Independent Contractor or Employee?

Independent Contractor (Self-Employed) or Employee?

It is critical that you, the business owner, correctly determine whether the individuals providing services for your company are employees or independent contractors. Generally, you must withhold income taxes, withhold and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, and pay unemployment tax on wages paid to an employee. You do not generally have to withhold or pay any taxes on payments to independent contractors.

If you are an independent contractor and hire or subcontract work to others, you will want to review the information in this section to determine whether individuals you hire are independent contractors (subcontractors) or employees.

Before you can determine how to treat payments you make for services, you must first know the business relationship that exists between you and the person performing the services. The person performing the services may be –

People such as lawyers, contractors, subcontractors and auctioneers who follow an independent trade, business, or profession in which they offer their services to the public, are generally not employees. However, whether such people are employees or independent contractors depends on the facts in each case.

The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if you, the person for whom the services are performed, have the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not the means and methods of accomplishing the result.

Under common-law rules, anyone who performs services for you is your employee if you can control what will be done and how it will be done. This is so even when you give the employee freedom of action. What matters is that you have the right to control the details of how the services are performed.
If workers are independent contractors under the common law rules, such workers may nevertheless be treated as employees by statute (statutory employees) for certain employment tax purposes if they fall within any one of the following four categories and meet the three conditions described under Social Security and Medicare taxes, below.

  • A driver who distributes beverages (other than milk) or meat, vegetable, fruit, or bakery products; or who picks up and delivers laundry or dry cleaning, if the driver is your agent or is paid on commission.
  • A full-time life insurance sales agent whose principal business activity is selling life insurance or annuity contracts, or both, primarily for one life insurance company.
  • An individual who works at home on materials or goods that you supply and that must be returned to you or to a person you name, if you also furnish specifications for the work to be done.
  • A full-time traveling or city salesperson who works on your behalf and turns in orders to you from wholesalers, retailers, contractors, or operators of hotels, restaurants, or other similar establishments. The goods sold must be merchandise for resale or supplies for use in the buyer’s business operation. The work performed for you must be the salesperson’s principal business activity.

Refer to the Salesperson section located in Publication 15-A, Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide (PDF) for additional information.

Social Security and Medicare Taxes

Withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes from the wages of statutory employees if all three of the following conditions apply.

  • The service contract states or implies that substantially all the services are to be performed personally by them.
  • They do not have a substantial investment in the equipment and property used to perform the services (other than an investment in transportation facilities).
  • The services are performed on a continuing basis for the same payer.
There are generally two categories of statutory nonemployees: direct sellers and licensed real estate agents. They are treated as self-employed for all Federal tax purposes, including income and employment taxes, if:

  • Substantially all payments for their services as direct sellers or real estate agents are directly related to sales or other output, rather than to the number of hours worked, and
  • Their services are performed under a written contract providing that they will not be treated as employees for Federal tax purposes.

Refer to information on Direct Sellers located in Publication 15-A, Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide (PDF) for additional information.

In determining whether the person providing service is an employee or an independent contractor, all information that provides evidence of the degree of control and independence must be considered.

Common Law Rules

Facts that provide evidence of the degree of control and independence fall into three categories:

1. Behavioral: Does the company control or have the right to control what the worker does and how the worker does his or her job?

Behavioral control refers to facts that show whether there is a right to direct or control how the worker does the work. A worker is an employee when the business has the right to direct and control the worker. The business does not have to actually direct or control the way the work is done – as long as the employer has the right to direct and control the work.

The behavioral control factors fall into the categories of:

  • Type of instructions given
  • Degree of instruction
  • Evaluation systems
  • Training

Types of Instructions Given

An employee is generally subject to the business’s instructions about when, where, and how to work. All of the following are examples of types of instructions about how to do work.

  • When and where to do the work.
  • What tools or equipment to use.
  • What workers to hire or to assist with the work.
  • Where to purchase supplies and services.
  • What work must be performed by a specified individual.
  • What order or sequence to follow when performing the work.

Degree of Instruction

Degree of Instruction means that the more detailed the instructions, the more control the business exercises over the worker. More detailed instructions indicate that the worker is an employee.  Less detailed instructions reflects less control, indicating that the worker is more likely an independent contractor.

Note: The amount of instruction needed varies among different jobs. Even if no instructions are given, sufficient behavioral control may exist if the employer has the right to control how the work results are achieved. A business may lack the knowledge to instruct some highly specialized professionals; in other cases, the task may require little or no instruction. The key consideration is whether the business has retained the right to control the details of a worker’s performance or instead has given up that right.

