Proposed FLSA Joint Employer Rule Would Reduce Business’ Joint Employer Wage & Hour Liability

U.S. businesses should move quickly to express strong support for the Joint Employer Status under the Fair Labor Standards Act Rule proposed by the Department of Labor today to help reduce their exposure to liability to pay overtime or other liabilities of subcontractors or other businesses under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The FLSA allows the Labor Department and private litigants to hold businesses jointly and severally liable with the actual employer for minimum wage or overtime back pay and penalties as joint employers when a business is a “joint employer” within the meaning of the FLSA. Many businesses have learned the hard way that they meet the definition of “joint employer” when presented with a Labor Department demand that their business pay the back pay and penalties for another business’ FLSA violations. See, e.g.,U.S. Department of Labor Recovers $3.2 Million in Back Wages, Damages, And Penalties from Portland, Oregon, Courier Servicemen.

Since the existing regulations adopted more than 58 years ago don’t expressly define “joint employment,” whether a joint appointment relationship existed mostly has been decided for a painful facts and circumstances analysis applying judicial precedent for most of the past 50 years. Traditionally the courts have applied a version of the fact intensive analysis of common control like that applied to identify joint employers for collective bargaining purposes under the National Labor Relations Act. Without any statutory or formal regulatory action, however, the Labor Department during the Obama Administration began applying a new definition of joint employment it adopted in sub-regulatory guidance without seeking public comment or following other requirements to adopt a formal regulatory change. As reinterpreted, the Labor Department began enforcing the joint employment rule to hold businesses liable based on even very limited indirect influence over wages or other employment conditions. Under these new standards, for instance, Labor Department auditors have asserted and enforced joint employment liability under the FLSA based on evidence of limited indirect influence over working conditions arising out of the alleged joint employer business operations such as restriction of schedules resulting from access to the worksite restricted by the ordinary business hours of operations of the business or the business’ requirement that the employer and its worker comply with federal government contracting requirements. The Labor Department has continued to enforce the joint employee rule using this Obama Era interpretation even after it withdrew the sub-regulatory guidance when the Administration invalidated and barred agencies from enforcing sub-regulatory guidance.

This interpretive change made it significantly more likely that a businesses could face joint employer FLSA liability for a subcontractor or other business’ minimum wage, overtime and other FLSA responsibilities. Because the finding of joint employment also results in aggregation of hours worked for the direct employer and all other joint employers, these regulations also made it significantly more likely workers would be considered entitled to overtime in contract labor, manpower and certain other situations where the primary employer’s workers worked at multiple job sites. Since the change in interpretation was adopted during the Obama Administration, the Labor Department has Use this modified joint employer interpretation to nail many unsuspecting businesses with liability for overtime due from another employer who provided services with respect to that businesses job sites Even where the worker did not work the overtime hours on that businesses job and the business had no control over deciding whether the overtime hours would be worked at all.

The Proposed Regulation would overrule the hangover Obama-Era interpretation as well as issue a new definition more consistent with judicial precedent and more friendly to business. It calls for a clear, four-factor test—based on well-established precedent—that would consider whether the potential joint employer actually exercises the power to:

  • hire or fire the employee;
  • supervise and control the employee’s work schedules or conditions of employment;
  • determine the employee’s rate and method of payment; and
  • maintain the employee’s employment records.

Since the Proposed Regulation continues to require fact specific determination, the Proposed Regulation also includes a set of examples that illustrates the application of the Proposed Regulation. While a review of the test and examples makes clear businesses still risk joint employer liability if they intertwine their operations or exercise too much control over another business’ employees, the new 4-part test would treat businesses much more fairly than the existing rules. Business is concerned about managing these risks definitely need to act to submit supportive comments during the currently running 60-day comment period. Whether the Proposed Regulation becomes final, all businesses also should evaluate their joint employer liability exposure under the FLSA and other laws from their existing business relationships. Most businesses also will want to consider tightening their existing practices to minimize the risk, regardless of which test ultimately applies going forward. Business is dealing with workers who raise a potential risk of joint employment liability also may want to tighten procedures for verification of compliance with the employers of these workers as well as explore insurance, indemnification or other contractual safeguards to mitigate the risk.

