Trump reversal of Obama-era labor rule is great news for corporations

The joint-employer standard was a tool laborers can use to hold corporations responsible.

A McDonald’s restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh, Monday, April 24, 2017. CREDIT:AP/Keith Srakocic

A transgender woman is suing McDonald’s and the owner of the franchised restaurant she worked for after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination.

La’Ray Reed said a coworker asked if she were a “boy or girl,” “top or bottom,” or what her “role” was “in the bedroom.” She said she was groped and spied on while using the public toilet.

But for Reed to hold McDonald’s responsible for her alleged mistreatment, her lawyers have to prove that McDonald’s should be held responsible as a joint employer — not just the owners of the franchised restaurant. There is a question of whether the Labor Department’s recent decision to rescind the standard for determining who is a joint employer will hinder her ability to seek justice. The Obama administration’s standard went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business.

McDonald’s has resisted this legal responsibility for many years, and says it does not have control over things like pay and working conditions at franchised restaurants. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action through a $3.75 million payment that allowed it to dodge responsibility. McDonald’s released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

Industry groups have been pushing against efforts to call businesses like McDonald’s joint employers for many years now. In 2015, Matt Haller, a lobbyist at the International Franchise Association called a 2015 National Labor Relations Board ruling on whether a recycling company could be called a joint employer, “a knife-to-the throat issue for the franchise model.” He told the Washington Post, “You’d be hard pressed to find a business that shouldn’t be concerned about the impact of this joint employer standard.” Haller said IFA was “pleased” at the department’s decision to rescind guidance this month.

But there is certainly hope for La’Ray Reed, and other workers like her who are experiencing discrimination or issues such as wage theft at work. Since the joint employer guidance does not have the full force of law, it is not as important to these cases as existing tests for determining if an employer relationship exists. Under the economic realities test, applied under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among other laws, a relationship exists if someone is economically dependent on that business. Paul Secunda, professor of law at Marquette University, who teaches on employment discrimination law, said this test will play a much bigger role in determining whether an employee can hold McDonald’s responsible for discrimination.

“Just the Trump administration withdrawing this guidance does not mean in any way that these claims are doomed to failure or are otherwise are not plausible,” Secunda said. “Because what matters the most with employment law is focusing on employment discrimination under Title VII and what other state laws apply there.”

‘This control standard is the standard that has been in place since the 1950s and ‘60s, and so it doesn’t make sense to have different standards under different laws. It only makes sense to hold liable those who control what happens in the workplace,” Secunda added.

Representatives of Fight for $15, a group of fast food workers, teachers, and adjunct professors advocating for better pay backed by the Service Employees International Union, said McDonald’s has failed to enforce its own policies.

“The growing number of allegations suggests a failure by McDonald’s to enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its Operations and Training and Policies for Franchisees manuals,” the labor group told BuzzFeed.

“There are terms and conditions that are set by the national parent McDonald’s,” Secunda said. “It has a policy on sexual harassment and equal opportunity that all its franchisees have to meet: that it will not tolerate sexual harassment whether based on transgender status or otherwise in the workplace. [The argument is] that McDonald’s parent company exercises meaningful control — that is being free from sexual harassment and demeaning conduct in the workplace.”

None of this means that any parent corporation is responsible for any franchisees’ lability, Secunda said, since every case must be decided on its facts, but where employers do exercise meaningful control over employees, there should be a possibility that they will be held responsible.

The decision to rescind this joint-employer guidance will by no means kill any possibility of holding a corporation, such as McDonald’s, responsible, and a judge would be more likely to consider the rule of law first, Secunda said, but the joint employer guidance would still be a helpful resource for the defendant to have in its arsenal.

“If I were a conservative jurist who wanted it to come out on the corporate conservative side of the world, I see that they could use this. ‘You know they’re the expert agency, so they can’t be wrong,’” Secunda said. “But I just think that would be disingenuous, because the agency has obviously changed its position based on the politics on the administration. And this should be an answer that has nothing to do with politics. It should be based on rule of law.”