Browning-Ferris Joint Employer Test

Since the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB” or the “Board”) 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186, in which it adopted a new, far less stringent test for determining joint-employer status under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”),  employers have been left wondering whether they may be held to be a joint employer of temporary or contract workers that they retain through staffing and temporary agencies.

These concerns have been echoed by employers in other contexts as other agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity have taken similar positions, seeking to expand the concept of joint employer with respect to statutes and regulations they enforce. Notably, both the DOL and the EEOC filed amicus briefs in support of the NLRB’s position with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether the NLRB exceeded its statutory authority in Browning-Ferris.

While the loosened standards for determining joint employment remain under consideration by the courts, members of Congress are now seeking to use the power of the purse strings to force the NLRB to discontinue its use of the relaxed standards it adopted in Browning-FerrisLegislation considered yesterday by House Republicans would do away with this expansion of joint employer liability and provide much needed clarity for employers on this issue.

What is the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris Standard for Finding Joint-Employer Status?

The Browning-Ferris decision expanded the definition of joint-employer to hold that if an employer, referred to as the primary employer, merely possesses, but does not exercise, the right or ability to directly or indirectly codetermine the terms and condition of employment of the employees of another employer, referred to as the secondary employer, the primary employer will be held to be the joint-employer of the secondary employer’s employees.

This holding impacts a wide range of workers, such as employees of business arrangements including the use of contractors, retention of personnel through staffing agencies and temporary employment services, and, if the “primary employer is a franchisor, personnel employed by the franchisor’s franchisees. As the Board pointed out when it decided Browning-Ferris, in its view “the current economic landscape,” which includes some 2.87 million people employed by temporary agencies, warrants a “refined” standard for assessing joint-employer status. As the majority put it: “If the current joint-employer standard is narrower than statutorily necessary, and if joint-employment arrangements are increasing, the risk is increased that the Board is failing what the Supreme Court has described as the Board’s ‘responsibility to adapt the Act to the changing patterns of industrial life.’”

While the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in Browning-Ferris is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where the court has been asked to find that the NLRB’s test is not supported by the terms of the NLRA or the common law definition of employer, which is an element of the Browning-Ferris standard itself, recent activity from House Republicans may result in legislative action establishing a new, far narrower standard for determining joint-employer status.

Congress Seeks to Use the Appropriation Process to Force the Board to Discard Browning-Ferris’s Indirect Control Standard

House Republicans have introduced new language in a draft spending bill – that among other things, would set the NLRB’s appropriation for 2018 – to direct the Board to set aside what many in the business community find to be one of the most objectionable parts of Browning-Ferris.

The House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 to discuss the barriers to job and business growth created by the “indirect control” standard of joint employer liability. Small business owners and other employer representatives testified that the joint employer standard threatens their ability to expand, and encouraged the committee to introduce legislation that would define employees as those workers that the employer has direct or actual control over.

On Thursday, July 13, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education voted along strict party lines to approve a markup of their draft spending bill for FY 2018, which would prohibit the NLRB from using the “indirect control” standard in making joint employer determinations and would require the Board to revert to the “direct control” standard. The Appropriations Committee describes the legislation in its press release and on its website as including

two policy provisions to stop the NLRB’s harmful anti-business regulations. The provisions include: A provision that prohibits the NLRB from applying its revised “joint-employer” standard in new cases and proceedings; A provision that prevents the NLRB from exercising jurisdiction over Tribal governments.

This provision, along with the Committee’s proposal to reduce the NLRB’s budget by $25 million (from $274 million to $249 million) will face strong opposition from the Democratic minority, organized labor, unions, and employee lobbying groups. Of course at this point it is not at all clear whether in fact there will actually be a budget for the new fiscal year or, instead, Congress will again adopt a continuing resolution to keep the government running.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers and their representatives should of course continue to pay close attention to the budget process and other legislative action, while waiting for Congress to take action on the President’s nominees to the two vacant seats on the NLRB.   There is every reason to believe, assuming Willian Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan are confirmed and take their seats on the Board, that they, like Chairman Philip Miscimarra, who wrote a vigorous dissent in Browning-Ferris, will share the Chairman’s belief that the standard adopted in that case was incorrect and should be set aside. At this time, however, it would be nothing more than speculation to predict when the new Board majority will have an actual case before it in which these issues are present.

In the meantime, employers are advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporary personnel supplied by staffing and similar agencies to assess their vulnerability to such action and to determine what steps they make take to better position themselves for the challenges that are surely coming.

