and seating arrangements in their vehicles. These requirements, however, were not imposed by the franchisor, which then contracted with the individual drivers. Rather, these requirements were imposed by the state-run DFW Airport.

The Board recognized the important principle that requiring compliance with state- or customer-issued requirements is not the kind of control examined in a Right to Control analysis. Although the DFW Airport’s requirements were extensive, the franchisor’s insistence that its independent contractor drivers follow those rules did not turn the drivers into the franchisor’s employees. That’s an important point for businesses to remember when they enter into independent contractor arrangements.

So where does that leave us? A million dead end streets and every time I thought I’d got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet.

The test keeps changing, depending on which political party controls the Board. For now, we’re back to a common law Right to Control Test when determining Independent Contractor vs. Employee under the NLRA.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Fecal Matter Meets Electrical Wind Machine: NLRB Scrambles to Re-Evaluate Joint Employment

NLRB rulemaking update browniong-ferris Hits the fanAccording to the British site, The Phrase Finder, the expression When the shit hits the fan “alludes to the unmissable effects of shit being thrown into an electric fan.” That’s lovely. The Cambridge Dictionary (also U.K.) describes the idiom a bit more delicately: “also, when the shit flies, [when] a situation suddenly causes a lot of trouble for someone.”

Thank you, British internet!

In any event, this expression seems to capture the predicament the NLRB suddenly finds itself in after the D.C. Court of Appeals issued its unexpected ruling a couple weeks ago in the ongoing Browning-Ferris case, which we wrote about here.

The ruling vastly complicated the NLRB’s efforts to adopt a more pro-business definition of “joint employment” that would require direct control over essential terms of employment before joint employment could be found. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the meaning of “joint employment” under the National Labor Relations Act is determined by the common law Right to Control Test, and that the NLRB has no authority to change the definition in a way that is inconsistent with the common law meaning.

The common law Right to Control Test, to the current Board’s dismay, allows for a finding of joint employment when control is reserved, even if the right to control is not actually exercised. That ruling is contrary to the definition being proposed by the NLRB as part of its ongoing effort to enact a new regulation through the rulemaking process.

Since the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, here’s what’s been happening:

First, two key Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Board Chair John Ring, asking that the Board abandon its rulemaking effort in light of the court’s ruling. Nice effort, but that’s not likely to happen.

Second, “in light of the unique circumstance” posed by the court’s decision, the Board has again extended the period for the public to submit comments on the proposed rule. The new deadline is January 28, 2019, with reply comments due February 11, 2019. This is the third time the Board has extended the comment period. The second extension inspired one of my favorite posts, “Amazon Users (espec. Cindy, Amy & kris), Please Don’t Submit Comments On the NLRB’s Proposed Joint Employment Rule,” which if you missed, it’s not too late.

So what happens next?  The Board has a few options:

1. It can change the proposed rule to allow for a finding of joint employment when a company reserves the right to exercise control, even if the control is indirect and is never actually exercised, but only if the right to control covers “essential” terms and conditions of employment. That change would be consistent with the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, but it’s not as sweeping a change as current pro-business Board majority would like.

2. It can plow forward with its current rulemaking plan and ignore the D.C. Court of Appeals. The NLRB typically ignores decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeal on the basis that there are 12 regional federal Courts of Appeal and they don’t always agree, while on the other hand, the NLRB’s authority is national, not regional. This approach often results in circuit splits, in which Courts of Appeal issue contradictory rulings, a situation that generally results in the U.S. Supreme Court deciding the issue once and for all. If the NLRB takes this approach, a circuit split could develop, and the Supreme Court would be likely to get involved, but it would probably take years before that wound its way up to the Supreme Court.

3. It can ask the full slate of D.C. Court of Appeals judges to re-hear the case. This is called an en banc proceeding. Since the decision was 2-1, there could be some momentum toward the full slate of judges agreeing to reconsider the case, but even if that happens, there is no guarantee the ruling would be any different.

4. The D.C. Court of Appeals decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could decide to hear the case, or it could decline and allow the law to further develop. The Supreme Court often waits to hear what other Courts of Appeal have to say before it issues a final decision. But even if the Supreme Court takes the case, there is no assurance that the NLRB will get the ruling it wants.

