The COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional stressors on labor markets, particularly for healthcare workers and essential employees. While recognizing that employers, recruiters and staffing agencies may need—and be allowed to—cooperate in unprecedented ways to address current needs, on April 13, 2020, the US Department of Justice and US Federal Trade Commission issued a joint statement reinforcing their vigilance against collusion or anticompetitive conduct in labor markets and their willingness to pursue criminal and civil actions against violators.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division issued a business review letter that underscores the flexibility of the US antitrust regulators towards competitor collaborations aimed at increasing the supply and distribution of medical equipment needed to fight the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This letter can provide guidance to other companies considering collaborations to assist in the response to COVID-19.
With COVID-19-related closures rolling in daily, you may have questions about the operating status of the federal government’s antitrust enforcement agencies. Currently, the HSR review process does not seem to be significantly impacted, although the agencies will not grant a request for early termination during this period (as noted in our recent update, the FTC will again process early termination requests as of March 30, though on a more limited basis and later in the process than historically provided). Unlike the government shutdowns in 2013 and 2018, all FTC and DOJ staff are working full time. In addition, the agencies have implemented a mandatory e-filing system for all HSRs.
Given that the agencies will continue to work full-time and that an e-filing system is in place, we think it is unlikely that there will be significant impact on timing for the vast majority of transactions, particularly where there is no competitive overlap between the transacting companies.
The potential for government investigation increases during periods of rapid and extreme movement in price. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) recently reiterated its focus on prosecuting violations of antitrust laws, especially in areas affected by the coronavirus outbreak. On March 9, 2020, the DOJ announced that individuals or companies engaging in price fixing, bid-rigging, customer or region allocation, or other antitrust violations could face criminal prosecution. Government scrutiny is likely to be even higher on companies that produce items for sale to federal, state or local governments, as the DOJ’s Procurement Collusion Strike Force acts as a dedicated watchdog over government contractors to prevent bid-rigging in government contracts. More information on the Strike Force is available here.