Tag Archives: NLRB

June 22, 2017

U.S. DOJ Files Brief Supporting Arbitration Agreements That Bar Employee Class Actions

By Emily Hobbs-Wright

Last September, the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that arbitration agreements that prohibit employees from pursuing work-related claims on a class action basis are unlawful because they violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). On June 16, 2017, however, the federal government filed a brief taking the exact opposite position, namely that class-action waivers in arbitration agreements should be enforced. This flip-flop in position is quite extraordinary, even with the change in administrations, making this important case one to watch next term. Here are the issues at stake for employers.

NLRB Appeal of Murphy Oil Case

With its controversial 2012 decision in the D.R. Horton case, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has advocated that arbitration agreements between an employer and its employees that ban employees from pursuing work-related claims as a class or group are unenforceable as they violate employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection under the NLRA. In 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the NLRB’s ruling in D.R. Horton, holding that the use of class action procedures is not a “substantive right” of employees under the NLRA and therefore, arbitration agreements with class-action waivers should be enforced under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

The Fifth Circuit rejected the NLRB’s view on class-action waivers a second time when it ruled that Murphy Oil, which operates more than 1,000 gas stations in 21 states, did not commit an unfair labor practice when enforcing its arbitration agreements that required employees to resolve work-related claims on an individual basis. Two other appellate circuits – the Second and Eighth – have agreed with the Fifth Circuit’s position that class-action waivers are enforceable. Other circuits, however, including the Ninth and Seventh, have ruled in favor of the NLRB on this issue, creating inconsistencies concerning whether such agreements are lawful.

In the closing days of the Obama administration in September 2016, the Office of the Solicitor General (which is tasked with conducting government litigation before the Supreme Court) filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to decide the validity of class-action waivers in arbitration agreements through appeal of the Murphy Oil case. The government argued on behalf of the NLRB that such agreements were unlawful. Employers Ernst & Young and Epic Systems also sought Supreme Court review of their adverse decisions from other circuits on this same issue. In January 2017, just days before President Trump’s inauguration, the high court agreed to hear all three consolidated cases in its next term.

The NLRB Left To Go It Alone

When the United States filed its brief with the Supreme Court last week changing positions, it did so as a “friend of the court.” The June 16th brief is signed by lawyers from the Solicitor General’s office but not by any NLRB lawyers – although both offices were signatories to the original petition seeking review.

Under the Court’s briefing schedule, briefs from the NLRB and the employee-petitioners are due on August 9, 2017. According to a short statement on the NLRB’s website, the Solicitor General’s Office “authorized the National Labor Relations Board to represent itself” in the Murphy Oil case before the Supreme Court. This sets up a unique situation for oral arguments this fall when a lawyer from the Solicitor General’s office may argue against a lawyer for another federal agency, the NLRB.

What It Means For Employers

The change in position by the Solicitor General’s Office could lend additional weight to the employers’ arguments in favor of upholding class-action waivers in arbitration agreements. It is a business-friendly position that reins in the extensive reach of the NLRB in recent years. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of employers and against the NLRB, businesses will be able to enforce arbitration agreements containing class action waivers nationwide. We will keep you posted as this case proceeds to a ruling, which could be published about this time next year. Stay tuned!

June 20, 2017

No-Recording Policies: May Employers Ban All Worker Recordings?

By Steve Gutierrez

With a smartphone in almost every pocket, workers have high definition video and audio recording capabilities at their fingertips. It may be easier than ever before for employees to record workplace operations, meetings, disciplinary discussions, picketing, and other conditions and happenings in the workplace.

Some employers see potential worker recordings as detrimental to open and honest workplace dialogue and as well as potentially undermining a company’s protection of its proprietary or confidential information. These concerns may lead employers to adopt a policy to limit or prohibit employees from making recordings at work. After all, it seems inherently reasonable to require that employees get prior management approval before recording anything at work, or to limit what employees may do with video or audio recordings after they are made. So what’s the problem? Broad recording bans may infringe on employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

How Policies May Violate The NLRA

Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the right to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This means that employees, whether unionized or not, have the right to take actions to help protect, enhance, or improve the terms and conditions of employment for themselves and their co-workers. Employers who interfere with or restrain employees’ Section 7 rights may be found to have committed an unfair labor practice (ULP) under the NLRA.

So how does a no-recording policy interfere with such rights? Even when a policy or rule does not expressly restrict protected Section 7 activities, mere maintenance of a policy can constitute a ULP in three scenarios: (1) if employees would reasonably construe the language in the policy to prohibit protected activity; (2) if the policy was implemented in response to union activity; or (3) if the policy has been applied to restrict the exercise of protected rights.

