In a three to one decision issued on January 25, 2019, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) in SuperShuttle DFW, Inc., 367 NLRB No.75 (2019), the Board announced it was rejecting the test adopted in 2014 in FedEx Home Delivery, 361 NLRB 610 (2014) for determining whether a worker was an employee or an independent contractor and returning to the test it used prior to the FedEx Home decision.

As the decision in SuperShuttle makes clear, the determination of whether a worker is an employee entitled to the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”), or an independent contractor will continue to be based on a case by case examination of the specific facts. Under Section 2(3) of Act, only employees and not independent contractors are entitled to the Act’s protections.

SuperShuttle involved a union petition for an election among a group of franchisees operating SuperShuttle airport vans at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In response to the petition, SuperShuttle, the franchisor, argued that the franchisees who were seeking representation were not employees but rather independent contractors and as such were not entitled to vote in an NLRB election or to exercise the rights granted to employees, but not independent contractors, under the Act.

The Board’s Acting Regional Director (“ARD”) based on the facts of the case, found that the franchisees were independent contractors and not employees, and dismissed the petition. The petitioner, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 338, appealed the ARD’s decision, arguing that based on the degree of control exercised by the franchisor’s operations and terms and conditions, they were employees and not independent contractors.

As the Board explained in its Press Release, the decision to affirm the ARD’s conclusion that the drivers in the case were not employees turned on the facts of their franchise agreements with SuperShuttle:

The Board found that the franchisees’ leasing or ownership of their work vans, their method of compensation, and their nearly unfettered control over their daily work schedules and working conditions provided the franchisees with significant entrepreneurial opportunity for economic gain. These factors, along with the absence of supervision and the parties’ understanding that the franchisees are independent contractors, resulted in the Board’s finding that the franchisees are not employees under the Act. The decision affirms the Acting Regional Director’s finding that the franchisees are independent contractors.

The Board Returns to its pre-2014 Standards for Distinguishing between Employees and Independent Contractors

 As the majority in SuperShuttle DFW explained, under the standard adopted in 2014 in FedEx Home Delivery, the Board had essentially created a new requirement for finding workers to be independent contractors and not employees.

The Board majority’s decision in FedEx did far more than merely “refine” the common-law independent contractor test – it “fundamentally shifted the independent contractor analysis, for implicit policy-based reasons to one of economic realities, i.e., a test that greatly diminishes the significance of entrepreneurial opportunity and selectively overemphasizes the significance of “right to control” factors relevant to perceived economic dependency. (citations omitted). Today, we overrule this purported “refinement.”
(emphasis added)

The majority opinion in SuperShuttle DFW, joined by Chairman Ring, Member Kaplan and Member Emanuel returned to the Board’s longstanding prior practice of considering “all of the common-law factors as described in the Restatement (Second) of Agency:”

a) The extent of control which, by the agreement, the master may exercise over the details of the work.
b) Whether or not the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business.
c) The kind of occupation, with reference to whether in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a specialist without supervision.
d) The skills required in the particular occupation.
e) Whether the employer or the workman supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work.
f) The length of time for which the person is employed.
g) The method of payment, whether by the time or by the job.
h) Whether or not the work is part of the regular business of the employer.
i) Whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relation of master and servant.
j) Whether the principal is or is not in business.

As the majority in SuperShuttle explained, citing to the US Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in NLRB v. United Insurance Co. of America, 390 U.S. 254 “there is no shorthand formula” and “all the incidents of the relationship must be assessed and weighed with no one factor being decisive,” and that what is important is that the total factual context is assessed in light of the pertinent common law principles.” Id. at 258.

In FedEx Home Delivery the Board had adopted a test that made it more difficult to prove an independent contractor relationship

In FedEx Home Delivery, a Board majority composed of appointees of President Obama had adopted a test that moved beyond the traditional common law standards for determining whether a worker was an employee or an independent contractor “by creating a new factor (‘rendering services as part of an independent business’) and then making entrepreneurial opportunity merely ‘one aspect’ of that factor.” 367 NLRB No. 75 at page 1.

