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Department of Labor Signals Move to Limit Definition of “Employment”

June 13, 2017

Authors: Angela M. Duerden, Elisabeth (Lisa) Shu

On June 7, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) 2015 and 2016 Administrative Interpretations regarding joint employment and independent contractors. While this withdrawal signals the current administration’s attempt to limit the expansive definition of “employment,” the DOL made clear that it does not relieve companies of their legal obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Many businesses had argued these obligations were unduly burdensome on employers. For the past several years, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has worked with the IRS and numerous states to combat employee misclassification and to ensure that workers receive all the wages, benefits and protections to which they are entitled. In Fiscal Year 2015, for example, WHD investigations resulted in some $74 million in back wages for more than 102,000 workers, many of which were concentrated in traditionally low-wage industries such as janitorial, temporary help, food service, day care and hospitality. Withdrawal of the Administrative Interpretations may be the first step to rein in these enforcement efforts.

Specifically, the DOL has withdrawn guidance regarding:

  • The Presumption That Most Workers Are Employees: The withdrawn guidance on independent contractors stated that “most workers are employees” under the FLSA. United States Supreme Court precedent makes clear that there is no single rule or test for determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor for purposes of the FLSA. Thus, even now, the inquiry into independent contractor status remains complex and fact-intensive.
  • The Expansion of the “Joint Employer” Definition: The withdrawn guidance on joint employment distinguished between “horizontal” joint employment and “vertical” joint employment scenarios. Under this guidance, the joint employment inquiry focused on the “economic realities” of the relationship between the employee and the potential joint employer. Its withdrawal signals a shift back to applying joint employer status only when a business has direct control over another business’s workplace.

More is expected from the Trump Administration and the courts on the ever-changing law surrounding independent contractors and joint employment. Wilson Elser’s Employment & Labor practice attorneys can help you stay abreast of developments and to avoid potential pitfalls. 

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