DOL Signals Loosening in Regulatory Stance on Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employer Liability

Alexandra D. Thaler and Justin Engel

The federal Department of Labor signaled this week that it is reversing course on Obama-era policies that had resulted in the risk of expansive employer liability with respect to worker classification and joint employment.  The DOL’s withdrawal of two controversial guidance documents from 2015 and 2016 is one in a series of steps indicating that the Trump administration seeks to make good on campaign promises to loosen regulations on employers.

In 2015 the DOL had articulated its view of the definition of an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the context of independent contractor misclassification.  In an informal guidance known as an Administrator’s Interpretation (AI), the DOL reviewed the application of the so-called “economic realities” test used to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.  This multi-factor test is much broader than the common law “control” test, and as a result it sweeps more relationships under the label of “employment.”  The DOL thus concluded that application of the test results in the finding that “most workers are employees under the FLSA.”  Although the DOL purported to rely on established precedent in reaching this conclusion, its clear message to employees and businesses was that the Department would take the broadest possible view of employment relationships in investigation and enforcement proceedings going forward.  Accordingly, the withdrawal of the guidance sends the message that the DOL will be softening its stance on this issue.

As we wrote at the time, in a subsequent Administrator’s Interpretation issued in early 2016, the DOL advocated an expansive definition of joint employment.  The DOL asserted that joint employment could be either “horizontal” or “vertical,” and may exist when “an employee is employed by two (or more) employers and the employers are responsible, both individually and jointly, for that employee under the law.”   While the AI’s description of “horizontal” joint employment largely conformed to the established approach, which looks to the common law “control” test to determine whether an employee is sufficiently controlled by two or more employers for joint employment to arise, the DOL’s definition of “vertical” joint employment represented a significant departure from this precedent.  According to the guidance, “vertical” joint employment “exists where the employee has an employment relationship with one employer (typically a staffing agency, subcontractor, labor provider, or other intermediary employer) and the economic realities show that he or she is economically dependent on, and thus employed by, another entity involved in the work.”  By announcing that vertical joint employment status should be evaluated using the multi-factor “economic realities” test, the DOL clearly intended to broaden the circumstances in which employers could be found jointly and severally liable for FLSA violations.  Thus, the DOL’s withdrawal of the 2016 AI signals a return to the narrow common law focus on control as the touchstone for determining whether joint employment exists.

While it remains to be seen what specific impact the withdrawals of these interpretations will have, employers that had been wary of the Obama administration’s broad pronouncements in the area of wage and hour enforcement, and business groups that had urged the withdrawal of these interpretations, will welcome this change.   These and other recent announcements—including the proposed 2018 federal budget, which contains a dramatic 21% funding cut for the DOL and proposes the merger of the OFCCP into the EEOC while also significantly cutting the OFCCP’s budget—may mean that the regulatory landscape for employers will experience significant loosening in the months and years to come.  However, it is important to keep in mind that other regulatory or even Congressional action in other areas relating to the employer-employee relationship (most notably a possible increase to the minimum salary requirement for exempt employees on which the DOL will soon solicit public comment once again, according to a recent statement by Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta), may yet result in significant impact on businesses and individuals.

Overtime Update: Will the Texas Decision Invalidating the DOL Overtime Rule Survive and What Should Employers Do Now?

By Kenneth M. Bello

Now that a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction staying implementation of the new DOL regulations revising salary thresholds for determining application of the white collar minimum wage and overtime pay exemptions, otherwise slated to go into effect on December 1st, what happens next, and how quickly will that occur?  Here are the possibilities.

  • An interlocutory appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. How that comes out is anyone’s guess, but the case is vulnerable in its analysis, as detailed below.
  • Congressional Action that renders the decision academic. On September 28, 2016, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 6094, titled Regulatory Relief for Small Business, Schools, and Nonprofits ActThe bill would have changed the effective date of the revised overtime regulations from December 1, 2016 until June 1, 2017.  With a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, there is a very real possibility that some form of law will be filed and passed in 2017.  The question of course is what will that bill look like – for examples, will it exempt “small business”, and will it change the minimum salary amounts and/or remove automatic indexing?

Read more

DOL Overtime Rule Stopped: Nationwide Injunction Issued by Texas Judge

In a last-minute, and therefore surprising, decision issued today, a Texas Federal District Court judge has blocked enforcement of the revised federal overtime rule set to become effective December 1, 2016.  The rule, issued by the federal Department of Labor, would require employers to pay a salary of at least $913 dollars per week (equivalent to $47,476 per year), to most employees treated as exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a significant increase over the current $455 per week ($23,660 annually).  The ruling came in response to cases filed in the last several weeks by certain groups of states, and the decision to issue the injunction has surprised some commentators.

