Will “Misclassification Initiatives” Reduce Employers’ Use of Independent Contractors?

Employers’ use of independent contractors instead of traditional employees has been on a steady incline over the past 20 years. Some employers feel that they can save money by using independent contractors instead of full-time employees. The contractors themselves may value the autonomy and economic perks that the status provides. Also, the specific skills and knowledge that independent contractors can bring to a short-term project can be critical and, therefore, worth a premium but not sustainable in the long term. But the use of independent contractors is not as perfect as these mutually beneficial points may seem.

A report prepared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the Fall of 2009 concluded that employee misclassification is a “significant problem” with “adverse consequences” because it reduces tax revenues flowing to the government. In fact, the misclassification of employees as contractors is estimated to cost the Treasury Department over $7 billion in lost payroll tax revenue over the next ten years.

So the theory goes, since independent contractors are, by definition, self-employed, they are not considered “employees” and thus not covered by various tax withholding laws. Independent contractors also are not subject to most employment laws, so in addition to avoiding taxes, some employers may reclassify employees as independent contractors in order to avoid payment of overtime and benefits, and workers’ compensation liability.

And, thus, the crackdown on the misclassification of employees as independent contractors began. he U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has made the proper classification of employees and independent contractors one of its “top priorities.” The agency’s 2011 budget includes an additional $25 million for what it calls the “Misclassification Initiative” designed to target misclassification of independent contractors. Approximately 100 additional DOL enforcement personnel will be added to investigate employers.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is in the middle of a similar misclassification crackdown. Beginning in February 2010, the IRS will commence intensive audits of randomly selected employers. One of the focal points of the audits is whether the employers are improperly misclassifying workers as independent contractors to save on taxes and employee benefits.

There’s also new federal legislation on the horizon. Congress is expected to take up legislation that will penalize employers for employee misclassification. One proposed piece of legislation, known as the Independent Contractor Proper Classification Act, was sponsored by President Obama when he was a member of the U.S. Senate.

States are getting into the enforcement act as well. New York and Massachusetts have created task forces to locate employees who are misclassified. Other states such as Maryland and Colorado have enacted new laws that impose harsh penalties on employers who misclassify employees as independent contractors.

Here in Delaware, the General Assembly passed its own law last year imposing stiff penalties on construction industry employers who improperly classify employees as independent contractors to save on business costs and avoid paying appropriate taxes. In addition to penalties of $1,000-$5,000 per misclassified employee, employers who fail to produce requested records can be issued a stop-work order by the Delaware Department of Labor and fined up to $500 per day for each day during which the requested records are not produced.

Compliance, though, presents its own difficulties. The tests used to determine whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee are fact intensive and differ among government agencies. In addition, each state may have its own unique test to determine a worker’s proper status.

Still, the penalties for non-compliance make this a treacherous area for the unwary employer. In addition to federal and state governments seeking unpaid payroll taxes and associated penalties, employment lawsuits in this area are becoming increasingly common. Claims from misclassified workers range from those seeking unpaid wages and overtime, to multi-million dollar class actions lawsuits. Misclassified employees have also successfully recovered retirement benefits, medical coverage for injuries they sustained on the company’s property, and rights to employee stock options and bonuses.

Given the increased attention to this area, the time to act is now. An internal review and audit of worker classifications should be a crucial component for any company that currently employs independent contractors.

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