Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb: Economic Realities Test For Employment Relationship Under FLSA

In Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722 (1947), the Supreme Court held that the meat boners working in a slaughterhouse, who worked under a contract, owned their own tools, and were paid collectively based on their production, which pay they divided among themselves, were “employees” of the slaughterhouse within the meaning of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The case is important because, inter alia, it applied an “economic realities” test, using the reasoning in United States v. Silk, 331 U.S. 704 (1947), for determining the existence of an employment relationship under the FLSA. 

Statutory and Regulatory Background

The FLSA requires covered employers to pay minimum wages and overtime compensation to certain categories of employees. 29 U.S.C §§ 206-207. The FLSA also imposes recordkeeping requirements on employers. 29 U.S.C. § 211. These requirements raise questions about what it means to be an “employer” or an “employee,” and, more specifically, about the nature of the employment relationship that falls within the scope of the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements. 

Relevant to the decision in Rutherford, Section 203 of the FLSA defines “employer” to include “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). The FLSA defines the term “employee” to generally mean “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e). And it defines “employ” as “includes to suffer or permit to work.”  29 U.S.C. § 203(g)

Facts

The defendants in Rutherford operated slaughterhouses. The slaughterhouse at issue was that of Kaiser Packing Company. Since 1942, Kaiser produced mostly boned beef. The meat boners at issue worked in the slaughterhouse, pursuant to a series of written and oral contracts. 331 U.S. 722, 724-25. These contracts essentially treated the meat boners as their own company or companies, rather than as employees of Kaiser.

Prior to 1942, Kaiser had one hourly paid employee who acted as a combined butcher, beef boner and order filler. During 1942, in order to be able to furnish beef boned to the Army, Kaiser entered into a written contract with an experienced boner named Reed. This contract “provided that Reed should assemble a group of skilled boners to do the boning at the slaughterhouse.” 331 U.S. 722, 724. “The terms of the contract were that Reed should be paid for the work of boning an amount per hundredweight of boned beef, that he would have complete control over the other boners, who would be his employees, that Kaiser would furnish a room in its plant for the work, known as the boning vestibule, into which the carcasses of cattle slaughtered by Kaiser would be moved on overhead rails by Kaiser employees, that Kaiser would also furnish barrels for the boned meat which would be washed and moved out of the vestibule by Kaiser’s employees.” 331 U.S. 722, 724-25.

In 1943, Reed left, and the boning work was taken over by other boners pursuant to a series of oral contracts. Later, a boner named Hooper entered into a written contract with Kaiser. This contract was similar to the original contract, “save that it provided for rent to be paid by Hooper for the boning room, although as a matter of fact no rent was ever paid.” 331 U.S. 722, 725. The District Court found that since the boning work had started in 1942, the money paid by Kaiser had been “shared equally among all the boners, except for a short time after Hooper took over the work when he paid some of the boners by the hour. It was stipulated further that the boners owned their own tools, although these consisted merely of a hook to hold the meat, a knife to cut it, a sharpener for the knife, and a leather belt (apron).” 331 U.S. 722, 725.

Boning was a part of the slaughterhouse operations, which were “carried on in a series of interdependent steps.” 331 U.S. 722, 725. First, the cattle were “slaughtered, skinned and dressed in the killing room, and the carcasses are moved thence on overhead rails into an overnight cooler by employees of Kaiser.” 331 U.S. 722, 726. The next day they were “moved into another cooler and then into the boning vestibule, on the same overhead rail. They move around the boning room on the rail, each boner cutting off a section for boning. The boneless meat is put into barrels, or passed to a trimmer, an employee of Kaiser, who trims waste matter from the boned meat. Waste is put into other barrels. The barrels are moved from the boning room by employees of Kaiser into another room, called the dock, where the meat is weighed and put on trucks.” 331 U.S. 722, 726.

