United States: Should Franchisors Become BFFs with WHD?

Expanding upon a relationship started in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage & Hour Division and Subway announced a voluntary compliance agreement earlier this week. Billed as an effort at increasing Subway's social responsibility, the agreement details the steps WHD and Subway have decided will be mutually beneficial, including the following:

  • WHD will develop, with Subway's assistance, compliance assistance materials for the franchise restaurant industry, which Subway will distribute to, among others, its managers and franchisees.
  • WHD will assist Subway in understanding the enforcement data related to its franchisees.
  • Subway will provide WHD with its annual disclosures to other government agencies, including the FTC.
  • Subway and WHD will explore options for franchisee compliance, including building alerts into the payroll and scheduling platform that Subway offers its franchisees.
  • WHD and Subway will meet quarterly to discuss franchisee compliance.
  • Subway may advise its franchisees of their obligations to comply with WHD's investigative process.

In press releases and media statements accompanying the announcement, WHD Administrator David Weil revealed that WHD attempted to enter into similar agreements with other franchisors, and will seek to do the same in the future.

Should a franchisor—or any employer for that matter—enter into a voluntary compliance agreement with WHD? Ultimately, the answer to that question depends on a number of factors, and different employers likely will reach different conclusions. A couple of things to consider include:

Wage and hour compliance history. If the employer and its franchisees have had a solid compliance history—considering both WHD investigations and private lawsuits—there may be no need to invite WHD into the fold. If, on the other hand, there have been significant violation—particularly violations that have been publicly reported, it may be worth exploring. Media outlets reported that Subway's franchisees had been investigated around 800 times in a three-year period, resulting in back wages of approximately $2 million. That type of negative publicity for the brand may have prompted the desire to reach an agreement to make every effort to ensure the brand and demonstrate "social responsibility."

Joint employment. Entering into an agreement with WHD in which a franchisor takes additional responsibility for wage and hour compliance has the potential to be fraught with peril when it comes to joint employment. Although both Subway and WHD seem to insist that the agreement does nothing to shift the balance in any joint employment inquiry, whether it be under the FLSA, the NLRA, or any other law, it's hard to see how the compliance agreement will not be used by parties seeking to establish joint employment. Indeed, another government agency (such as the NLRB) or a private plaintiff's attorney is completely free to ignore WHD's understanding of an agreement's impact on joint employment.

Though it may be true in many cases that the agreement itself makes no changes to the analysis, in others it very well may. Presumably, entities at either end of the spectrum of concern—either those employers who are totally confident there will be no joint employment finding or those employers who believe the "cake is baked" on the issue—will be more likely to enter into an agreement. Those who are somewhere in the middle may be rightfully concerned that the agreement may be used against them to prove joint employment; at the very least, it will be one more item that needs to be explained away.

Other Benefits. It's also possible that an employer's participation in a voluntary compliance agreement with WHD can be used to help establish a good faith defense to liquidated damages, or to help oppose a plaintiff's attempt to establish willfulness and a third year of damages. These efforts will necessarily be dependent on the nature of any alleged violation and its relationship to the agreement, but it would be difficult to paint an employer who meets with WHD regularly to discuss compliance, and who engages in the types of training activities contemplated by the agreement, as being reckless or indifferent to its obligations under the FLSA.

The decision to enter into a voluntary compliance agreement with WHD if presented with the opportunity—or to reach out directly to WHD to get the process started—is one that should be carefully and thoughtfully considered. It remains to be seen whether the Subway agreement will be the beginning of a trend or an isolated example of an employer willing to go where others are not. As additional agreements are announced and publicized, we will, of course, keep you posted.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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