It’s an age-old conundrum: determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. While it might seem like a simple question, it’s not. And the IRS is hot on the heels of any contractor who doesn’t understand the difference. 

For example, in the traditional employer-employee relationship, the employer is responsible for a number of tasks, such as withholding federal and state income taxes, paying unemployment taxes (FUTA), withholding the employee’s share of FICA and Medicare taxes, remitting the amounts withheld, and paying both the employee and employer portions of FICA and Medicare taxes.

Independent contractors are responsible for their own taxes. In addition to making estimated tax payments for their federal and state income tax liabilities, they’re subject to self-employment tax, which covers both the employer and employee shares of FICA. (They are, however, entitled to a deduction for the “employer’s” portion.)

Why the IRS prefers employee status

Because it’s easier and cheaper to collect taxes from a single employer than from multiple independent contractors, the IRS has a strong preference for employee status. If the IRS reclassifies independent contractors as employees, it can go after your company for back taxes that should have been paid, payroll and income taxes that should have been withheld, and penalties and interest.

Additional penalties may apply if the IRS finds that you intentionally disregarded your tax obligations. And, of course, your state may impose penalties of its own. Finally, “responsible persons” — including certain officers, partners and managers — could be personally liable for uncollected taxes.

Even if workers you treat as independent contractors have paid their taxes, you’re not necessarily safe. If the IRS finds they should have been classified as employees, it still may hit you with penalties equal to 20% of your tax liability.

Avoiding the consequences

The simplest way to avoid these consequences is to treat workers as employees unless they clearly qualify as independent contractors. The IRS typically examines and weighs numerous factors to determine whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor. These considerations indicate to the agency the degree of control exercised by the employer and the degree of independence of the worker.

For instance, the IRS looks at behavioral control such as instruction (employees usually receive detailed instructions about when, where and how to work) and training (employees often receive training on how to perform their job duties).

Other indicators can help determine the relationship

The type of relationship is also important. Does the individual receive benefits? Is he or she working for the business indefinitely? Are his or her services critical to the company’s ongoing operations? Affirmative answers to any or all of these questions would bolster an IRS case that the person in question is an employee, not an independent contractor.

Another important issue is financial control. The IRS will look for unreimbursed business expenses, which are usually incurred by independent contractors, not employees. Independent contractors often make significant investments in facilities and equipment as well. Employees don’t.

In addition, employees are usually paid by the hour, week or some other period. But independent contractors generally receive a flat fee or submit an invoice for services. So method of payment is a key consideration. Independent contractors will also often continue marketing themselves while working on a given project and risk suffering a profit loss on every job.

Ultimately, no one factor controls the outcome. You need to examine and weigh all the factors to determine whether a particular worker is an employee or independent contractor.

Stay on the right side of the IRS

If you are uncertain about the status of your workers, contact your tax advisor. He or she can help you determine which workers are truly employees and which are independent contractors. In the event that contractors are misclassified, your tax professional can advise you whether the IRS Voluntary Classification Settlement Program is a good option for you.

For additional information on determining status, see the IRS guidelines here.