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How to Determine 1099 or W-2 Status According to the IRS
Update, 02/15/2023: The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division published a notice of proposed rulemaking on the subject of worker misclassification and how to correctly classify workers as employees or independent contractors; read more about this on our blog here. This rule would be in addition to the approach the IRS takes to worker classification described below.
In business, the term “1099” usually refers to someone in an independent contractor position. The term comes from the IRS; at the end of the tax year, a 1099 worker receives a 1099 form from their employer rather than a W-2 that employees receive.
Employers may prefer to hire independent contractors rather than employees whenever possible for the main reason that they often cost less to employ. That’s because for employees, employers have to pay Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, unemployment taxes, and withheld income taxes to the IRS, and carry workers’ compensation insurance to cover them. Also, employers often provide benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans to employees, but not to independent contractors.
How does an employer know how the worker they’re hiring should be classified? While in many cases it’s clear, in others it’s complicated. Here’s how to determine whether a worker in South Carolina is an employee who should receive a W-2 or an independent contractor who should receive a 1099.
Federal Versus State Definitions Of 1099 Independent Contractors
To illustrate the difference between a 1099 and W-2 workers, imagine two plumbing companies hire two plumbers, Jack and Jane. By the terms of employment, Jack must come to the office every day from 9-1, use the company’s truck and tools, and is told which jobs to do and when. By contract, Jill may show up at the office if and when she wants, drives her own truck and uses her own tools, and is told about jobs but not told when she must complete them or how. In this scenario, Jack would be classified as an employee, and Jill an independent contractor.
How workers are classified is of interest to both the federal and state government. The federal government – more specifically, the IRS – cares because it wants to know who will pay the withheld income taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, and unemployment taxes for each worker. The state government cares because it runs the state’s workers’ compensation program and needs to know who is responsible for paying for a worker’s injury sustained on the job – the employer (for an injured employee) or the worker themselves (for an injured independent contractor)?
Because the federal and state government have different reasons for wanting to know a worker’s status, they use different standards to determine whether someone is an employee (W-2) or independent contractor (1099).
The IRS’s Definition of 1099 Independent Contractors
The IRS proposes three common law rules for employers to consider when classifying a worker:
- Behavioral: Does the employer control, or have the right to determine, how the worker does their job?
- Financial: Does the employer control the business aspects of the worker’s job? How is the work paid? Are expenses reimbursed? Does the worker provide their own tools, or do they use the employer’s?
- Type of Relationship: Are there written contracts or benefits? What is the nature of the relationship? Was the expectation upon hiring that the relationship would continue indefinitely?
If you’re still uncertain as to how to classify an employee, the IRS can make that determination for you. Fill out Form SS-8 (PDF) and the IRS will review it and make a determination in six months or more.
The Changing Definition of 1099 Independent Contractors in South Carolina
In South Carolina, the approach to worker classification relies on a four-factor model, which you can read more about on our blog here.
A 2015 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Lewis v. L. B. Dynasty (read it here), changed the standard for classifying a worker as an independent contractor, making it stricter in favor of the employee. As a result of this case, workers that previously had been classified as independent contractors may need to be reclassified as employees.
The background: An exotic dancer named LeAndra Lewis was injured when she was accidentally shot while working at the Boom Boom Room Studio 54 in Columbia, SC. She filed a claim for workers’ compensation for coverage of the medical costs of her injuries (which included the loss of a kidney) as well as temporary total disability.
Her claim was denied at first, as she was determined to be an independent contractor by both the single commissioner and the Workers’ Compensation Commission appellate panel. (Independent contractors do not have a right to workers’ comp benefits in South Carolina and employers do not need to carry workers’ comp insurance for them.) The Court of Appeals also affirmed this decision. The South Carolina Supreme Court, however, did not.
Taking the viewpoint that the law should be interpreted to be advantageous to the worker, the Court stated, “The question before the Court is a simple, fact-based consideration—did the Club exercise sufficient control over Lewis to create an employee relationship?” The Court looked at a variety of factors, including the right to, or exercise of, control; furnishing of equipment; method of payment; and right to fire to determine whether the worker should be an employee or independent contractor. Ultimately, the relationship was found to be of an employee nature. That meant Lewis was entitled to workers’ compensation for her injuries.
What The Supreme Court’s Decision Means For South Carolina Employers
South Carolina employers must be sure that their independent contractors meet the high standards the SC Supreme Court has set. The Court has said “we construe workers’ compensation law liberally in favor of coverage to further the beneficent purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act.” In other words, it will tend to side with the worker and act in their favor rather than in the employer’s.
What happens if you’ve been treating a worker as a 1099 independent contractor when you should have been treating them as a W-2 employee? You may find an unwanted notice from the IRS stating that you owe back taxes for employees. Or your worker may become injured while on the job and sue you, leading to a long and expensive lawsuit. In short, it could cause a big headache and cost a lot of money. For many companies, either one of these scenarios could be devastating. It’s a good idea to review the nature of your independent contractors’ work and make sure they are truly independent contractors according to federal and state law.
Contact Mount Pleasant Corporate Attorney Gem McDowell for Advice
For advice on classifying employees, hiring and firing, contracts, and other aspects of starting or running a business, contact attorney Gem McDowell. He and his team at the Gem McDowell Law Group in Mount Pleasant, SC help businesses make smart and informed decisions in day-to-day and exceptional circumstances. Get in touch by calling (843) 284-1021 or by filling out this contact form online. Schedule your free initial consultation today.