A judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington recently ruled that a Seattle apprenticeship program was the “joint-employer” of a plumbing apprentice for purposes of coverage under the FMLA. Frees v. UA Local 32 Plumbers & Steamfitters, W.D. Wash., No. C07-1469 (11/21/08).

Frees, a plumbing apprentice, was part of an apprenticeship program operated by the Seattle Area Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Journeyman and Apprentice Training Committee (“JATC”). The program required Frees to complete 10,000 hours of “reasonably continuous employment” and required 216 hours of class time per year. Frees entered the program in 2003 and had worked with 5 different plumbing contractors until his discharge in 2006.

In May 2006, Frees received a call from his wife’s physician ordering emergency testing for his wife to determine whether she was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Frees informed his instructor, and left class early that day. He also missed three subsequent days of work while attending to his wife. Frees was dismissed from the program that same month for poor attendance.

Frees filed suit against JATC and the UA Local 32 Plumbers & Steamfitters, alleging violations of the FMLA. The Union was dismissed on summary judgment on grounds that it was not Frees’ employer. JATC also moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it was not Frees’ “employer” within the meaning of the FMLA.

Under DOL regulations, two or more separate corporations or entities may be treated as a single employer for purposes of counting employees if they have a joint employment relationship. JATC contended that the joint-employer doctrine did not apply, because JATC is an educational or academic institution. JATC argued that the FMLA was designed to protect those in the workplace, as opposed to students. JATC argued that the FMLA should not be interpreted to inhibit an educational institution from taking disciplinary action, including dismissal, against students for missing classes, failing to complete assignments or taking examinations due to family or medical needs.

The court, in finding against JATC, declined to shield academic institutions, solely based upon their “educational” designation. The court found that although JATC identifies itself as an educational institution, the standards for apprenticeship fit more appropriately under an “employer” definition. Under the standards of the program, a commercial plumbing apprentice is required to average 38.5 hours per week working, while only attending class approximately 4.2 hours per week. Furthermore, the JATC standards give the JATC coordinator sole authority to make the apprentices’ assignments, dictate the quantity of assignments, outline wages, and control the amount of time the apprentices remain in a certain rotation. Based upon the factors as a whole, JATC was found to have sufficient control over the apprentices to be considered an “employer” for purposes of the FMLA. The court denied summary judgment, finding a joint-employment relationship existed.