As the majority in SuperShuttle explained, the Board majority in FedEx was no “mere refinement,” but rather a shift of the independent-contractor test to “one of ‘economic dependency,’ a test that was specifically rejected by Congress.” 367 NLRB N0. 75, at p. 8-9.

What Happens Now?

It is notable that although the Board announced its return to the former test for determining whether workers are independent contractors or employees, the ARD had reached the conclusion that the SuperShuttle drivers were independent contractors under the test adopted in FedEx Home.

The modification of the test for making this determination by discarding “the undue significance of a worker’s entrepreneurial opportunity for economic gain” is likely to mean that workers who traditionally would have been found to be independent contractors and outside the Act’s protections, will be found independent contractors in the future once again.

It is clear that detailed factual analysis will be required in all cases. It would be appropriate, given the reliance on the terms of the franchise agreements in SuperShuttle and the fact that those agreements did demonstrate that the drivers retained significant discretion to run their businesses and knew they would be independent contractors and not employees when they entered into those agreements, for businesses that rely on independent contractor and other such arrangements to review and where appropriate update their agreements and other operating documents.

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) issued a decision that “begins the process of restoring” a decades-old definition of “concerted activity” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”) – a definition that, in the Board’s view, had become muddled and unduly expanded as recent decisions “blurred the distinction between protected group action and unprotected individual action.”

In a 3-1 decision, with Member McFerran dissenting, the Board in Alstate Maintenance, LLC upheld an administrative law judge’s dismissal of a complaint issued by the Board’s previous General Counsel, which alleged that Alstate Maintenance, LLC committed unfair labor practices when it discharged Trevor Greenidge, a skycap who worked at JFK airport. As a skycap, Greenidge’s primary job responsibility was to assist arriving airline passengers with their luggage outside of the airport terminal. Greenidge’s supervisor instructed him (and three other skycaps) to assist with moving a soccer team’s equipment. In response, Greenidge commented: “We did a similar job a year prior and we didn’t receive a tip for it.” When the equipment arrived, all four skycaps walked away. The managers sought assistance from baggage handlers inside the terminal; after those baggage handlers completed a significant share of the work, Greenidge and the other three skycaps returned to help complete the assignment. The skycaps were subsequently discharged. The only issue before the Board was whether Greenidge’s comment and actions constituted protected concerted activity and was therefore protected by the Act.

In the Complaint issued on behalf of the Board’s General Counsel following an investigation of Greenidge’s charge, the General Counsel alleged that the actions and comments were protected by the Act because Greenidge was acting with respect to his terms and conditions of employment, and those of his co-workers, the other skycaps who he spoke to about his experience with the soccer team not tipping in the past.

The standards for determining whether an employee has engaged in “concerted activity” was first articulated in two Board decisions from the mid-1980’s, known as Meyers Industries. In Alstate Maintenance, LLC, the Board reiterated that under the Meyers standards, an individual employee engages in concerted activity when he or she does either one of the following:

  1. Seeks to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action. An employee’s “mere talk” must “be talk looking toward group action” – otherwise, it will simply constitute “mere griping.”
  2. Brings “truly group complaints” (as opposed to personal grievances) to management’s attention and can point to record evidence that demonstrates “group activities” (such as prior or contemporaneous discussion of the concern among members of the workforce).

As part of its analysis, the Board overruled its 2011 decision in WorldMark by Wyndham because that decision could not be reconciled with the Meyers standard, and the Board majority found that it erroneously shielded certain unprotected individual action. The Board found that WorldMark improperly deviated from Meyers by holding that any employee who protests publicly in a group meeting automatically engages in protected activity per se – and that such a rule obviated any fact-based analysis as to whether the employee had protested on the authority of other employees (which would be concerted activity) or solely on the employee’s own behalf (which would not be concerted activity).