Evaluation System

If an evaluation system measures the details of how the work is performed, then these factors would point to an employee.

If the evaluation system measures just the end result, then this can point to either an independent contractor or an employee.

Training

If the business provides the worker with training on how to do the job, this indicates that the business wants the job done in a particular way.  This is strong evidence that the worker is an employee. Periodic or on-going training about procedures and methods is even stronger evidence of an employer-employee relationship. However, independent contractors ordinarily use their own methods.

2.  Financial: Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the payer? (these include things like how worker is paid, whether expenses are reimbursed, who provides tools/supplies, etc.)

Financial control refers to facts that show whether or not the business has the right to control the economic aspects of the worker’s job.

The financial control factors fall into the categories of:

  • Significant investment
  • Unreimbursed expenses
  • Opportunity for profit or loss
  • Services available to the market
  • Method of payment

Significant investment

An independent contractor often has a significant investment in the equipment he or she uses in working for someone else.  However, in many occupations, such as construction, workers spend thousands of dollars on the tools and equipment they use and are still considered to be employees. There are no precise dollar limits that must be met in order to have a significant investment.  Furthermore, a significant investment is not necessary for independent contractor status as some types of work simply do not require large expenditures.

Unreimbursed expenses

Independent contractors are more likely to have unreimbursed expenses than are employees. Fixed ongoing costs that are incurred regardless of whether work is currently being performed are especially important. However, employees may also incur unreimbursed expenses in connection with the services that they perform for their business.

Opportunity for profit or loss

The opportunity to make a profit or loss is another important factor.  If a worker has a significant investment in the tools and equipment used and if the worker has unreimbursed expenses, the worker has a greater opportunity to lose money (i.e., their expenses will exceed their income from the work).  Having the possibility of incurring a loss indicates that the worker is an independent contractor.

Services available to the market

An independent contractor is generally free to seek out business opportunities. Independent contractors often advertise, maintain a visible business location, and are available to work in the relevant market.

Method of payment

An employee is generally guaranteed a regular wage amount for an hourly, weekly, or other period of time. This usually indicates that a worker is an employee, even when the wage or salary is supplemented by a commission. An independent contractor is usually paid by a flat fee for the job. However, it is common in some professions, such as law, to pay independent contractors hourly.

3.  Type of Relationship: Are there written contracts or employee type benefits (i.e. pension plan, insurance, vacation pay, etc.)? Will the relationship continue and is the work performed a key aspect of the business?

Type of relationship refers to facts that show how the worker and business perceive their relationship to each other.

The factors, for the type of relationship between two parties, generally fall into the categories of:

  • Written contracts
  • Employee benefits
  • Permanency of the relationship
  • Services provided as key activity of the business

Written Contracts

Although a contract may state that the worker is an employee or an independent contractor, this is not sufficient to determine the worker’s status.  The IRS is not required to follow a contract stating that the worker is an independent contractor, responsible for paying his or her own self employment tax.  How the parties work together determines whether the worker is an employee or an independent contractor.

Employee Benefits

Employee benefits include things like insurance, pension plans, paid vacation, sick days, and disability insurance.  Businesses generally do not grant these benefits to independent contractors.  However, the lack of these types of benefits does not necessarily mean the worker is an independent contractor.

Permanency of the Relationship

If you hire a worker with the expectation that the relationship will continue indefinitely, rather than for a specific project or period, this is generally considered evidence that the intent was to create an employer-employee relationship.

Services Provided as Key Activity of the Business

If a worker provides services that are a key aspect of the business, it is more likely that the business will have the right to direct and control his or her activities.  For example, if a law firm hires an attorney, it is likely that it will present the attorney’s work as its own and would have the right to control or direct that work.  This would indicate an employer-employee relationship.

Businesses must weigh all these factors when determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor. Some factors may indicate that the worker is an employee, while other factors indicate that the worker is an independent contractor. There is no “magic” or set number of factors that “makes” the worker an employee or an independent contractor, and no one factor stands alone in making this determination. Also, factors which are relevant in one situation may not be relevant in another.

The keys are to look at the entire relationship, consider the degree or extent of the right to direct and control, and finally, to document each of the factors used in coming up with the determination.

You can learn more about the critical determination of a worker’s status as an Independent Contractor or Employee at IRS.gov by selecting the Small Business link.

Additional resources include IRS Publication 15-A, Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide, Publication 1779, Independent Contractor or Employee, and Publication 1976, Do You Qualify for Relief under Section 530? These publications and Form SS-8 are available on the IRS Web site or by calling the IRS at 800-829-3676 (800-TAX-FORM).