Seyfarth Synopsis: With the NBA season opener just over a month away, at least one team could be getting an unexpected influx of free agents. In Minnesota Timberwolves Basketball, LP, 365 NLRB No. 124 (2017), the Board recently held that the production crew responsible for operating the Timberwolves’ center court video display were employees under the National Labor Relations Act and could form a bargaining unit to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, like most professional sports teams, has a large video display in the center of its arena to broadcast live game footage, player statistics, replays, advertisements, and fan favorites like the kiss cam during games. Behind all of these visual effects are sixteen crewmembers who operate video cameras in the arena and direct what video gets displayed during the games.
The Timberwolves maintain a roster of about 51 crewmembers with the skills to operate the video display. The team circulates a game schedule at the beginning of each season and the individual crewmembers decide which, if any, games they will work. Most perform production work for other entities when not working for the Timberwolves. For each game, the team sets the crewmembers’ start time and pays a set fee, which varies based on the game and position crewmembers hold. The team also provides the crewmembers with a basic game plan prior to each game outlining the timing of some of the promotions it wants to broadcast. But the crew maintains significant control over what makes it onto the video display during the game.
In February of 2016 the crewmembers sought to enlist an agent, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employers, to form a union. The team appealed to its referee, the NLRB, claiming that the crewmembers where independent contractors under the Act and, therefore could not unionize. The Regional Director, whistled the crewmembers’ play dead, holding that they were not employees. The crewmembers sought a booth review from the Board.
The Board has long applied common law agency principals to decide if an employee-employer relationship exists. It considers eleven “non-exclusive” factors, none of which is “decisive:” (1) the extent of control by the employer; (2) whether the individual is engaged in a distinct business; (3) the level of supervision from the employer; (4) skills required in the occupation; (5) who provides the tools, equipment, and work place; (6) the length of employees’ employment; (7) method of payment; (8) whether the work is part of the employer’s regular business; (9) whether the parties believe an independent contractor relationship exists; (10) whether the principal is in business; and (11) whether the employee renders services as part of an entrepreneurial business with opportunity for gain or loss.
Two of the Board’s pro-union members used these sprawling factors to overturn the Regional Director’s decision. They acknowledged that crewmembers exhibited some characteristics of independent contractors. The crew retained control over which games they worked, did not receive Timberwolves’ credentials, handbooks or written guidelines, and completed W-9 and 1099 forms for tax purposes. But the majority held that the amount of control the team exerted over the crewmembers, along with the “essential component” crewmembers provided to the team’s business, rendered the crew employees under the Act. The majority emphasized that the team provided guidance to the crew prior to and sometimes during games, and characterized running the video board as “plainly among the [Team’s] central business concerns.” It also noted other things, like the team-dictated start time of each member’s shift, the team-set pay for each game, and the team-provided tools necessary to perform the crewmembers’ jobs.
Chairman Miscimarra cried foul. Also emphasizing the control factor, he noted that the relevant issue was not whether the Timberwolves helped shape the final product that was displayed on the video board by providing a broad outline to the crew; such high level control is a hallmark of any independent contractor relationship. Instead, what should matter is the control over the details of the work. And in this case, he would have held the possession arrow pointed decidedly toward independent contractor status. During each game, crewmembers determine things like which video feeds to broadcast, what shots to capture, and other aspects of the live coverage. Chairman Miscimarra also rejected the majority’s view that the crewmembers’ function was central to the team’s business; without the crew, the team would still play basketball in the arena and the television broadcast would proceed uninterrupted. In Chairman Miscimarra’s opinion, these facts, when combined with things like the crew’s ability to choose their schedules, their per-game payment structure, and lack of any meaningful supervision from the team, “substantially outweighed” any factor supporting employee status.
The decision does not dramatically change the Board’s employee/independent contractor jurisprudence. Instead, it highlights the perils of asking any referee, whether basketball or judicial, to apply an eleven factor test to anything. It is inherently unpredictable and open to the whims of hometown (for Basketball) or political party (for the Board) biases. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that even a more reasonable Board will completely abandon a multi-factor employee test. Therefore, the Timberwolves decision should act as a reminder to employers to carefully analyze their independent contractor relationships and ensure that the contractors retain as much control over the terms and conditions of their employment as business necessity permits.