Over the last year, many companies have experienced workforce fluctuations and have engaged independent contractors to address staffing needs. In May, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it had withdrawn the previous administration’s independent contractor rule that had been scheduled to go into effect earlier this year. That rule generally would have made it easier to classify certain workers as independent contractors for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and thus make them ineligible for minimum wage and other FLSA protections.
While worker classification for DOL purposes isn’t necessarily the same for IRS purposes, now is a good time to revisit the federal tax implications of worker classification.
The question of whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee for federal income and employment tax purposes is a complex one. If a worker is an employee, the company must withhold federal income and payroll taxes, and pay the employer’s share of FICA taxes on the wages, plus FUTA tax. And there may be state tax obligations as well.
These obligations don’t apply if a worker is an independent contractor. In that case, the business simply sends the contractor a Form 1099-NEC for the year showing the amount paid (if the amount is $600 or more).
No uniform definition
The IRS and courts have generally ruled that individuals are employees if the organization they work for has the right to control and direct them in the jobs they’re performing. Otherwise, the individuals are generally independent contractors, though other factors are considered.
Some employers that have misclassified workers as independent contractors may get some relief from employment tax liabilities under Internal Revenue Code Section 530. In general, this protection applies only if an employer filed all federal returns consistent with its treatment of a worker as a contractor and treated all similarly situated workers as contractors.
The employer must also have a “reasonable basis” for not treating the worker as an employee. For example, a “reasonable basis” exists if a significant segment of the employer’s industry traditionally treats similar workers as contractors. (Note: Sec. 530 doesn’t apply to certain types of technical services workers. And some categories of individuals are subject to special rules because of their occupations or identities.)
Asking for a determination
Under certain circumstances, you may want to ask the IRS (on Form SS-8) to rule on whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.
Consult a CPA before filing Form SS-8 because doing so may alert the IRS that your company has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit. It may be better to ensure you are properly treating a worker as an independent contractor so that the relationship complies with the tax rules.
With growth in the “gig” economy and other changes to the ways Americans are working, the question of who is an independent contractor and who is an employee will likely continue to evolve. Stay tuned for the latest developments and contact us for any help you may need with worker classification.