Equally critical, employers should carefully evaluate their relationships with suppliers, licensees, and others with which they do business to ensure that their relationships, and the agreements, both written and verbal, governing those relationships do not create additional and avoidable risks.

This post was written with assistance from Sean Winker, a 2017 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Steven M. SwirskyOver the past week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit weighed in on two separate related efforts by the Obama-Board to expand the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) to workers who are not in traditional employer-employee relationships.

One Court – Two Cases

In a March 3, 2017 decision, the Court rejected the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) finding that FedEx Home Delivery drivers were employees and agreed with the company that the drivers were independent contractors and therefore did not have the right to union representation under the Act.   On March 9th, the Court heard the much anticipated argument on the challenge by Browning –Ferris Industries of California Inc., to the Board’s 2015 decision adopting a new and much looser standard for determining joint employer status. While it is not certain when the Court’s decision will be released, the questions asked by the judges who heard the appeal suggested that they are by no means convinced that the new test articulated in Browning-Ferris is the correct one and consistent with what Congress intended when it passed the Act.

The Court Found FedEx Ground Drivers Are Independent Contractors, Not Employees

A key question in the gig economy is the relationship between a worker and the company for whom they provide services. Those workers who are employees under the Act have the right to join and be represented by unions; independent contractors do not.  The NLRB has gone so far in its efforts as to hold that misclassification of a worker the Board considers to be an independent contractor commits an unfair labor practice when it does so.  The Board has also argued before the Courts that its views on whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor should be afforded deference by the Courts.

The D.C. Circuit’s decision in the FedEx case is of particular interest with regard to each of these propositions. First, the Court noted that under the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in NLRB v. United Insurance Company of America, the “determination of whether a worker is a statutorily protected ‘employee’ or a statutorily exempt ‘independent contractor’ is governed by common law” and “there is no shorthand formula or magic phrase that can be applied to find the answer.” Thus, while the Board argued that the Court should afford great weight to its application and analysis of the common law test for determining whether the drivers were employees or independent contractors, because the question is “a question of pure common law agency principles ‘involv[ing] no special administrative expertise that a court does not possess,” the Court found that deference to the Board’s views was neither appropriate nor required.

The Court in its analysis and application of the common law test found that the NLRB was wrong to place greater weight on certain factors than others. Because the facts in the FedEx case were virtually identical to an earlier case the Court had considered with the same parties in 2009, the Court held the Board was not entitled to the deference that would be due “between two fairly conflicting view,” because the Court had previously considered and decided the issue.

The Board’s Browning-Ferris Joint Employer Test

The Board’s 2015 Browning-Ferris decision held that an employer could be deemed a joint-employer of another employer’s employees if it was found to exercise or even just has the right to exercise “indirect control” over the other employer’s employees. The D.C. Circuit heard argument on March 9th on the company’s challenge to this standard.  While it is too early to say whether the Court will defer to the Board in this case, the Court’s questions suggested that it at least has doubt as to the Board’s new standard.  For example, Judge Patricia Millet questioned the practicality and future application of the indirect control standard, asking the Board’s attorney “What assurance do we have that this test and particularly indirect control is going to continue to police the line properly between genuine joint employers and [contractors]?

As in the FedEx decision, the application of the common law standards was before the Court, this time in connection with the common law test for determining the existence of an employer-employee relationship, which is one of the requirements of the Browning-Ferris standard. Counsel for Browning-Ferris argued that “the notion of exertion control dovetails with Congress’ understanding of the essence of a common-law employment relationship as direct supervision.” If the Court agrees with this proposition, then it would seem questionable that the Court will accept the Board’s view that possession, without exercise, of indirect control is sufficient to find a joint-employment relationship.

What Do These Cases Tell Us?

Since last November’s election, there has been a great deal written and said about what a Trump Labor Board will likely mean for the legacy of the Obama Board. However, in examining that legacy it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Board’s decisions are not self-enforcing and are subject to review and enforcement by the Courts of Appeal.  While the Board continues to follow its Doctrine of Non-Acquiescence, meaning it will not accept the holdings of any court other than the United States Supreme Court as binding upon it if it disagrees with the Court’s interpretation of or views concerning the application of the Act, the D.C. Circuit and other Courts have continued to take serious issue with the Board’s position.

It will be interesting to see, once a new Board with a majority of members is appointed by the new President, not only how it addresses the myriad of representation and unfair labor practice precedents that are the product of the Obama Board, but also whether it continues to stand by the Doctrine of Non-Acquiescence and how this shapes its relationship with the judiciary.