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NLRB Delivers One-Two Punch to Pair of Standards that Have Dogged Employers

Posted on: December 18th, 2017

By: Paul H. Derrick

In a stunning development, the National Labor Relations Board has overruled a pair of controversial standards that have caused headaches in the business community for years.

In the first case, the NLRB reversed an Obama-era decision that put employers potentially on the hook for labor law violations committed by their subcontractors and franchisees.  By a 3-2 vote, the Board erased its decision in a case known as Browning-Ferris Industries, which found a company to be a joint-employer with a subcontractor or franchisee if it had “indirect” control over the terms and conditions of the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment or had the “reserved authority to do so.”

Since that broad standard was adopted, the Board has used it to bring literally hundreds of cases against McDonald’s and other businesses for the alleged acts of their contractors and franchisees.  Going forward, however, the NLRB says that two or more entities will be deemed joint employers under the National Labor Relations Act only if there is proof that one entity actually exercised direct and immediate control over essential employment terms of another entity’s employees.  Proof of indirect control, contractually-reserved control that has never been exercised, or control that is limited and routine will no longer be sufficient to establish a joint-employer relationship.

In a second unexpected development, also by a narrow 3-2 margin, the NLRB overturned its 2004 decision in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, under which many seemingly harmless workplace rules were deemed unlawful.  The Board had determined in that case that employer rules violate the NLRA if they “could be reasonably construed” by employees to prohibit the exercise of rights under the NLRA.

Going forward, the NLRB says that it will consider the nature and extent of a challenged rule’s potential impact on employee rights under the NLRA and the legitimate justifications associated with the rule.  The Board also announced three categories into which it will now classify rules to provide greater clarity and certainty to employees, employers, and unions.

The first category covers rules that are legal in all cases because they cannot be reasonably interpreted to interfere with workers’ rights or because any interference is outweighed by business interests; the second covers rules that are legal in some cases, depending on their application; and the third covers rules that are always unlawful because they interfere with workers’ rights and cannot be outweighed by business interests.  Notably, the Board also announced that it will no longer find a rule to be unlawful simply because it requires employees to foster “harmonious interactions and relationships” or to maintain basic standards of civility in the workplace.

Because of ongoing changes in the NLRB’s composition and the recent nomination of a new General Counsel, these latest decisions will certainly be the subject of challenge and much debate.  If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paul Derrick at [email protected].

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