The National Labor Relations Board has announced publication of a proposed rule that will establish a new and far narrower standard for determining whether an employer can be held to be the joint-employer of another employer’s employees. The rule described in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published in the Federal Register on September 14, 2018, will, once effective essentially discard the Board’s test adopted in Browning-Ferris Industries (“Browning-Ferris”) during the Obama Administration, which substantially reduced the burden to establish that separate employers were joint-employers and as such could be obligated to bargain together and be responsible for one another’s unfair labor practices.

The Proposed New Standard

Under the proposed new rule, the Board will essentially return to the standard that it had followed from 1984 until 2015. As the Board explained when it announced the proposed new rule

Under the proposed rule, an employer may be found to be a joint-employer of another employer’s employees only if it possesses and exercises substantial, direct and immediate control over the essential terms and conditions of employment and has done so in a manner that is not limited and routine. Indirect influence and contractual reservations of authority would no longer be sufficient to establish a joint-employer relationship.

Under Browning-Ferris, the Board held that indirect influence and the ability to influence terms and conditions, regardless of whether exercised, could result in an employer being held to be the joint-employer of a second employer’s employees.

As a practical matter, the new standard should make it much more difficult to establish that a company is a joint-employer of a supplier or other company’s employees. The new standard will mean that a party claiming joint-employer status to exist will need to demonstrate with evidence that the putative joint-employer doesn’t just have a theoretical right to influence the other employer’s employees’ terms and conditions but that it has actually exercised that right in a substantial, direct and immediate manner.

This new standard is likely to make it much more difficult for unions to successfully claim that franchisors are joint-employers with their franchisees, and that companies are joint-employers of personnel employed by their contractors and contract suppliers of labor such as leasing and temporary agencies.

The New Standard Marks a Return to that Announced in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd.

As readers may recall, in December 2017, in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd. (“Hy-Brand”), in a 3-2 decision joined in by the Board Chairman Miscimarra and Members Emanuel and Kaplan, the Board overruled Browning-Ferris and adopted a standard that required proof that putative joint employer entities have actually exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having “reserved” the right to exercise control), the control must be “direct and immediate” (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is “limited and routine.”

Hy-Brand however, was short-lived. On February 26, 2018, in a unanimous decision by Chairman Marvin Kaplan and Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerren, the Board reversed and vacated Hy-Brand, following its finding that a potential conflict-of-interest had tainted the Board’s 3-2 vote in Hy-Brand.

The standard announced this week however marks an attempt by the Board to breathe life back into Hy-Brand.

What Happens Now?

Under the Administrative Procedures Act, the public and interested parties will now have sixty days to submit comments “on all aspects of the proposed rules” for the Board’s consideration.

Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernard Sanders previously announced in a May 2018 letter, when the Board indicated it was looking into rulemaking concerning the test for determining joint-employer, that it was their view that the same conflicts of interest that resulted in the Board’s decision to vacate Hy-Brand at least raised ethical concerns.

While there is nothing inherently suspect about an agency proceeding by rulemaking, it is impossible to ignore the timing of this announcement, which comes just a few months after the Board tried and failed to overturn Browning-Ferris, and appears designed to evade the ethical constraints that federal law imposes on Members in adjudications. The Board’s sudden announcement of rulemaking on the exact same topic suggests that it is driven to obtain the same outcome sought by Member Emanuel’s former employer and its clients, which the Board failed to secure by adjudication.

According to Politico, Senator Warren has now renewed her concerns about the proposed rule and the conflict issues that resulted in the Board vacating Hy-Brand. “After getting caught violating ethics rules the first time, Republicans on the Board are now ignoring these rules and barreling towards reaching the same anti-worker outcome another way.”

Given these considerations, it is quite foreseeable that opponents of the proposed rule may seek to at least delay, if not defeat the proposed rule’s taking effect by litigation.

On Wednesday, the Senate narrowly confirmed John Ring, a management-side labor attorney from Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”).  With this vote, Ring fills the last remaining open seat on the Board, which was previously held by former Chairman Philip Miscimarra.  Ring’s term will expire on December 16, 2022.  The confirmation vote of 50-48 was largely down party lines, with only two Democrats voting in favor of Ring’s confirmation.  The strong opposition from the Democrats is likely due to the perceived efforts of the Trump administration to install pro-business members to the Board.  Several prominent Democratic senators, including Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), made very critical statements about Ring ahead of the vote.

