NLRB Issues a Series of Employer-Friendly Decisions

Q.  I heard there have been some significant National Labor Relations Board decisions recently. What do I need to know about them?

A.  Over the past few months, the Board’s Republican majority has issued a series of employer-friendly decisions. They involve various topics, including expansion of employer property rights, classification of workers as independent contractors, and the scope of a proper petitioned-for unit.  These decisions demonstrate it is likely the Board will continue to overturn union-friendly precedent and issue decisions that allow employers more business flexibility.

Below is a summary of some of these key opinions.

Protection of Employer Property Rights Expanded

The Board has issued a series of decisions that expand an employer’s property rights in connection with non-employee union activity. For example, in Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation d/b/a Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (368 NLRB No. 46), the Board analyzed whether a property owner violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by barring the off-duty employees of an on-site contractor from leafleting on its property.

The majority determined that contractor employees generally are not entitled to the same Section 7 access rights as the property owner’s own employees. In reaching this decision, the Board adopted a new standard, holding that a property owner may exclude from its property off-duty employees of an on-site contractor seeking access to the property to engage in Section 7 activity unless (1) those employees work both regularly and exclusively on the property, and (2) the property owner fails to show that they have one or more reasonable alternative means to communicate their message without trespassing on the employer’s property (i.e. use of adjacent public property, newspapers, radio, television, billboards, and social media).

Soon after the Bexar County decision, the Board went a step further in Kroger Limited Partnership I Mid-Atlantic (368 NLRB No. 64), ruling that businesses may lawfully limit the rights of non-employee union supporters to access company property that otherwise is open to the public.  Specifically, it found that Kroger did not violate the NLRA when it removed non-employee union supporters from the parking lot of a Kroger store even though the store permitted civic and charitable organizations to solicit and distribute in the parking area and in front of the store.

In reaching this decision, the Board noted that based on precedent, to establish that a denial of access to non-employee union agents was unlawful, a party must prove that an employer denied access to other non-employee union agents while allowing access to other non-employees for activities similar in nature to those in which the union agents sought to engage. The majority further stated that, consistent with this standard, an employer may deny access to non-employees seeking to engage in protest activities on its property while allowing non-employee access for a wide range of charitable, civic, and commercial activities that are not similar in nature to protest activities.  The Board found that Kroger’s actions were lawful because Kroger had a fundamental property interest in its premises that allowed it to exclude the Union’s solicitor and because the Union’s solicitations were not sufficiently similar in nature to other on-premises charitable, civic or commercial activities that Kroger had previously allowed.

These decisions are demonstrative of the trend toward allowing an employer greater flexibility to regulate non-employee access to the employer’s property under the NLRA. In light of these decisions, employers may distinguish between non-employee activities they will allow and will not allow on their premises.

Worker Misclassification Not a Violation

Proper classification of workers is a fundamental issue under federal labor laws because only statutorily defined “employees” are covered under the NLRA. Under Section 2 of the Act, independent contractors are specifically excluded from the protections afforded to employees.   Employee vs. independent contractor classification issues often arise in the context of determining who is eligible to vote in a union election and in evaluating whether certain workers are protected by Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.

In Velox Express, Inc. (368 NLRB No. 61), the Board addressed whether an employer’s misclassification of drivers as independent contractors was a violation of Section (8)(a)(1).  Velox Express operated a courier service and engaged drivers that it classified as independent contractors.  It terminated one of its drivers who, in turn, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB contesting the lawfulness of her discharge and alleging that her former employer also violated the NLRA by misclassifying her and her coworkers as independent contractors.

The full Board unanimously adopted the Administrative Law Judge’s conclusion that Velox Express failed to establish that its drivers are independent contractors. However, the Board reversed the judge and dismissed the allegation that Velox Express independently violated Section 8(a)(1) by misclassifying its drivers as independent contractors.  It held that an employer’s misclassification of its employees as independent contractors, standing alone, does not violate the NLRA.  The Board explained that an employer’s communication to its workers of its legal opinion that they are independent contractors does not, in and of itself, inherently threaten that those employees are subject to termination or other adverse action if they exercise their Section 7 rights or that it would be futile for them to engage in union or other protected activities.  The communication of that legal opinion is therefore privileged by Section 8(c) even if the employer is ultimately mistaken.

This case is one of a few recent case developments by the Board which positively affects employers faced with independent contractor issues. It demonstrates that this current Republican majority does not disfavor independent contractor relationships.  As a result of this decision, employers who genuinely believe their workers to be independent contractors may share that belief with their workers, even if it ultimately turns out to be wrong, without fear of being prosecuted by the Board’s General Counsel, provided the statements are not expressly or implicitly linked to the workers’ engaging in NLRB protected activities.

Limits to “Micro-Unit” Strategy

In The Boeing Company (368 NLRB No. 67), the Board clarified the traditional community-of-interest test for determining whether “micro-units” of employees within a larger workforce can organize on their own.   In that case, the union attempted to utilize a “micro-unit” strategy to target a petitioned-for unit made up of only two job classifications from a significantly larger workforce.  The Board concluded that the petitioned-for unit was not an appropriate unit for purposes of conducting a union election.

