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Does the DOL Consider You a Joint Employer under Its “Broad as Possible” Standard? You May Be Surprised at the Answer

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On January 20, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (DOL) articulated a new standard that it will use to identify joint employment relationships. Specifically, the DOL published Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2016-1 (AI 2016-1), which is the first Administrator’s Interpretation this year, following the DOL’s similar pronouncement regarding independent contractor classifications in July 2015.

AI 2016-1 broadly interprets the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) and narrowly interprets case law regarding joint employment, resulting in its conclusion that “the expansive definition of ‘employ’ . . . reject[s] the common law control standard and ensures that the scope of employment relationships and joint employment under the FLSA and MSPA is as broad as possible.”

AI 2016-1 also sets forth two approaches for analyzing whether a joint employment situation exists: (1) horizontal, which looks at the relationship of the employers to each other, and (2) vertical, which examines “the economic realities” of the employee in relation to a “potential joint employer.” The structure and nature of the relationship(s) will dictate which analysis applies. In some cases both may be applicable, for example, when two businesses share an employee provided by a third-party intermediary, such as a staffing agency, that is the direct employer.

Horizontal Joint Employment

Citing the FLSA regulations, the DOL explained horizontal joint employment as follows:

Where an employee’s work simultaneously benefits two or more employers, or an employee works for two or more employers throughout the week, a joint employment relationship “generally will be considered to exist” in circumstances such as where:

  1. the employers arrange to share or interchange the employee’s services;
  2. one employer acts directly or indirectly in the interest of the other employer(s) in relation to the employee; or
  3. “one employer controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with the other employer.”  

In addition, the DOL set forth the following factors as potentially relevant in gauging the relationship between two or more employers and the degree of shared control over employees that might suggest a horizontal joint employment arrangement:

  • who owns the potential joint employers (i.e., does one employer own part or all of the other or do they have any common owners);
  • do the potential joint employers have any overlapping officers, directors, executives, or managers;
  • do the potential joint employers share control over operations (e.g., hiring, firing, payroll, advertising, overhead costs);
  • are the potential joint employers’ operations inter-mingled (for example, is there one administrative operation for both employers, or does the same person schedule and pay the employees regardless of which employer they work for);
  • does one potential joint employer supervise the work of the other;
  • do the potential joint employers share supervisory authority for the employee;
  • do the potential joint employers treat the employees as a pool of employees available to both of them;
  • do the potential joint employers share clients or customers; and
  • are there any agreements between the potential joint employers.

According to the DOL, not all (or even most) of these factors need to be present for a horizontal joint employment relationship to exist. The agency set forth an example of a server who works at two separate restaurants owned by the same entity. The managers at each restaurant share the employee and coordinate the employee’s schedule between the two locations. Both employers use the same payroll processor and share supervisory authority over the employee. The DOL would find this to be a horizontal joint employment relationship. The agency distinguished this from a scenario where an employee works at two restaurants, one in the mornings and the other in the afternoons, and while each restaurant’s owners and managers know of the employee’s other job, the restaurants are completely unrelated. However, these examples leave quite a bit of grey area where the DOL apparently envisions a fact-intensive analysis under “as broad a standard as possible.”

Vertical Joint Employment

When it comes to vertical joint employment, the DOL maintains that the proper analysis is an economic realities test, and not the traditional inquiry focused on control. AI 2016-1 focuses on an employee’s “economic dependence” on the “potential joint employer” as the critical inquiry. This view appears to conflate the principles underlying the DOL’s recent independent contractor analysis with the question of whether an additional employment relationship exists beyond the one already established between an employee and his/her direct employer. The resulting approach likely will result in the DOL (and many courts) finding more entities to be joint employers under the FLSA where they otherwise would not—and in situations where a joint employer determination has largely been unnecessary because the employees in question already receive FLSA protections in their employment relationships with their direct employers.  

