Payroll Company Not an "Employer" for Wage Hour Purposes

If an employer "outsources" payroll services to another company, can that payroll service company be held liable for wage-hour violations as an "employer?"  No.

The California Supreme Court in Martinez v. Combs (discussed here) determined who is liable under California wage and hour law - i.e., who is an "employer."  The court of appeal in Futrell v. Payday California, Inc., applied Martinez's definition of "employer" in deciding that a payroll service provider was not an "employer."

Futrell provided private police / crowd control services for a Reactor, a production company that makes commercials. The production company "payrolled" its employees through Payday, a payroll service company.  Futrell brought a class action against Payday, alleging wage-hour violations. Payday prevailed on a motion for summary judgment because the trial court held Payday was just a vendor of Futrell's actual employer, the production company.

The court of appeal held that Martinez restricts who may be held liable for wage-hour violations. The court rejected Futrell's argument that Payday exercised control over his wages:
There is no evidence in the record showing Payday exercised any control over Futrell‟s hours or working conditions. Reactor hired Futrell, and arranged and supervised the location shoots. . . . This means the only possible linchpin for finding that Payday was Futrell‟s employer is whether Payday “exercised control over his wages.”

If Payday had merely collected tax information from workers, kept track of time cards, calculated pay and tax withholding, and submitted reports to Reactor detailing such information, leaving it for Reactor to issue paychecks to the workers on its productions, we would have an easy case; Reactor would be the only employer. In our view, the issue in this case then comes down to whether Payday exercised “control over workers‟ wages” by going beyond handling the ministerial tasks of calculating pay and tax withholding, and by also issuing paychecks, drawn on its own bank account. We think not.

. . .. . Writing on a clean slate, we conclude that “control over wages” means that a person or entity has the power or authority to negotiate and set an employee‟s rate of pay, and not that a person or entity is physically involved in the preparation of an employee‟s paycheck. This is the only definition that makes sense. The task of preparing payroll, whether done by an internal division or department of an employer, or by an outside vendor of an employer, does not make Payday an employer for purposes of liability for wages under the Labor Code wage statutes.

The court then reached a similar conclusion under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act:

Although the FLSA applies a slightly different test than California law, the predominant factor remains the control an alleged employer exercises over an employee. Incorporating the reasons explained above into the FLSA test, we find Payday was not Futrell‟s employer for purposes of the FLSA. The economic reality existing between Futrell and Payday is that the latter prepared paychecks for the former for the work he performed on behalf of his actual employer, Reactor.

This case will come as good news to PEOs and other HR outsourcing companies, who may have been sued as "joint employers" for wage and hour violations. The court here, though, held that nothing in the opinion affects the analysis of who is the "employer" under any other body of law except wage-hour.

The case is Futrell v. Payday California, Inc. and the opinion is here.