Overly Broad Restrictions May “Chill” Section 7 Rights 

Typically, it is the first scenario that gets employers in trouble. You see, the National Labor Relations Board (Board) has held that in certain circumstances, employee recordings in the workplace can itself be a protected Section 7 activity. Generally, the Board finds that employee photographing, videotaping, and recording is protected by Section 7 when employees are acting in concert for their mutual aid and protection and there is no overriding employer interest. For example, employees recording images of employee picketing, or documenting discussions about unsafe working conditions, inconsistent application of work rules, or other terms of employment could be concerted activities protected under the NLRA.

When employers implement an overly broad policy that prohibits employees from making any workplace recordings, or permits recordings only with advance management approval, the Board takes the position that employees would reasonably construe that language as prohibiting protected Section 7 activities. As such, broad no-recording policies are seen as “chilling” employee rights, and therefore, a violation of the NLRA.

Second Circuit Recently Upheld ULP On Broad No-Recording Policy

In December of 2015, the Board ruled that Whole Foods had violated the NLRA by maintaining an overbroad no-recording policy. The company’s policy prohibited all recording without management approval. Whole Foods stated that its purpose for the policy was to promote employee communication in the workplace. The Board saw it differently, ruling that the policy’s overly broad language could “chill” an employee’s exercise of Section 7 rights because it was not limited to controlling those activities in which employees are not acting in concert.

Whole Foods appealed the Board’s decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals which recently issued its summary order affirming the Board’s 2015 decision. The appellate court wrote that the Board’s determination was supported by substantial evidence and was decided in accordance with law.

In a footnote, however, the Court noted that not every no-recording policy will necessarily infringe on employees’ Section 7 rights. But a lawful policy would have to be drafted narrowly so that it protects the company’s interests without interfering with employees’ protected activities.

Practical Policy Pointers

Employers generally have the right to control what goes on in their workplaces, so long as their policies do not violate specific employee rights. Legitimate business concerns, such as protecting confidential and proprietary information and fostering open and honest communications in the workplace, may justify a policy that limits employees from recording what goes on at work. In order to craft an enforceable policy that would likely avoid NLRB scrutiny, consider implementing the following practical tips:

  • Tailor the policy narrowly – identify those areas, activities, and/or times when employees are prohibited from recording, leaving non-problematic areas, activities, and times open to recording. An outright ban will likely be struck down.
  • Identify the legitimate reasons for the policy – by stating the strong business reasons for not allowing recording at certain times or places, employers help dispel the argument that the policy infringes on employee rights.
  • Be consistent – if your business permits visitors to your plant to take video or audio recordings of your operation, it will be difficult to argue a legitimate business reason for denying employees to make recordings in the same areas. Similarly, if your business has surveillance cameras throughout the workplace, it may be difficult to argue that employee recordings will harm your business interests. Also, be consistent in policy enforcement because allowing some employees to record while denying that ability to other similarly situated employees will lead to trouble.
  • Include a disclaimer – the policy should state that it is not intended to infringe on any employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity.

Like most employment policies, a no-recording policy should reflect your specific business interests and industry and be narrowly tailored to achieve your end goal. If in doubt about whether you need or should revise a no-recording policy, please consult with your employment attorney.

March 21, 2017

Supreme Court Rules That NLRB Acting GC Became Ineligible To Serve After Nomination To Permanent Role

By Steve Gutierrez

Once a President nominates a candidate for a Senate-confirmed office, that person may not serve in an acting capacity for that office while awaiting Senate confirmation, pursuant to a ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-to-2 decision, the Court ruled that Lafe Solomon, who had been appointed by President Obama to serve as acting general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during a vacancy, could no longer serve in that acting role after the President later nominated him to fill the position outright.

NLRB General Counsel Appointment

The position of general counsel of the NLRB must be filled through an appointment by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate – a so-called “PAS” office. When a vacancy in a PAS office arises, the President is permitted to direct certain officials to serve in the vacant position temporarily in an acting capacity. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA), only three classes of government officials may become acting officers. The FVRA,  however, prohibits certain persons from serving in an acting capacity once the President puts that person forward as the nominee to fill the position permanently.

In Lafe Solomon’s case, he was directed by President Obama in June 2010 to serve temporarily as the NLRB’s acting general counsel when the former general counsel resigned. Solomon had worked for ten years as the Director of the NLRB’s Office of Representation Appeals and was within the classes of officials who could be directed to serve in an acting capacity under the FVRA. In January 2011, President Obama nominated Solomon to serve as the NLRB’s general counsel on a permanent basis. Solomon continued to serve as acting general counsel for an additional two-plus years as the Senate failed to act on his nomination. In mid-2013, the President withdrew Solomon’s nomination, putting forward another candidate whom the Senate confirmed in late October 2013.

