It isn’t easy deciding whether a worker should be treated as an employee or an independent contractor. But the IRS looks at the distinction closely.
For an employee, a business generally must withhold income and FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes from the employee’s pay and remit those taxes to the government. Additionally, the employer must pay FICA taxes for the employee (currently 7.65% of earnings up to $137,700).*
The business must also pay unemployment taxes for the worker. In contrast, for an independent contractor, a business is not required to withhold income or FICA taxes. The contractor is fully liable for his or her own self-employment taxes, and FICA and federal unemployment taxes do not apply.
Employees Versus Independent Contractors
To determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee, the IRS examines factors in three categories:
- Behavioral control — the extent to which the business controls how the work is done, whether through instructions, training, or otherwise.
- Financial control — the extent to which the worker has the ability to control the economic aspects of the job. Factors considered include the worker’s investment and whether he or she may realize a profit or loss.
- Type of relationship — whether the worker’s services are essential to the business, the expected length of the relationship, and whether the business provides the worker with employee-type benefits, such as insurance, vacation pay, or sick pay, etc.
In certain cases where a taxpayer has a reasonable basis for treating an individual as a non-employee (such as a prior IRS ruling), non-employee treatment may be allowed regardless of the three-prong test.
If the proper classification is unclear, the business or the worker may obtain an official IRS determination by filing Form SS-8, Determination of Worker Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding.
Generally, if a business has made payments of $600 or more to an independent contractor, it must file an information return (Form 1099-MISC) with the IRS and send a corresponding statement to the independent contractor.
Consequences of Misclassification
Where the employer misclassifies the employee as an independent contractor, the IRS may impose penalties for failure to deduct and withhold the employee’s income and/or FICA taxes. Penalties may be doubled if the employer also failed to file a Form 1099-MISC, though the lower penalty will apply if the failure was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect.
Employers with misclassified workers may be able to correct their mistakes through the IRS’s Voluntary Classification Settlement Program (VCSP). For employers that meet the program’s eligibility requirements, the VCSP provides the following benefits:
- Workers improperly classified as independent contractors are treated as employees going forward.
- The employer pays 10% of the most recent tax year’s employment tax liability for the identified workers, determined under reduced rates (but no interest or penalties).
- The government agrees not to raise the issue of the workers’ classification for prior years in an employment-tax audit.
Your tax advisor can help you sort through the IRS rules and fulfill your tax reporting obligations.
*Internal Revenue Service. For 2020, the Social Security tax rate is 6.2% and is applied to earnings up to $137,700. The Medicare tax rate is 1.45% on the first $200,000 and 2.35% above $200,000.