The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) has issued its long-anticipated  decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186 (pdf), establishing a new test for determining joint-employer status under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”).  Because this revised standard will resonate with businesses relying on contractors and staffing firms throughout the economy and across industry lines, employers should be wary of its potential impact upon relationships with service providers that are supportive of, or critical to, their enterprise.

By fashioning a new standard in Browning-Ferris, the Board springs open new questions of which legally distinct entities will bear responsibility in NLRB cases addressing union recognition and bargaining obligations, as well as for any unfair labor practices that may follow.  Given the Board’s lead in fashioning a new standard, described as based on common law principles, it is likely to be relevant as well to other agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor.

The majority opinion in this 3-2 decision makes clear that its objectives are far reaching: to address “the diversity of work­place arrangements in today’s economy,” including the increase in “[t]he procurement of employees through staffing and subcontracting arrangements, or contingent employment,” and fulfill a “primary function and responsibility.”

A New Standard for a Different Economy

Under the new standard enunciated by the majority, “[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.” Browning-Ferris jettisons the long standing requirement that not only must a party have the means to influence such matters, but it must also have exercised that right in a meaningful way.  If the decision is upheld and followed, no longer will the Board need to find that an employer retains and exercises direct control over another employer’s employees to be liable as a joint employer of those employees.

In the decision and press release, the Board suggests that “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 puts 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.’”

What Is the New Test for Finding Joint Employer?

So what exactly is changed? Previously, an employer had to exercise direct and immediate control over the terms and conditions of employment to be found to be a joint-employer. Under the new standard, what matters is whether the purported joint-employer possesses the authority to control the terms and conditions of employment, either directly or indirectly. In other words, the actual or potential ability to exercise control, regardless of whether the company has in fact exercised such authority, is the focus of the Board’s inquiry.  As the Board puts it, “reserved authority to control terms and conditions of employment, even if not exercised, is clearly relevant to the joint-employment inquiry.” (emphasis added).

The Board’s decision also extends joint-employer status to employers that only exercise a degree of indirect control over the work performed by the employees of another. By way of example, in support of its holding that Browning-Ferris Industries (“BFI”) was a joint-employer of the employees of its contractor, Leadpoint Inc., a supplier of temporary labor, the Board emphasized that BFI had “communicated precise directives regarding employee work performance” to Leadpoint supervisors.

Why This Matters

As former NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman told Noam Scheiber of The New York Times, the Board’s decision changes the critical fact of which company is required to negotiate when employees unionize: “This is about, if employees decide they want to bargain collectively, who can be required to come to the bargaining table to have negotiations that are meaningful,”

One significant indicator of how broadly the Browning-Ferris decision will be applied may be seen when the decisions issue in the pending unfair labor practice charges in which McDonald’s is alleged to be a joint-employer of the employees of various franchisees. While the full import of Browning-Ferris may unfold over years of administrative litigation and court review, we know that the obvious (and intended) effect of the decision is to permit the Board to find joint-employer status where it did not previously exist. Indeed, the Board majority notes that extending joint-employer status is necessary to “encompass the full range of employment relationships wherein meaningful collective bargaining is … possible.” Notwithstanding the arrangements employers and contractors have made in years past to guard against joint-employer exposure, unions will be at the ready with unfair labor practice charges and representation petitions as vehicles for the Board to apply its new standard and examine or reexamine relationships forged before the pronouncements of Browning-Ferris. Thus, employers should anticipate a role in newly filed proceedings alleging joint-employer status – even as they contemplate reforming or redefining terms by which they engage with contractors and other providers of services supportive of their business.

Especially troubling is the prospect that the Board, in its zeal to create new applications for its joint-employer criteria, will ignore existing facts showing no actual exercise of control by one employer over employee relations of another, and instead look for control that potentially could be exercised in an ordinary arm’s length business relationship.

Given these circumstances, even those employers who do not exercise any direct or indirect control over the employees of their contractors should review carefully the terms of such arrangements, keeping in mind the Board’s stated intention of expanding joint-employer status.

What to Do Now

It is not an exaggeration to say that the new standard for determining joint-employer status will impact employers in almost every industry across the country.  As a first step, employers will want to closely examine their relationships with those who provide them with temporaries and other contingent workers, and their contracts and relationships with those other businesses that provide integral services and support, to assess whether there is a vulnerability to findings of joint-employer status.

The National Labor Relations Board has issued an Order (PDF) denying a request for a special appeal filed by McDonald’, USA, LLC and its franchisees (collectively referred to as “McDonald’s” in the Board’s Order) and found that the Administrative Law Judge presiding in the unfair labor practice hearing did not err when she denied McDonald’s motion for a bill of particulars explaining the factual basis for the General Counsel’s claim that McDonald’s, USA, LLC and the named franchisees are joint employers.