Company Facing ULP Argued Solomon Couldn’t Be Acting GC After Nomination

In January 2013, while Solomon was acting general counsel, SW General, Inc., a company that provides ambulance services, received a complaint alleging it committed an unfair labor practice (ULP) for failing to pay certain bonuses to employees. After an administrative law judge and the NLRB concluded that SW General had committed the ULP, the company argued in court that the complaint was invalid because Solomon could not legally perform the acting general counsel duties after the President had nominated him for the permanent position. The company pointed to wording in the FVRA restricting the ability of acting officers to serve after being nominated to hold the position permanently. Whether the FVRA prohibits all classes of acting officials or only first assistants who automatically assume acting duties from continuing to serve after nomination was the issue before the Supreme Court.

Once Nominated, Official Is No Longer Eligible To Serve In Acting Capacity

The Court ruled that once a person has been nominated for a vacant PAS office, he or she may not perform the duties of that office in an acting capacity. The Court rejected the NLRB’s position that the FVRA restricted only first assistants who were in an acting capacity, rather than restricting all classes of officials directed to serve in an acting capacity who are later nominated for the permanent position. In applying its ruling to Lafe Solomon, the Court ruled that Solomon’s continued service as the NLRB acting general counsel after he had been nominated to fill that position permanently violated the FVRA. NLRB v. SW General, Inc., ___ 580 U.S. ___ (2017).

Solomon’s Actions “Voidable”

So what does this mean for all of Solomon’s actions taken during the over two-year period in which Solomon improperly served as the acting general counsel after his nomination for the permanent position? For example, what happens to the ULP complaints filed by, or at Solomon’s direction, during that period?

The Court noted in a footnote that the FVRA exempts the general counsel of the NLRB from the general rule that actions taken in violation of the FVRA are void ab initio (i.e. from the beginning). The Court of Appeals had ruled that Solomon’s actions during that period were “voidable.” Because the NLRB did not appeal that part of the lower appellate court’s ruling, it was not before the Supreme Court to decide. Consequently, the Court of Appeals’ decision that Solomon’s actions are voidable stands. Accordingly, each action taken by Solomon during the time that he improperly served as acting general counsel would need to be challenged on an individual basis.

August 24, 2016

NLRB Reverses Position on Grad Student Assistants, Allowing Them To Unionize

By Steven Gutierrez

Overruling its 2004 Brown University decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) decided that graduate student assistants at private colleges and universities can be considered statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), permitting them to organize and form a union. Columbia University, 364 NLRB 90 (August 23, 2016). The Board concluded that student assistants who perform paid work at the direction of their university have a common-law employment relationship with the university and therefore, are entitled to the protections of the NLRA.

Why Brown University Was Wrong

The 2004 Board that decided this issue in Brown University ruled that graduate assistants could not be statutory employees under the NLRA because they are primarily students and have a primarily educational relationship with the university, not an economic one. The current Board rejected that view, finding that because student assistants perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated, they are statutory employees and the fact that there may be another relationship not covered by the NLRA, namely an educational relationship, did not foreclose their coverage as employees.

The current Board also disagreed with the Brown University Board’s “fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process and would be inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the [NLRA].” Instead, this Board believes that allowing grad assistants to be covered employees meets the “unequivocal policy” of the NLRA to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining, and will make sure that an entire category of workers are not deprived of the protections of the law.

Multiple Flip-Flops On Graduate Assistants

In overruling Brown University, the Board’s position returns to the position held in the 2000 New York University (NYU) ruling, which itself was overruled in Brown University. Prior to the NYU ruling, however, the Board had long held that various student assistants could not be included in petitioned-for bargaining units.

This new flip-flop on the issue of coverage for graduate student assistants is not surprising given the leanings and make-up of the majority of the current Board, which has favored the extension of coverage and its jurisdiction, when possible. Board member Philip Miscimarra dissented in this case, writing that he agreed with the Brown University reasoning that graduate student assistants have a predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school. He would not have overruled Brown University, or permitted the petitioned-for bargaining unit to proceed.  Read more >>

January 12, 2016

Anticipating Revisions To The “Persuader Rules” – What You Need To Know

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh

As early as March, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) plans to issue its final rules that will significantly narrow the type of union-avoidance activities that employers and their labor attorneys and relations consultants may engage in without having to report those activities to the government. The tightening of the so-call “persuader rules” will mean that employers who utilize labor relations consultants, including lawyers, to help with union-avoidance or collective bargaining activities will need to disclose many more of those activities, and the fees paid for them.

