The tricky distinction between employees and independent contractors

The tricky distinction between employees and independent contractors

In light of the IRS’s new Voluntary Worker Classification Settlement Program (VCSP), which it announced this fall, the distinction between independent contractors and employees has become a “hot issue” for many businesses. The IRS has devoted considerable effort to rectifying worker misclassification in the past, and continues the trend with this new program. It is available to employers that have misclassified employees as independent contractors and wish to voluntarily rectify the situation before the IRS or Department of Labor initiates an examination.

The distinction between independent contractors and employees is significant for employers, especially when they file their federal tax returns. While employers owe only the payment to independent contractors, employers owe employees a series of federal payroll taxes, including Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment, and federal tax withholding. Thus, it is often tempting for employers to avoid these taxes by classifying their workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

If, however, the IRS discovers this misclassification, the consequences might include not only the requirement that the employer pay all owed payroll taxes, but also hefty penalties. It is important that employers be aware of the risk they take by classifying a worker who should or could be an employee as an independent contractor.

“All the facts and circumstances”

The IRS considers all the facts and circumstances of the parties in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. These are numerous and sometimes confusing, but in short summary, the IRS traditionally considers 20 factors, which can be categorized according to three aspects: (1) behavioral control; (2) financial control; (3) and the relationship of the parties.

Examples of behavioral and financial factors that tend to indicate a worker is an employee include:

The worker is required to comply with instructions about when, where, and how to work;
The worker is trained by an experienced employee, indicating the employer wants services performed in a particular manner;
The worker’s hours are set by the employer;
The worker must submit regular oral or written reports to the employer;
The worker is paid by the hour, week, or month;
The worker receives payment or reimbursement from the employer for his or her business and traveling expenses; and
The worker has the right to end the employment relationship at any time without incurring liability.

In other words, any existing facts or circumstances that point to an employer’s having more behavioral and/or financial control over the worker tip the balance towards classifying that worker as an employee rather than a contractor. The IRS’s factors do not always apply, however; and if one or several factors indicate independent contractor status, but more indicate the worker is an employee, the IRS may still determine the worker is an employee.

Finally, in examining the relationship of the parties, benefits, permanency of the employment term, and issuance of a Form W-2 rather than a Form 1099 are some indicators that the relationship is that of an employer–employee.


Worker classification is fact-sensitive, and the IRS may see a worker you may label an independent contractor in a very different light. One key point to remember is that the IRS generally frowns on independent contractors and actively looks for factors that indicate employee status.

Please do not hesitate to call our offices if you would like a reassessment of how you are currently classifying workers in your business, as well as an evaluation of whether IRS’s new Voluntary Classification Program may be worth investigating.

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