The Board set forth a clarifying, three-step analysis for determining whether a petitioned-for unit is appropriate. Under that analysis, the Board will consider:

  • Whether the members of the petitioned-for unit share a community of interest with each other;
  • Whether the employees excluded from the unit have meaningfully distinct interests in the context of collective bargaining that outweigh similarities with unit members; and
  • Guidelines the Board has established for appropriate unit configurations in specific industries.In reaching its decision, the Board found that the mechanics in the petitioned-for unit did not share an internal community of interest and did not have sufficiently distinct interests from those employees excluded from the petitioned-for unit. The Board also concluded that there were no appropriate-unit guidelines specific to the employer’s industry.This decision is an indication that smaller units will face increased scrutiny and may be easier for employers to challenge.

Leigh McMonigle

NLRB Provides Updated Guidance on Employer Policies and Handbooks

Q:        How does the current National Labor Relations Board view employee handbook policies?

A:        Under the Trump administration, the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) has shifted in a more employer-friendly direction, including with respect to workplace policies.  In a December 2017 decision, the NLRB reassessed the standard for evaluating when neutral workplace rules violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In that decision, the Board defined three categories of employer handbook rules and policies: (1) rules that are generally lawful; (2) rules that warrant individualized scrutiny; and (3) rules that are plainly unlawful.

Those three categories were expanded in June 6, 2018, when the Board’s General Counsel issued a new Guidance Memorandum (18-04), providing updated guidance on how regional NLRB offices should investigate unfair labor practice charges involving employer handbook language and rules.

Category 1 Rules:  The Board has determined that employee handbook policies in this category generally are lawful, either because the rule, when reasonably interpreted, does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights, or because the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by the business justification associated with employer policy.  The examples provided in the Guidance Memorandum of the types of rules that fall into this category include:

  • Civility rules prohibiting “disparaging, or offensive language”;
  • No-photography and no-recording rules;
  • Rules against insubordination, non-cooperation, or on-the-job conduct that adversely affects operations;
  • Disruptive behavior rules (for example, prohibiting conduct that creates a disturbance on company premises or creates discord with clients or fellow employees);
  • Rules protecting confidential, proprietary, and customer information or documents;
  • Rules against defamation or misrepresentation;
  • Rules against using employer logos or intellectual property;
  • Rules requiring authorization to speak for the company; and
  • Rules banning disloyalty, nepotism, or self-enrichment.

Category 2 Rules:   The Board has concluded that Category 2 rules are not “obviously lawful or unlawful, and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the rule would interfere with rights guaranteed by the NLRA, and if so, whether any adverse impact on those rights is outweighed by legitimate justifications.” The Guidance Memorandum provides examples of rules that fall into this category, including the following:

  • Broad conflict-of-interest rules that do not specifically target fraud and self-enrichment and do not restrict membership in, or voting for, a union;
  • Confidentiality rules broadly encompassing “employer business” or “employee information” (as opposed to confidentiality rules regarding customer or proprietary information, which would be considered lawful, or confidentiality rules more specifically directed at employee wages, terms of employment, or working conditions, which is prohibited);
  • Rules regarding disparagement or criticism of the employer (as opposed to civility rules regarding disparagement of employees, which is considered a lawful Category One rule);
  • Rules regulating use of the employer’s name (as opposed to rules regulating use of the employer’s logo/trademark, which is allowed as a Category One rule);
  • Rules generally restricting speaking to the media or third parties (as opposed to rules restricting speaking to the media on the employer’s behalf, which is a lawful Category One rule );
  • Rules banning off-duty conduct that might harm the employer (as opposed to a rule banning insubordinate or disruptive conduct at work, which is a permitted Category One rule, or a rule specifically banning participation in outside organizations, which is an unlawful Category Three rule); and
  • Rules against making false or inaccurate statements (as opposed to lawful rules against making defamatory statements).

Category 3 Rules: The Board has found that rules in this category are generally unlawful because they would prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct, and the adverse impact on the rights guaranteed by the NLRA outweighs any justifications associated with the rule. The examples provided in the Guidance Memorandum of the types of rules that fall into this category include:

  • Confidentiality rules specifically regarding wages, benefits, or working conditions (such as a rule prohibiting employees from disclosing salaries and contents of employment contracts); and
  • Rules against joining outside organizations or voting on matters concerning the employer.

The Memorandum also advises the regional NLRB offices that they should no longer find unlawful any rule that could be interpreted as covering Section 7 activity and should now focus on whether the rule in question would actually be interpreted to cover Section 7 activity. The Memorandum instructs regional offices that “ambiguities in rules are no longer interpreted against the drafter, and generalized provisions should not be interpreted as banning all activity that could conceivably be included.”

