Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith likes to quip that the Department is “working overtime on overtime.” DOL took a break from the much-anticipated overtime regulations and issued new guidance yesterday on the question of who qualifies as a “joint employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA). The guidance (Administrator’s Interpretation (AI) No. 2016-1) issued by Wage and Hour Division (WHD) Administrator Dr. David Weil, sets forth a broad (and sometimes ambiguous) reading of statutory provisions, regulations, and case law to address joint employment issues under the two statutes. The guidance was not unexpected as some advocates have been asking for the DOL’s position on joint employment since the NLRB’s expansion of joint employment in Browning-Ferris, 362 NLRB No. 186 (Aug. 27, 2015). Notably, the level of coordination between DOL and the NLRB on joint employment issues has been the subject of Congressional oversight and the oversight committee now claims that DOL provided suspect responses to members of Congress regarding interactions between the agencies on the issue.
On July 15, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued an Administrator’s Interpretation that purports to clarify on one of the most challenging legal questions facing employers today: are certain workers employees or independent contractors? Notably absent from the guidance, however, is any specific reference to workers who provide services through “on-demand” companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb who use technology to deliver traditional services more efficiently by connecting consumers directly with service providers. This is surprising since it seems that the DOL’s renewed focus on misclassification has stemmed in large part from the slew of pending on-demand worker lawsuits in which the classification tests have proven very difficult to apply.
Recently, there’s been a wave of Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) rulings adverse to employers in the adult entertainment industry. Early this year, a Southern District of New York judge approved an $8 million settlement for a class of dancers at an adult establishment who alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors. See In re: Penthouse Executive Club Compensation Litigation, Case No. 1:10-cv-01145, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5864 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 14, 2014). And just last month, the court in Hart, et al. v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., Case No. 1:09-cv-03043, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160264 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 14, 2014) which previously had held that dancers at the New York club were employees under the FLSA, denied a motion to decertify the class and awarded almost $11 million in damages to the dancers for FLSA violations.
Late last month, in the Southern District of Florida, adult entertainers at several Rick’s Cabaret locations filed a lawsuit alleging that they were improperly categorized (and thus improperly compensated) as independent contractors rather than employees. See Espinoza, et al. v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., Case No. 1:13-cv-24565-UU. In light of recent decisions, Rick’s—like other employers classifying workers as independent contractors—should proceed with caution.
The past several months have seen a spate of rulings adverse to employers in the adult entertainment context. Early last year, a Southern District of New York judge approved an $8 million settlement for a class of dancers at another adult establishment who alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors. See In re: Penthouse Executive Club Compensation Litigation, Case No. 1:10-cv-01145. In September 2013, in a different S.D.N.Y. case, the court in Hart, et al. v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc. found that dancers at the New York club location were employees, not independent contractors, for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the New York Labor Law. And just last week a Northern District of Georgia judge who previously certified a class of adult entertainers who alleged they were wrongly classified as independent contractors granted the entertainers’ summary judgment motion with respect to their status as employees under the FLSA. See Stevenson, et al. v. The Great American Dream, Inc., No. 1:12-CV-3359-TWT.
In finding no independent contractor relationship in Hart, the court cited the existence of club guidelines that governed dancers’ dress/appearance (e.g., body glitter forbidden, 4-inch stiletto heels required), behavior in the club (e.g., gum chewing or using a cell phone on the dance floor prohibited), when dancers could be scheduled to work, various fees dancers were required to pay, and manner of performance (e.g., prohibition on more than one knee touching the ground when performing on stage). Of virtually no significance was the fact that there were signed agreements between dancers and Rick’s Cabaret expressing that the employment relationship was that of an independent contractor.
Irrespective of industry, companies that utilize independent contractors are well advised to periodically reexamine the economic realities of those relationships.
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