Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary Revokes Obama-Era DOL Joint Employer and Independent Contractor Guidance

By Philippe A. Lebel

On June 7, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is withdrawing two major pieces of informal guidance issued during the Obama administration, pertaining to joint employment and independent contractors under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq.

The two Administrator Interpretations Letters were issued by the former head of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, David Weil. The first guidance letter, Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1, took an aggressive position regarding misclassification of employees as independent contractors. It stressed that the “economic realities” of worker-employer relationships were paramount—i.e., whether, as a matter of economic reality, a worker was dependent on the putative employer—and suggested that most workers should be classified as employees. Although it relied on case law, the Administrator Letter provided additional refinements and, significantly, de-emphasized consideration of “control”—a major element under most common law tests.

The second letter, Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2016-1, pertained to joint employment relationships. It relied largely on regulations promulgated under the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1801 et seq., and also focused heavily on “economic realities.” The joint employer guidance took a very expansive approach to the entities that potentially could be held liable for wage and hour violations.

The DOL issues Administrator Interpretations Letters to provide cross-industry guidance on wage and hour laws and regulations. Administrator Interpretations Letters are not—strictly speaking—“binding” on courts, although they are generally entitled to deference. Although the two at-issue Administrator Interpretations Letters were in place for a relatively brief period, they were nonetheless influential. Notably, Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1 was cited by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen in the O’Connor v. Uber Technologies, Inc. class action pending in the Northern District of California.

In withdrawing the two Obama-era Administrator Interpretations Letters, Secretary Acosta did not indicate whether the DOL under the Trump administration would issue further guidance on joint employment or independent contractors, but this certainly sends a signal that the current administration may take a much narrower view of what constitutes an employer-employee relationship. In a news release, the DOL stated that withdrawal of these two letters “does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law.”

It remains unclear what the lasting implications of the withdrawal will be. We will continue to monitor developments on the federal and state levels regarding joint employment and independent contractor issues.

The EEOC’s 2017-2021 Strategic Enforcement Plan – Targeting the “Gig Economy” and Independent Contractor Misclassification

By Gregory W. Homer and Dennis M. Mulgrew

The EEOC has issued its new Strategic Enforcement Plan for the fiscal years 2017 to 2021, which outlines the areas in which the EEOC will focus its litigation and investigation resources in the next four years.  The Plan is notable for its emphasis on the “gig” workforce – that is, the short-term, temporary, or freelance workers (often working for companies like Uber, Lyft, AirBnb, or Taskrabbit) who are typically classified as independent contractors rather than employees.

In the Plan, the EEOC identified the rise of the “gig” economy as an “emerging and developing issue” warranting increased focus, particularly with regard to “clarifying the employment relationship and the application of workplace civil rights protections in light of the increasing complexity of employment relationships and structures, including temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, and the on-demand economy . . .”

Essentially, the Plan evidences the EEOC’s intent to crack down on companies seeking to avoid liability under the employment laws by misclassifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees.  The EEOC’s designation of misclassification as an enforcement priority is not entirely surprising, as it is in line with other recent statutory and regulatory developments in this area.  For example, as we noted here, last month California enacted AB 1897, which provides that employers using labor contractors, such as staffing agencies, will now “share with the labor contractor all civil legal responsibility and civil liability for all workers” supplied to company.  Similarly, both the DOL and the NLRB have issued guidance expanding the definition of a “joint employer,” making it more likely companies using contract labor will be considered an “employer” for the purposes of the employment laws, regardless of whether they label the work relationships as ones with “independent contractors.”

In light of these developments, companies may wish to evaluate their use of individual independent contractor relationships, to determine the extent to which an individual may properly be considered an employee rather than a contractor per the guidance above, and the attendant risk.  Similarly, companies indirectly using independent contractors, such as through staffing or “temp” agencies, would be well-served by evaluating their agreements with these agencies to ensure that they contain appropriate safeguards (including guarantees of wage and hour compliance, and perhaps indemnification agreements) to protect against the potential risk of a finding of “joint employer” status.

Passing AB 1897 Means Greater Liability for Employers Who Use Labor Contractors

Editor’s Note: The following post by Saba Shatara, Associate in the Los Angeles office, appears in the latest issue of the California HR Newsletter. To sign-up to receive the California HR Newsletter click here.

Passing AB 1897 Means Greater Liability for Employers Who Use Labor Contractors

The Issue:  Today, many employers rely on labor contractors or temporary employment agencies to sustain their operations.  Occasionally, however, labor contractors fail to comply with labor laws and regulations by failing to (1) pay wages; (2) report and/or pay all required contributions and personal income tax withholdings; and (3) secure workers compensation for subcontractors.  In such cases, are employers liable to subcontractors for these types of violations of their labor contractors?

The Solution:  Historically, for the most part, no.  However, California Assembly Bill (“AB”) 1897, a proposed law currently before the Assembly, would impose joint liability on employers for the violations of their labor contractors.

Analysis:  On April 24, 2014, AB 1897 was passed by the state Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee and will soon be considered by the Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.  The bill would greatly expand an employer’s duties by requiring employers to share with their labor contractors all responsibility and liability for the following: the payment of wages, the failure to report and pay all required employer contributions, worker contributions, and personal income tax withholdings, and the failure to obtain valid workers’ compensation coverage.  This could have a significant impact on employers who depend on labor contractors for any number of functions, e.g., to fill seasonal or short-term work schedules, cover for employee absences, avoid layoffs, and pre-screen employees.

While the law currently prohibits employers from entering into a contract for labor or services with a construction, farm labor, garment, janitorial, security guard, or warehouse contractor, if the employer knows or should know that the agreement does not include sufficient funds for the contractor to comply with laws or regulations governing the labor or services to be provided, AB 1897 would expand liability for the above mentioned violations to all industries and all individuals who contract for labor or services.  This bill would impose seemingly strict liability on any individual or entity that obtains or uses subcontractors from a labor contractor to perform work “within the usual course of business of the individual or entity.”  As such, if AB 1897 were to pass, it would particularly burden small businesses, those without dedicated human resource or legal departments, due to their heavy reliance on contract and temporary employees.

The silver lining is that AB 1897 would not prohibit employers from agreeing to any otherwise lawful remedies against labor contractors for indemnification from liability created by acts of the labor contractor. Employers cannot, however, shift to labor contractors any of their responsibilities under the California Occupational Safety and Health Act.  Labor contractors will also have the same opportunity to contract with employers for indemnification. Furthermore, the bill will provide that any waiver of its provisions is contrary to public policy and unenforceable.  If AB 1897 becomes law, employers should be especially cautious in selecting a labor contractor and determine what level of contractor evaluation may limit their risk for non-compliant contractors.  Unwary employers face the danger of liability for a labor contractor’s failure to meet these requirements.