Worker Classifications: Independent Contractors and Employees

by Bryan Lane Berson, Esq.

Organizations need personnel to perform services or produce goods.  Depending on the nature of the relationship and the degree of control the company exercises over the worker, a worker can be classified as an employee or independent contractor.  Most employment relationships are “at will,” which means that the employer can discharge an employee at any time for many reasons.  Similarly, the employee may quit at any time.  Independent contractor relationships are governed by contracts, which may be terminated only according to their terms.

In the past few decades, frequently, organizations have used contractors.  They tend to earn a substantial premium over employees’ wages for similar work.  Many organizations use contractors because they do not have to pay for their fringe benefits or remit employment taxes to the authorities with respect to those workers.  Among other things, contractors bear the cost of their own insurance and pay their own taxes (e.g., quarterly estimated taxes).  Whether a worker is an employee or a contractor is a matter of law, not contract.  Thus, even if a company and worker agree that the worker is a contractor, and they explicitly state that in a written contract, government agencies are not bound to accept the classification if circumstances indicate otherwise.

At the heart of the classification is whether the company controls the worker and how the person’s work is performed.  It is not a simple conclusion because different government agencies (e.g., IRS, U.S. Department of Labor, state workers’ compensation agencies, and state unemployment agencies) examine working relationships under different, albeit similar, sets of factors.  While no one factor is conclusive, if a company has control over a worker, the relationship is more likely to be deemed employment.  Next month, we will explore many of the factors in depth.  Some important factors include (1) where the person works; (2) who pays for supplies; (3) whether the relationship is exclusive; (4) the form of compensation; (5) the duration of work; (6) the scope of instructions and training; and (7) supervision.  Due to the vague standards, it is possible to misclassify unintentionally a working relationship.

See: Independent Contractors: Structuring Relationships with Workers

Tax authorities tend to receive less tax revenue with respect to contractors’ wages as compared to receipts on employees’ wages.  During a recession, governments want to collect as much tax revenue as quickly as possible.  Rather than raising taxes, which is politically unpopular, politicians prefer to increase enforcement of existing laws.  A small increase in the auditing budgets of tax and labor authorities can substantially increase tax receipts and provide a large return relative to the modest expenditure.  The current presidential administration has focused on auditing contractor relationships.  Now, departments within the IRS share information with one another about investigations, and the IRS entered information-sharing agreements with dozens of state agencies.  Thus, due to increased governmental coordination, one investigation and reclassification may lead to others.

Investigations are triggered in a variety of ways.  A contractor may file an unemployment or worker’s compensation claim.  A disgruntled contractor or employee may call the authorities.  An agency may seek information on its own volition.  An agency may begin an investigation by sending a request for documentation.  Also, it may perform a “sweep,” and agents may show up unannounced.

Regardless of the reason or process, the company bears the burden of justifying contractor classifications.  When an agency requests information and performs an investigation, company representatives should act respectfully.  Immediately, they should contact legal counsel to interact with the agency.  Hostility or providing too much information can harm one’s case.  If an agency concludes that the worker is actually an employee, the company may have to pay back wages, damages, back taxes, unemployment penalties, and workers’ compensation fines.  When applied to a large work force, the costs can be substantial.

Regardless of the type of relationship parties decide to enter, they should memorialize the agreement in a written contract.  By clearly outlining their respective rights and responsibilities, they can avoid confusion and disagreements.  Contractor relationships should be structured to withstand scrutiny.  Early on, companies should think about how to prove classifications.  While a written contract cannot guarantee that a government agency will respect the classification, it provides a reasonable basis for the company’s position and appeal if necessary.

About the Author:  Bryan L. Berson, Esq. is an attorney and mediator at The Berson Firm, P.C., a commercial and civil law firm that handles estate administration and planning, real estate, commercial transactions, mediation, and commercial litigation.  His e-mail is bberson@bersonfirm.com.  His phone number is (631) 517-1055.  Connect with The Berson Firm on Facebook and Bryan L. Berson on LinkedIn.  The firm’s website is www.bersonfirm.com.

Disclaimer:  Constructive Knowledge is published by The Berson Firm, P.C. (the “Firm”).  The information contained in this column is provided for informational purposes only.  It is not tax or legal advice on any subject matter.  No readers, clients or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content without seeking appropriate legal or other professional advice with respect to one’s particular circumstances.  This column reflects a general discussion of the law in New York.  It may not accurately reflect the law of other states.  The content is general information and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts, or settlements.  The Firm expressly disclaims all liability with respect to acts taken or not taken based on any or all content of this column.  This column is Attorney Advertising.  IRS Circular 230 Legend:  Nothing in this column is intended to be used and cannot be used to avoid U.S. federal, state, or local taxes.  It was not written to promote, market, or recommend any tax planning strategy or action.  Copyright:  All rights reserved.  No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior written consent.  Readers may share this column through, but not limited to, social networks.

3 comments

  1. […] See: Worker Classifications: Independent Contractors and Employees […]

  2. […] Worker Classifications: Independent Contractors and Employees See: Independent Contractors: Structuring Relationships with […]

  3. […] a company, the distinction between employees and contractors is not always clear. Previous columns (June and July 2012) analyzed the factors that various governmental agencies consider when making the […]

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