The U.S. Department of Labor Rolls Back Obama-Era Guidance on Joint Employers and Independent Contractors

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced today that it was rolling back an Obama-era policy that attempted to increase regulatory oversight of joint employer and contractor businesses.

Courts and agencies use the joint employer doctrine to determine whether a business effectively controls the workplace policies of another company, such as a subsidiary or sub-contractor. That control could be over things like wages, the hiring process, or scheduling.

Legal IT ConsultantIn a short statement, the DOL signaled that it was returning to a “direct control” standard. “U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta today announced the withdrawal of the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2015 and 2016 informal guidance on joint employment and independent contractors. Removal of the administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law.”

Until 2015, the DOL interpreted the joint employer doctrine to apply only to cases in which a business had “direct control” over another business’s workplace. In 2015 and then again in 2016, under then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez (currently the Democratic National Committee Chair), the DOL changed its interpretation to state that a business may be a joint employer even if it exerted “indirect control” over another’s workplace. The 2015 and 2016 guidance effectively expanded the conditions for when one business can be held liable for employment and civil rights law violations at another company. Critics of this “indirect control” language argued that it was ambiguous and threatened to throw franchise, parent-subsidiary, and independent contractor relationships between businesses into disarray. Companies, particularly franchises, were particularly concerned that they could face liability at workplaces they did not directly oversee or control.

However, the DOL’s announcement today rescinded its guidance on “indirect control” and also rescinded guidance on independent contractors, which essentially stated that the DOL considered most workers to be employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and that it was likely to apply a broad definition of “employee” and “employer” when investigating a company’s practices. This decision is a big win for businesses and business groups.

Despite the DOL’s reversal, the Obama-era standard can still be applied to businesses through the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), an independent agency that serves as the government’s main labor law enforcer. The NLRB considers a company jointly liable for its contractors’ compliance with the National Labor Relations Act if they have “indirect” control over the terms and conditions of employment or have “reserved authority to do so.” The NLRB has not rescinded its interpretation. President Trump has yet to pick nominees for the five-member board’s two open seats, which will likely affect the NLRB’s interpretation of the joint employer doctrine and many other NLRB rules, interpretations, and guidance.

The DOL’s guidance does not affect actions taken by other federal agencies.

This post was written by James R. Hays and Jason P. Brown  Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

Uber Aims to Settle Two Class Actions; Approximately 385,000 Uber Drivers in California and Massachusetts to Remain Independent Contractors – At Least for Now

Last Thursday, Uber settled two closely-watched class actions contesting Uber’s classification of approximately 385,000 drivers in California and Massachusetts as independent contractors as opposed to employees. While the plaintiffs viewed the settlement as a victory, so likely did Uber, as it allows Uber to continue to pursue an on-demand independent contractor service business model.  The court, however, still needs to approve the settlement and whether it will do so is not clear.

As part of the proposed settlement, Uber agreed to pay $84 million to the drivers. If Uber holds an initial public offering and its valuation goes above $93.75 billion within one year, Uber will pay an additional $16 million to the drivers bringing the total settlement to $100 million.  After reducing the pot to account for attorneys’ fees and other costs, the individual payments, based on the number of miles driven by each driver, range from nominal amounts up to $8,000, although the majority of class members may just walk away with less than $100.  Uber further agreed to revise its termination practices so that drivers must generally be given warnings and explanations before Uber can deactivate them from its software application.  Drivers will also be able to appeal terminations and will enjoy a more driver-friendly tipping policy.

Many consider $84 million, or even $100 million, a well-spent business expense for Uber, who potentially had to spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to reclassify its drivers and comply with the requirements of minimum wage, overtime, workers compensation, anti-discrimination, benefits, sick leave, and other federal, state and local laws that apply to employees.

But Uber is not out of the woods yet. First, as mentioned earlier, the court must approve the settlement and there is no guarantee that it will.  Just a few weeks earlier, a California judge rejected a proposed settlement of similar litigation between Uber’s competitor, Lyft, and its drivers in part because it “short-changed” those drivers.  Under that settlement, Lyft drivers would have received an average of $56.  Second, Uber is settling lawsuits with its former and existing drivers in California and Massachusetts, but lawsuits in other states remain outstanding and new ones could be on the way.  Stay tuned for further developments.

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Covered Contractors Take Note of Changes in 2016

Pay transparency final rule is in effect

Executive Order 13665 (EO 13665), the Final Rule promoting pay transparency protection, took effect on January 11, 2016. The executive order covers employees and job applicants of companies with over $10,000 in federal contracts/subcontracts entered into or modified on or after January 11, 2016.

If covered by the law, employers must:

  • Disseminate the Pay Transparency Statement, as prescribed and made available by the OFCCP on its website, by either electronic posting OR by posting a copy of the provision in conspicuous places available to employees and applicants for employment; and

  • Incorporate the Pay Transparency Statement into existing employee manuals or handbooks; and

  • Update your equal employment opportunity clause in covered federal contracts/subcontracts and purchase orders to include a prohibition from discharging, or in any manner discriminating against any employee or applicant for employment because the employee or applicant inquired about, discussed, or disclosed the compensation of the employee or applicant or another employee or applicant. If you are currently only incorporating the nondiscrimination obligation by reference to 41 CFR 60-1.4, you may continue to do so.