Evolution of the “Persuader Rules”

In the late 1950’s, because of perceived questionable conduct by both unions and employers involved in union organizing and collective bargaining campaigns, Congress enacted the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA). The LMRDA seeks to make labor-management relations more transparent by imposing reporting and disclosure requirements on labor organizations and their officials, employers, and labor relations consultants.

Under the LMRDA, the reporting requirements for employers and their labor consultants are triggered when they undertake activities intended to directly or indirectly persuade employees to exercise (or not to exercise) the employees’ right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Employers must file a Form LM-10 (Employer Report) that discloses all payments made to unions and union officials, persuader payments made to employees and employee committees, persuader agreements/arrangements made with labor relations consultants, including lawyers, which includes the amount and dates of payments made to such consultants, and any expenditures made to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees, or otherwise obtain information concerning employees or a labor organization. Labor relations consultants must file a Form LM-20 specifying, among other things, information about the consultant and the nature of the “persuader activities” to be performed. Under the LMRDA, the DOL must make all such forms available for public inspection.

The “Advice” Exemption

The LMRDA contains an exemption from the reporting requirements for persuader activities for services that give “advice” to the employer. Except for brief periods when the LMRDA was first enacted and again in 2001, the DOL has interpreted this “advice” exemption to apply to activities where a consultant or lawyer prepares a speech or documents for use by the employer, or revises materials initially drafted by the employer. In other words, as long as the consultant or lawyer did not directly deliver or disseminate speeches or materials to employees for the purpose of persuading them with respect to their organizational or bargaining rights, behind-the-scenes activities where the consultant/lawyer drafts materials for use by the employer would not trigger a reporting obligation. Under the proposed rules, that is about to change. 

Expanded Proposed Interpretation of “Advice” Exemption

Believing its long-standing interpretation of the “advice” exemption to be overly broad, the DOL proposed a narrower interpretation that would require reporting in any case in which the agreement or arrangement with a labor consultant/lawyer in any way calls for the consultant to engage in persuader activities, regardless of whether or not advice is also given. The revised interpretation would define reportable “persuader activity” to include activities where a lawyer or consultant provides material or communications to, or engages in other actions, conduct, or communications on behalf of an employer that at least in part, has the objective of persuading employees concerning their rights to organize or bargain collectively. Exempt “advice” would be limited to recommendations, verbal or written, regarding an employer’s decision or course of conduct.

Stated examples of covered persuader activities that would require disclosure include:

  • drafting, revising, or providing written materials for presentation, dissemination, or distribution to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing a speech, video, or multi-media presentation to be presented, shown or distributed to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing website content for employees
  • planning or conducting individual or group employee meetings, and training supervisors or employer representatives to do the same
  • coordinating or directing the activities of supervisors or employer representatives
  • establishing or facilitating employee committees
  • developing personnel policies or practices
  • deciding which employees to target for persuader activity or disciplinary action
  • conducting a seminar for supervisors or employer representatives

The DOL justifies this expansion of the reporting circumstances, in part, because the role of outside consultants and law firms in managing employers’ anti-union efforts has grown substantially over the years, citing reports that somewhere between 71% and 87% of employers facing organizing drives hire third-party consultants to assist in their counter-organizing efforts. The DOL also states that underreporting of persuader activities is a problem as “employees are not receiving the information that Congress intended they receive.” Regardless of its reasoning, the DOL’s proposed change of its 50-year old interpretation will result in significant burdens on both employers and their consultants.

March 2016 Is New Target Date for Final Rule

Almost five years has passed since the DOL published its proposed rule changing the “persuader rules.” After numerous delays in publishing its final rules, the DOL’s regulatory agenda indicates that it expects to issue the final “persuader rules” this March. We will let you know when the final rules are published, or if the timeline changes. In the meantime, you might want to take advantage of the next few months before the new rules kick in to obtain union-avoidance materials and training from your consultants now. At a minimum, talk to your labor relations consultant/labor lawyer about the upcoming changes so that you are aware of how they may impact your labor strategies in the future.

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December 4, 2015

Court Upholds NLRB Ruling On Overly Broad Employment Policies

Gutierrez_SBy Steven M. Gutierrez 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) may feel emboldened after a recent ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Board’s decision that an employer’s policies on investigation confidentiality, electronic communications, and work hours were overly broad, potentially chilling employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activities. As a result, employers should expect the further onslaught of NLRB attacks on seemingly neutral employment policies to continue, or worse, escalate.

NLRB’s Attack on Handbook Policies

In recent years, the Board has scrutinized many handbook policies, including those of non-union employers. As we’ve written in a past post, the NLRB attacks those policies that it believes interferes with, or chills, employees’ §7 rights to form labor organizations, bargain collectively, and engage in similar concerted activities. If the employer’s policy or rule would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their statutory rights, then the employer violates §8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, committing an unfair labor practice.

