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Department of Labor Proposes New Interpretation of Joint Employer Status Under The Fair Labor Standards Act

April 9, 2019

AET Headshot Photo 2019 (M1344539xB1386)By: Amanda Thibodeau

On April 9, 2019, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (the “NPRM”) to amend its existing regulations regarding so-called “joint employer” status under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA” or the “Act”).

The FLSA requires covered “employers” to pay nonexempt employees at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek.  The Act also contemplates scenarios in which other “persons,” in addition to the nominal employer, may be jointly liable for wages due to an employee under the Act.  This concept is generally known as joint employer wage liability (although the term “joint employer” is not specifically used in the language of the FLSA).  Joint employer status under the FLSA implicates questions such as:

  • Is a franchiser liable for the wage obligations of its franchisees?
  • Is an institutional investor liable for the wage obligations of its portfolio businesses?
  • Is a parent corporation liable for the wage obligations of its subsidiaries?

In 1958, the DOL issued regulations interpreting joint employer status under the Act.  Those regulations instructed that multiple persons or entities may be jointly liable for wage obligations due to an employee if they are “not completely disassociated with” respect to the employment of an employee.  This open-ended standard, which remains the current DOL benchmark on the subject, has been the subject to debate for nearly sixty years.

The DOL indicates that the purpose of the NPRM is to make the determination of joint employer status under the FLSA “simpler and more consistent.”

A New Test For Joint Liability Status

The NPRM proposes a four-factored test to determine when a person or entity shares wage liability for an employee with the nominal employer.  The four factors are whether the person or business entity:

  • hires or fires the employee;
  • supervises and controls the employee’s work schedule or conditions of employment;
  • determines the employee’s rate and method of payment; and
  • maintains the employee’s employment records.

The NPRM clarifies that that “the potential joint employer must actually exercise . . . one or more of these indicia of control to be jointly liable under the Act.” (Emphasis supplied).  The reserved, but unexercised, contractual right to act in relation to an employee “is not relevant for determining joint employer status.”   In addition, the NPRM provides a set of examples that illustrate the limits of the four-factor test:

  • The potential joint employer’s business model—for example, operating as a franchisor—does not make joint employer status more or less likely under the Act.
  • The potential joint employer’s contractual agreements with the employer requiring the employer to, for example, set a wage floor, institute sexual harassment policies, establish workplace safety practices, require morality clauses, adopt similar generalized business practices, or otherwise comply with the law, do not make joint employer status more or less likely under the Act.
  • The potential joint employer’s practice of providing a sample employee handbook, or other forms, to the employer; allowing the employer to operate a business on its premises (including “store within a store” arrangements); offering an association health plan or association retirement plan to the employer or participating in such a plan with the employer; jointly participating in an apprenticeship program with the employer; or any other similar business practice, does not make joint employer status more or less likely under the Act.

What’s Next?

It should be noted that NPRM is a proposal.  The DOL is now soliciting comments from interested parties with respect to the NPRM, and will begin the process of developing a final rule on the subject.  Whether the DOL ultimately adopts the rules proposed in the NPRM is unclear.  What is clear is that the DOL is focused on clarifying standards with respect to this contentious area of employment law.  Morse Barnes-Brown Pendleton will continue to monitor, and report on this subject.

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Morse Barnes-Brown Pendleton’s Employment Law Group regularly advises clients with respect to compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act and its developments.

For more information, please contact Amanda Thibodeau or Matthew Mitchell.