The ALJ Had Denied McDonald’s Motion for a Bill of Particulars

McDonald’s had asked the ALJ, if she denied its request for a bill of particulars explaining the facts that the General Counsel intended to reply upon in support of its claim that the franchisor and its franchisees are joint employers, to strike the joint-employer allegations and dismiss the 2014 complaint.  McDonald’s had argued that without the information that it was requesting, and an explanation of what the General Counsel would rely upon in alleging a new standard for evaluating whether there was a joint employer relationship, it would be denied due process.

The Board Majority’s Ruling

In the short five-paragraph August 14, 2015 Order, Chairman Mark Pearce and Board Members Kent Hirozawa and Lauren McFerran found that Administrative Law Judge Lauren Esposito “conducted a well-reasoned analysis of the relevant authority and its application to the pleadings in this matter,” when she denied their motion for a bill of particulars or to dismiss.  The majority based its decision on its conclusion that “the consolidated complaint was sufficient to put McDonald’s on notice that the General Counsel is alleging joint employer status based on McDonald’s control over the labor relations practices of its franchisees.”

Members’ Miscimarra and Johnson’s Dissent

Board Members Philip A. Miscimarra and Harry I. Johnson, III did not agree with the majority and issued a far lengthier dissent, in which they argued that the denial of the request for permission to file a special appeal of the ALJ’s Order “presents an acute due process problem and is shortsighted in terms of prudently managing the Board’s resources and minimizing the burden placed on the parties.”

The dissent pointed out that although the complaint “is consistent with the Board’s current joint employer standard,” “the complaint language provides no notice regarding the new joint employer standard upon which the General Counsel intends to rely upon in the alternative, nor what facts the General Counsel believes will prove joint employer status under the alternative standard.”  Significantly, as the dissent noted, that “alternative theory may be the sole basis for finding that Respondent violated the Act” despite the utter lack of notice in the complaint regarding the underpinnings of that theory.

What This Means

Such a denial of due process, as the dissenters pointed out, means that if the Board ultimately, at the end of these lengthy, expensive and time consuming proceedings, finds that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees under the alternative theory, and that the Act was violated, “Respondent [McDonald’s] will have a plausible and potentially compelling argument that its due process rights have been violated – and the Board may find that it has expended substantial resources building and litigating a case on an unstable foundation.”

NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin announced on Tuesday July 29th   that he has authorized issuance of Unfair Labor Practice Complaints based on 43 of 181 charges pending against McDonald’s, USA, LLC and various of its franchisees, in which the Board will allege that the company and its franchisees are joint-employers. If the General Counsel prevails on his theory that McDonalds is a joint employer with its franchisees, the result would be not only a finding of shared responsibility for unfair labor practices, but could also mean that the franchisor would share in the responsibilities of collective bargaining if unions are successful in organizing franchisors’ workers.  The news, which comes as Fast Food Forward, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) wraps up its convention in Illinois.

In May of this  this year, General Counsel Griffin signaled his intent to ask the Board to revisit the standards for determining when and in what circumstances two or more employers could be found to be joint employers.  At that time the General Counsel invited the filing of amicus briefs in Browning-Ferris, the General Counsel asked interested parties to share their views on the following questions:

  • Should the Board adhere to its existing joint-employer standard or adopt a new standard?
  • What considerations should influence the Board’s decision in this regard?
  • And If the Board adopts a new standard for determining joint-employer status, what should that standard be?
  • If it involves the application of a multifactor test, what factors should be examined? What should be the basis or rationale for such a standard?

While submissions in Browning-Ferris on these questions were to be received by June 26, 2014, it would appear that the General Counsel has reached his decision that a new standard should be adopted and that it should be a much broader one than has been applied in the past.

Under the Board’s practices, the Advice Memorandum issued in the McDonald’s cases has not yet been made available to the public.  While the General Counsel has indicated that absent settlement in the 43 cases that he finds to have merit the Board’s regional directors are directed to issue unfair labor practice complaints and to try the cases before the Board’s Administrative Law Judges, it has been reported that McDonald’s will contest the matters, noting that it does not direct hirings, terminations or the setting of hours and wages by its franchisees and that it has never been found to be a joint employer with them in the past.

Adoption of a new standard for determining whether a joint employer relationship exists between companies in these and other circumstances, such as between companies and those to whom they outsource work and functions could have far broader implications beyond the franchise setting.