Applying the Meyers standard in the Alstate case, the Board “easily” concluded that Greenidge’s comment did not constitute concerted activity. First, the comment did not seek to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action. The majority concluded that Greenidge’s comment itself (i.e., “[w]e did a similar job a year prior and we didn’t receive a tip from it”) did not demonstrate that he was seeking to initiate or induce group action, and Greenidge had credibly testified during the hearing that his remark was “just a comment” that was not aimed at changing his employer’s policies or practices. Second, the General Counsel did not contend that Greenidge was bringing a “truly group complaint” to management’s attention. In any event, there was no record evidence of “group activities” – such as evidence that tipping habits had been discussed amongst the skycaps prior to Greenidge’s comment – and the Board concluded that Greenidge’s mere use of the word “we” in his comment did not supply the required evidence of “group activities.”

The Board articulated several factors that might support a reasonable inference that, in making a statement or comment, an individual employee engaged in concerted activity – either by bringing a “truly group concern” to management’s attention or by initiating, inciting, or preparing for group action:

  • The statement was made during an employee meeting called by the employer to announce a decision affecting wages, hours, or some other term or condition of employment,
  • The decision affects multiple employees attending the meeting,
  • The employee who makes a comment in response to such an announcement does so to protest or complain about the decision – not merely to ask questions about how the decision will be implemented,
  • The employee protests or complains about the decision’s effect on the work force generally (or some portion of the work force), not solely about the decision’s effect on the employee himself,
  • The meeting presented the first opportunity for employees to address the decision, so the speaker had no opportunity to discuss the issue with other employee’s beforehand, and
  • Other evidence that a statement made in the presence of coworkers was made to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action – such as an express call for employees to act collectively.

As part of its observation that more recent decisions by the Board had improperly deviated from the Meyers standard, the Board pointed to several cases that concluded that an employee’s statements about certain subjects (such as wages, work schedules, and job security) were “inherently” concerted. As part of its effort to “restor[e]” the Meyers standard, the Board expressed its “interest[ ] in reconsidering this line of precedent in a future appropriate case.”

What Does this Mean for Employers?

 It is important not to over read the application of the Alstate decision. While the Board’s decision concluded that in the context of this statement by an employee to co-workers that he was not calling for group action or expressing a position on behalf of employees collectively, a careful fact based analysis remains critical in all cases.

The New York City Temporary Schedule Change Law (“Law”), which became effective on July 18, 2018, raises new issues that employers with union represented employees will need to address as their existing collective bargaining agreements (“CBA”) come up for renewal.

The Law allows most New York City employees up to two temporary schedule changes (or permission to take unpaid time off) per calendar year when such changes are needed due to a “personal event.” The Law also prohibits retaliation against workers who request temporary schedule changes. Additional detailed information concerning the Law and employers’ obligations can be found in our August 2, 2018 Client Advisory.

What Does the Law Mean for Employers with Union-Represented Employees?

The Law Applies to Employees Covered by a CBA

The Law, as written, applies to employees represented by a union and covered by a CBA. However, the Law contains a qualified exemption for employees covered by a CBA, which specifies that the Law does not apply to any employee who:

[i]s covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement if such agreement waives the provisions of this subchapter and addresses temporary changes to work schedules[.]

The text of the Law also addresses, in very general terms, the question of whether the Law is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act when it comes to interpreting a CBA for purposes of determining whether it contains a “waiver” of the applicable provisions of the Law or addresses changes to work schedules. That provision states that the Law does not:

[p]reempt, limit or otherwise affect the applicability of any provisions of any other law, regulation, requirement, policy or standard, other than a collective bargaining agreement, that provides comparable or superior benefits for employees to those required herein.

What Does This Mean to Employers Whose Employees Are Represented by a Union?

Employers will want to negotiate for express waiver language as well as language stating that the employer and the union agree that their CBA provides employees with scheduling change rights (as well as sick and safety time rights) that are comparable or superior to those mandated by the Law and the City’s Earned Safe and Sick Time Act (“ESSTA”).