To explain what it views to be the proper analytical approach, the DOL heavily relies on an MSPA regulation listing seven factors to consider under that statute’s version of the economic realities test for farm laborers. While the DOL acknowledges that the MSPA regulation does not actually apply to the FLSA, the agency believes the MSPA’s factors are “useful guidance in a FLSA case” and that “an economic realities analysis of the type described in the MSPA joint employment regulation should be applied in [FLSA] cases” to determine whether a situation is one of vertical joint employment. The MSPA’s seven factors are as follows:

  • Directing, Controlling, or Supervising the Work Performed. “To the extent that the work performed by the employee is controlled or supervised by the potential joint employer [i.e., the end user] beyond a reasonable degree of contract performance oversight, such control suggests that the employee is economically dependent on the potential joint employer.” The DOL goes on to clarify, as did the National Labor Relations Board recently, that such control need not be direct, but can be exercised through the intermediary employer. Likewise, the end user need not exercise as much control as the direct employer for it “to indicate economic dependence by the employee.”
  • Controlling Employment Conditions. Along the same lines, if an end user “has the power to hire or fire the employee, modify employment conditions, or determine the rate or method of pay,” this indicates economic dependence on the end user, even if the control is indirect or not exclusive.
  • Permanency and Duration of Relationship. If a work assignment for the end user is “indefinite, permanent, full-time, or long-term,” this suggests economic dependence. The DOL further instructs that analysis of this factor should consider “the particular industry at issue” such as “if the work . . . is by its nature seasonal, intermittent, or part-time.”
  • Repetitive and Rote Nature of Work. If the employee’s work for the end user “is repetitive and rote, is relatively unskilled, and/or requires little or no training,” this indicates economic dependence on the end user.
  • Integral to Business. “If the employee’s work is an integral part of the potential joint employer’s business, that fact indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the potential joint employer. . . . .”
  • Work Performed on Premises. If the work is performed “on premises owned or controlled by” the end user, this indicates economic dependence on the end user.
  • Performing Administrative Functions Commonly Performed by Employers. Economic reliance also can be imputed if the end user performs “administrative functions for the employee, such as handling payroll, providing workers’ compensation insurance, providing necessary facilities and safety equipment, housing, or transportation, or providing tools and materials required for the work.”

The DOL acknowledges that there are other possible factors that courts consider, but states that “regardless, it is not a control test.” To the extent that some, if not many, courts still do apply a control test, the DOL responds that doing so “is not consistent with the breadth of employment under the FLSA.” The agency buttresses its stance with citations to case law from the Second Circuit (covering New York, Vermont and Connecticut), while noting elsewhere that other circuits have not followed suit.

Despite the lack of consensus among jurisdictions to apply an economic realities test to determine joint employment, the DOL encourages application of the test in a way that would drastically expand the scope of joint-employment liability. In a footnote, for example, the agency notes that in general, an employee need not even economically depend more on the end user than on his/her direct employer for a finding of vertical joint employment. “The focus . . . is not a comparison [of the two relationships].”

In summary, businesses must carefully monitor their relationships with affiliated companies or business partners. If affiliated entities employ the same person and do not take measures to maintain the separateness of their operations and management, the DOL likely would find horizontal joint employment, requiring the aggregation of work hours for purposes of overtime pay. Likewise, under the DOL’s interpretation of vertical joint employment, if a worker tends to economically depend on the end user business, which could be imputed from a wide variety of factors, the DOL likely would deem that end user business a joint employer for purposes of wage and hour liability—regardless of the employee’s primary economic reliance on his/her direct employer. These expansive interpretations could be especially problematic for staffing agencies and other types of tiered business models.

AI 2016-1 signifies the latest effort by the DOL to expand the FLSA’s reach to nontraditional work arrangements. Like its other recent effort, this may result in more DOL investigations and litigation. The AI 2016-1 almost certainly will be challenged in court. Additionally, legislation has been proposed (but not passed) to curtail similar attempts by federal agencies to expand joint employment liability. Nonetheless, based on the DOL’s new guidance, companies should reassess their business and staffing arrangements to manage the risks associated with costly governmental investigations.