Businesses don’t just use temp staffing agencies to add workers for short periods when they need extra hands. Staffing agencies can also serve the valuable (to crappy employers) purpose of dodging responsibility. “That person may work in our business on our terms, but the staffing agency is their employer, so we’re not responsible for violating labor laws to exploit them,” is how the dodge basically goes. Now, the Department of Labor is taking steps against that, issuing guidelines on when the company using the staffing agency to hire temp workers should be considered a joint employer that’s responsible for the people working in its facilities.
“I think the majority of noncompliance that we see is people just not getting what the law is, and what their responsibilities are under it,” [Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division director David] Weil said in an interview. “We also find cases of people who are clearly playing games, and clearly trying to shift out responsibility, and often have structured things in a way that lead towards more noncompliance.”
Weil’s division has stepped up its proactive enforcement of situations where companies are functionally controlling the workers they order up from labor providers — and broadcasts its enforcement of egregious violations. Back in October, for example, investigators found that temp workers at a snack food producer in New Jersey were cheated out of overtime wages, and ordered the company to pay back wages, damages, and civil penalties.
That’s the most typical form of joint employment — a “vertical” arrangement, with one company hiring another, as the guidance describes. But joint employment can also be “horizontal,” when a worker might employed by two subsidiaries of the same company, but they never get overtime because their hours are tracked separately.
Business groups and congressional Republicans are predictably pissed that the Obama administration would have the nerve to suggest that employers follow the law, with House Republicans pointing out that the Department of Labor talked to the National Labor Relations Board, which is also cracking down on joint employer issues.
Low-road businesses have found a lot of ways around laws protecting workers, from these joint employer dodges to misclassifying workers as independent contractors to deny them minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, and more. And every time the Obama administration cracks down, it’s a reminder of what’s at stake this November. The next president won’t just argue with Congress or even appoint Supreme Court justices. The next president will make the appointments that determine whether the Department of Labor is trying to make sure workers get paid for the hours they work or is looking for ways to let bad bosses off the hook.
This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on January 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.