Here’s why. On one hand, the newly constituted Supreme Court is more conservative and is regarded as more pro-business, which would appear to suggest support for the outcome that the pro-business NLRB would want — authority to narrow the definition of joint employment to situations in which control is directly exercised, not merely reserved.

But on the other hand, the current Supreme Court seems less and less inclined to defer to agencies’ interpretations of statutes. While the current Supreme Court may be sympathetic to the outcome desired by the NLRB, it is unlikely to be sympathetic to the process by which the NLRB wants to achieve that outcome. The Supreme Court’s current members seem inclined to limit the authority of federal agencies to re-interpret the law.

There are lots of ways the joint employment saga might play out. But for now, it’s fair to say that the D.C. Court of Appeals decision was unexpected and messy, in a way that alludes to the unmissable effects of excrement being thrown into an electric fan (as the Brits might say).

For more information on joint employment, gig economy issues, and other labor and employment developments to watch in 2019, join me in Orlando on Jan. 24, Philadelphia on Feb. 26, or Chicago on Mar. 21 for the 2019 BakerHostetler Master Class on Labor Relations and Employment Law: Meeting Today’s Challenges. Advance registration is required. Please email me if you plan to attend, tlebowitz@bakerlaw.com. If you list my name in your RSVP, I will have your registration fee waived.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Backfired? New Ruling May Threaten NLRB’s Proposed Rule on Joint Employment

Joint employment bagpipe

The word “backfire” derives from the grooming practices of 15th century Scottish noblemen, who grew beautiful long fiery-red flowing back hair, which they brushed and braided into elaborate patterns, including the “Haggis Flow” and the “Scotch Tape.” Ok, not really. Efforts to rewrite history and change definitions can sometimes fall short of the mark.

The NLRB’s grand strategy for rewriting the definition of joint employment may have just backfired. A Court of Appeals decision issued late last week may jeopardize the Board’s rulemaking authority, even though that was not the issue before the Court.

Before we dive into the December 28, 2018 ruling, here is a quick refresher on how we got here:

  • In 2015, the Democratic-majority Board adopted a vastly expanded definition of joint employment, allowing a business to be deemed a joint employer (1) even if it did not control working conditions but merely retained the right to do so, or did so indirectly, such as through third party subcontracting, and (2) even if the working conditions that could be controlled were non-essential working conditions, not just the key terms and conditions like hiring, firing, and disciplining. This was the Browning-Ferris decision.
  • In early 2018, the newly constituted Republican Board tried to reverse its 2015 Browning-Ferris decision in a case called Hy-Brand, in which the Board enacted a much narrower, pro-business definition of joint employment, requiring direct and immediate control over essential terms and conditions of employment before a company could be deemed a joint employer.
  • Several weeks later, however, the Board reversed itself and rescinded the Hy-Brand decision after conflict of interest questions arose relating to one of the board members (Member Emanuel) who decided Hy-Brand. When the Board rescinded its Hy-Brand decision, the effect was to re-establish the expansive 2015 Browning-Ferris test as the operative definition of joint employer.
  • In light of its failed effort in Hy-Brand, the Board then chose to pursue a two-step Plan B for overruling Browning-Ferris and for narrowing the definition of joint employment.
  • Step 1 would be to enact a new regulation, creating a narrower definition of joint employment that would, in effect, overrule Browning-Ferris prospectively. That process is ongoing. Step 2 was to ask the D.C. Court of Appeals to reopen the otherwise mothballed appeal of the Board’s 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris, which adopted the current broad definition of joint employment.
  • In Step 2, the Board expected the Court of Appeals to find that the 2015 Browning-Ferris decision was an overreach and that the vastly expanded definition of joint employment could not survive. That ruling would have nicely positioned the Board to roll out its new regulation, which would substantially narrow the definition of joint employment, as it tried to do in the Hy-Brand case.

That brings us to this past Friday’s decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (Dec. 28, 2018) and the real meaning of the word “backfire.” Step 2 did not go the way the NLRB had planned.