Analysis of Whether Policies Violate NLRA

The D.C. Court of Appeals set forth the proper analysis for determining whether an employment policy or work rule can amount to an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Hyundai Am. Shipping Agency, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 11-1351 (D.C.Cir. Nov. 6, 2015). First, the Board must determine whether the policy explicitly restricts §7 rights, such as by restricting employees from discussing or forming a union. An explicit restriction on employees’ rights will invalidate the policy, amounting to an unfair labor practice.

In the absence of an explicit restriction on §7 rights, the Board must ask whether the rule:

  1. could be reasonably construed by employees to restrict §7 activity;
  2. was adopted in response to such activity; or
  3. has been used to restrict such activity.

If the answer is “yes” to any of these three questions, then the employer must show an adequate justification for the restrictive language to avoid it constituting an unfair labor practice.

Court Upholds Board Order On Three Policies

The Court reviewed the Board’s order regarding four policies maintained by employer Hyundai America Shipping Agency in its employee handbook, namely its policies on investigation confidentiality, electronic communications, work hours, and complaint provisions. Here is how the Court analyzed whether the Board correctly concluded that each of the policies was restrictive of employees’ §7 rights:

  • Investigative Confidentiality Rule: Hyundai had an oral rule that prohibited employees from discussing information about matters under investigation. The Court stated that “this blanket confidentiality rule clearly limited employees’ §7 rights to discuss their employment.” The Court then looked at whether Hyundai had offered a legitimate and substantial business justification for the rule that outweighed the adverse effect on its employees’ rights. While acknowledging that there may be a legitimate business justification for mandating confidentiality for particular types of investigations, such as sexual harassment investigations, the Court found that those concerns did not justify a ban on discussion of all investigations. Because the confidentiality rule was overly broad, the Court upheld the Board’s determination that it violated the NLRA.
  • Electronic Communications Rule: The electronic communications policy in Hyundai’s employee handbook stated that employees should only disclose information or messages from the company’s electronic communications systems to authorized persons. The Court stated that the key to determining the validity of this policy was whether the prohibition was limited to confidential information. Because Hyundai’s rule was not limited to the disclosure of confidential information, a reasonable reader could conclude that it applied to information about the terms and conditions of employment and therefore, it was overly broad and invalid.
  • Working Hours Rule: Hyundai maintained a handbook policy that allowed for employees to be disciplined, including termination, for “[p]erforming activities other than Company work during working hours.” Here, the key distinction is the use of the phrase “working hours” rather than “working time.” “Working time” excludes break periods so restrictions on union activity during working time is acceptable. On the other hand, “working hours” describes the period from the beginning of a shift to its end, including breaks. Because restrictions on union activity during working hours (sg., including break time) is presumptively invalid, the Court upheld the Board’s conclusion that Hyundai’s rule was invalid.
  • Complaint Provision: Hyundai’s handbook provided that employees should voice complaints directly to their immediate supervisor or to Human Resources, rather than complaining to fellow employees which would not resolve the problem. Although the Board had ruled this provision invalid, believing it prohibited employees from complaining about the terms or conditions of work among themselves, the Court disagreed. It stated that although the rule urged employees to voice complaints to a supervisor or to Human Resources, it was not mandatory, did not preclude alternative discussions, and did not provide penalties if an employee complained to fellow employees. Therefore, the Court found that the language would not be read to prohibit complaints protected by §7.

Court Rejects NLRB’s Investigation Confidentiality Rule Standard Affirmed in Banner Health

Interestingly, while discussing Hyundai’s investigation confidentiality rule, the Court rejected the ALJ’s opinion that in order to show a legitimate and substantial justification for an investigation confidentiality policy, the employer must determine whether any “investigation witnesses need protection, evidence is in danger of being destroyed, testimony is in danger of being fabricated and there is a need to prevent a cover up.” The NLRB had reaffirmed that standard in its widely cited Banner Health ruling on confidential investigation policies.

The D.C. Court of Appeals stated that it “need not and do[es] not endorse the ALJ’s novel view” on how employer’s must show a legitimate justification for an investigation confidentiality rule. The Court instead simply held that Hyundai’s confidentiality rule was “so broad and undifferentiated that the Board reasonably concluded that Hyundai did not present a legitimate business justification for it.”

Review and Narrow Your Policies

To help avoid NLRB scrutiny, review your employee handbook and other employment policies to determine whether any language could potentially chill employees’ §7 rights. If possible, narrow any restrictions that may infringe on employees’ rights and make certain that your organization can articulate a legitimate and substantial justification for your restrictions. Because these issues are continually evolving, discuss any questionable policy wording with your employment counsel.

