The National Labor Relations Board has found the individuals who produce electronic content for viewing during professional basketball games are employees, rather than independent contractors. Minnesota Timberwolves Basketball, LP, 365 NLRB No. 124 (2017). The Board reversed the decision of an NLRB regional director and reinstated a representation petition filed by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The 2-1 Board majority held the employer failed in its burden of proving independent contractor status. The Board pointed out that “the crewmembers work for the Employer at times and locations determined and provided by the Employer, using tools, equipment, and supplies that, almost with exception, the Employer provides.” NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra dissented. As Miscimarra soon will be in the majority with two new NLRB members holding a pro-employer view, replacing the 2-1 pro-union bent of the current NLRB, the possibility that a similar case may be decided differently cannot be dismissed.

In this case, the crewmembers included camera operators, replay operators, engineers, computer operators, audio/tape operators, and other technical and utility workers. Sixteen crewmembers work each game. Crewmembers volunteer for a “roster” (51 names on the most current roster) and identify the games they are available to work. The employer assigns the roster crewmembers for each game and decides what position each will fill. The employer sets the start time of work, requires crewmembers to find a replacement if they cannot work as assigned, determines compensation, provides nearly all equipment, and scripts production work before the game. “Live calls” regarding specific assignments during games are made by a crewmember. Many of the crewmembers work season after season.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, independent contractor status is determined by common law agency criteria, with no one factor controlling. The NLRB also will consider whether the entrepreneurial endeavor of the putative independent contractor is real or theoretical.

The common law agency criteria include:

  • the extent of control by the employer over the individual’s work;
  • whether the individual is engaged in a business;
  • the degree of supervision by the employer over the work performed;
  • the skills required;
  • who provides necessary tools, equipment, and place of work;
  • duration of employment;
  • method of payment;
  • whether the work is part of the employer’s regular business;
  • whether the parties believe an independent contractor relationship exists; and
  • whether the individual operates an separate business.

The Board found that some factors favored employee status, while others were inconclusive; none were found to support independent contractor status. It explained, however, that “the Employer … exerts much more significant control than the Regional Director acknowledged over … [the crewmembers’] work and the circumstances under which it is performed.” It also noted that “the crewmembers enjoy neither a proprietary interest in their work nor a voice in any important business decisions.”

Since independent contractor cases are inherently fact-specific, employers who pay non-employees to perform services for the business should review the relationship against the common law agency standards to assess compliance with several employment law standards (beyond labor law).