On June 7, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor withdrew the controversial Administrator Interpretations (“AIs”) issued in 2015 and 2016 regarding its guidance on “independent contractors” and “joint employers.” The announcement reads:
“The Department of Labor’s 2015 and 2016 informal guidance on joint employment and independent contractors were withdrawn effective June 7, 2017. Removal of the two administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act or Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, as reflected in the Department’s long-standing regulations and case law. The Department will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.”
While the post-election conventional wisdom has been that the new leaders of the DOL would review these Administrator Interpretations, no one was sure if the anticipated relief to the employer community would be via a rescission or modification, and it was also not expected for any change to occur until after a new Solicitor of Labor and Wage and Hour Administrator took office (the President has yet to nominate anyone of either of these offices). Thus, the timing of this announcement—while greatly welcomed by the business community—is also somewhat of a surprise. The two AIs limited the misclassification of workers through a stricter independent contractor test and also expanded the definition of joint employer.
The Rescinded Interpretations
Independent Contractors: The July 2015 AI regarded the issue of misclassifying employees as independent contractors. While claiming to merely summarize existing standards, many viewed the newly proclaimed standards as being based on case law that deviated from the legal mainstream and established an “economic reality” or “dependency” test which minimized the element of control held by the contracting party. The case law up until that point, while weighing economic realities, placed a premium on the extent to which a business controlled the contractor. In contrast, the AI gave the lowest weight to the control factor. The bottom line under this definition emphasizing “dependency”, according to the Wage and Hour Administrator at that time, was that few workers could be properly treated as contractors.
Joint Employers: Under the January 2016 AI, joint employment relationships under the Fair Labor Standards Act could arise under two scenarios: 1) horizontal joint employer relationships; and 2) vertical joint employer relationships. The concept regarding horizontal joint employment (i.e., essentially when related businesses share employees) did not significantly deviate from prior doctrine. Regarding vertical joint employers, however, the DOL again selectively picked among judicial precedent to cobble a newly articulated standard, dramatically altering the doctrine from most courts’ application, this time favoring emphasis on the “control” factor, e.g., the control a prime contractor may assert over subcontractors, a franchisor may assert over franchisees, and a business may assert over employees supplied by staffing companies. In essence, the AI made it easier for DOL to deem employers doing business together to be joint employers, and thereby make it easier to hold one of the “joint employers” liable for the alleged wrongs solely made by the other “joint employer.”
The Significance of the Rescissions
After these AIs were published, only a handful of courts had adopted them as being the proper construction of the law. That has not stopped the plaintiffs’ bar from trying to leverage the AIs as support for their cases, nor has it stopped the DOL from applying them in the course of its audits and investigations.
With the rescission of these AIs, the common law as existed prior to 2015 on these issues is again clearly the law of the land. These AIs will no longer serve as a basis for finding liability, and critically, they will not drive the DOL in its investigations going forward. Thus, their rescission signifies is a return to the fairly stable and well established doctrines of the past, which should be welcomed by the business community, although it is likely that the plaintiffs’ bar will still use the arguments contained in the AIs.
The remaining question is whether this also serves as “writing on the wall” with respect to how the EEOC and the NLRB will address these issues, because under their current composition, they have been heading in the direction now rejected by the DOL. This may also be a sign that other initiatives of the former administration may be rolled-back by the new DOL leadership, but some of those actions will likely await until the other leadership positions within the DOL are filled. For instance, it is anticipated that the new administration will reverse course by no longer issuing formal “Wage and Hour Administrator Opinion Letters,” as well as cease from engaging in the relatively new practice of routinely assessing liquidated damages when resolving pre-suit investigations.
In sum, this withdrawal is a good sign that some of the initiatives of the prior administration which appear hostile to employers may be rolled-back, in part or in whole. However, many of those initiatives, depending on the agency, are still—at least according to those agencies—alive and well. Even if the administration softens the government’s views on these issues, the arguments underlying the AIs and related positions of other agencies will continue to be made by plaintiffs’ counsel in the courts, and these issues will—in the end—be resolved in the courts. Consequently, there is nothing in today’s development which should dramatically alter any employer’s operations in the immediate future.