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October 29, 2015

NLRB To Revisit Whether Graduate Teaching Assistants May Collectively Bargain

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

Seeking to overturn long-standing precedent, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) recently agreed to review whether graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants at universities are “employees” for purposes of voting for a union. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is seeking to represent student employees at The New School, a not-for-profit operator of higher education institutions in New York. Like a dog with a bone, the current NLRB is unwilling to give up on finding coverage for grad student assistants, despite two rejections of the representation petition by the Regional Director. 

Is It Work or Educational? 

The UAW petitioned to represent all student employees who provide teaching or research services at The New School. The proposed bargaining unit includes teaching assistants, fellows and tutors, as well as research assistants and associates. 

The facts related to these positions are as follows: 

  • About 350 individuals work in the proposed bargaining unit
  • The positions typically require between 10 and 20 hours of work per week
  • Each graduate assistant position typically lasts for one 15-week semester, but many graduate assistants are renewed for multiple semesters
  • The New School provides approximately $5 million annually to grad students in these positions
  • Each faculty member is allotted up to $5,100 per year to be used for student assistants
  • Teaching assistants are paid $4,500 per semester; teaching fellows receive $5,500 per semester, and tutors are paid an hourly rate, typically $17.00 per hour
  • Research associates can receive stipends of up to $40,000 per year due to grants from the federal government
  • Graduate assistants must provide I-9 forms to be eligible for the positions
  • Payments to the graduate assistants are made through a payroll account and taxes are withheld
  • Payments are disbursed biweekly but do not vary based on the number of hours worked (except for tutors)
  • Graduate assistants are not required to track, and the university does not monitor the amount of time spent on their duties
  • Applicants for these positions must maintain a minimum GPA
  • Some are selected using a formal process of interviews and appointment letters from the Human Resources department while others are offered positions more informally directly from a professor
  • Selection for the position is not dependent on financial need 

When the UAW first petitioned to represent this group of student employees in December 2014, the Regional Director for the New York region dismissed the petition based on the NLRB’s 2004 decision in Brown University, which held that graduate student assistants were not “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore, could not be unionized. The 2004 Board had decided that the graduate assistants had a primarily academic relationship with their school, not an economic, work-related one. Case closed, right? Wrong. 

Will Graduate Assistant Precedent Be Overturned? 

In March 2015, the Board reviewed the initial dismissal of the petition and sent it back to the region for a hearing. The Hearing Officer heard testimony and received evidence during a seven-day hearing, but in late July, the Regional Director found that Brown University still controlled, and dismissed the petition again. 

The UAW requested (again) that the Board review the dismissal of its representation petition. On October 21, 2015, on a 3-1 vote, the Board granted the request for review, finding that it “raises substantial issues warranting review.” 

The vote goes along political lines, with the three democratic members voting to review the graduate assistant issue and the sole republican member dissenting. (Note: the Board is currently short one member.) In his dissent, member Philip Miscimarra wrote that the sole basis for the UAW to seek review is its desire to have the Board overrule Brown University. Miscimarra believes there is no reason to overturn Brown University, pointing, in part, to the prevailing view for more than 40 years that graduate student assistants are not statutory employees, except for a four-year period from 2000-2004 when the ruling flip-flopped in favor of finding they were employees. 

Is another flip-flop likely? It very well could be, given that the current majority of the Board continues to look to expand the reach of the NLRA. But even if the Board should find that graduate student assistants are statutory employees, it will need to address an argument by The New School that they are “casual” or “temporary” employees which would still deny them union representation. 

We will continue to follow this case and pass along any developments as they occur.

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September 11, 2015

Broader Joint-Employer Test Leads to Teamsters Win At Browning-Ferris

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

In a previous article, we noted that the NLRB’s recent Browning-Ferris ruling was significant for those employers who use temporary or staffing agencies to provide workers. The Board set a new, broader test for joint-employer status that does not require the purported joint employer to exercise control over the workers in question. Instead, if the company has the right to exercise control over the terms and conditions of certain workers, it can be deemed a joint employer even if it never actually exercises that control. Now we can see the significance of the impact.  

Based upon the joint-employer determination, the impounded ballots of the workers of Leadpoint Business Services, the entity that staffed Browning-Ferris’s California recycling plant, were counted as part of the bargaining unit, which provided a 73-17 margin in favor of representation by the Teamsters. Depending on the outcome of any objections filed by the company, the NLRB will certify the union as the collective bargaining representative for the recycling center’s workers. This allows the unit to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of employment at that facility. 

