U.S. DOL Revises FLSA Joint Employer Standard

Horton Law PLLC

On January 13, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a new rule revising its test for evaluating joint employer status under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among other situations, joint employer analysis is often critical to work arrangements involving staffing agencies and other outsourcing companies. The FLSA joint employer rule change takes effect on March 16, 2020.

Previous Joint Employer Test

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor under the Obama administration issued interpretative guidance that promoted greater scrutiny of joint business relationships. That guidance essentially created a standard whereby employers jointly employ workers whose work for one company “is not completely disassociated” from their work for the other company. This action prompted many businesses to change their traditional business practices for fear of incurring additional and unwanted liability for another party’s employees.

Despite this change in “guidance,” the DOL had not formally changed its joint employer rule since 1958.

Joint Employer Scenarios

The 2020 joint employer rule identifies two possible scenarios where joint employment could exist:

  1. Where the employee has an employer who employees the employee to work, but another person/entity simultaneously benefits from that work.
  2. Where one employer employs a worker for one set of hours in a workweek, and another employer the same worker for a separate set of hours in the same workweek.

The most significant revisions to the DOL’s standard relate to the first of these situations. The most common example arises when one company places its workers at the jobsite of another independent business to perform services. This could be a temporary placement by a staffing agency or a consulting firm, among other arrangements.

New Joint Employer Test

The primary thrust of the rule change lies in a new four-factor balancing test for evaluating joint employer status in the first type of scenario identified above.

The four factors ask whether the potential joint employer:

  1. Hires or fires the employee?
  2. Supervises and controls the employee’s work schedule or conditions of employment to a substantial degree?
  3. Determine the employee’s rate and method of payment?
  4. Maintains the employee’s employment records?

While emphasizing these four factors, the new rule allows that:

“Additional factors may be relevant for determining joint employer status in this scenario, but only if they are indicia of whether the potential joint employer exercises significant control over the terms and conditions of the employee’s work.”

Irrelevant Factors

The rule also specifically disregards the question of whether the employee is “economically dependent” on the potential joint employer. That subject is now expressly irrelevant to liability under the FLSA.

The DOL identifies the following as factors that assess economic dependence and hence cannot be considered:

  1. Whether the employee is in a specialty job or a job that otherwise requires special skill, initiative, judgment, or foresight;
  2. Whether the employee has the opportunity for profit or loss based on his or her managerial skill;
  3. Whether the employee invests in equipment or materials required for work or the employment of helpers; and
  4. The number of contractual relationships, other than with the employer, that the potential joint employer has entered into to receive similar services.

The full text, with DOL commentary, of the new FLSA joint emlpoyer rule is available here.

Impact of Joint Employer Status

When two companies qualify as joint employers under the FLSA, they both share responsibilities under the law for workers’ wages. These obligations include the requirement to pay proper minimum wage and overtime.

How Will the New FLSA Joint Employer Test Affect Businesses?

In today’s economy, companies commonly outsource certain facets of their business. This trend has increased the number of outsourcing companies in the market that are willing to take on various services. Companies outsource a range of functions, such as information technology, payroll, or even marketing.

Parties who are outsourcing might want to re-evaluate whether they have joint employer status under the new DOL rule. However, the new standards only govern joint employer determinations under the FLSA. Companies must also consider joint employer status under other state and federal laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While many federal agencies are moving toward less restrictive joint employer standards, the opposite is true in some states. Many states have their own minimum wage and overtime laws, for example, and some might trigger joint employer liability even where the FLSA, under the new rule, would not.

As a further caution, and beyond possible legal challenges to the validity of the DOL’s new interpretation of FLSA joint employer status, the 2020 rule’s longevity likely depends on the outcome of the next Presidential election. If a Democrat wins the White House, there is a strong possibility that this rule would be among a substantial package of workplace regulations that the next administration would revise once again.

For the above reasons, your company should not overreact to this single development. If potential joint employer liability is material to your operations, the new FLSA rule warrants further evaluation. But again, it would likely not be the only legal parameter affecting your approach to outsourcing and similar business strategies.

Best Practices Regarding Outsourced Staffing Arrangements

Though specific situations might justify alternative allocations of responsibility, here are some standard rules of thumb as a starting point for setting up or maintaining staffing transactions.

Whenever possible, the employer of record should be making all decisions with respect to conditions of employment, pay and method of payment, schedule, disciplinary actions, employee onboarding, and the maintenance of a personnel file. To the extent practical, that entity should also have direction and control over the work being performed. Almost every joint employer test used by government agencies focuses on those components. To reduce potential liability, companies should work together to modify any factors in the business relationship that raise red flags.

Businesses that are linked and jointly (or arguably jointly) employ workers should use this development as an impetus to review current contracts between the parties to make sure their respective responsibilities are in proper alignment. This review should include ensuring that liability and indemnity for claims have been addressed properly and fairly. Doing so can reduce exposure for both companies. You may want to engage the assistance of an attorney with co-employment experience to review the terms of your current contracts or assist with drafting an agreement to be used moving forward.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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