Recent Trump Administration efforts to chip away at employee protections under federal law faced a setback earlier this month. A federal court in New York struck down a large portion of a January 2020 Department of Labor (“DOL”) rule that changed how to determine whether multiple entities are an individual’s employer under the “joint employer doctrine.” The case is New York v. Scalia.
Non-exempt employees are entitled to a federal minimum wage and overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). But sometimes it can be tricky to determine who is supposed to pay these wages when more than one entity directly benefits from the employee’s work—for example, when an employee works at a franchise or is placed by a staffing agency. Prior to the new rule, which took effect in March 2020, the Department of Labor’s guidance instructed that, in circumstances like these, multiple entities could be considered employers of the same individual if that individual economically depended on the multiple entities. The Trump Administration rule scrapped this analysis in favor of an employer-friendly four-factor test based solely on the level of control each possible joint employer exerts over the worker. The factors in the rejected test were whether the possible joint employer:
(i) Hires or fires the employee;
(ii) Supervises and controls the employee's work schedule or conditions of employment to a substantial degree;
(iii) Determines the employee's rate and method of payment; or
(iv) Maintains the employee's employment records.
This change strongly benefited employers who maintain franchise relationship or rely heavily on contractors or workers staffed by an agency. This corporate windfall would come at the expense of workers, who are far less likely to be able to enforce their FLSA rights under the new standard, if, for example, multiple entities govern their employment so that no one employer meets the new test.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia sued to block the rule, culminating in the decision striking down much of the rule earlier this month. The Court’s ruling rested on two main reasons. First, the rule improperly relied solely on the FLSA’s definition of “employer,” out of context. The FLSA’s definition of “employer” defines an employer as “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee,” requiring that a court deciding which entities are liable consider the definition of the term, “employee.” The definition of “employee,” in turn, necessitates reference to the definition of “employ.” Accordingly, the Court determined that the DOL should not have taken the word “employer” out-of-context by ignoring the other statutory definitions in crafting its employer-friendly rule. In its analysis, the Court emphasized the background and purpose of the FLSA and noted that the law’s definitions of “employer,” “employ,” and “employee” are intentionally broad in order to provide robust protections for workers.
Second, the Court held that the new rule was too restrictive. The FLSA had intentionally refused to place its focus entirely on control in order to give the law a broader scope. Although control could be sufficient to establish joint employer liability, the Trump Administration rule made control necessary to establish an employer-employee relationship, which was a step too far.
The Court also found procedural deficiencies with the new rule. For one, the rule deviated from past DOL interpretations in 1997, 2014, and 2016 without adequate explanation. In another notable portion of the opinion, the Court observed that the DOL initially did not consider the cost of the new rule to employees when considering the rule—the DOL had merely stated that the rule would not affect wages “assuming that all employers always fulfill their legal obligations,” a position which the Court aptly described as “silly.” Although the DOL ultimately acknowledged that the impact of the new rule on wages before passing the rule, the DOL completely disregarded this impact and ignored an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute that the new rule would cost employees $1,000,000,000 (a billion dollars) per year. This decision laid bare the business community’s bald-faced power grab in passing the new rule, catering to business interests by short-changing their workers.
The ruling was not a complete victory for employees. The court struck down the new rule only as it applies to “vertical” joint employer liability, but not “horizontal” joint employer liability. A “vertical” joint employer relationship involves an employee who has a relationship with both an employer and another business contracting the employee’s services (such as a contractor, subcontractor, staffing agency, or franchise), whereas a “horizontal” relationship involves an employee who employed by two sufficiently related entities (such as a joint venture). The Court left the DOL’s changes to “horizontal” joint employment intact.
If you have been denied minimum wage or overtime due, contact Bryan Schwartz