Bargaining Over Terms Of Contingent Workers 

Think about this: Browning-Ferris does not “employ” the workers placed at its facility by staffing agency, Leadpoint. It doesn’t hire, pay, provide benefits to, or fire them. Yet, it will be required to sit down at the bargaining table across from the Teamsters to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment of those contingent workers over which it retains authority to control. That is the result of being found a joint employer of the bargaining-unit workers. 

Extension of Joint-Employer Test to Other Contexts? 

Joint-employer status is a critical determination for companies that use contingent workers as well as for franchises. And, it can apply not only in the union context, but also in other employment law contexts, such as for pay purposes under the Fair Labor Standards Act or for discrimination under Title VII. Even though the standards and policy behind a joint-employer relationship under other employment laws may differ from those behind the National Labor Relations Act, this new, broader test will likely be asserted in these other contexts in order to bring in franchisors and companies that use contingent workers as potentially liable parties. 

Appeal Over Joint-Employer Test Coming? 

Because of the high stakes involved in this ruling, it would not be surprising if Browning-Ferris (which is part of Republic Services, Inc.) appealed the NLRB’s ruling, taking its case to the applicable court of appeals. Another option is that after the union is certified, Browning-Ferris could refuse to bargain with the Teamsters which would lead to more proceedings before the Board, and ultimately, the courts. Given that the Board has already ruled in favor of the union on this matter, the company will likely have a better chance seeking review by circuit judges. Either way, this matter is probably not over. 

Stay tuned and we will let you know what develops further. What we do know, is the NLRB will not sit idle and we should expect it to use its power to push the envelope in favor of the nation’s unions.

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August 28, 2015

NLRB Throws Out Years of Joint-Employer Precedent – Adopts Two-Part Test For Joint-Employer Status

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has thrown employers a curve by overruling 30 years of long-standing decisions that narrowed the circumstances under which a joint-employer relationship could be found to exist. In a closely-watched decision, the Board revised its joint-employer standard, dictating a broader two-step test that will result in entities that use contingent workers more likely being deemed joint employers for union representation purposes. Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 186 (Aug. 27, 2015). 

Two-Part Joint Employer Test 

In its 3-to-2 decision, the Board reaffirmed a 1982 joint-employer standard under which the Board will find that two or more statutory employers are joint employers of the same employees if they share or codetermine the essential terms and conditions of employment. First, the Board will determine whether the putative employer has a common-law employment relationship with the employees in question. If that relationship exists, the Board then will determine whether the employer possesses sufficient control over the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment to permit meaningful collective bargaining. 

Employer Need Not Exercise Control Over Employees 

Over the past 30 years, joint-employer cases have defined the degree of control that an employer must assert over the workers to be deemed a joint employer. Those cases, including Laerco and TLI, required that the putative employer actually exercise control over the terms and conditions of employment to be deemed a joint employer. In addition, exercising that control had to be direct and immediate, not of a limited and routing nature. Simply possessing the authority to exercise control, without actually exercising that control, was not enough under long-standing Board law. 

That requirement is now gone. The Board ruled, in Browning-Ferris, it will no longer require that a joint employer exercise its authority to control the terms and conditions of the employees’ employment. The proper inquiry will be whether the statutory employer “possesses sufficient control over the work of the employees to qualify as a joint employer with” another employer. In addition, control exercised indirectly, such as through an agent or intermediary, may be sufficient to establish joint-employer status. 

BFI Deemed A Joint Employer With Temp Agency 

After articulating its revised test, the Board applied it to the BFI case at hand. The case arose after a union sought to include certain workers at the BFI Newby Island Recyclery in a bargaining unit during a union election. The workers were employed by Leadpoint Business Services, a temporary labor services agency, and were assigned to work at BFI’s recycling plant as sorters, screen cleaners and housekeepers. The contract between BFI and Leadpoint specifically stated that Leadpoint was the sole employer of the workers and there was no employment relationship between BFI and those workers. 

The Board concluded that BFI was a joint employer of the workers with Leadpoint. Contributing factors leading the Board to determine that BFI is a common-law employer and shares or codetermines essential terms and conditions of employment include: 

  • BFI retained the right to require that Leadpoint meet or exceed BFI’s own standard selection procedures and tests, requires drug tests and prohibits Leadpoint from hiring workers deemed to be ineligible for rehire by BFI;
  • BFI retained the right to reject any worker that Leadpoint refers to its facility “for any or no reason” and to discontinue the use of any personnel that Leadpoint assigned to it;
  • BFI managers had requested the immediate dismissal of certain workers due to misconduct and Leadpoint dismissed them from BFI’s facility shortly afterward;
  • BFI controlled the speed of the material streams and specific productivity standards for sorting;
  • BFI managers assigned specific tasks that need to be completed, determined where workers are to be positions and exercised near-constant oversight of workers’ performance;
  • BFI identified the number of workers it needs, the timing of the shifts and when overtime is necessary, even though Leadpoint selects the specific employees who will do the work;
  • Despite Leadpoint determining pay rates, administering payroll and benefits and retaining payroll records, BFI prevented Leadpoint from paying employees more than BFI employees in comparable jobs and used a cost-plus model under the contract;
  • After a new minimum wage law went into effect, BFI and Leadpoint entered into an agreement for BFI to pay a higher rate for the services of Leadpoint employees. 

