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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“This is a Cabinet”: DOL Proposes New Definition of Joint Employer, Seeks to Clear Up a Confusing Label

This post was originally published as a BakerHostetler Employment Alert on April 3, 2019. Cabinet joint employmentSometimes it’s obvious what something is, and you don’t need a label. Other times it’s not so obvious, and you do need a label. Then there’s the rare instance when it’s obvious what something is, but someone feels compelled to supply a label anyway. That third scenario is what I saw when I went to my daughter’s volleyball tournament last weekend and snapped this photo of a cabinet in the lobby. The label is small, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it helpfully declares the item to be a “cabinet.” It further announces, in red handwriting, that the item has been “sold,” thereby allaying my concerns that my daughter was spending her Saturday playing volleyball in a den of cabinet thieves.

The second scenario – label needed – is the focus of this Alert. And the territory is familiar ground ‒ joint employment.

It’s rarely obvious what that phrase means, and companies that use workers supplied by other companies have been seeking clarity for some time now. Ignoring Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about the nine most terrifying words in the English language, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced on Monday that it’s here to help.

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Too Many Beef Livers? NLRB Addresses How It Will Review 29,000 Comments on Its Proposed Joint Employer Rule

NRLB Ring too many beef livers avocadosToo much of a good thing can be a bad thing. For example, according to this article in Popular Science, consuming 240 avocados in one sitting would put the average man at risk of sudden death by potassium poisoning. (It doesn’t say how many avocados an above-average man could eat, but presumably the number is similar.) 

A similarly bad outcome can result from over-consumption of beef livers, although it would take approximately 431 pounds of beef livers before the toxicity of excessive vitamin A might cause a man to think he should have stopped after 430.

Lots of comments can overwhelm an administrative agency’s internal organs as well. As we discussed here, the NLRB has proposed a new regulation that would make it harder to establish joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act. In response to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Board has received nearly 29,000 comments from interested organizations, unions, academics, business owners and individual workers (like Cindy, perhaps) about the proposed new rule.

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We’ve Got Baby Steps Toward a New Definition of Joint Employment Under the FLSA.

Baby steps joint employment FLSA new rule

I still don’t know what this is, but I got it from Wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, which knows everything, or thinks it does, Baby Steps is the name of a Japanese manga series by Hikaru Katsuki. I have no idea what that means, but apparently it’s a story of some sort, which I infer from the following description: “The story is centered on Eiichirō Maruo, a first year honor student who one day decides that he is lacking exercise.”

This does not make me want to watch it.

I will, however, be watching the baby steps being taken by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). On February 28, the WHD submitted a proposed new rule on joint employment to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The new rule would modify the meaning of “joint employment” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which is the federal law governing minimum wage and overtime requirements.

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New Rule May Clear Up ‘Employee vs Contractor’ Test under FLSA, But Not Quite Yet

DOL joint employment

New regulations may soon be proposed to redefine “employee” under federal wage and hour law. In a recent interview with Bloomberg BNA, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta hinted that the DOL is working on a new regulation that would more definitively speak to who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law governing minimum wage and overtime for employees, does not apply to independent contractors. That’s one of the reasons it matters whether someone is classified as an employee of a contractor. Contractors are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime under federal law.

The FLSA was passed in the 1930s and does not fit the modern gig economy. Secretary Acosta appears committed to modernizing the regulations, which would bring much needed clarity to the question of who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.

In terms of priorities, the DOL appears likely to address the definition of “joint employment” first.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has initiated formal rulemaking procedures that would result in a new regulation defining joint employment more narrowly under federal labor law.  The DOL has indicated it has plans to follow suit, using rulemaking procedures to seek a new regulation redefining “joint employment” under the FLSA. We can probably expect to see a new proposed FLSA regulation redefining “joint employment” by early 2019.

Based on Secretary Acosta’s comments to Bloomberg BNA, it seems likely that the DOL will turn it’s attention to the Independent Contractor vs Employee conundrum next.

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

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Dept of Labor May Redefine Joint Employment with New Rule, Hints Labor Sec’y

DOL may issue new rule for joint employment

Rules are important for avoiding chaos, as I am reminded daily by one of my favorite twitter accounts, @CrimeADay. That’s where I learned that it’s a federal crime to operate a manned (or unmanned) submersible in national park waters without a permit, thereby ruining my weekend plans. (18 USC 1865 & 36 CFR 3.19). I also learned it is a federal crime to bring a child to a cockfight before his or her 16th birthday, thereby ruining my winter plans for father-daughter bonding activities. (7 USC §2156(a)(2)(B) & 18 USC §49(c).)

