DOL Focuses on ‘Joint Employer’ Definition

 

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The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced on April 1 a proposed rule that would narrow the definition of "joint employer" under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The proposed rule would align the FLSA's definition of joint-employer status to be consistent with the National Labor Relations Board's proposed rule and update the DOL's definition, which was adopted more than 60 years ago.

Four-Factor Test

The proposal addresses the circumstances under which businesses can be held jointly responsible for certain wage violations by contractors or franchisees—such as failing to pay minimum wage or overtime. A four-factor test would be used to analyze whether a potential joint employer exercises the power to:

  • Hire or fire an employee.
  • Supervise and control an employee's work schedules or employment conditions.
  • Determine an employee's rate and method of pay.
  • Maintain a worker's employment records.

The department's proposal offers guidance on how to apply the test and what additional factors should and shouldn't be considered to determine joint-employer status.

"This proposal would ensure employers and joint employers clearly understand their responsibilities to pay at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek," according to the DOL

In 2017, the department withdrew an interpretation that had been issued by former President Barack Obama's administration that broadly defined "joint employer." 

The Obama-era interpretation was expansive and could be taken to apply to many companies based on the nature of their business and relationships with other companies—even when those relationships are not generally understood to create a joint-employment relationship, said Mark Kisicki, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Phoenix.

The proposed test aligns with a more modern view of the workplace, said Marty Heller, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta. The test is a modified version of the standard that some federal courts already apply, he noted.

Additional Clarity

Significantly, the proposed rule would remove the threat of businesses being deemed joint employers based on the mere possibility that they could exercise control over a worker's employment conditions, Heller said. A business may have the contractual right under a staffing-agency or franchise agreement to exercise control over employment conditions, but that's not the same as doing so.

The proposal focuses on the actual exercise of control, rather than potential (or reserved) but unexercised control, Kisicki explained.

The rule would also clarify that the following factors don't influence the joint-employer analysis:

  • Having a franchisor business model.
  • Providing a sample employee handbook to a franchisee.
  • Allowing an employer to operate a facility on the company's grounds.
  • Jointly participating with an employer in an apprenticeship program.
  • Offering an association health or retirement plan to an employer or participating in a plan with the employer.
  • Requiring a business partner to establish minimum wages and workplace-safety, sexual-harassment-prevention and other policies.

"The proposed changes are designed to reduce uncertainty over joint employer status and clarify for workers who is responsible for their employment protections, promote greater uniformity among court decisions, reduce litigation and encourage innovation in the economy," according to the DOL.

The proposal provides a lot of examples that are important in the #MeToo era, said Tammy McCutchen, an attorney with Littler in Washington, D.C., and the former head of the DOL's Wage and Hour Division under President George W. Bush.

Importantly, companies would not be deemed joint employers simply because they ask or require their business partners to maintain anti-harassment policies, provide safety training or otherwise ensure that their business partners are good corporate citizens, she said.

Review Policies and Practices

Employers and other interested parties will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rule once it is published in the Federal Register. The DOL will review the comments before drafting a final rule—which will be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for review before it is published.

"Now is the time to review the proposal and decide if you want to submit a comment," Heller said. Employers that wish to comment on the proposal may do so by visiting www.regulations.gov

"Take a look at what's been proposed, look at the examples in the fact sheet and the FAQs," McCutchen said. Employers may want to comment on any aspects of the examples that are confusing or don't address a company's particular circumstances. "Start thinking about your current business relationships and any adjustments that ought to be made," she said, noting that the DOL might make some changes to the rule before it is finalized.

"The proposed rule will not be adopted in the immediate future and will be challenged at various steps by worker-advocacy groups, so it will be quite some time before there is a tested, final rule that employers can safely rely upon," Kisicki said.

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