While the quoted language from the Law may seem confusing, it appears that the City Council and the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, Office of Labor & Policy Standards (“DCA”), are taking an approach similar to that followed under ESSTA. ESSTA provided for an exemption from compliance with that statute in cases where (a) employees are covered by a CBA, (b) the CBA contains an “express waiver” of ESSTA’s paid safe and sick time requirements, and (c) the paid safe and sick time benefits under the CBA are substantially comparable to those mandated by ESSTA.[1]

Significantly, in the case of ESSTA, the text of the statute only calls for a waiver and comparable benefits—the requirement that the waiver be an “express waiver” is one that was created by the DCA in its administration of ESSTA. It is foreseeable that the DCA will follow the same approach in its administration and enforcement of the Law. To date, in its enforcement of ESSTA, the DCA has demonstrated an unwillingness to defer to the agreement of an employer and its employees’ bargaining representative or acknowledge that the sick leave or paid time off under a CBA is comparable or superior to such leave or time off under ESSTA.

Accordingly, employers that employ union-represented employees will need to ensure that, as they renegotiate their CBAs and/or negotiate first contracts, the CBAs contain clear and unequivocal language confirming that the employer and the union have agreed to “expressly waive” the provisions of the Law and the provisions of the CBA concerning taking and scheduling time off and temporary schedule changes provide employees with benefits that are “comparable or superior” to those mandated by the Law.

What Happens with CBAs That Were Negotiated Before the Law Took Effect?

While the Law is, in most instances, effective as of July 18, 2018, the 180th day after its enactment, this is not the case for employees covered by a CBA that was in effect on that date. The Law provides that:

in the case of employees covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement … this local law takes effect on the date of termination of such agreement . . .

Accordingly, employees covered by an existing CBA are not covered by the Law until the expiration of the CBA. Upon the expiration of an existing CBA, employers will need to ensure that they propose and secure the necessary express waivers and agreements for comparable benefits in all new or renewal CBAs from this point forward.

_________________

[1] ESSTA also waived the requirement of substantially comparable benefits in the case of employers in the grocery and construction industries whose employees are covered by a CBA containing an express waiver of ESSTA’s requirements.

In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis  (a companion case to NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA and Ernst & Young v. Morris), the U.S. Supreme Court finally and decisively put to rest the Obama-era NLRB’s aggressive contention that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prevented class action waiver in employees arbitration agreements, finding such waivers are both protected by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and not prohibited by the NLRA. In its 5-4 decision, the Court explained that the NLRB’s interpretation of the FAA was not entitled to deference because it is not the agency charged by Congress with the interpretation and enforcement of that statute.

The Supreme Court started with two questions:

Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration? Or do employees have a right to always bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?

The Court first answered these questions plainly, noting that though as a matter of policy there could be a debate as to what the answer should be, “as a matter of the law the answer is clear” that class action waivers are legal under the NLRA and enforceable under the FAA, going on to systematically dismantle the arguments made by former NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin, Jr. and related labor union and plaintiffs’ attorneys in amici briefs filed with the Court.

The Court’s majority opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch started with some history, noting that for the first 77 years of the NLRA there had been no argument by the Board that class action waivers violated the NLRA and that the FAA and the NLRA coexisted perfectly without conflict. As recently as 2010 the NLRB’s General Counsel took the position that class action waivers did not violate the NLRA. It was not until the Obama-era NLRB’s decision in the D.R. Horton that the NLRB took the then novel position that the NLRA’s “other concerted activities” protections created a substantive right to class action procedures. The Court then recited decades of precedent rejecting the relatively newly found aggressive NLRB position.