In considering the new Proposed Regulation, businesses and their leaders should keep in mind that wage and hour and worker classification issues are key liability and enforcement areas.  Over the past twenty years, the rise in the use of staffing, professional employment, manpower, independent contractor and other outsourcing relationships have prompted growing enforcement and regulatory interest by both Democrat and Republic Administrations and Congress including under the FLSA and other wage and hour laws.  See e.g., $1.4M FLSA Back Pay Award Demonstrates Worker Misclassification Risks.   Today’s Proposed Regulation comes as key Congressional Democrats have continued to fuss about the National Labor Relations Board’s proposal last Fall of a joint employer rule substantially similar to the 4-part rule contained in the Proposed Regulation.  Businesses Urged To Comment Positively On Proposed NLRB Joint Employment Rule By 12/13/18; NLRB Responds To House  Democrats About Private Contractor Participation In Joint Employment Rule Comment Processing.  Supporters of the Proposed Rule should prepare to ward off a backlash like the one the NLRB is experiencing to its proposed joint employer rule, even as both parties continue to support stepped up scrutiny and enforcement against overly aggressive worker classification.  Employer and other business leaders also should keep in mind that the Proposed Regulation follows the the Labor Department Wage and Hour Division’s proposal last month of of an employer-friendly change to its Regular Rate Regulations and an employee friendly Salary Theshold Rule that instantly will convert more than 1 million currently salaried workers to hourly workers See, Proposed FLSA Base Pay Rule Clarifies Overtime Treatment Of Perks;  Give Labor Department Feedback On Proposed $124 Per Week Increase In FLSA Salary Threshold & Other Burdensome Rules. Employers and others should submit their written comments to these proposed rules as soon as possible and within the 60-day comment period applicable to that proposed rule change.

Other Defensive Actions To Minimize FLSA Exposures

Whether or not any of these proposed rule changes takes effect, U.S. businesses will want to strengthen their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws, tighten contracting and other compliance oversight in relation to outsourced services, weigh options to clean up exposure areas, review insurance coverages and consider other options to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws.  Conducting this analysis within the scope of attorney-client privilege is important because the analysis and discussions are highly sensitive both as potential evidence for wage and hour and other legal purposes.  Consequently, businesses and their leaders generally will want to arrange for this work to be protected to the extent by attorney-client privilege, work product and other evidentiary protections against discovery by Department, employees or others for FLSA or other workforce enforcement actions.

As a part of this process, businesses and their leaders generally should plan to:

  • Review subcontractor, temporary, lease employee, independent contractor and other outsourced labor and services relationship for potential risk of worker reclassification and tighten contracting and other procedures;
  • Audit the position of each employee currently classified as exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
  • Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
  • Review the characterization of on-call and other time demands placed on employees to confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
  • If the employer hires any individuals under age 18, audit and implement appropriate procedures to ensure its ability to demonstrate compliance with all applicable FLSA child labor rules;
  • If the employer is a government contractor or subcontractor or otherwise performs any services on projects funded with federal or state funds, evaluate the applicability and fulfillment of any special wage, fringe benefit, recordkeeping or other government contracting wage and hour requirements;
  • If the employer hires foreign agricultural or other workers subject to special conditions and requirements, to review compliance with those special requirements;
  • Review and tighten existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
  • If the employer uses leased, temporary, or other outsourced labor, evaluate contractual, process and other options to support the employer’s ability cost effectively to respond to an audit, investigation or enforcement action by the Labor Department or private litigants and if necessary, obtain indemnification or other recovery in the event the employer incurs liability due to the use or practices of the outsourced labor supplier;
  • If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, self-initiation of proper corrective action after consultation with qualified legal counsel;
  • Review and document all workers classified as exempt;
  • Review of existing documentation and record keeping practices for hourly employees;
  • Evaluate potential exposures under other employment, labor, tax or related laws or contracts that might be impacted by the findings or actions taken in response to those findings;
  • Explore available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees and assessing and resolving other concerns;
  • Identify and calculate other employee benefit, tax or other corrections and associated costs and procedures that may be required as a result of findings or corrective actions resulting from their redress;
  • Re-engineer work rules, policies, contracts and practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations and enforcement exposures;
  • Explore insurance, indemnification and other options for mitigating risks and associated investigation and defense costs; and
  • Consider self-correction within the new PAID Program or otherwise.

If you need more information or have questions, contact the author, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  We also invite you to share your own best practices ideas and resources and join the discussions about these and other human resources, health and other employee benefit and patient empowerment concerns by participating and contributing to the discussions on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of management focused wage and hour and other employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;   domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations;  and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.

Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and defending businesses and their management on wage and hour and other workforce, compensation and employee benefit concerns.  Throughout her  career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline;  handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.

Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, heavily involved in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career, and scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues. She regularly helps employer and other health benefit plan sponsors and vendors, health industry, insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health and insurance industry clients design, document and enforce plans, practices, policies, systems and solutions; manage regulatory, contractual and other legal and operational compliance; transactional and other change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation; and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

Author of leading works on wage and hour and a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

For more information about the matters discussed in this article, Ms. Stamer or her services, experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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NOTICE: These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advise or an admission. The author reserves the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion. The presenter and the program sponsor disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify any participant of any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.

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©2019 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved.  For information about republication or the topic of this article, please contact the author.

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