While companies who have effectively used independent contractors to provide quick and easy access to specialized talent or consulting expertise are often considered amongst our most nimble, some of these same companies have recently found themselves facing hefty bills for back taxes, or complicated law suits stemming from workplace accidents or injuries involving a member of their 1099 workforce. Here’s the deal, if the IRS determines that a worker originally considered “independent” was actually an employee, companies can find themselves liable for unpaid Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment taxes. The IRS couldn’t be clearer, they see “employee misclassification” as a source of hidden revenue, and has budgeted several billion dollars to “identify and prosecute” employee misclassification issues. But unpaid taxes aren’t the only risk associated with the 1099 workforce. Additional issues have developed around workplace accidents where, because a worker was classified as an independent contractor and not covered under the employer’s Workers Compensation policies, the employer was not protected from the limited liability provisions of Workers Compensation and found themselves sued for double and triple damages. A nuance in Washington State law is that employers who use Independent Contractors are required to pay the Workers Compensation insurance and the state’s SUTA tax on hours and dollars paid to their 1099 workers. Not all states have this provision, nor do all employers in the State of Washington abide by this little known component of our state law. Bottom line, employers are at risk of incurring serious damage costs from a workplace injury by an “independent contractor.” One of the confusions we have seen employers make regarding their use of “independent contractors” stems from the mistaken notion that if the “contractor” is legal, meaning they have a business license or legitimate UBI (tax ID) number, then they automatically pass the “test”, and can be considered “independent”. The IRS, on the other hand, makes it clear that the “legality” of the claim of independent contractor status lies with the nature of the work to be performed and the degree of control the employer has over how and when it is performed. The IRS offers several tests an employer can use to determine a worker's status:
- The degree of control over the worker’s behavior, which addresses the extent to which an employer controls the work performed. The more control an employer has over how a worker performs the work—specifying where, when, and how the work is done—the less likely the worker will be considered “independent.” Employers who place their independent contractors on work teams with required hours of work, mandatory attendance at meetings, required collaborations around work products, etc., often put an independent contractor at risk of being re-classified as an employee, subject to all the provisions and benefits available to an employee.
- The degree of control over a worker's financial opportunity, which relates to how a worker gets paid for the work performed or reimbursed for the costs they incur in performing the work. The more control an employer has over a workers total source of income, the less likely that worker will be considered “independent.” An agreement to pay a regular wage/salary for example, can be just as suspect as is an agreement to pay a worker hourly, but with an estimated work schedule of 40 hours each week. Work agreements that tie a worker to an employer who then becomes their sole source of income, suggests a less than “independent” relationship with that employer. A related financial consideration is how much personal investment the worker has in the tools they use. Are they using their own tools/equipment or the company’s tools/equipment?
- The type of relationship that is formed between worker and company, oftentimes construed as the exclusivity of the relationship, or the duration of the work commitment. Case law around the permanency of a relationship suggests that work assignments intended to last six months or longer better support the notion that a worker is an employee, compared to shorter term work arrangements. A related factor is whether or not the worker is free to pursue other business opportunities during the term of their agreement to provide their personal services to a company. If an employer is asking or assuming someone will work 40 hours/week on their behalf, it is hard to make the argument that they are free to pursue business opportunities elsewhere.