Work for Related Employers Can Cause Joint Employer Liability

Boston-based Partners HealthCare Systems and its 14 affiliated hospitals and health care companies recently signed a consent decree in federal district court agreeing to pay $2.7 million in back wages to 700 employees to resolve an overtime lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”).

The interesting twist in this lawsuit was that Partners HealthCare contacted the DOL itself after realizing that perhaps affiliated entities sharing employees had run afoul of statutory overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Indeed, they had. The DOL’s investigation confirmed that defendants failed to combine hours worked on separate payrolls for employees who provided services for two or more defendants during a single workweek.  

Evidently, there existed a joint employment relationship between these entities. The analysis was based on some of the following factors:

  • Whether an arrangement existed between employers to share the employee;
  • Whether the companies acted in the interest of one another in relation to the employee;
  • Whether the companies shared control of the employee’s employment;
  • Whether there was common ownership of the employers; and
  • Whether there was common management of the employers.

No single factor is controlling in joint employment cases. Courts, as well as the DOL, look at the “economic realities” of the work relationship to determine if a joint employer relationship truly exists. 

Partners HealthCare may actually have been lucky – or wise – in this situation. By bringing the matter to the attention of the DOL itself, Partners HealthCare may have saved itself liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees that would likely have resulted had the lawsuit been brought by an attorney on behalf of its employees.

"Joint Employers" May Be Liable in Wage & Hour Cases

From a legal standpoint, when does a company become a “joint employer” of its subcontractor’s workers? When can a company be held liable for the wage and hour law violations of its subcontractors: When it uses subcontracted workers alongside its own? When it employs a subcontractor’s entire workforce? How about when it merely subcontracts cleaning, landscaping, or other services peripheral to the company’s business?

On April 28, 2009 the New York State Department of Labor’s Apparel Industry Task Force raided the premises of Suburban Textiles, Inc. and confiscated the property of Suburban and one of its prime subcontractors, Technical Garment USA Co. The NYS DOL charged Suburban with breaking a number of labor laws, and Technical Garment with major wage and hour violations. It remains to be seen whether the NYS DOL will file wage and hour claims against Suburban as a “joint employer” of Technical Garment’s workforce. Joint employment liability is currently a major concern for employers who make significant use of subcontractors either to complete certain steps in a production process or to undertake work that lies outside of the company’s core competencies.

The fact pattern that gave rise to the Suburban bust bears a certain resemblance to circumstances that led to the 2nd Circuit’s seminal 2003 decision in Zheng v. Liberty Apparel, 556 F.Supp.2d 284, in which the Court set a new precedent by expanding the definition of “joint employer” under the FLSA. In Zheng, the Court found that to determine whether a joint employment relationship exists, it is necessary to consider “the circumstances of the whole activity” in light of “economic reality.” The Court identified six factors that should be evaluated in making the joint employer analysis:

  •  Workplace and equipment belong to the client company – This suggests that the client company may be a joint employer because a legitimately “independent” subcontractor usually works off premises and uses its own equipment.
  • Subcontractor can and does shift its entire staff from one client to another – This suggests that the client company may not be a joint employer, because a legitimately “independent” subcontractor can have its crew do a job for one client, followed by a job for another client, etc.
  • Work performed is integral to the client company’s product – The more integral the subcontractor’s work is to the client company’s finished product, the more likely that the client company will be held to be a joint employer.
  •  Employment contract permits work to be shifted from one subcontractor to another – If the same employees keep working for the same client company even though the name of subcontractor changes, the client company may be the “true” employer, and the subcontractor with revolving names may be a “sham.”

  •  Client company supervises work – The more control the client company has over workers, the more likely that it is a joint employer. This is the most important factor to many courts and government agencies.
  • Subcontractor works almost exclusively for client company – This suggests that the client company may be a joint employer, because a legitimately “independent” subcontractor has multiple clients.

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Labor has been cracking down on joint employers in FLSA cases. In subsequent action in Zheng, the U.S. District Court S.D.N.Y. permitted plaintiffs to introduce expert testimony by a US DOL investigator alleging that the principal reason garment manufacturers use subcontractors in the manufacturing process is to avoid liability for wage and hour violations. The government is looking to expose sham subcontracting arrangements that exist just to shield the client company from wage and hour, immigration and other employment laws.

Companies that rely heavily on subcontractors should never turn a blind eye to employment practices that could subject them to liability. They should also keep subcontractors at arms length, and refrain from giving explicit direction to subcontractors’ workers. The joint employment analysis is very similar to the consideration of which workers are “independent contractors” and which are “employees” – truly independent subcontractor management and operations are key.