No business wants to get hit with a bill or judgement for unpaid overtime or other wages and penalties under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). It’s even worse when the back pay and fines are for work performed by employees of another business that didn’t pay.
Today’s U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announcement putting on hold for now its previously announced plan to replace the Trump-era “Joint Employer Status Under the Fair Labor Standards Act” final rule (“Joint Employer Rule”) with a much less business friendly rule is good for business.
Joint Employer Liability
Under the minimum wage and overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), an employee can have more than one employer for the work they perform. Joint employment applies when – for the purposes of minimum wage and overtime requirements – the DOJ considers two separate companies to be a worker’s employer for the same work. When this happens, hours of work performed for any business considered within the joint employer group are aggregated for purposes of determining when overtime is worked and each business is jointly and severally liable for any unpaid minimum wage and overtime do regardless of whether those hours of work was performed for that particular business. The Joint Employer Rule governs when that can happen.
While both DOL and private litigants long have used the joint employer rules and precedent to nail businesses for other employer’s wage and hour liability, the Trump Administration adopted the Joint Employer Rule to overrule Obama Administration practices for interpreting and enforcing the rule that replaced the historically applied judicial tests with standards that significantly increase the likelihood of joint employer liability by unrelated businesses.
Historically, joint employer determinations were reached by applying highly subjective, fact specific analysis heavily reliant upon decades of court decisions which required some evidence that the alleged joint employer possessed or exercised some control over the employees to support the finding of joint employment. Under these historical tests, mere benefit from work performed by individuals employed by another employer did not establish a presumption, much less proof of joint employment.
As part of the Obama Administration’s pro-worker agenda, however, DOL made up and began applying new standards without formally issuing new regulations adopted interpretive and enforcement guidelines for finding joint employer status that that significantly broadened the employment relationships that the DOL treated as joint employers in a manner that presumed the existence of a joint employment relationship whenever the alleged joint employer benefitted from the performance of work. Contrary to decades of judicial precedent, these new standards asserted joint employer liability when the facts showed little or any evidence that the alleged joint employer possessed or exercised any control over the employee or the details of his work. A host of businesses were surprised to be nailed by DOL with wage and hour backpay orders and penalties arising from work performed by subcontractors, contractors, and other businesses including overtime liability attributable to work performed for the benefit of other businesses with no connection to the sanctioned business.
The Trump Administration adopted the Joint Employer Rule provide regulations to overrule the practices implemented during the Obama Administration By clarifying and regulation want it perceive to be the historical tests of joint employment established In decades of judicial precedent.
As finalized in January, 2020, the Joint Employer Rule uses a balancing test to the considers the following factors to determine whether a business sufficiently directly or indirectly controls a employee of another business to be liable as a joint employer:
- hires or fires the employee;
- supervises and controls the employee’s work schedule or conditions of employment to a substantial degree;
- determines the employee’s rate and method of payment; and
- maintains the employee’s employment records.
Not surprisingly, President Biden announced plans to reinstitute the pro-labor joint employment standards created and applied during the Obama Administration by issuing a new regulation that would have rescinded and replaced the Joint Employer Rule.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York stymied Biden‘s efforts by ruling his regulation defined joint employment contrary to statutory language and Congressional intent. and failed to take into account the department’s prior joint employment guidance. Accordingly, the court forced the Biden administration to reconsider by vacating Biden’s regulation. A strong joint employer standard is critical because FLSA responsibilities and liability for worker protections do not apply to a business that does not meet the definition of employer.
As the court’s ruling invalidated the regulation that would have withdrawn it, the Joint Employer Rule as adopted during the Trump Administration will take effect October 5, 2021.
Protect Your Business
The Joint Employer Rule mitigates but doesn’t eliminate joint employer liability risks under the FLSA. Accordingly, despite today’s announcement confirming the Joint Employer Rule will go into effect at least temporarily, businesses should use care to mitigate their exposure to joint employer liability.
First, employers should keep in mind the Biden Administration is not giving up. The announcement by the DOL today makes clear that the Biden Administration plans to take another stab at overturning the Joint Employer Rule when it states “Until the effective date of the rescission of the Joint Employer Rule, part 791 of Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations remains in effect.” (emphasis added). Accordingly even as businesses enjoy this reprieve, they must stay vigilant for the almost certainty more efforts to rescind or weaken the Joint Employer Rule, enforce joint employment inconsistently with the Joint Employer Rule like the Obama Administration or both.
Second, joint employment findings remain a real and significant risk for many businesses even under the Joint Employer Rule.
Joint employer determinations under the Joint Employer Rule continue to turn on highly subjective analysis of facts and circumstances that support joint employer findings in many circumstances surprising to many business owners,
For these reasons, virtually all businesses should critically evaluate their existing and prospective relationships for potential joint employer liability under the FLSA and respond as needed to mitigate risk both under the Joint Final Rule and under the standards the Biden Administration hopes to use.
As a further backstop to these risks, most businesses also will want to consider revising contracts and business practices to require companies providing services to give contractual guarantees of compliance, agreements to defend, indemnify and hold harmless for joint employer liability claims, and to provide records documenting compliance on an ongoing basis to mitigate or defend against liability should the DOL or a private litigant bring claims.
Before beginning these assessments, businesses and their leaders are encouraged to engage an attorney experienced in FLSA and other joint employer and other worker classification laws in light of the legally sensitive evidence and discussions inherently involved in this process. Conducting this analysis within the scope of attorney-client privilege helps protector limit the discoverability of sensitive discussions and work product in the event of a Labor Department investigation or litigation.
For More Information
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about this or other labor and employment developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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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 Law and Labor and Employment Law and Health Care; 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, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, 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 health industry and other management manage FLSA and other workforce, compliance, risk management, and other legal concerns as well as public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
As a part of this work she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international employer and other management, employee benefit and other clients to assess, manage and defend joint employer and other worker classifications and practices under the FLSA and other federal and state laws including both advising and and assisting employers to minimize joint employer and other FLSA liability and defending a multitude of employers against joint employer and other FLSA and other worker classification liability.
Author of hundreds of highly regarded books, articles and other publications, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her scholarship, coaching, legislative and regulatory advocacy, leadership and mentorship on wage and hour, worker classification and a diverse range of other labor and employment, employee benefits, health and safety, education, performance management, privacy and data security, leadership and governance, and other management concerns within the American Bar Association (ABA), the International Information Security Association, the Southwest Benefits Association, and a variety of other international, national and local professional, business and civic organizations including highly regarded works on worker reclassification and joint employment liability under the FLSA and other laws published by the Bureau of National Affairs and others.
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