As a result of finding that BFI was a joint employer of these workers, the Board ordered the Regional Director to open and count the impounded ballots cast by the employees in the petitioned-for unit. If the employees voted for union representation, BFI will have to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of employment over which it retains the right to control. 

Implications For Employers 

The Board seeks to prevent companies from insulating themselves from the application of labor laws by using temporary or other contingent workforces and this new standard will further their goal. This new, broader standard for joint-employer status will make it easier for unions to include contingent workers into bargaining units at the facilities for which they are providing services. In addition, as pointed out by the dissent, this change “will subject countless entities to unprecedented new joint-bargaining obligations that most do not even know they have, to potential joint liability for unfair labor practices and breaches of collective-bargaining agreements, and to economic protest activity, including what have heretofore been unlawful secondary strikes, boycotts and picketing.” 

If your organization uses contingent workers, you should review your existing labor services agreements and, to the extent possible, renegotiate any terms that reserve your right to control the terms and conditions of the contingent workers’ employment. You also should attempt to eliminate any functional oversight and decision-making to ensure that you are not exercising any control, whether directly or indirectly, over the contingent workers. The reservation of the right to dictate any terms or conditions of employment, or the actual exercise of that control in any way, is likely to lead you to be deemed a joint employer of those workers.

We will keep you posted of further developments, including any appeals of this decision.

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August 18, 2015

NLRB Unanimously Declines Jurisdiction Over Northwestern University Football Player Union Petition

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) declined to assert jurisdiction over the petition filed by a union seeking to represent Northwestern University’s scholarship football players. In 2014, the Regional Director for the Region covering Northwestern University found that Northwestern’s football players who received grant-in-aid scholarships were employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act) and were entitled to petition for union representation. In its unanimous decision announced yesterday, the Board dismissed that union petition, deciding that it would not assert jurisdiction over these specific college athletes as doing so would not promote stability in labor relations or further the purposes of the Act. 

Board Refuses to Decide Whether College Athletes Are Statutory Employees 

After considering the positions of the union seeking to represent Northwestern’s football players, the University, who contended that its scholarship players were not statutory employees, and the many interested parties who submitted briefs, the Board refused to decide the controversial issue raised by the Regional Director’s 2014 decision, namely whether Northwestern’s grant-in aid scholarship football players are employees under the NLRA. Instead, by refusing to assert jurisdiction, the Board dismissed the union’s petition to represent this group of college athletes, effectively nullifying the impounded ballots that had been cast in the union election in April 2014. 

Single Team Athletes Unlike Other Covered Cases 

The Board distinguished this group of athletes from other types of students and athletes for which the Board has asserted jurisdiction. First, the Board focused on the nature of the college sports leagues and structure of college football bowl divisions. It noted that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Big Ten Conference (to which Northwestern University belongs) dictate eligibility requirements, minimum academic standards, scholarship terms, amateur status, mandatory practice hours and other rules under which the scholarship athletes may compete. The Board saw these rules as distinguishing the scholarship players from graduate student assistants or student janitors and cafeteria workers whose employee status the Board had considered in other cases. 

The Board then distinguished Northwestern’s scholarship players from professional sports leagues, which are covered by union contracts. Previous Board cases involving professional sports have involved leaguewide bargaining units that cover all players across the league. Here, the union sought to represent players from a single team. The Board cannot assert jurisdiction over the majority of colleges and universities that make up the college football divisions as the vast majority are public institutions which are not employers under the Act. Consequently, the Board could not assert jurisdiction over most of Northwestern’s primary competitors. The Board found that asserting jurisdiction over a single team, rather than across an entire league, would not promote stability in labor relations. 

Rare Limit On Board’s Reach 

In recent years, the Board has extended its reach, offering NLRA protections in expansive ways and revising rules to make it easier for unions to win elections. Today’s ruling is a rare exception to that expansive trend, curtailing the reach of the NLRA to the scholarship football players at a private university. The Board did, however, express the limited nature of this decision, noting that changed circumstances may prompt a reconsideration of this issue in the future. We’ll have to wait to see if unions try again to organize scholarship athletes under different conditions.