Despite being issued by a single Texas trial court judge, the injunction ostensibly has nationwide effect, and completely prevents the DOL from enforcing the revised rule, just days before it was scheduled to take effect.  It remains to be seen whether an immediate appeal will follow, and ultimately whether the injunction will be upheld.  Employers that have not already implemented changes to employee pay or classifications will need to make decisions regarding whether to go ahead with changes in the face of this uncertainty.  We will continue to provide updated analysis and will be available in the coming days to discuss these developments with any clients seeking guidance in making these decisions.

 

EEOC Publishes Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017-2021

By Martha J. Zackin

EEOC recently published its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2017-2021, in which it outlines the areas in which it intends to focus its strategic litigation and enforcement activities in the coming years.  Not surprisingly, the EEOC indicates that it intends to expend significant resources on understanding and protecting temporary employees and members of the gig workforce.

As described in the SEP, EEOC’s substantive priorities for Fiscal Years 2017-2021 are: Read more

Final Rule and Guidance Issued Implementing Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order

On August 25, 2016, the Department of Defense (DoD), General Services Administration (GSA), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) issued a Final Rule amending the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to implement Executive Order 13673, the Fair Play and Safe Workplaces Executive Order (also known as the “blacklisting rule”).  The Department of Labor (DOL) also issued Final Guidance to assist the FAR Council and federal contracting agencies in the implementation of EO 13673.

Signed on July 31, 2014, and as described here, EO 13673 requires prospective and current federal contractors and subcontractors to disclose all violations of federal labor laws that result in administrative merits determinations, arbitral awards or decisions, or civil judgments. The Order also requires contractors and subcontractors to disclose specific information to workers each pay period regarding their wages and prohibits contractors from requiring that their workers sign arbitration agreements that encompass claims of sexual assault or harassment.

The Final Rule is effective October 25, 2016, which is earlier than had been expected. Fortunately, certain obligations under the Final Rule are now phased in, meaning that contractors and subcontractors have time in which to come up to full compliance. Contracts valued at or under $500,000 are excluded from the Final Rule, as are subcontracts for goods that are “commercially available off-the-shelf” items.

Disclosure. When fully implemented, contractors will be required to disclose violations of fourteen federal workplace laws from the previous three years – including laws addressing wage and hour, safety and health, collective bargaining, family and medical leave, and civil rights protections. The provision of EO 13673 requiring contractors to disclose violations of “equivalent” state laws has been paused, pending the DOL’s release of a comprehensive list of state laws covered by the Order; when released, this list will be subject to notice and comment before becoming effective.

Certain information pertaining to violations contractors disclose will be made public. These include: (1) the law violated; (2) the case number, charge number, docket number, or other unique identifier; (3) the date of the decision finding a violation; and (4) the name of the court, arbitrator, agency, board or commission that rendered the decision. Any other information provided voluntarily or at the request of the contracting officer (including information pertaining to mitigating factors and steps taken to achieve compliance) will not be made public unless the contractor chooses to make it so.

The process by which violations will be assessed is set forth in the Final Rule and Guidance. Initially, a new type of government official – an Agency Labor Compliance Advisor (ALCA) – will review the nature of the violations, to determine if any are serious, willful, repeated, or pervasive. After weighing any such violations against the severity of the violations, the size of the contractor, and any mitigating factors, the ALCA will provide his or her recommendation to the contracting officer.  As before, the decision to award or extend a contract rests with the contracting officer, who must determine whether the contractor is responsible and has a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.

Pay Transparency. The Final Rule also requires contractors to provide workers with detailed wage statements every pay period, which must include: (1) total number of hours worked per pay period; (2) any overtime hours worked; (3) rate of pay; (4) gross pay; and (5) itemized additions to or deductions from gross pay. Contractors must also provide employees with written notice of their status as exempt or non-exempt from the overtime compensation requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Workers treated as independent contractors must be notified, in writing, of this status.

Arbitration. In addition, the Final Rule prohibits pre-dispute arbitration agreements that cover claims arising under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or any tort related to or arising out of claims of sexual assault or harassment. These disputes may be arbitrated, but only by voluntary consent given after any such dispute arises.