The Court of Appeals’ Ruling and Its Effect on Joint Employment

According to the 2-1 majority opinion, the question of whether there is a joint employment relationship under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) must be answered by applying the common law test for whether there exists an “agency” relationship.  The Board has no special expertise relevant to defining the common law of agency. Therefore, according to the Court of Appeals, the Board is awarded no deference in this area. In other words, the Board does not have the right to define or redefine joint employment in a way that would be inconsistent with the common law meaning of “agency.”

The Court of Appeals said that the Board’s 2015 ruling in Browning-Ferris — that indirect or reserved control can be considered when determining whether a joint employment relationship exists — was appropriate because it is consistent with the common law of agency.  Under the common law, it is the right to control that matters, even if that control is not exercised. In fact, the Court of Appeals concluded that Board has no authority to prohibit the consideration of indirect or reserved control when evaluating whether there is joint employment. (That’s what the Board is currently trying to do through rulemaking.)  The reason the Board cannot prohibit consideration of indirect or reserved control is that the common law definition of agency examines whether an entity has the right to control how work is performed, regardless of whether that control is exercised. This last point is important for reasons that the D.C. Court of Appeals was not directly addressing. That point — if it hold true — would cast doubt on the Board’s ability to implement its proposed new regulation. The regulation would require a showing of direct and immediate control (not merely indirect or reserved control) before joint employment can be found.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals did not, however, give the Board’s 2015 Browning-Ferris ruling its full backing. Where the Browning-Ferris ruling went wrong, according to the Court of Appeals, was in allowing the consideration of indirect or reserved control over non-essential terms and conditions of employment.  The common law agency test requires control (or indirect or reserved control) over essential terms and conditions of employment (e.g., hiring, firing, disciplining).  The Court therefore ruled that the Board lacks authority to change that definition in a way that make a business a joint employer merely by entering into a standard subcontracting or staffing agency agreement. All such relationships involve some level of control over non-essential working terms, such as defining the type of work to be done by the subcontractor or staffing agency workers and dictating the desired result.

The 2015 Browning-Ferris case is now being remanded back to the Board to take another shot at it. That would be fine and dandy with the now-Republican-majority Board, except for the fact that the Board may now be impotent to make a meaningful pro-business change in this case, since Member Emanuel might be precluded from participating in the decision due to Littler’s representation of Leadpoint, the staffing agency in the Browning-Ferris dispute (or maybe he is not precluded now, since the one-year conflicts period has now lapsed). Member Emanuel was a shareholder in the Littler firm before his appointment to the Board in September 2017. Further complicating the possible recusal issue is the fact that Trump required his appointees to sign an Ethics Pledge that provided a two-year conflict of interest period, rather than the standard one-year period.

The most lasting effect of this Court of Appeals decision is likely to be that it calls into question whether the Board can, through rulemaking, redefine joint employment in a way that eliminates consideration of indirect or reserved control by a putative joint employer.  If the definition of joint employment under the NLRA is determined by the common law of agency, and the Board — according to this Court of Appeals — lacks the expertise to interpret the common law of agency, then the Board would lack authority to change the definition in the way it proposes.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, it may be that this decision has no lasting impact at all on the definition of joint employment under the NLRA. This was a 2-1 decision by U.S. Court of Appeals, not by the U.S. Supreme Court. The two judges in the majority were Obama appointees. The full D.C. Circuit could be asked to reconsider the issue in an en banc proceeding.  Or the matter could go to the Supreme Court (which seems unlikely).

Or, if past practice is any indicator of future behavior, the Board might just ignore the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, on the basis that there are 12 Circuit Courts and they often disagree. The Board is required to follow rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it often ignores legal opinions issued by the individual Courts of Appeal. The Board must, of course, follow the D.C. Court of Appeals’ ruling as it relates to this particular dispute, but it will not necessarily take the Court of Appeals’ broader rulings as controlling authority on what the Board can or cannot do.

So where are we?

We’ll see. But two things are certain.  First, the definition of joint employment will continue to evolve; and second, the definition of backfire has nothing to do with Scottish nobleman or their back hair.

And at the end of the day, joint employment continues to be a messy, messy situation.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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