Welcome to Turkmenistan: Joint Employment Rules Rescinded, Leaving Massive Crater in FLSA Regulations

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No visit to Turkmenistan would be complete without a visit to the Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell. This massive crater formed decades ago after a Soviet drilling rig collapsed. Roughly 40 years ago, the Soviets lit the crater on fire to burn off the methane. But Turkmenistan has some of the largest gas reserves in the world, which meant you couldn’t just make the gas go away.

The fire still burns today, and the massive, fiery hole is an impressive sight.

A massive hole can also describe what the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) just created.

On July 29, the WHD formally announced the rescission of all the regulations that define when joint employment exists under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The regulations, which can be found in Part 791 of 29 C.F.R., have existed in some form since 1958, which is right around the 10th anniversary of a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that killed up to 10% of the entire population of Turkmenistan.

In 2020, the Trump Administration revised the regulations to provide more clarity about who is a joint employer and when. The 2020 regulations listed specific factors that should be applied. The new rule sought to create consistency in place of the patchwork of different factors used by different courts in different circuits. The 2020 regulations also included 11 helpful illustrations of how the new rules would be applied in various situations.

Pro-business groups liked the new rule because it provided clarity and made it harder to be a joint employer. Pro-employee groups hated the rule because it provided clarity and made it harder to be a joint employer.

In March 2021, the Biden Administration announced an intent to rescind the 2020 regulations. On July 29, the rescission was formally announced. The rescission takes effect September 28, 2021.

In the formal rescission notice, the WHD notes that few courts had followed the new test and that a federal district court in New York had ruled that the 2020 regulations were invalid. (That case is now on appeal to the Second Circuit.)

What does the rescission mean?

Welcome to Turkmenistan! The rescission doesn’t reinstitute the 1958 regulations. It doesn’t provide new regulations. Instead, it strikes all of Part 791 and leaves an empty hole.

The new guidance is that there is no guidance.

No kidding. Here’s what the notice says:

Effect of Rescission

Because this final rule adopts and finalizes the rescission of the Joint Employer Rule, part 791 is removed in its entirety and reserved. As stated in the NPRM, the Department will continue to consider legal and policy issues relating to FLSA joint employment before determining whether alternative regulatory or subregulatory guidance is appropriate.

The WHD notice reminds us that courts have set forth their own tests, and those tests can be followed.

So where does that leave us? What’s the rule? Well, it depends where you live. Really! Different courts apply different tests. But for the most part, they are similar.

In general, there are two types of joint employment – vertical and horizontal.

Vertical joint employment is when one employer, such as a staffing agency, provides workers for the benefit of a second entity. Joint employment under the FLSA means that both entities are legally responsible for ensuring that the workers are properly paid a minimum wage and overtime. Both are also jointly liable for any FLSA violations, even though the staffing agency likely has full control over payroll.

Based on court decisions, vertical joint employment will follow an Economic Realities Test, and joint employment will exist when “the economic realities show that the employee is economically dependent on, and thus employed by the other employer.” Multiple factors go into this analysis. These typically include:

  • Right to direct, control and supervise work;
  • Right to control employment conditions;
  • Permanency and duration of the relationship;
  • Repetitive or rote nature of the work;
  • Whether the work is integral to the business;
  • Whether the work is performed on the premises; and
  • Which entity performs the administrative functions characteristic of an employer (payroll, workers compensation, etc.).

Different courts articulate the test in different ways, but that’s a reasonable summary of the factors most commonly applied.

Any new interpretive guidance from the Biden WHD is almost certainly going to be that joint employment should be widespread and easy to establish.

Horizontal joint employment is when two businesses under common control employ the same individual. This issue arises when a worker spends 30 hours at Business 1 and 30 hours at Business 2 in the same workweek. If the businesses are joint employers, then the worker is entitled to 20 hours of overtime for the combined 60 hours of work.

The 2020 regulations did not materially change the test for horizontal joint employment. The 1958 version of the regulations looked at whether the two entities were “completely disassociated” from each other. Courts typically look at common control and common management as evidence of horizontal joint employment. That is not likely to change, but that regulation’s gone too.

Will There Be New Regulations?

Maybe. It seems more likely to me that we’ll see a reissuance of the 2016 Administrator’s Interpretation on Joint Employment (2016 AI). The 2016 AI adopted an expansive view of joint employment, finding that it’s fairly easy to establish. The 2016 AI was issued by David Weil, who ran the WHD under Obama. President Biden has nominated Weil to head the WHD in the current administration, so it would not be a surprise to see the reissuance of the 2016 AI or something similar.

Businesses should expect an expansive definition of joint employment, with little guidance or help from the WHD. With all regulations gone, and with different courts applying different tests, the landscape on joint employment resembles a massive crater filled with burning methane. It’s not a hospitable climate.

What Should Businesses Do?

Businesses should review their arrangements with vendors that provide labor and revisit those contracts and relationships. Steps can be taken to provide contractual protection against joint employment, even where the law will find a joint employment relationship.

Now is the time to act. The giant methane fire isn’t going away anytime soon.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared here, on Todd Lebowitz’s blog about joint employment and independent contractor misclassification issues. 

Image source: Tormod Sandtorv – FlickrDarvasa gas crater panorama CC BY-SA 2.0

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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