Implementation Schedule. The Final Rule sets forth a “phased-in” reporting requirement as follows (and as summarized by DOL here):

  1. September 12, 2016: Preassessmentbegins, through which current or prospective contractors may come to DOL for a voluntary assessment of their labor compliance history, in anticipation of bids on future contracts but independent of any specific acquisition.
  2. October 25, 2016: Mandatory disclosure and assessment of labor law compliance begins for all prime contractors under consideration for contracts with a total value greater than or equal to $50 million. At first, the reporting disclosure period is limited to one (1) year and will gradually increase each year to a maximum disclosure period of three (3) years by October 25, 2018. Also, contractors and subcontractors whose contracts are valued at more than $1,000,000 are prohibited from requiring employees to sign pre-dispute arbitration clauses covering claims arising out of Title VII or claims for sexual assault or harassment.
  3. January 1, 2017: The Paycheck Transparency clause takes effect, requiring contractors to provide wage statements, notice of overtime status, and notice of any independent contractor relationship to their covered workers.
  4. April 25, 2017: The total contract value threshold for prime contracts requiring disclosure and assessment of labor law compliance drops to $500,000.
  5. October 25, 2017: Mandatory assessment begins for all subcontractors under consideration for subcontracts with a total value greater than or equal to $500,000 (other than subcontracts for commercially available off-the-shelf items).

Action Items. Even with a phased-in implementation schedule, there is much to be done.  For example:

  1. Current or prospective contractors should decide whether to participate in the DOL’s preassessment process. According to information provided by DOL (here), using the published Final Guidance, if a contractor that has been assessed by the DOL as responsible subsequently submits a bid, the contracting officer and the ALCA may use the DOL’s assessment that the contractor has a satisfactory record of labor law compliance unless additional labor law violations have been disclosed.
  2. Contractors (and subcontractors) should begin developing and implementing processes for capturing information required by the Final Rule.
  3. Existing arbitration agreements should be reviewed for compliance.
  4. Existing training and compliance programs should be reviewed and revised, as appropriate, or new programs developed. A well-educated workforce can help minimize the risk of violations that must be reported

Defend Trade Secrets Act Signed Into Law

President Obama signed the “Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016” into law on May 11th.  The Act amends the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 to provide a federal private right of action for trade secret misappropriation and theft.  Remedies include actual damages, injunctive relief, and exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees for willful and malicious misappropriation. The Act does not preempt state law, meaning that plaintiffs will now have the option of proceeding under either state or federal law when faced with a threat to trade secrets.

The Act also provides immunity for certain disclosures made to government officials or attorneys.  Specifically, the Act provides that an individual may not be held criminally or civilly liable under any federal or state trade secret law for the disclosure of a trade secret that is made: (1) in confidence to a government official or an attorney, solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law; or (2) in a complaint or other filing in a lawsuit or other proceeding, if such filing is made under seal.  Likewise, an employee who files a retaliation lawsuit for reporting a suspected violation of law may disclose the trade secret to his or her attorney and may use the trade secret information in a court proceeding if the individual files any document containing trade secret information under seal and does not disclose the trade secret except pursuant to court order.

Importantly, effective May 11, 2016, the Act requires employers to provide notice of this immunity in any contract or agreement with an employee that governs the use of trade secrets or other confidential information.  Employers who fail to provide the required notification cannot recover attorneys’ fees or exemplary damages under the Act.  The notice of immunity can be done in one of two ways.  One way is to incorporate fully the notice of immunity into confidentiality agreements.  The second way is to put the notice of immunity in the company’s policy for reporting a suspected violation of law, and then to cross-reference that policy in confidentiality agreements.  For simplicity, we recommend that employers reproduce the statutory language in the notice of immunity.

EEOC Proposes Changes to EEO-1 Reporting to Include Pay Data

By Martha J. Zackin

Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a proposed revision to the Employer Information Report (EEO-1) to include the annual collection and reporting of pay data.  Currently, federal law requires federal contractors with 50 or more employees, and all other employers with 100 or more employees, to file an annual EEO-1 report, which reports employees’ ethnicity, race, and sex by job category.  The revised EEO-1 would require all employers with 100 or more employees to continue to collect and report this demographic data and, in addition, pay data.  Federal contractors with between 50 and 99 employees would not be required to report pay data, but would continue to report ethnicity, race, and sex.

According to the press release published announcing this new requirement, the data collected will be used by both the EEOC and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) “to assess complaints of discrimination, focus agency investigations, and identify existing pay disparities that may warrant further examination.”  In addition, as described in an EEOC- published “Questions and Answer” document, the data will be aggregated and published, to “help employers evaluate their own pay practices to prevent pay discrimination in their workplaces.”

A “Small Business Fact Sheet” provides a detailed description of the data that would be collected if the proposal becomes law.  In summary, using W-2 wage data employers would tally and report the number of employees within each EEO-1 job category whose W-2 pay for twelve months was in one of twelve “pay bands.”  These pay bands, which would track the twelve pay bands used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Occupation Employment Statistics survey, are:

    1. $19,239 and under;
    2. $19,240 – $24,439;
    3. $24,440 – $30,679;
    4. $30,680 – $38,999;
    5. $39,000 – $49,919;
    6. $49,920 – $62,919;
    7. $62,920 – $80,079;
    8. $80,080 – $101,919;
    9. $101,920 – $128,959;
    10. $128,960 – $163,799;
    11. $163,800 – $207,999; and
    12. $208,000 and over.

