Seyfarth Synopsis: On November 7, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Save Local Businesses Act. If passed by the Senate, the bill would overturn Obama-era decisions and agency guidance broadly defining and holding separate, unrelated companies liable as “joint employers” under federal wage & hour and labor law. Perhaps more importantly, the bill signifies a broader trend to provide more clear guidance and roll-back various Obama-era rules on wage & hour issues.
The Broad Approach to “Joint Employment” Under the Obama Administration
Under the prior Administration, and particularly during the later years, employers who had traditionally relied on contract labor, temporary workers, staffing agencies, subcontractors, and franchise arrangements found themselves in the crosshairs of federal agencies and regulators. Traditionally, joint employer status was found where separate, unrelated entities shared responsibility and exercised direct control over the employment relationship, including decisions affecting the terms and conditions of employment. In that case, both entities could be held jointly liable for violations of wage & hour and other employment laws. The Obama Administration upended this traditional test, however.
In August 2015, the NLRB issued its much-discussed Browning-Ferris decision (addressed here), where the Board adopted an expansive definition of joint employment focusing on the right to control the terms and conditions of employment and the indirect exercise of those rights. (Seyfarth Shaw LLP is leading the appeal of Browning-Ferris to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.) In 2015 and 2016, then-WHD Administrator Dr. David Weil issued two separate Administrator’s Interpretations (“AIs”) concerning independent contractors and joint employment. In 2015, in an effort to reduce the classification of workers as independent contractors and increase the number of workers subject to the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements, Dr. Weil issued guidance espousing a broad interpretation of who qualifies as an “employee” under the FLSA and highlighting the DOL’s position that almost all workers are employees. In 2016, Dr. Weil followed-up with guidance emphasizing the DOL’s position that joint employment must be determined based on the economic realities instead of (in their view) artificial corporate or contractual arrangements, including situations involving “horizontal” and “vertical” joint employment (discussed here). This guidance focused on the economic realities of a business’s relationship with a given worker, especially noting that indirect control (e.g., control excised solely through a staffing company) can be sufficient for a finding of joint employment. While the AIs were not entitled to judicial deference, we anticipated that some judges would treat Dr. Weil’s words as gospel.
As we previously reported, the broader tests espoused by the NLRB and the WHD exposed employers to a myriad of new wage and hour liabilities, investigations, and enforcement actions, and were especially relevant to companies that outsource work, utilize staffing agencies and contractors, or employ a franchisor/franchisee business model. If recent activity by Trump’s DOL and Congress is any indication, a shift in regulatory enforcement and focus is well underway.
The Winds of “Joint Employment” Are Shifting
As we reported here and here, this summer the DOL withdrew its AIs on joint employment and independent contractors. More recently, on November 7, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Save Local Businesses Act by a vote of 242-181, including yes votes from eight Democrats. The bill clarifies the standard for “joint employer” status under the FLSA and the NLRA, and returns to a traditional test that requires “direct, actual, immediate,” and “significant” control over the essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, discharging employees, determining rates of pay and benefits, day-to-day supervision, and administering employee discipline.
Implications for Employers
The DOL’s decision to withdraw its AIs and the passage of the Save Local Businesses Act are welcome changes for employers who faced significant liability and uncertainty under the Obama-era rules. Although the bill itself still faces a tough road in the Senate—where it will require Democratic support to reach 60 votes and avoid a filibuster—it would represent a significant shift in the federal government’s focus. Even if the bill stalls, it nevertheless solidifies a broader regulatory and enforcement trend that may prompt federal courts to return to the traditional and more predictable joint employer test under the FLSA.
Full passage of the Save Local Businesses Act in Congress and signature by the President, however, will not be a panacea for these thorny joint-employer issues. Many states, such as California, still have broad joint-employer tests under their respective wage-hour laws. Courts will also continue to grapple with the proper application and interpretation of these rules, as evidenced by a recent decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals purporting to define joint employment even more broadly than the Obama Administration. Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ bar will continue to push the outer contours of the law in their search to apply joint employer principles more broadly and thereby reach the “deep pockets” of franchisors and other principals. Regardless of what happens to the Save Local Businesses Act, we foresee continued potential exposure and litigation in this arena. Employers—and particularly those in industries that make heavy use of franchises, subcontractors, and staffing agencies—should remain engaged and focused on these issues, and continue to scrutinize their independent contractor relationships, staffing arrangements with third parties, and related contracts.