Since the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB” or the “Board”) 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186, in which it adopted a new, far less stringent test for determining joint-employer status under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), employers have been left wondering whether they may be held to be a joint employer of temporary or contract workers that they retain through staffing and temporary agencies.

These concerns have been echoed by employers in other contexts as other agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity have taken similar positions, seeking to expand the concept of joint employer with respect to statutes and regulations they enforce. Notably, both the DOL and the EEOC filed amicus briefs in support of the NLRB’s position with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether the NLRB exceeded its statutory authority in Browning-Ferris.

While the loosened standards for determining joint employment remain under consideration by the courts, members of Congress are now seeking to use the power of the purse strings to force the NLRB to discontinue its use of the relaxed standards it adopted in Browning-Ferris. Legislation considered yesterday by House Republicans would do away with this expansion of joint employer liability and provide much needed clarity for employers on this issue.

What is the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris Standard for Finding Joint-Employer Status?

The Browning-Ferris decision expanded the definition of joint-employer to hold that if an employer, referred to as the primary employer, merely possesses, but does not exercise, the right or ability to directly or indirectly codetermine the terms and condition of employment of the employees of another employer, referred to as the secondary employer, the primary employer will be held to be the joint-employer of the secondary employer’s employees.

This holding impacts a wide range of workers, such as employees of business arrangements including the use of contractors, retention of personnel through staffing agencies and temporary employment services, and, if the “primary employer is a franchisor, personnel employed by the franchisor’s franchisees. As the Board pointed out when it decided Browning-Ferris, in its view “the current economic landscape,” which includes some 2.87 million people employed by temporary agencies, warrants a “refined” standard for assessing joint-employer status. As the majority put it: “If the current joint-employer standard is narrower than statutorily necessary, and if joint-employment arrangements are increasing, the risk is increased that the Board is failing what the Supreme Court has described as the Board’s ‘responsibility to adapt the Act to the changing patterns of industrial life.’”

While the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in Browning-Ferris is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where the court has been asked to find that the NLRB’s test is not supported by the terms of the NLRA or the common law definition of employer, which is an element of the Browning-Ferris standard itself, recent activity from House Republicans may result in legislative action establishing a new, far narrower standard for determining joint-employer status.

Congress Seeks to Use the Appropriation Process to Force the Board to Discard Browning-Ferris’s Indirect Control Standard

House Republicans have introduced new language in a draft spending bill – that among other things, would set the NLRB’s appropriation for 2018 – to direct the Board to set aside what many in the business community find to be one of the most objectionable parts of Browning-Ferris.

The House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 to discuss the barriers to job and business growth created by the “indirect control” standard of joint employer liability. Small business owners and other employer representatives testified that the joint employer standard threatens their ability to expand, and encouraged the committee to introduce legislation that would define employees as those workers that the employer has direct or actual control over.

On Thursday, July 13, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education voted along strict party lines to approve a markup of their draft spending bill for FY 2018, which would prohibit the NLRB from using the “indirect control” standard in making joint employer determinations and would require the Board to revert to the “direct control” standard. The Appropriations Committee describes the legislation in its press release and on its website as including

two policy provisions to stop the NLRB’s harmful anti-business regulations. The provisions include: A provision that prohibits the NLRB from applying its revised “joint-employer” standard in new cases and proceedings; A provision that prevents the NLRB from exercising jurisdiction over Tribal governments.

This provision, along with the Committee’s proposal to reduce the NLRB’s budget by $25 million (from $274 million to $249 million) will face strong opposition from the Democratic minority, organized labor, unions, and employee lobbying groups. Of course at this point it is not at all clear whether in fact there will actually be a budget for the new fiscal year or, instead, Congress will again adopt a continuing resolution to keep the government running.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers and their representatives should of course continue to pay close attention to the budget process and other legislative action, while waiting for Congress to take action on the President’s nominees to the two vacant seats on the NLRB. There is every reason to believe, assuming Willian Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan are confirmed and take their seats on the Board, that they, like Chairman Philip Miscimarra, who wrote a vigorous dissent in Browning-Ferris, will share the Chairman’s belief that the standard adopted in that case was incorrect and should be set aside. At this time, however, it would be nothing more than speculation to predict when the new Board majority will have an actual case before it in which these issues are present.

In the meantime, employers are advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporary personnel supplied by staffing and similar agencies to assess their vulnerability to such action and to determine what steps they make take to better position themselves for the challenges that are surely coming.

Equally critical, employers should carefully evaluate their relationships with suppliers, licensees, and others with which they do business to ensure that their relationships, and the agreements, both written and verbal, governing those relationships do not create additional and avoidable risks.