Employment relationships can take many forms, and employers’ perceptions of their legal responsibilities for certain workers is not always reality. An employer may classify workers as temporary or independent contractors, but that does not mean DOL will agree. This is particularly challenging due to continuous changes in the law relating to these types of employment relationships.
One particular area in flux over the past several years has been the joint-employer standard, significantly expanding in the Obama-era NLRB decision in Browning-Ferris, but in the wake of change through an ongoing NLRB rulemaking. Similarly, the boundary between employees and independent contractors has also been a moving target. Although the prior administration took the view that a majority of workers are employees in its guidance to employers, the Trump Admin. has signaled a change in direction.
Even where there is not a legal employer-employee relationship, companies may have certain safety and health obligations and potential liabilities depending on their role at multi-employer worksites or the use of temporary workers. Protecting temporary workers and enforcing the responsibilities of host employers and staffing agencies was a priority of OSHA in the Obama Admin. through a Temporary Worker Initiative that continues today. OSHA has also continued to defend its multi-employer worksite enforcement policy through legal challenges.
Employers’ perceptions about their legal responsibilities for certain workers is not always reality, particularly in the context of oft-changing interpretations of what constitutes an employer-employee relationship. An employer may classify workers as a temp or independent contractor, but that does not mean DOL agrees. At the tail end of the Obama Admin., DOL issued guidance that a majority of workers should be treated as employees, insinuating that in most cases, employers are accountable for the obligations of an employer-employee relationship. However, the Trump Admin. appears is shifting gears. That guidance was withdrawn by new Sec. of Labor Acosta. Congress has also begun to undercut the broad joint-employer standard established by the NLRB in Browning-Ferris, by revisiting language in applicable laws. It remains essential for employers to carefully evaluate employment relationships and their own functions in the multi-employer context.
Even if there is no legal employer-employee relationship, companies may have safety obligations and liability depending on their role at multi-employer worksites or when using temporary workers. Protection of temporary workers was a priority of OSHA in the prior Admin., and the guidance developed in that context remains the current standard for host employers and staffing agencies. OSHA has also stood by its multi-employer policy, though it is being challenged in federal court.