Takeaways

The Board has moved significantly in the direction of limiting its influence over employer handbook policies. Whether a particular employer rule is lawful, however, may rest on subtle differences in policy language. Moreover, the Guidance Memorandum does not provide an exhaustive list of all lawful and unlawful handbook policies. For assistance in ensuring that your handbook rules do not impinge on employee rights to engage in concerted activity, we recommend consulting with labor and employment counsel.

Leigh McMonigle

 

Another Reset of NLRB’s Independent Contractor Test

Q.  What is the current standard for determining whether an individual is an employee or independent contractor for purposes of the NLRA?

A.   On Jan. 25, 2019, the Republican-led National Labor Relations Board affirmed the acting regional director’s decision that drivers of a shared airport ride service were independent contractors, not employees, and therefore not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

The decision, which reverts back to the common law test for determining independent contractor status, will have a wide-ranging impact on other gig economy companies.

To read the full article, click here.

-Tracey E. Diamond and Susan K. Lessack

NLRB Proposes New Rule on Joint Employer Standard

Q.  What is the current rule for determining whether two employers are considered to be “joint employers” under the National Labor Relations Act?

A.  On September 14, 2018, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed a new regulation that would make it more challenging to establish joint employer status under the National Labor Relations Act. The proposed rule dictates that two entities will be joint employers only if each exercises substantial direct and immediate control over employees.

As we reported previously, in 2015, the NLRB significantly relaxed the standard for proving that two entities are joint employers in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc. d/b/a BFI Newby Island Recyclery, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015). In Browning-Ferris, decided during the Obama administration, the NLRB ruled that entities could be joint employers even if one had only indirect, limited and routine control or the unexercised right to control employees’ terms and conditions of employment. The NLRB reversed course in December 2017 during the Trump administration, overruling Browning-Ferris and reinstating the standard for joint employer status that had existed previously – that entities are joint employers only if each has exercised direct and immediate control over employees. See Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156 (2017). The Hy-Brand ruling was short-lived, however. The NLRB vacated that ruling earlier this year due to the conflict of interest of one of the NLRB’s members who participated in the decision. In the meantime, a petition for review of Browning-Ferris is pending in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now, the NLRB seeks to establish a stricter joint employer standard by regulation. Doing so would add more permanence to the joint employer standard than interpreting it through case law, which often changes from one presidential administration to the next. The NLRB explained in its Federal Register notice that it would benefit from public comment on the joint employer standard “given the recent oscillation on the joint-employer standard, the wide variety of business relationships that it may affect (e.g., user-supplier, contractor-subcontractor, franchisor-franchisee, predecessor-successor, creditor-debtor, lessor-lessee, parent-subsidiary, and contractor-consumer), and the wide-ranging import of a joint-employer determination for the affected parties.”

The NLRB’s proposed rule enunciates the following test for joint employer status:

An employer, as defined by Section 2(2) of the National Labor Relations Act (the Act), may be considered a joint employer of a separate employer’s employees only if the two employers share or codetermine the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision and direction. A putative joint employer must possess and actually exercise substantial direct and immediate control over the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment in a manner that is not limited and routine.

The NLRB included 10 examples with the proposed rule “to help clarify what constitutes direct and immediate control over essential terms and conditions of employment.” For example, the NLRB concluded that the following scenario reflects one company’s direct and immediate control over another company’s employees: Company A supplies labor to Company B and, pursuant to the contract between them, Company A is required to pay a particular wage rate. In that situation, Company B exercises direct and immediate control over wage rates. In another example, a franchisor requires its franchisee to operate the franchisee’s store between specified hours. The franchisor does not exercise direct and immediate control over the essential terms and conditions of employment of the franchisee’s employees because the franchisor is not involved in scheduling the franchisee’s employees or in determining shift durations.

The NLRB’s proposed rule will now go through the time-consuming rulemaking process. As employers wait for the publication of a final rule, companies can minimize the risk of joint employer status by avoiding involvement in decisions regarding another company’s employees, including decisions regarding pay, hiring, discipline or termination.

–Susan K. Lessack

 

NLRB Flip Flops on Browning Ferris Standard for Joint Employment (Again)

Q.  What is the standard for determining whether two companies are joint employers?

A.  On February 26, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided unanimously to vacate its decision in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156 (2017) (vacated at 366 NLRB No. 26).  As we reported previously, in December 2017, the NLRB issued a 3-2 decision in Hy-Brand, in which it overruled the controversial joint-employer standard articulated in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc. d/b/a BFI Newby Island Recyclery, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015). The Browning-Ferris decision had significantly relaxed the standard for proving that two entities are joint employers, ruling that entities could be joint employers even if one had only indirect control or the unexercised right to control employees’ terms and conditions of employment. The Hy-Brand decision returned to the pre-Browning-Ferris standard for finding joint-employer status, under which entities are joint employers only if each has exercised direct and immediate control over employees.

With this latest development, at least for now, the Browning-Ferris standard is in effect again, making it much easier for employees and unions to establish that two companies are joint employers.

For more information about this topic, please click here.

Susan K. Lessack