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“Do You Want Liability With That?” The NLRB McDonald’s Decision that could undermine the Franchise Business Model

On July 29, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) General Counsel authorized NLRB Regional Directors to name McDonald’s Corp. as a joint employer in several complaints regarding worker rights at franchise-owned restaurants. Joint employer liability means that the non-employer (McDonald’s Corp.) can be held responsible for labor violations to the same extent as the worker’s “W-2” employer.

In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of the 14,000 McDonald's restaurants are owned and operated by franchisees (as is the case with most other fast-food chains). The franchise model is predicated on the assumption that the franchisee is an independent contractor – not an employee of the franchisor. Generally, the franchisor owns a system for operating a business and agrees to license a bundle of intellectual property to the franchisee so long as on the franchisee adheres to prescribed operating standards and pays franchise fees. Franchisees have the freedom to make personnel decisions and control their operating costs.

Many third parties and pro-union advocates have long sought to hold franchisors responsible for the acts or omissions of franchisees – arguing that franchisors maintain strict control on day-to-day operations and regulate almost all aspects of a franchisee's operations, from employee training to store design. Their argument is that the franchise model allows the corporations to control the parts of the business it cares about at its franchises, while escaping liability for labor and wage violations.

The NLRB has investigated 181 cases of unlawful labor practices at McDonald’s franchise restaurants since 2012. The NLRB has found sufficient merit in at least 43 cases. Heather Smedstad, senior vice president of human resources for McDonald’s USA, called the NLRB’s decision a “radical departure” and something that “should be a concern to businessmen and women across the country.” Indeed it is, but it is important to note that General Counsel's decision is not the same as a binding NLRB ruling and that it will be a long time before this issue is resolved, as McDonald’s Corp. will no doubt appeal any rulings.

For more about the potential effects of this decision, check back on Wednesday.

Luke Wingfield

Luke A. Wingfield is an associate with McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. Mr. Wingfield concentrates his practice in employment law, insurance defense, litigation and administrative law. He is located in the firm’s Lexington office and can be reached at lwingfield@mmlk.com or at (859) 231-8780. 

This article is intended as a summary of federal and state law and does not constitute legal advice.

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