With respect to the FAA the Court reinforced that the courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements by their terms. The Court soundly rejected the NLRB’s argument that the FAA’s savings clause supported the NLRB’s position, explaining that the savings clause only applies to defenses applicable to any contract disputes, such as fraud, duress and unconscionably. In what could be helpful to arguments that other attempts to limit arbitration which are found in or being proposed in various state and local laws such as prohibiting arbitration of harassment claims or wage and hour claims under California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) should be found valid notwithstanding the clear language of the FAA, the Court pointed out that the purpose of the FAA was to combat historic opposition to arbitration and, citing AT&T Mobility v. Conception’s validation of class action waivers generally, warned that the courts must guard against attempts to pervert the purposes of the FAA:

Just as judicial antagonism toward arbitration before the Arbitration Act’s enactment “manifested itself in a great variety of devices and formulas declaring arbitration against public policy,” Concepcion teaches that we must be alert to new devices and formulas that would achieve much the same result today.

With respect to the NLRA the Court, in addition to noting the historic context of both enforcement of arbitration agreements and the statute’s coexistence with the FAA, the Court observed that the NLRA’s protection of “other concerted activities” applies to subjects related to the right to organize, be represented by a union and bargain collectively, as well as other similar efforts of employees to freely associate with their coworkers in the workplace. Though not directly addressed by the Court, the language of the Opinion implies a much narrower reading of Section 7 rights under the NLRA than has historically been exposed by the Board and courts.

Finally, the Court addressed the fundamental underlying reality of the issue that the Board and the plaintiff employees’ position is an attempt to squeeze an elephant through a mouse hole by trying to use a novel interpretation of the NLRA to enforce FLSA rights in a manner which circumvents decades of established precedence. Ultimately, the Court ruled that in an employee can agree to arbitrate their FLSA rights under the FLSA, certainly nothing in the NLRA operates to prohibit such agreements.

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.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: Should the misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor be found to violate the NLRA?

The National Labor Relations Board is seeking amicus briefs on whether the misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor should be found to violate the National Labor Relations Act. Former NLRB general counsel Richard Griffin argued that misclassification violates the NLRA because it impacts the rights that employees have under the Act, including the right to engage in concerted activities with co-workers, join a union and engage in bargaining. To date, the Board has not ruled on the question. Amicus briefs must be filed by April 16th.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

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.

In footnotes to two recent unpublished NLRB decisions,  NLRB Chairman Marvin Kaplan, who was named to that role by the President following the December 16, 2017 conclusion of Philip Miscimarra’s term, and Member William Emanuel offered interested observers an indication of two additional areas of Board law that they believe warrant reconsideration once Mr. Miscimarra’s replacement is nominated and confirmed, and the Board returns to a 3-2 Republican majority.

While unpublished Board decisions “are not intended or appropriate for publication and are not binding precedent, except with respect to the parties in the specific case,” as in the two cases discussed below, can offer important insights into what Board members are thinking about significant matters, and therefore can give readers an idea what to expect when particular issues come before the Board in future cases. In this regard, they, like the General Counsel’s recent Memorandum on Mandatory Submissions to Advice, give meaningful guidance to employers and advocates.

The Board is Likely to Revisit and Move Away from Obama Era Holdings re Confidentiality in Settlement Agreements

During the past eight years, one of the signatures of the Obama Board was its effort to expand the application of the National Labor Relations Act’s relevance to non-union workplaces. One aspect of this was a series of Board decisions finding that when employers sought to include broad confidentiality provisions in private settlement and separation agreements with employees that restricted the employees’ ability to disclose the terms of such settlements to others, including employees, they were impermissibly restricting employees’ ability to act together with other employees concerning terms and conditions of employment.

In a footnote to a December 27, 2017 unpublished decision denying a motion for summary judgment in an unfair labor practice complaint issued against Baylor University School of Medicine, Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel wrote as follows:

Members Emanuel and Kaplan agree that there are genuine issues of material fact warranting a hearing and that the Respondent is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

However, they believe that, to the extent not already permitted under Board precedent, the legality of confidential severance agreements for former employees should be reconsidered

While the Baylor University decision does not answer the question of when and in what circumstances the Board will recognize an employer’s right to lawfully require confidentiality in settlement agreements and other agreements that where they would have been found to interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights, the tea leaves more than suggest a change in Board law as soon as the Board returns to five members and an appropriate case is before the new majority.

