By Deryn Sumner, October 18, 2017

As we’ve discussed in this space before, federal government contractors can have standing to file formal complaints of discrimination against federal agencies, if they can demonstrate that they should be considered joint employees of both the contracting agency and the federal government.  The Commission utilizes the Ma test, named after one of its decisions, Ma v. Department of Health and Human Services, EEOC Appeal No’s. 01962389, 01962390 (May 29, 1998), which laid out a common law test with a number of factors to be examined with the goal of determining whether an employer-employee relationship existed between the employee and the government agency.  Note that this test does not require an employee to demonstrate that the federal government agency controls all aspects of employment, nor does it require an employee to demonstrate that the federal government agency should be considered the sole employer of the employee.  With regards to the individual factors, an employee does not have to demonstrate that the federal government exercises complete agency control in order to show joint employment.  Rather, the test looks at whether the federal government agency exerted sufficient control over the employee’s work such that the employee could raise claims of discrimination against the federal government agency, even though the employee is, on paper, not a federal government employee.

The Ma factors include reviewing the entity that provided the employee with day-to-day assignments, performance evaluations and feedback, tools, material and equipment needed to do the job, whether the agency’s communication that it no longer wants the employee’s services leads to the employee’s termination by the contractor, whether the employee’s position required substantive knowledge and expertise, whether the federal government approved leave requests and other schedule changes, and the entity that provided benefits to the employee.

In the years since the issuance of the decision in Ma, the Commission has addressed hundreds of appeals where an agency has dismissed claims brought by federal government contractors for lack of standing.  In some of these decisions, the Commission did find that the relationship was too tenuous such as to permit standing.  However, in my unscientific view, a majority of these decisions reinstated the complaints and remanded them for investigation.

In a recent decision, Corrina M. v. Department of Defense, EEOC Appeal No. 0120171798 (September 22, 2017), the Commission took the opportunity to note that agencies have not been properly applying the Ma test in making determinations on standing and too often rely on contracts between the federal government and the contractor as dispositive.  The Commission noted that the test had been “announced many times and in several formats, including Compliance Manual chapters, formal enforcement guidance, and federal-sector rulings.” The Commission also stated, “[i]n determining a worker’s status, EEOC looks to what actually occurs in the workplace, even if it contradicts the language in the contract between the staffing firm and the agency.”  Later in the decision, the Commission used the word “holistic” to describe its approach to the analysis.

In the case at hand, the Commission found the agency improperly dismissed the complainant’s complaint for lack of standing and found the agency sufficiently controlled the complainant’s work such that she could proceed with her EEO complaint.  The relevant factors in that case included that the complainant had worked for the agency for over eight years, worked in agency facilities using agency equipment, and the agency had constructive power to terminate the complainant.  The Commission further determined that the agency had the opportunity to gather additional evidence to support its determination that the complainant should not be considered a joint employee, but failed to do so in its decision.

As agencies continue to rely upon contractors to support the various missions of the federal government, it must properly determine whether these contractors have EEO protections.  [email protected]

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