Tag Archives: DOL Administrator’s Interpretation

June 7, 2017

DOL Withdraws Obama-Era Interpretations On Independent Contractors and Joint Employment

By Brad Cave

On June 7, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it was withdrawing two informal guidances, namely a 2015 administrator interpretation on independent contractors and a 2016 administrator interpretation on joint employment, effective immediately. The DOL’s short announcement states that the removal of the administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), and that the DOL “will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction.” Here’s an attempt to read between the lines and determine the DOL’s position on these two issues.

Withdrawal of Independent Contractor Interpretation

When we wrote about the July 15, 2015 independent contractor interpretation here, we noted that then-Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil stressed that most workers meet the criteria to be deemed employees under the FLSA, and therefore, should not be treated as independent contractors. Although noting that multiple factors are used to determine independent contractor status, former administrator Weil stated that the DOL would focus primarily on whether the worker runs his or her own independent business or if instead, the worker is economically dependent on the employer.

Withdrawal of the 2015 interpretation guidance does not change the fact that to “employ” is broadly defined in the FLSA as “to suffer or permit to work” and consequently, most individuals hired to perform work fall within that definition as an employee. In addition, the long-standing  multi-factor “economic realities” test used by courts to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor will continue to apply.

That said, the withdrawal of the 2015 administrator interpretation may be a signal that the DOL will no longer focus on misclassifications of independent contractors with the same fervor as it previously did. A more business-friendly DOL may choose to rely on certain factors, such as an independent contractor agreement setting forth the business relationship and the comparative degree of control over the work exerted by the two parties, over those factors that were highlighted in former administrator Weil’s interpretation, such as whether the worker runs his or her own independent business. The distinction between employees and independent contractors remains, but query whether this DOL, under the direction of new Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, will change the balance in determining independent contractor status.

Joint Employment Interpretation Withdrawn 

When the DOL issued its administrator interpretation on joint employer status in February 2016, we wrote here that the DOL made it clear that the agency planned to examine dual employer relationships very closely, with an apparent intent to find joint employer status in more circumstances under both the FLSA and the MSPA. By withdrawing that interpretation, the DOL may be suggesting a contraction of its efforts to find joint employer status. If that is the case, employers who utilize workers employed by a staffing agency or other workers provided by a third-party may face less scrutiny (and potentially, less liability) for wage and hour violations as a potential joint employer. In addition, companies that use the same workers across different subsidiaries or among other legally distinct entities may see a relaxation of the DOL’s emphasis on joint employer status.

The Tea Leaves Say . . .

Employers should stay vigilant about ensuring that workers they treat as independent contractors meet the multi-factor tests for independent contractor status. Similarly, organizations that could be subject to the joint employer analysis should examine their status under the applicable tests and are urged to review their third-party staffing arrangements to ensure compliance with wage and hour (and other DOL-enforced) laws. But, with the withdrawal of some of the more proactive enforcement approaches of the past administration, the DOL may be signaling its more business-friendly stance. Perhaps the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will be next to announce a less aggressive view towards finding joint employer status and a retraction of other arguably expansive positions taken in past years. We’ll keep you informed as new developments arise.

July 15, 2015

Independent Contractors: New DOL Interpretation Focuses on Economic Dependence of Workers

Cave_BBy Brad Cave 

If you hire workers as independent contractors, you need to review that status with fresh eyes in light of a new Administrator’s Interpretation issued by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). In his July 15th Interpretation, Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil stresses that most workers are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), not independent contractors. Multiple factors still come into play when determining independent contractor status but the DOL ultimately will look to whether the worker runs his or her own independent business or instead, is economically dependent on the employer. 

Broad “Suffer or Permit to Work” Standard 

The FLSA defines “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work.” According to Administrator Weil, this broad definition will encompass most workers. He notes that the definition had roots in state child labor laws which sought to ferret out employers who used children as laborers illegally.

He also cites Supreme Court and federal court cases that state that the “suffer or permit to work” standard has broad applicability and extends to the farthest reaches in order to achieve the goals of protecting workers under the FLSA. 

Economic Realities Test 

Noting that courts have developed a multi-factor “economic realities” test to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, the Administrator’s Interpretation goes through each factor, providing examples and cases that help in the analysis. While the factors haven’t really changed, here are some important distinctions made in this Interpretation: 

  • A contract setting forth an independent contractor relationship “is not relevant” in determining whether the worker is properly classified as an independent contractor; the actual working relationship is what matters, not the label given to it by the parties.
  • The individual’s opportunity to make a profit or realize a loss on the job must include whether the individual’s managerial skills result in that profit or loss; in other words, a worker’s willingness or ability to work more hours or work more efficiently is not enough to suggest independent contractor status, instead the individual must be making managerial decisions about hiring assistants, purchasing materials, advertising, etc., in order to support independent contractor status.
  • The worker’s investment in tools, equipment and doing the job must be compared to the employer’s investment; a worker who provides a few essential tools to do the job may not be enough to contribute toward independent contractor status; instead, the worker’s investment must be significant, particularly when compared to the entity’s investment in the job.
  • Being highly skilled in a particular type of work is not sufficient in suggesting independent contractor status as many employees are highly skilled in the services they provide to their employer; instead, an independent contractor must include “business-like initiative.”
  • The degree to which the entity controls the work of the individual should not play an oversized role in the analysis; many workers today are not under constant supervision of their employers but that lower degree of monitoring and control does not make them independent contractors. 

The Administrator’s Interpretation establishes that no single factor in the economic realities test is determinative and each factor should be analyzed in terms of whether the worker is economically dependent on the employing entity or is truly in business for him- or herself. 

Time to Review Your Independent Contractor Classifications 

The DOL has made misclassification of employees a high priority for the past few years and with this Administrator’s Interpretation, it is signaling its intent to crack down even further on businesses who classify workers as independent contractors. We suggest that you review the Interpretation, study the examples and then audit your independent contractor relationships to determine whether your classifications will pass DOL scrutiny. In difficult cases, consult with your employment counsel for guidance. Conducting the review yourself and making any necessary changes will go a long way in avoiding headaches and potential liability should the DOL appear at your door for an audit. And, keep in mind that this Interpretation does not carry the force of law. The Administrator’s view will undoubtedly be challenged in court as the DOL ramps up its aggressive posture.

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