The Board is Likely to Change How It Interprets and Applies the Blocking Charge Rule

Another important area that Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel indicated they want to see the Board re-examine is a Board doctrine commonly referred to as the Blocking Charge Rule.

Under the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rules, the NLRB holds that when an unfair labor practice charge is filed during the pendency of an representation petition, the Board will not conduct the election if the party that has filed the charge, typically the petitioning union, or in the case of a decertification petition, the incumbent union facing a vote to decertify it as the representative, if the charge alleges actions by the employer that the union claims prevent or interfere with a fair election. Many observers believe that such blocking charges are used tactically by unions that are concerned they face defeat at the polls.

Under the 2014 Amended Election Rules, it is quite easy for a union to use such a charge to block an election:

Section 103.20 of the final rule requires that a party wishing to block processing of the petition must file a request to block and simultaneously file a written offer of proof in support of its unfair labor practice charge. If the Region believes the charge precludes a question concerning representation and no request is filed, the Region may ask the Charging Party if they wish to request to block.  If so, the Charging Party should be informed that they must file a request to block and an offer of proof, including the names of witnesses who will testify in support of the charge and a summary of each witness’s anticipated testimony. In addition, the Charging Party must promptly make the witnesses available to the Region.

In a December 20, 2017 unpublished decision in a case involving a decertification petition filed by an employee of ADT, in which the incumbent union filed ULP charges, to prevent an election:

Member Kaplan agrees with the decision to deny review here. He notes, however, that, consistent with the Petitioner’s suggestion, he would consider revisiting the Board’s blocking charge policy in a future appropriate case. Member Emanuel agrees that the determination to hold the petition in abeyance in this case was permissible under the Board’s current blocking charge policy, but he believes that the policy should be changed. Specifically, he believes that an employee’s petition for an election should generally not be dismissed based on contested and unproven allegations of unfair labor practices.

One of the more interesting aspects of this decision and footnote is that both Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel, although not disagreeing with the Regional Director’s application of the rule in the case before them, each expressed their view that the Blocking Charge Rule, which is not a rule at all but rather a Board-created doctrine or policy “should be changed.”

In Midwest Division-MMC, LLC, d/b/a/ Menorah Medical Center v. NLRB, the D.C. Circuit rejected the Board’s unprecedented application of Weingarten rights to voluntary meetings, by reversing the Board’s Decision that would have extended the right of employees to have union representation at meetings at which the employees’ attendance is not compelled.

Kansas state law requires hospitals to establish an internal mechanism to monitor the standard of care provided by nursing professionals.  Pursuant to this law, Menorah Medical Center (“Menorah” or “Hospital”) established a Nursing Peer Review Committee (“Committee”) to investigate alleged violations of the prevailing standard of care.  If substantiated, the Committee reports the violation to the state licensing agency, but the Committee itself does not impose discipline.  If a violation is reported, the state, not the employer, may suspend or revoke a nurse’s license.

In May 2012, two nurses received letters alleging that they had engaged in unprofessional conduct. The letters advised that the nurses could address the Committee at a hearing “if you choose,” but also gave the nurses the option to submit a written statement in lieu of a personal appearance.  Both nurses requested union representation at the Committee hearing, but the Hospital denied their requests.  Their union subsequently filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging that the Hospital violated the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”) by denying the nurses’ requests for union representation at the hearing.

The D.C. Circuit Court Finds There Is No Right to Union Representation at Voluntary Meetings

The Board found that the Hospital’s denial violated the Act because employees have a right to union representation under Weingarten in “interviews where there is a reasonable belief that the employee will be disciplined,” regardless of whether the employees’ attendance is compulsory or voluntary.  This was an overt expansion of employees’ Weingarten rights which only apply to a unionized employee’s right to representation at a mandatory meeting an employer requires them to answer potentially incriminating questions which may result in disciplinary action by the employer.

