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.

 

Proposed Rule Issued for Federal Contractor Paid Sick Leave

By Alexandra (Sasha) Thaler

The Department of Labor (DOL) announced last Thursday that it has posted for comment its Proposed Rule implementing President Obama’s September 7, 2015 Executive Order (EO 13706), which requires certain federal contractors and their subcontractors to provide employees with up to 7 days (56 hours) of paid sick leave annually.  The rule affects contractors entering into new contracts on or after January 1, 2017 that are covered by the Service Contract Act, the Davis-Bacon Act, or the Fair Labor Standards Act, concessions contracts, and service contracts in connection with federal property or lands. These contractors will need to include a new contract clause in applicable solicitations and government contracts, included as Appendix A to the Proposed Rule.

Under the new rule, employees must be allowed to earn paid sick time at a rate of 1 hour for every 30 hours worked. This mirrors many recently enacted state and municipal sick time laws across the country. However, accruals may not be capped at less than 56 hours, an amount that is higher than required by some jurisdictions, including Massachusetts and California.

The Proposed Rule provides that sick time must be made available for absences due to the employee’s own physical or mental illness, injury or medical condition, and for obtaining diagnosis, care or preventative treatment for the employee, as well as for caring for family members for the same reasons, and for absences relating to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking (including for medical, legal and other needs that may arise in those circumstances). In a departure from some existing state and local laws, however, the definition of a family member is quite broad, and includes not only children, parents, spouses and domestic partners, but also “any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”

The new federal contractor requirement also has some of the same aspects of other sick time laws that are most likely to cause problems in administration, such as allowing employees to use sick time in 1-hour increments, requiring carryover of unused hours from year to year, requiring reinstatement of unused time following interruptions in service of up to 12 months, and requiring sick time to be granted even if the employee provides little or no prior notice.

Due to the rash of activity in this area in recent years, many employers have already implemented paid sick time policies, while others have had comprehensive PTO policies for some time. The Proposed Rule permits existing sick time, PTO or other time off policies to substitute for the new paid sick time requirement so long as those policies meet the minimum standards of the new rule. Employers that plan to rely on existing policies to meet the new requirements should consult with experienced employment counsel to assess whether they fully meet the new requirements. The good news is that employers will have until January 1, 2017 to implement compliant policies. The Wage and Hour division invites comments on the proposed rule until March 28, 2016.

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.

Update on DOL changes to FLSA White Collar Exemptions

By Alexandra D. Thaler

As we previously reported here, the Department of Labor will soon be revising the so-called “white collar exemptions” to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  Recently, the DOL has indicated that it now plans to issue the Final Rule in July 2016.

To recap, on June 30, 2015, the DOL issued a detailed report and proposed rule, inviting the public to submit comments through September 4, 2015.  The agency has received nearly 300,000 comments to date, underscoring the intense interest the proposed changes have garnered across diverse stakeholder groups. Read more

Workplace Violence: Can the Risk be Mitigated?

By Martha J. Zackin

Workplace violence is once again in the headlines, due to the horrific, on-air murders of a journalist and cameraman allegedly by a disgruntled former employee of the television station that employed the two victims.

But what exactly is workplace violence?  Workplace violence, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), may be defined as violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.  The results of workplace violence may range from offensive language to homicide; the circumstances may include robbery-associated violence; violence by disgruntled clients, customers, patients, inmates, residents, and the like; violence by coworkers, employees, or employers; and domestic violence that finds its way into the workplace.

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DOL Issues Misclassification Guidance Broadly Defining “Employee”

By Martha J. Zackin

On July 15, 2015, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor issued guidance aimed at clarifying the distinction between “employees” and “independent contractors.”   Published as an Administrator’s Interpretation, the DOL states that in its view, “most workers are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act” (FLSA).  The Administrator’s Interpretation also states that its analysis and the broad definition of employee it espouses also applies to certain other federal laws, specifically referencing the Family and Medical Leave Act.   Importantly, the DOL announced a “misclassification initiative,” pursuant to which it has entered into numerous memorandum of understanding with states and the IRS to combat what it perceives as a significant, nation-wide problem of misclassification that deprives workers of important protections such as minimum wage, overtime compensation, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation. Read more

DOL Issues Proposed Updates to FLSA White Collar Exemptions

By Alexandra D. Thaler

On June 30, 2015, the Department of Labor issued its anticipated update to the so-called “white collar exemptions” to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).   The proposed rule more than doubles the minimum weekly salary threshold for the application of the Executive, Administrative, Professional, and Computer Employee overtime exemptions, and ties the rate to annual data on national wages for full-time salaried employees.  The rule would increase the minimum salary for exempt employees from the current $455 per week, or $23,660 annually, to an estimated $970 per week, or $50,440 annually when the final rule issues, likely in 2016.  The proposed rule would also increase the minimum compensation required to qualify for the Highly Compensated Employee exemption, from $100,000 to $122,148 annually based on current data, also tethered to annual wage rates.  The regulations do not change the optional hourly payment method for qualifying computer employees, which would remain at $27.63 per hour and would not be tied to changes in national wage data.

While the proposed rule does not currently include changes to the duties tests that also must be met for each exemption, in its 285-page statement accompanying the draft rule, the DOL advises that it is considering possible changes to the duties tests, and invites comments on these and other aspects of the exemptions.  For example, the DOL seeks comment on whether the duties tests “are working as intended to screen out employees who are not bona fide” exempt employees, specifically, whether employees should be required to spend a minimum amount of time performing “primary duty” work, whether the single standard duties test for each category is appropriate, and whether the “concurrent duties” regulation should be modified to prevent exempt-classification of otherwise nonexempt employees.  The Department also seeks comments on various other issues relating to the exemptions, including whether the national wage data methodology is appropriate, whether employers should be permitted to credit certain payments, such as non-discretionary bonuses and commissions, toward the salary requirement, and whether any additional occupational titles or categories should be included in the regulations regarding computer and information technology sectors.

In the short term, the rule is expected to affect nearly 5 million workers who currently make less than the proposed $50,440 annual salary threshold.  Still more will be impacted by the increase in the Highly Compensated Employee salary level.  The ultimate impact of the new rule remains unclear, with some economists predicting that workers’ hours, and ultimately wages, will go down to compensate for the changes.   The DOL will accept the public’s comments on the proposed rules, which can be submitted in writing or online until September 4, 2015.  All comments are made available online at http://www.regulations.gov.