In addition to reporting (by ethnicity, race and sex) the number of employees whose total W-2 pay fell into each pay band, employers would also tally and report the total number of hours worked by the employees counted in each pay band over the prior twelve months. This would accounts for part-time or partial-year employment.

Members of the public may submit comments through April 1, 2016.  Barring revision or withdrawal of the proposal, employers will be required to comply with the new EEO-1 obligations by submit ting pay data as of the September 30, 2017 EEO-1 filing deadline.

The EEOC also The proposed revised EEO-1 may be viewed here.

Joint Employment: DOL Issues Adminstrator’s Interpretation

By Martha J. Zackin

The legal concept of joint employment has been around for many years, first gaining national prominence in 1996, after a federal appeals court found Microsoft to be a co-employer of thousands of workers classified either as “contractors” or “temporary employees” retained through a staffing company.  The case, Vizcaino v. Microsoft,, 97 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 1996), ultimately settled for $97 million dollars.

In 2015 the National Labor Relations Board weighed in, with Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 186.  As described in a press release describing the BFI decision, the NLRB will now find two or more entities to be joint employers of a single workforce if “(1) they are both employers within the meaning of the common law;  and (2) they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.”  In evaluating joint employment status, the NLRB considers whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment indirectly through an intermediary, such as a staffing company.  Remarkably, with BFI, the NLRB will find joint employment even where a company has not actually exercised control, but has merely “reserved the authority to do so.”

 

Multiple federal courts also joined the discussion in during 2015, with both the Third and the Fourth Circuit Courts of Appeals finding staffing buyers to be joint employers with the staffing companies whose workers performed the services.   Although the tests applied by the courts were slightly different, the courts in both Butler v. Drive Automotive, 793 F.3d 404 (4th Circuit 2015) and Faush v. Tuesday Morning, Inc., (3rd Circuit 2015) focused on the staffing buyers’ right to control the manner and means by which the work was performed.

Today, the Department of Labor offered its view on joint employment, issuing Administrator’s Interpretation No.  2016-1.  Not surprisingly, the DOL advocates an expansive definition of joint employment “to ensure that workers receive the protections to which they are entitled.”  Within the Administrator’s Interpretation, the DOL introduces the concepts of “horizontal joint employment” and “vertical joint employment.”  According to the DOL, both “horizontal” and “vertical” joint employment exist when “an employee is employed by two (or more) employers and the employers are responsible, both individually and jointly, for that employee under the law.”  With “horizontal” joint employment, an employee may be employed by two companies that share operations.  The “vertical” joint employment relationship is akin to the traditional staffing relationship, where a business obtains workers through an arrangement with an intermediary employee.

With the Administrator’s Interpretation, the DOL also published a blog entry, along with FAQ’s graphic illustrations of “horizontal joint employment” and “vertical joint employment.”

A broad standard of joint employment will have a significant impact on many businesses.   For example, entities deemed to be joint employers may find themselves liable for actions taken by their contractors and suppliers, if those contractors and suppliers are deemed to be joint employers.  Moreover, under the expansive definition described above, non-unionized employers found to be joint employers of unionized entities may find themselves subject to collective bargaining obligations.  Small businesses and franchise owners may be responsible for medical care under the Affordable Care Act, among other laws, if their employees are grouped together and counted with the employees of their co-employers.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Form I-9 Compliance: New Guidance Issued

By Martha J. Zackin

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires employers to verify the work authorization of employees using the Form I-9.   Some employers choose to conduct periodic internal audits of their Forms I-9, to ensure compliance.  Concerned that improperly conducted internal audits could “create barriers to employment for work-authorized individuals,” the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division together published new Guidance for Employers Conducting Internal Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 Audits.

The guidance, developed by DOJ and ICE with input from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, seeks to provide employers with, among other things:

  •  information regarding the scope and  purpose of audits;
  • considerations before conducting internal audits;
  • details regarding how to correct errors, omissions or other deficiencies found on Forms I-9 and how to cure deficiencies related to E-Verify queries; and
  • guidance regarding the anti-discrimination mandate.

For further information, the DOJ’s press release announcing the guidance may be found here.

Nothing in the law or this guidance requires employers to self-audit I-9 compliance.  Those employers who choose to do so, however, should look to the guidance to help structure and implement self-audits in a manner consistent with the employer sanctions and anti-discrimination provisions of the INA.