Employment LawScene Alert: NLRB Adopts New Test for Joint Employer Status

On Thursday, August 27, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced an updated test for determining joint-employer status under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), changing decades of precedent and significantly expanding the definition of who can be considered a joint-employer. A split Board decided it was necessary to “revisit and revise” the standard in order to keep up with “changing workplace conditions” in the current economic climate.

In the case at issue, Leadpoint Business Services, Inc. (Leadpoint), a staffing agency, provided workers to Browning-Ferris Industries of California (BFI) at a recycling plant owned by BFI to perform a variety of tasks. The temporary services agreement between the companies stated that Leadpoint was the sole employer and denied any joint-employer relationship. It also gave each company-specific aspects of the employment relationship that each was to control. The union wanted to include the Leadpoint employees in a bargaining unit it represented. A regional director determined that the staffing firm was their sole employer and that BFI, therefore, had no obligation to collectively bargain with Leadpoint employees. The union challenged that decision, and the NLRB deemed the two companies joint-employers under its new standard.

Under the previous standard, an entity needed not only to possess the authority to control the terms and conditions of an employee’s employment but had to actually exercise direct, immediate control to be considered an employer. The NLRB claimed that the requirement of direct, immediate control had been added to the joint-employer test over the past thirty years and was not based on prior case law, in common law, or in the text of the NLRA, and unnecessarily narrowed the definition of joint-employer under the NLRA.

The new standard states that two or more entities will be deemed joint-employers if they are both employers within the meaning of common law and “share or codetermine matters governing essential terms and conditions of employment.”  It is no longer necessary that joint-employers actually exercise authority and control over the terms and conditions of employment or that the control be exercised directly and immediately. Under the new standard, the fact that an entity simply has the ability, even if unused, to control the terms and conditions of employment or possesses indirect control through an intermediary will suffice to establish a joint-employer relationship. The NLRB will consider the existence, extent, and object of the control. The NLRB will broadly define ‘essential terms and conditions of employment’ and include such things as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, direction, wages, hours, scheduling, seniority, assignment of work, and determination of the manner and method of work performance.

This decision will have a major impact on employers, particularly those who use staffing or subcontracting agreements or contingent employee arrangements. Employers who had previously worked under the impression that their lack of direct control meant that they were not joint-employers could now be subjected to joint bargaining obligations and joint liability for unfair labor practices and breaches of collective bargaining agreements. If found to be a joint-employer, companies will need to collectively bargain with respect to the terms and conditions which it possesses the authority to control. The new standard also takes away much of the certainty with which businesses had interacted with each other.

Companies need to look at their business relationships and see who they could be considered joint-employers with, including vendors, service providers, and other entities with which the company may have indirect control over employees. This decision could also have an impact on how other federal agencies, such as OSHA and the EEOC, look at their joint-employer standards. Employers must keep an eye on any changes in order to avoid unexpected legal pitfalls.

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