An independent contractor is a person or a business that performs services, produces outcomes, or produces products for a business under a written or implied agreement or contract. The independent contractor is not subject to the client's control or direction, except as stated in a contract.
An independent contractor decides how to provide the contracted services and negotiates deadlines and deliverables. The expected outcome of a contract may be as specific as composing a 250-page book or as loose as general assistance and training assistance to convert an organization to a team-based workplace.
What Employers Can Require From an Independent Contractor
While a company contracting for someone's services can set the outcomes and the final products, they cannot tell a contractor how, when, or where to do the work. An independent contractor determines their hours of work, their worksite, and the needed equipment. A contractor makes all of the decisions about product or service production as long as it meets the expectations of the customer.
An independent contractor provides the contracted services independently, not as an employee. The contracting agency does not control whether the contractor subcontracts a portion or all of the work to subcontractors.
Independent contractors pay their own income and FICA taxes by using the appropriate IRS forms and procedures.
Working in the Growing Gig Economy
Another term used to describe the legions of short-term, temporary, independent contractors is gig worker. Another is working as a freelancer. These workers increasingly participate in what has become known as the gig economy.
"Approximately 150 million workers in North America and Western Europe have left the relatively stable confines of organizational life—sometimes by choice, sometimes not—to work as independent contractors," according to the Harvard Business Review. According to Intuit, the percentage of Americans in the gig economy was 34% in 2016 and is expected to grow to 43% by 2020."
Examples of Independent Contractor Jobs
Many different job types are suitable for independent contractors, although the positions must meet specific criteria. Some common examples show the requirements for independent contractor status.
Accountant or Attorney
Individuals working as an accountant or attorney are considered to be an independent contractor when they:
- Provide their own workspace
- Advertise, use social media, and business networking to find clients
- Serve clients to accomplish the clients' desired outcomes
- Bill clients by the hour or accept a retainer for services provided throughout the year
- Have an official, signed contract from each client
- Have a listing in the yellow pages of the phonebook
- Can hire additional people to help with the work
Freelance writers are considered to be independent contractors when they:
- Work for multiple clients during the life of a business
- Normally require a written contract specifying the service to be rendered
- Provide their own workspace and equipment
- Advertise, use social media, and participate in business networking to find clients
- Bill their customers and clients by the hour or accept a retainer for services provided throughout the year
- Subcontract as necessary to complete requested work
- Determine how to best accomplish the requirements of a contracting firm or individual
Various types of technicians who perform repair work, such as electricians, mechanical specialists, small appliance repair persons, or plumbers are considered to be independent contractors when they:
- Own or rent a shop or provide service to clients at their own work or home site
- Advertise their services to the public using the phone book yellow pages, word-of-mouth referrals, and posted availability online to attract customers
- Set the hours for providing services
- Supply all of the tools, equipment, and supplies necessary to make the repairs
- Set the price for services, and collect payment from customers either onsite when services are performed or through a billing process
Contracts Specify Employment Status
Most contracts specify that a contractor is not an employee and, as such, is not eligible for any benefits, perks, or privileges an employer might provide for employees, including health insurance, 401(k) deposits, company events, or pet insurance.
Employers rarely provide office space to independent contractors; usually, they set aside a conference room for training, consultations, and meetings. They may offer a company email address to facilitate communication between their employees and the contractor.
The business that engages an independent contractor is not liable for the acts or omissions of the independent contractor. Another test of the status of an independent contractor is whether they perform work for more than one business. An independent contractor should, in fact, serve multiple clients over their years in business.
IRS Guidance About Contractors
According to the IRS, "The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done."
Factors that provide evidence of the degree of control and independence of the contractor fall into three categories:
- Behavioral: Does the company control or have the right to control what the worker does and how the worker does his or her job?
- Financial: Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the payer? These include things like how the worker is paid, whether expenses are reimbursed, who provides tools, supplies, etc.
- Type of relationship: Are there written contracts or employee benefits, such as a pension plan, health insurance, or vacation days? Will the relationship continue, and is the work performed a key aspect of the business?
If an employer can answer these questions affirmatively, the relationship with the independent contractor is not an employment relationship. Rather, a contractual arrangement exists.
Employers must weigh all factors when deciding whether a contractor is an employee or an independent contractor. There may be elements of each in the work a contractor is performing. Hard and fast rules don't exist when an individual is deemed to be an independent contractor.
Unsure? Talk about status with the IRS
No single factor leads to this determination. Also, factors that are relevant in one situation may not be relevant in another. Employers who conclude that they're unable to determine appropriate classification can contact the IRS for a determination of independent contractor status.
The keys are to look at the entire relationship and consider the degree or extent of the contracting agency's right to direct and control the contractor's work.
Finally, document each of the factors used to determine the classification to prepare for a possible, eventual challenge.
January 2019 Court Case
Debra Friedman and Christopher Hennessy, attorneys at Cozen O’Connor, reported that franchisee drivers who operated shared-ride vans were independent contractors, not employees, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), according to a Jan. 25, 2019 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling in a case involving SuperShuttle DFW Inc. and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1338. "In SuperShuttle," Friedman and Hennessy reported, "the board found that the franchisee drivers were required to purchase or lease a van and enter into a franchise agreement with strong indemnification provisions in favor of the operator. The drivers also had total control over their work schedules, determining how much or how little to work, and had discretion on what trips to accept. According to the board, these factors demonstrated a significant opportunity for economic gain, as well as a significant risk of loss."
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