The Department of Labor (DOL) thinks rules are important too. Taking a page from the NLRB, which last week issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to redefine “joint employment” under federal labor law, the DOL may be about to follow suit.

In a speech to members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta disclosed that the DOL is working on a proposal to redefine joint employment, presumably under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires the payment of overtime and a minimum wage.

Joint employment is a hot button issue in the hospitality business, where outsourcing functions like housekeeping is commonplace, and where joint employment can mean the hotel operator is liable for for wage and hour violations by other entities who are supplying labor.

As we have discussed in previous posts, the tests for joint employment are different depending on which law is being applied. That means that even if the NLRB revises the definition of joint employment, that new test would not apply to the FLSA. The DOL would need to write a separate rule that would define joint employment under the FLSA.

According to Acosta, that new rule may soon be on the way.

Until then, remember that it is illegal to take a fishing boat into the danger zone of the Potomac near the Naval Surface Warfare Center while they’re firing guns, aerial bombing, using directed energy, or other hazardous operations, unless the patrol boats let you in. (33 USC §3 & 33 CFR §334.230(a)(2).)

Thanks, @CrimeADay!

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

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NLRB Proposes New Definition of Joint Employer; 60-Day Comment Period Starts Now

NLRB logoWhen seeking musical inspiration for a post on the NLRB’s joint employment standard, look no further than the Barenaked Ladies’ 1994 album, Maybe You Should Drive. Like an on-again, off-again relationship, the Board keeps changing its joint employment standard. Between 2015 and today, the test has been, at various times:

  • Direct control (pre-Browning-Ferris, 1984-2015),
  • Indirect control (Browning-Ferris, 2015-Dec. 2017),
  • Direct control (Hy-Brand overrules Browning-Ferris, Dec. 2017-Feb. 2018), and
  • Indirect control (Board vacates Hy-Brand, restoring Browning-Ferris, Feb 2018-present).

But with this newest change coming in the form of a proposed regulation, the proposed change can be expected, once it’s enacted, to remain in effect long term.

Cue the Barenaked Ladies, in “Everything Old Is New Again” (1994):

Everything old is new again, everything under the sun.

Now that I’m back with you again,

We hug and we kiss, we sit and make lists,

We drink and I bandage your wrists.

The proposed new standard would make it much more difficult to establish that a business is a joint employer.

The new test will help franchisors, who need to protect their brand and marks, but do not exercise day-to-day control over hiring and scheduling of a franchise owner’s employees. The new test will help businesses that subcontract labor and that want to ensure certain tasks are performed but do not exercise day-to-day control over how the work is performed or over how subcontractor hires, schedules, and supervises its employees.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released late last week, the NLRB proposes a new regulation to interpret the National Labor Relations Act. New 29 CFR §103.40,which would define joint employer.

Under the proposed regulation, an employer may be considered a joint employer of a separate employer’s employees only if the two employers share or codetermine the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, and direction. A putative joint employer must possess and actually exercise substantial direct and immediate control over the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment in a manner that is not limited and routine.

There’s a lot packed into that definition:

  • The proposed joint employer must share or codetermine the workers’ terms and conditions of  employment;
  • These terms have to be essential terms of employment, such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, and direction;
  • It is not enough to have the right to control these terms; the proposed joint employer must actually exercise this control;
  • The control must be direct, substantial, and immediate; and
  • It is not sufficient to exert control that is limited and routine.

“Limited and routine” control means directing another business’s employees as to what work to perform, or where and when to perform it. Under the new rule, that will not be enough to show joint employment. Control that is not “limited and routine” would include providing direction on how to do the work — in other words, supervision.

For those of you asking, “So what? Who cares?” (my parents, for example), here’s why the change matters.

Under the new rule, a business that retains another company to perform work but has no control over that company’s hiring, compensation, scheduling, or supervision:

  • Will no longer be obligated to collectively bargain with that other company’s unionized workers;
  • Will no longer be held jointly liable for that other company’s unfair labor practices; and
  • Will no longer be drawn into collective bargaining or unfair labor practice disputes with that other company’s employees.

It’s a big deal. Unions won’t like it since the new rule will reduce their influence, but the new rule is a common sense, pro-business proposal that will add predictability and certainty to economic and legal relationships.

So what’s next?

There is a now a 60-day period for comment. The Board will then have the opportunity to consider the comments and revise or reject the proposed rule.  The soonest the rule can be implemented is late 2018 but more likely early 2019.

Then, assuming the rule is implemented, we go back to the standard that existed before Browning-Ferris, but with a lot more clarity and permanence. Everything old is new again. But this time, the change should be long-term since it will be memorialized in a  federal regulation.

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

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