Notably, Kaiser had “never attempted to control the hours of the boners, but they must ‘keep the work current and the hours they work depend in large measure upon the number of cattle slaughtered.’” 331 U.S. 722, 726 (citation omitted). Further, Kaiser supervised the work: “the president and manager of Kaiser goes through the boning vestibule many times a day and ‘is after the boners frequently about their failure to cut all of the meat off the bones.’” 331 U.S. 722, 726

The Department of Labor alleged that the meat boners were employees, rather than independent contractors, and that the defendants had repeatedly failed to keep proper records and to these employees overtime as required by the FLSA. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the DOL and “concluded that the ‘underlying economic realities * * * lead to the conclusion that the boners were and are employees of Kaiser[.]” 331 U.S. 722, 727 (quoting the Tenth Circuit opinion, 156 F.2d 513, 516, 517.

The question for the Supreme Court in Rutherford was whether the facts showed that the meat boners were “employees” within the meaning of the FLSA. 

The Court’s Decision

The Rutherford Court held that the meat boners were “employees” of the slaughterhouse within the meaning of the FLSA. 

The Court initially observed that cases defining the employer-employee relationship under the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security acts are persuasive in considering the employer-employee relationship under the FLSA:

Decisions that define the coverage of the employer-Employee relationship under the Labor and Social Security acts are persuasive in the consideration of a similar coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. See National Labor Relations Board v. Hearst Publications, 322 U.S. 111, 64 S.Ct. 851, 88 L.Ed. 1170United States v. Silk, 331 U.S. 704, 67 S.Ct. 1463.

331 U.S. 722, 723–24. Applying the reasoning in those cases to the facts in Rutherford, the Court concluded that the meat boners were employees:

We conclude … that these meat boners are not independent contractors. We agree with the Circuit Court of Appeals, quoted above, in its characterization of their work as a part of the integrated unit of production under such circumstances that the workers performing the task were employees of the establishment. Where the work done, in its essence, follows the usual path of an employee, putting on an ‘independent contractor’ label does not take the worker from the protection of the Act.

331 U.S. 722, 729.  

While the trial court had found an independent contractor relationship, based on the terms of the underlying contracts, the Supreme Court disagreed:

We think, however, that the determination of the relationship does not depend on such isolated factors but rather upon the circumstances of the whole activity. Viewed in this way, the workers did a specialty job on the production line. The responsibility under the boning contracts without material changes passed from one boner to another. The premises and equipment of Kaiser were used for the work. The group had no business organization that could or did shift as a unit from one slaughter-house to another. The managing official of the plant kept close touch on the operation. While profits to the boners depended upon the efficiency of their work, it was more like piecework than an enterprise that actually depended for success upon the initiative, judgment or foresight of the typical independent contractor. Upon the whole, we must conclude that these meat boners were employees of the slaughtering plant under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

331 U.S. 722, 730.

Thus, the Court reasoned that an employer-employee relationship was shown by the totality of the circumstances, including the facts that the meat boners played an integral part on the production line of the slaughterhouse, used Kaiser’s equipment and premises, and were closely supervised by the slaughterhouse management, even though their profits depended on their efficiency. 

The Court accordingly held that under this analysis — applying the factors described in Silk — the meat boners were “employees” of the slaughterhouse within the meaning of the FLSA. Therefore, the slaughterhouse was subject to the FLSA’s requirements with respect to the meat boners.

Analysis

In sum, Rutherford held that meat boners working in a slaughterhouse, who worked under a contract, owned their own tools, and were paid collectively based on their production, which pay they divided among themselves, were “employees” of the slaughterhouse within the meaning of the FLSA. The case is important because, inter alia, it applied an “economic realities” test, using the reasoning in Silkfor determining the existence of an employment relationship under the FLSA. 

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The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice, is not intended to be legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Coffield PLC and attorney Tim Coffield welcome your calls, emails, and contact forms. Contacting Coffield PLC or Tim does not create an attorney-client relationship.