On Thursday April 12th, the President announced that he was naming Ring to serve as Chairman of the Board. That action does not require Senate confirmation.  Marvin Kaplan who was previously named Acting Chairman will continue as a Board member. The addition of Ring to the NLRB once again gives Republican-appointees a 3-2 majority, which likely means several Obama-era pro-labor rulings will be overturned in the coming months and years.  When the Republican appointees briefly had a 3-2 majority at the end of 2017, several Obama-era decisions were overturned, including setting forth a new standard to evaluate handbook rules and overturning the Obama Board’s decision in Specialty Health Care eliminating micro-units.  Notably, with Ring’s appointment, it is likely that the Board will again revisit the standards for determining joint-employer status. In its  December 2017 decision in Hy-Brand  the Board overturned the Browning Ferris Industries decision, which had adopted a more lenient standard for determining joint employer status, and returned to a requirement of “direct and immediate control.”  While Hy-Brand was recently rescinded, it is expected that the newly constituted Board will  likely consider the issue again in the near future.

We will continue to monitor and provide developments on the Hy-Brand and other notable NLRB decisions.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: NLRB Vacates Hy-Brand Joint-Employer Decision

The NLRB’s Browning-Ferris test is once again the law of the land — A 3-member panel has reversed the Board’s December Hy-Brand decision, which had nixed the Browning-Ferris joint-employer test, and returned to a “direct control” standard. The reversal comes after an inspector general report that found that Member William Emanuel should have recused himself. The Browing-Ferris test considers a company a “joint-employer” if it has the right to exercise either direct or “indirect control” over employees. Once the Senate acts on the nomination of republican John Ring to fill the Board’s vacant fifth seat, the Board is expected to once again roll back Browning-Ferris with a test like the one in Hy-Brand.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

On February 26, 2018, in a unanimous decision by Chairman Marvin Kaplan and Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerren, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) reversed and vacated its December 2017 decision in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd. (“Hy-Brand”), which had overruled the joint-employer standard set forth in the 2015 Browning-Ferris Industries (“Browning-Ferris”) decision. The decision followed the release of a finding that a potential conflict-of-interest had tainted the Board’s 3-2 vote. What this means, at least for the moment, is that the lower standard for determining joint-employer status in Browning-Ferris is the law once again.

What Is The Browning-Ferris Standard?

As we previously reported, under the Browning-Ferris standard, “[t]he Board may find that two or more entities are joint employers of a single work force if they are both employers within the meaning of the common law, and if they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.”  Under Browning-Ferris, the primary inquiry is whether the purported joint-employer possesses the actual or potential authority to exercise control over the primary employer’s employees, regardless of whether the company has in fact exercised such authority.  This standard is viewed as employee and union-friendly, and led to the issuance of complaints alleging joint-employer status in an increased number of circumstances.

What Did Hy-Brand Set As the Test for Joint-Employer Status?

Later, in Hy-Brand, as we noted, the Board rejected the Browning-Ferris standard and returned to a more employer-friendly standard, based on the common law test for determining whether an employer-employee relationship exists as a predicate to finding a joint-employer relationship and adding more than just the right to exercise control.  Under Hy-Brand, a finding of joint-employer status would require proof that putative joint employer entities have actually exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having “reserved” the right to exercise control), the control must be “direct and immediate” (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is “limited and routine.”  This decision had stopped at least some cases relying on Browning-Ferris in their tracks.

What Happens Next?

While Hy-Brand has been reversed for the time being, we expect the Board, once the Senate acts on President Trump’s nomination of John Ring to fill the seat vacated this past December by then Chairman Philip Miscimarra, to reinstate the joint-employment standard articulated in Hy-Brand or a similar standard.

As noted above, the reversal of Hy-Brand follows the ethics memo published by NLRB Inspector General David Berry finding that Member William Emanuel should have abstained from the decision in Hy-Brand because of the fact that the law firm of which he was a member was involved in the case.  There are a number of other cases in which similar conflict issues have arisen, also arguing that Member Emanuel should recuse himself.

Congress May Act

Separate and part from a future Board decision, as we noted in November, the House of Representatives passed the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441) which, if enacted, would amend the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act to establish a Hy-Brand-like direct control standard for joint employer liability.  The reversal of Hy-Brand may now put increased pressure on the Senate to pass the bill.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers and other parties with matters before the Board involving joint-employer issues now, whether in the context of unfair labor practice cases or representation cases, now will need to focus on both the Browning-Ferris standard and the Hy-Brand test to ensure that they preserve all arguments and issues recognizing the likelihood that sooner rather than later the Board will adopt a test that requires more than is required under Browning-Ferris to establish the existence of a joint-employer relationship, with all of the attendant responsibilities.  We will continue to follow this issue and report on developments.