The D.C. Circuit Court, however, unanimously reversed the Board’s decision. The Circuit Court, quoting the Supreme Court’s Weingarten decision, held that an employee’s Weingarten rights are infringed only when an employer compels an employee’s attendance at an interview that might reasonably be expected to lead to discipline and denies his or her request for union representation.  Specifically, the Supreme Court in Weingarten delineated the limited representation right as:

…the employee’s individual right to engage in concerted activity by seeking the assistance of his statutory representative if the employer denies the employee’s request and compels the employee to appear unassisted at an interview which may put his job security in jeopardy.

Here, the Hospital’s letters to the nurses clearly conveyed their attendance at the hearing was voluntary and even allowed them to submit a written statement as an alternative to attending.  Accordingly, the right to union representation under Weingarten was not triggered.

The Court also rejected the Board’s finding that, after denying a request for union representation in these circumstances, the employer must discontinue the interview unless the employee voluntarily agrees to continue after the employer explains to the employee that he or she has a choice to continue the interview without a representative present or not have the interview at all.  The Court explained that the letters sent to the nurses made it clear that their attendance was voluntary, and Weingarten “contains no suggestion that the NLRA requires an employer to renew advice to an employee that her attendance at a hearing is optional.”  The Court distinguished the precedent relied upon by the Board on the ground that all the cases involved compulsory attendance at interviews.

The Concurrence Suggests Weingarten Rights Do Not Apply Outside Interviews Conducted by Employers

Notably, in a concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Kavanaugh emphasized that the majority’s opinion assumes arguendo that Weingarten rights could apply to peer review committees without deciding this threshold question.  Judge Kavanaugh explained that, were the Court to decide this threshold question, he would hold Weingarten rights do not apply in peer review committee interviews.  Rather, Weingarten rights exist “to redress the perceived imbalance of economic power between labor and management,” and therefore apply primarily in the context of disciplinary investigations conducted by the employer.  When the interview is conducted by a state-mandated peer review committee that is not part of the employer’s disciplinary process, Weingarten rights do not apply.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Marvin Kaplan, a former Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission lawyer, to fill one of the two open seats on the National Labor Relations Board, moving the agency a step closer to a Republican majority. Kaplan was confirmed on a 50-48 party-line vote by the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Senate has yet to schedule a vote for President Trump’s second nominee for the Board, William Emanuel, a long time management-side labor and employment lawyer. The Senate is expected to vote for cloture on Emanuel’s nomination after the August recess. The cloture vote kicks off a 30-hour period of debate. A final confirmation vote will then be scheduled.

The delay in moving forward on Emanuel’s nomination is the result of several Democrats stalling by raising partisan concerns that Emanuel’s history as a management-side lawyer somehow creates a conflict of interest, notwithstanding their prior support of Board nominees who have had lifelong careers as attorneys for unions, and indeed in numerous other instances, attorneys who represented employers. For example, current Member Mark Gaston Peace was longtime union lawyer and the current NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin, Jr. was the General Counsel of the International Union of the Operating Engineers and a member of the board of directors of the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee.

Emanuel is expected to be confirmed in September despite the delays.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, if the nomination of Emanuel is confirmed by the Senate, which seems likely as of now, the NLRB will not only have its first Republican majority in nine years, it will return to full strength at five members. As cases come before the Board for its consideration, the NLRB will likely reconsider many of the decisions of the Democratic majority Obama Board. However, as we have noted, NLRB General Counsel is expected to serve out his four year term and remain in that critical post, in which he decides in many respects, which issues are litigated and presented to the Board, through November 3, 2017.

As we noted in our earlier blog, the Board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the final vacancy is filled, including the NLRB’s standards for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), the Board’s standards for determining what are appropriate units for collective bargaining including a review of the so-called “mircro-units” approved by the Obama Board, the status graduate students and research assistants as employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining, and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.