It is important to note that the pay transparency nondiscrimination provision is required to be posted in addition to the required “EEO is the Law” posting. Once the “EEO is the Law” poster is updated to reflect the new pay transparency nondiscrimination provision, it will be made available on the OFCCP’s and EEOC’s website. In the meantime, however, you can place the supplement to the “EEO is the Law” poster alongside the “EEO is the Law” poster. You can find the supplement on the OFCCP’s website.

Minimum wage increases for covered contractors

Effective as of January 1, 2016, the minimum wage for certain employees of covered federal contractors will increase by five cents to $10.15 per hour, and the minimum cash wage for tipped employees working on or in connection with covered federal contracts will increase to $5.85 per hour.

Covered contracts include those contracts resulting from solicitation issues on or after January 1, 2015, and contracts awarded outside of the solicitation process on or after January 1, 2015. Significantly, not all federal contractors are subject to this new requirement. As a practical matter, most “supply” contractors, or those providing goods (and not services) to the federal government should not be covered by this new Executive Order.

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Uber Argues That Its Drivers Are Not Employees

In a case pending in California federal court, Uber is arguing that its drivers are not employeesO’Connor et al. v. Uber Technologies, Inc. et al., No. 3:13-cv-03826 (N.D. Cal. filed Aug. 16, 2013). Uber drivers have sued the company in a putative class action that alleges that they were short-changed because they received only a portion of the 20 percent gratuity paid by passengers.

In response, Uber recently filed a motion for summary judgment that argued that its drivers are not employees because they do not provide services to Uber. Rather, Uber provides a service to its drivers, because drivers pay for access to “leads,” or potential passengers, through the Uber application, and therefore, like passengers, drivers are customers who receive a service from the company. Uber also argued that even if drivers are deemed to provide services to Uber, they do so as independent contractors, not employees. This is because, Uber contends, the company provides drivers with a lead generation service but does not control the manner or means of how they work, and therefore, Uber is in a commercial rather than an employment relationship with its drivers.

This is not the first and likely not the last of Uber’s legal troubles in California. Passengers have also filed a proposed class action over the 20 percent gratuity, and last week, San Francisco and Los Angeles District Attorneys have hit Uber with a consumer safety suit over how it screens its drivers. There will surely be more to come as we watch what happens with Uber in California.



It Depends: The Top 3 Inherently Gray Areas of Employment Law

Barnes Thornburg


 Case by case.

 These are just two of the terms that stand for one of the frustrating (for employers) truths of many areas of employment law:  there are few black and white answers. There are endless shades of gray, and in honor of this week’s letter of the law (G), we recognize three common gray areas and some specific questions that must be asked when addressing situations under each. The fact that there are so many questions that need to be answered under each explains why they are gray areas!

The Letter G

1. Is a noncompete agreement enforceable?

  • What duties did the employee perform for the previous employer?

  • What duties is the employee performing for the new employer?

  • Did the employee engage in any underhanded behavior while still employed by the previous employer (such as copying confidential documents)?

  • What have been the previous employer’s practices and track record in enforcing noncompetes in the past?

  • What state’s law does the agreement say will apply?

  • What state is the employee located in now?

  • Does the contract specify where any disputes must be litigated?

2. Does an employer have to provide a particular reasonable accommodation under the disability discrimination laws?

  • What efforts have been made to communicate with the employee about the situation?

  • Has the employee been cooperative in responding to inquiries?

  • Do you have a medical assessment of the employee’s ability to perform his/her job?

  • Do you trust that assessment (or do we think the physician’s assistant filled it out the way the employer wanted him/her to)?

  • How unique are the employee’s job duties?

  • What are the job duties?

  • Which job duties do you thing are not being adequately performed?

  • Do you question the employee’s efforts in attempting to work, or do you think the employee is to any degree malingering?

3. Is a worker an independent contractor or an employee?

  • Is there any written agreement with the worker?

  • Are there are other workers performing the same or similar tasks, and are they considered employees or contractors?

  • How much direction is the worker receiving from the company on the details of performing tasks?

  • Does the worker provide services for other companies?

  • Is the worker full time or close to it for your company?

  • Does the worker provide any or all of the tools need to perform his/her work?

  • How long has the worker been working for your company?

These issues are like snowflakes. With so many questions (and these are not intended to be exhaustive lists), no two sets of answers will be exactly alike. That can be frustrating, because it is easier to administer rules with clearer thresholds: Two weeks of vacation. No flip flops at work. The work day is 8:30 to 5:00 with a half hour lunch break at noon. Those rules are usually pretty easy. Like it or not, though, what employment lawyers and employers spend most of their time on are the snowflakes, and carefully working through the situations to manage them as cost-effectively as possible.

What gray areas are you spending your time on this week?