By: Hunter C. Ransom
On October 26, 2023, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) released its new/final “joint employer” rule potentially allowing workers to constitute employees of more than one entity for labor relations purposes—a move that will result in increased union organizing and collective bargaining efforts across the country. Because that decision broadly expands the definition of a “joint employer” under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), employees of franchisees and staffing agencies will have an easier time bringing franchisors and user firms to the bargaining table.
The NLRB’s controversial new/final rule establishes “joint employment” not only when one company has the right to exert control over terms and conditions of another company’s employees, but also when evidence exists of reserved, unexercised, or indirect control over any working conditions. That includes obvious situations like hiring and firing, along with other conditions such as wages, benefits, scheduling, supervising, disciplining and directing.
Let’s see how we got here.
A brief history of the “joint employer” definition
Before 2015, the NLRB held that an entity had to share and actually exercise direct and immediate control over essential terms and conditions of employment to constitute a joint employer with another entity. Then, in 2015, the NLRB decided Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., in which it expanded the definition of “joint employer” to include entities who had indirect or reserved control over employees.
Three years later, in 2018, a federal court of appeals required the NLRB to reconsider its indirect control standard under Browning-Ferris. The NLRB accordingly issued a “final rule” in 2020 that excused alleged joint employers from bargaining unless employees could show they had “direct and immediate control” over essential terms and conditions of employment to constitute a joint employer. That rule stood until October 26th.
The new rule
NLRB Board members referred to the 2020 policy as “contrary to common-law agency principles that must govern the joint-employer standard.” Consistent with common-law agency principles, the Board concluded it should require an entity to negotiate with unionized workers when the entity has the “authority to control essential terms and conditions of employment,” regardless of whether they exercise that control or whether they do it directly or indirectly.
Because of the new/final rule, two or more employers will now be considered “joint employers” merely by sharing or co-determining matters governing essential terms and conditions of employment, such as wages, benefits, hours of work, hiring, discharge, discipline, supervision, and direction. Moreover, the NLRB will once again consider evidence of reserved and/or indirect control over these essential terms and conditions of employment when analyzing “joint-employer” status. In other words, instead of requiring actual direct control, the NLRB could consider even potential retained (but unexercised) indirect control over working conditions sufficient for a business to be a joint employer for labor relations purposes.
While the new rule is unquestionably broader, the NLRB did set some limitations. First, the NLRB classified the standard as fact-specific and noted it would consider whether an entity meets the joint-employer definition on a case-by-case basis. It also only requires a joint employer to bargain over the essential terms it has the authority to control. The party asserting that an entity is a joint employer has the burden of proof in making this determination.
What does the new rule mean for employers?
The new rule takes effect on December 26, 2023. The new/final rule will have implications obligating both businesses to potentially bargain with a duly certified union as exclusive bargaining representative—at least with respect to those working conditions over which they share control—while exposing both companies to joint unfair labor practice liability. The same is true for franchises and other business models where one company’s employees perform services benefitting another employer.
The rule could face legal challenges, but affected employers should review their relevant policies along with current and pending contracts with third parties to determine whether the policies or agreements reserve right to control any essential term or condition of another entity’s employees. Employers should also train their supervisors and managers to avoid actions that might leave the employer vulnerable to an argument it has direct or indirect control over another entity’s employees.