What are the penalties for misclassifying an independent contractor?

by Fred Abramson on April 16, 2010 · 1 comment

I have a technology company as a client who recently retained my office to advise them on a relatively common employment law. The company signed a contract with financial institution to perform help desk related work.  They hired ten people to perform the work and had each of them sign an independent contractor agreement.  All of the workers performed the work on the job site only. The all worked solely for the technology company for 40 hours a week. The company just received an evil notice from the IRS. The IRS believes that the workers are misclassified as independent contractors and should be employees.

The technology company now wonders if there are penalties for misclassifying the workers as an independent contractor.  The IRS looks in part at the intent of the employer.  If the IRS reclassifies a worker from independent contractor to employee, the employer may be liable for a penalty based on the amount of the tax that was not withheld because of the original misclassification. If the IRS finds that the misclassification was an honest mistake on the part of the employer, and the employer filed proper returns, the penalty against the employer is:

• 1.5% of the wages paid to the employee; and

• 20% of the amount that should have been withheld from the employee’s wages for FICA, but was not due to the misclassification.

If the IRS finds that the employer failed to file the proper returns, then, except where the failure is due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect, the penalties double. Then, the penalties are:

• 3% of the wages paid to the employees; and

• 40% of the amount that should have been withheld from the employee’s wages for FICA, but was not.

If the misclassification on the part of the employer is intentional and therefore the employer intentionally neglected to withhold the necessary employment taxes, the limits discussed above do not apply in assessing the employer’s liability. The penalties for intentional misclassification are more severe. Moreover, the limits are not applicable to the employee’s share of the FICA taxes if the worker is a “statutory employee,” nor where the employer withholds federal income tax from the worker’s wages, but does not withhold FICA.

Lastly, if the required to pay an “employee reclassification” tax liability, the employer may not recover the tax assessed from the employee. In addtion, the employer may not deduct the amount of tax assessed from the employee’s wages. The Internal Revenue Code provides further that the employee’s liability for his or her share of the tax is not affected by the assessment or payment of the penalty tax by the employer.

If you have a legal question regarding independent contractors in New York, contact the Law Office of Frederic R. Abramson at 212-233-0666

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