Saturday, January 26, 2019

The NLRB's New Employee-Classification Test

Yesterday, the NLRB issued a decision in the SuperShuttle DFW case, providing yet another analysis to determine whether an individual is an employee or independent contractor under the NLRA. The Board's new approach is basically just to adopt the D.C. Circuit's test from the 2011 FedEx case, which I've examined (and criticized) elsewhere. That test relies most heavily on whether the worker has "entrepreneurial opportunity."

As a preliminary matter, it is important to remember that the Supreme Court has held multiple times that when a statute lacks a meaningful definition of "employee," the common-law "right-to-control" test for determining whether someone is an employee or independent contractor should apply. The Court, in Roadway Systems, explicitly held that the NLRA is one of those statutes.  So the question for the NLRB is to determine what the common-law test requires. 

Note that the analysis is not referred to as the "common-law 'entrepreneurial opportunity'" test. That's because, for its long history, that test has stressed that the most important factor is the purported employer's right to control the manner and means of work of the purported employees. Entrepreneurial opportunity may be relevant, along are numerous other factors, but the right to control is the focal point of the test (I'm actually being generous here because entrepreneurial opportunity isn't explicitly a factor in the common-law test, although other factors hint at a similar concern).  In fact, in an ironic twist, the D.C. Circuit just last month stressed this exact point with regard to the NLRB's joint-employer test. In that case, the D.C. Circuit gave a pretty strong warning that the Board needs to be careful not to stray too far from the common-law's focus on right-to-control.

Despite all of this, in SuperShuttle, the NLRB adopted a D.C. Circuit test that makes entrepreneurial opportunity the overriding concern in the analysis. The NLRB downplayed that that's what the D.C. Circuit did, but that interpretation is just wrong. The court held, among other things, that it was "shift[ing the] emphasis’ away from the unwieldy control inquiry in favor of a more accurate proxy: whether the ‘putative independent contractors have significant entrepreneurial opportunity for gain or loss.’" And that shift, to my mind, is indefensible.

You'll note that SuperShuttle has exactly zero citations showing judicial support for the notion that entrepreneurial opportunity is an "important animating principle" of the common-law test other than the D.C. Circuit's decisions. Those decisions, in turn, elevated entrepreneurial opportunity based on an erroneous (one might even say disingenuous) interpretation of the common law. There is simply no reasonable way to say both that the NLRB uses the common law test and that the test's primary focus is entrepreneurial opportunity. The first proposition, as the Board majority itself acknowledges, is undoubtably true; the second is just as clearly untrue. (Member McFerran makes the same point in her dissent.) The common-law test simply does not consider entrepreneurial opportunity as a key principle. Indeed, a closer question is whether it considers it at all. Thus, the Board could reasonably argue that entrepreneurial opportunity should be the animating factor, but it can't make that happen without defying the Supreme Court's clear mandate that when Congress doesn't provide a meaningful definition of "employee," the common-law test applies.

As bad as the NLRB's and D.C. Circuit's manipulation of the common-law test's history is, if that's all that was going on, this might not have too big of an impact. But it's not. What I view as the biggest practical effect of the D.C. Circuit's standard is how it define entrepreneurial opportunity. In particular, the court would allow a business to classify a worker as an independent contractor based simply on theoretical entrepreneurial opportunity, even if it is virtually impossible to take advantage of in practice. This means that businesses can manipulate their agreements with workers to give the appearance of entrepreneurial opportunity, while ensuring that workers lack any genuine opportunity to act like anything but employees. In SuperShuttle, the Board didn't explicitly get into this question, so it's not entirely clear how close they're going to hew to that aspect of the D.C. Circuit's approach, although the Board implied that they were doing the same thing, particularly by failing look into whether drivers had any real ability to use their vans for other work. But the reason why they didn't address this issue may be more disturbing. The Board failed to consider whether the drivers had the option to sell their services to other business--something that is a key characteristic of an independent contractor. Instead, the Board merely stressed that the drivers had control over how much they would work for SuperShuttle and, therefore, how much they earn. You know who else controls how much they earn by determining how much they work? Virtually every hourly and piece-rate employee (albeit with varying ability to control their hours).

Finally, one other significant impact of SuperShuttle was to reject the Obama Board's test in another FedEx decision (see a trend here?), in particular its use of economic dependency. On this point, I'm in agreement with the current Board. While I prefer a more expansive test that considers economic dependency, that's not what the Board should be using. Again, the Court has said that statutes like the NLRA with no real definition of "employee" should use the common-law test. That test doesn't stress economic dependency, unlike the test under the FLSA and FLRA, which have statutory language that suggest a broader classification. So while as a policy matter I prefer using economic dependency, that's not what the NLRB should be doing. The way to fix this is for Congress to better define "employee" or for the Supreme Court to move away from its common-law default. 

In sum, SuperShuttle is a a vey poorly reasoned decision, no matter what you think the best test should be from a policy perspective. What will be interesting is to see how the SuperShuttle test fares in the circuit courts. I suspect some circuits are going to squarely reject the new rule, while some may approve. Even more interesting will be the D.C. Circuit's take. The court will have to grapple with its equally bad FedEx decision, which seems to run directly counter to its recent holding on the joint-employer issue, not to mention explicit Supreme Court precedent. 

-Jeff Hirsch

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/laborprof_blog/2019/01/the-nlrbs-new-employee-classification-test.html

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