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  While Hy-Brand was recently rescinded, it is expected that the newly constituted Board will  likely consider the issue again in the near future.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.

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.

In the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, those interested in the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) waited anxiously for the new President to fill key positions that would allow the Board to reconsider many of the actions of the past eight years. Over the last six months, the Board has begun to revisit, and overrule, several union-friendly and pro-employee Obama-era Board decisions. The Board’s new General Counsel has also given clear guidance as to where else employers can expect to see his office pursue further changes in how the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”) will be interpreted and enforced.

In this Take 5, we offer an overview of key aspects of what the new Board has done to date, and what can be expected going forward:

  1. What to Look Out for This Year at the NLRB
  2. Hy-Brand Industrial Overrules Browning-Ferris and Sets New NLRB Standard for Determining Joint-Employer Status
  3. NLRB Ruling in The Boeing Co. Establishes New Standards Governing Employee Handbook Rules and Policies
  4. The Trump Board Signals a Return to Traditional Standards in Representation Cases
  5. As the NLRB Steps Back, Cities Step Forward

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

Kate B. RhodesLast month, in two separate cases, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) and an NLRB Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found against employers in cases involving the right of employees to wear union insignia at work. While the Board has long held that wearing union t-shirts, stickers and the like is a form of concerted protected activity protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“Act” or “NLRA”), it has historically recognized the right of employers to limit this when necessary to maintain an appropriate atmosphere, these decisions evidence a significant limitation on employers rights in these cases. However, as we have been reporting, Board and its General Counsel have been reexamining numerous precedents and finding that policies and practices deemed lawful interfere with employees’ rights under the Act.

In the first case, Pacific Bell Telephone Company, Nevada Telephone Company d/b/a AT&T, 362 NLRB No. 105 (2015), the Board found that the employer could not lawfully prohibit employees from wearing union buttons and stickers that contained what it argued was  vulgar language, including “WTF, Where’s The Fairness,” “FTW Fight To Win,” and “CUT the CRAP!  Not My Healthcare.”  These slogans were worn by employees who regularly interacted with customers.  The employer argued that because these buttons and stickers contained vulgar language and were offensive, they could not be worn in customer contact areas. The Board disagreed.  The Board wrote:

We agree with the judge that the content of the “WTF,” “FTW,” and “Cut the Crap!” buttons and stickers was not so vulgar and offensive as to cause employees wearing them to lose the protection of the [National Labor Relations Act].  In particular, we emphasize that the “WTF” and “FTW” buttons and stickers provided a nonprofane, nonoffensive interpretation on their face.

The Board also noted that the “possible suggestion of profanity, or ‘double entendre,’” of the slogans was not sufficient to render them unprotected.

Similarly, in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Case No. 13-CA-114222 (June 9, 2015), an NLRB ALJ found that the following dress code policy, which prohibited a broad range of logos and messages, not only those referring to union insignia, was unlawful:

Walmart logos of any size are permitted.  Other small, non-distracting logos or graphics on shirts, pants, skirts, hats, jackets or coats are also permitted.

The employer later added a qualifier about the size of logos, defining “small” as “no larger than the size of your associate name badge.”  The ALJ found that this policy was overly broad and vague, and that the rule was not sufficiently “narrowly tailored” to justify the maintenance of the rule.  First, the ALJ noted that the policy does not define the term “non-distracting,” which could lead to confusion on the part of associates.  Second, the ALJ stated that the employer’s limitation on logos, which included union insignias, was not justified by any of the special circumstances (i.e. employee safety, damage to machinery or products, exacerbation of employees dissension, or unreasonable interference with the public image of the employer) that Board precedent has held can lawfully justify such a prohibition.  The ALJ stated:

Walmart did not present any evidence of a significant or widespread problem with associates wearing union insignia or other logos that actually made it difficult or impossible for others to see their Walmart nametags. . .Nor did Walmart present evidence of a significant or widespread problem with customers being distracted by logos worn by associates.

The ALJ wrote, in conclusion, that the employer’s rule ran “afoul” of prior cases that “upheld that right of employees to wear union insignia of a variety of types and sizes, including insignia much larger than Walmart’s nametags.”

Both of these cases further evidence with Board’s efforts to be relevant to union and non-union employers alike, which is often done through cases challenging the legality of a work rule, regardless of whether it has ever been enforced.  Employers should continue to be careful when drafting and enforcing policies, specifically those regarding employee dress codes.

New Union Rules and Rulings: Proactive Strategies for Employers Facing Today’s Aggressive National Labor Relations Board and New Expedited Representation Elections

April 14, 2015 – Hilton Westchester, Rye Brook, New York

May 7, 2015 – The L.A. Hotel Downtown, Los Angeles, California

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has adopted dramatic new rules and processes for union representation elections scheduled to take effect on April 14, 2015. The NLRB has also changed many of its standards concerning workplace rules, handbooks and policies affecting ALL EMPLOYERS, not only unionized workplaces.

This interactive workshop will address critical headline issues developing from today’s aggressive, union-friendly NLRB and provide innovative techniques and proactive and preventive strategies to prepare and respond to these developments. Specifically, our speakers will explain and offer tactics on:

  • New election rules that will bring fast elections in small units, with limited opportunity for employers to present both sides to employees and resolve key questions before a vote
  • NLRB’s evolving and expansive definition of joint employers including franchisors and franchisees
  • Developing and enforcing handbooks, policies, practices and work rules, including use of email, social media, and protection of confidential information that will withstand the NLRB’s increasing scrutiny
  • NLRB’s expanding view of protected concerted activity, including social media, workplace confrontations, class action waivers and other recent NLRB decisions

To review locations and a briefing agenda, please click here.  To register, please click here.

The fee to attend this briefing is $50 for the first person and $25 for each additional person from the same organization. The fee includes breakfast, workshop materials, and lunch. Overnight accommodations can be arranged directly with the hotel.

For additional information, please contact Elizabeth Lynch Gannon at egannon@ebglaw.com or 202/861-1850.