Program Another Sign of Growing Audit & Enforcement Risks. Businesses Urged To Strengthen Their Worker Classification Defenses
The September 22, 2011 launch by the Internal Revenue Service of a new Voluntary Worker Classification Settlement Program (“Settlement Program”) is the latest warning to businesses using independent contractors, leased employees or other non-employee workers of the need to review critically within the scope of attorney-client privilege the defensibility of their existing classification and treatment of those workers as non-employees in light of the in light of stepped up scrutiny and enforcement emphasis by the IRS and other federal and state regulators as well as workers and others in private litigation.
Coupled with growing scrutiny and challenges to businesses efforts to avoid employment-related liability and obligations through the use or workers that the business characterizes as non-employees by other federal and state agencies and plaintiff attorneys, the Settlement Agreement announcement is another sign that businesses using workers who are not employees need to be prepared to defend their worker classification and the legality of their dealings with these workers under applicable federal and state laws.
To guard against these and other growing risks of worker classification, employers receiving services from workers who are not considered employees for purposes of income or payroll should review within the scope of attorney-client privilege the defensibility of their existing worker classification, employee benefit, fringe benefit, employment, wage and hour, and other workforce policies and consult with qualified legal counsel about the advisability to adjust these practices to mitigate exposures to potential IRS, Labor Department or other penalties associated with worker misclassification.
Settlement Program Establishment Should Prompt Review Defensibility of Worker Classifications
The new Settlement Program established under Announcement 2011-64 reflects the widespread emphasis by the IRS and other federal and state regulators on uncovering and redressing misclassification of workers as non-employees by businesses for purposes of tax and other laws. IRS scrutiny of worker classification practices by businesses has risen significantly over the past decade.
The IRS’ launch of the Settlement Program follows its announcement in September, 2010 of plans to conduct approximately 6,000 payroll tax audits over a three year period focusing on the appropriateness of employer worker classification and other payroll tax practices. The announcement of the new Settlement Program signals that the IRS perceives that worker misclassification by business in violation of Federal tax laws is sufficiently widespread and pervasive to merit both efforts to incentive voluntary correction through participation in the Settlement Program, as well as stiff enforcement against businesses that fail to self-correct worker classification compliance concerns.
Designed to increase tax compliance and provide what the IRS says will be “greater certainty for employers, workers and the government,” the IRS says the Settlement Program offers eligible employers concerned about potential worker misclassification exposures that might arise from a payroll tax audit the opportunity to come into compliance by making the required filing, adjusting their practices and paying the required settlement fee effectively equaling just over one percent of the wages paid to the reclassified workers for the past year. If this settlement fee is paid and the other requirements of the Settlement Program are met, the Settlement Program specifies that employers accepted into the program will not be assessed interest or penalties and not be audited on payroll taxes related to these workers for prior years.
For businesses that can meet applicable requirements for participation, participation in the Settlement Program may offer an attractive option for resolving payroll related tax risks. However, not all employers will qualify for the Settlement Program. Employers must meet the eligibility requirements for participation.
Also, employers electing to use the Settlement Program need to understand the implications of that participation on the Statute of Limitations on their payroll tax liabilities. For the first three years of participation in the program, the Settlement Program specifies that participating employers will be subject to a special six-year statute of limitations, rather than the usual three years that generally applies to payroll taxes. Businesses will need to weigh the benefits of using the Settlement Program, if available, against the risk of reclassification and the availability of other resolution options that may be available under applicable Internal Revenue Code and IRS rules and procedures. Furthermore, many businesses evaluating worker classifications also may find it difficult to determine with certainty the risk of reclassification for certain categories of workers. Whether a worker is properly classified as an employee for most purposes under the Internal Revenue Code’s income tax withholding and reporting, payroll tax and most other employment tax turns on a highly fact specific analysis of under a common law employment test. When an analysis of the evidence reflects a high degree of certainty that the classification of a worker as a non-employee was not defensible under existing tax authorities, use of the Settlement Program or other tools to resolve liability definitely merits consideration. Because of the factual nature of the analysis, however, the decision whether to use the Settlement Program where the circumstances under which the worker renders services are less clear may be more difficult. When making these assessments, businesses should avoid the temptation of being overly optimistic in their assessment of the facts and circumstances given that the Internal Revenue Code generally assigns responsibility to the business to prove the appropriateness of its classification of a worker as a non-employee. While this allocation of the burden of proof means businesses should exercise caution when engaging workers in non-employee capacities, where the facts support this characterization, classification of a worker as a non-employee can be appropriate. When deciding to continue the non-employee characterization for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code, however, businesses are urged to document the evidentiary basis and evidence supporting that determination in anticipation of a potential future audit or other challenge.
Learn more about the Settlement Program and worker classification risk management here.
Businesses Should Address Other Worker Reclassification Risks When Conducting Settlement Program Risk Analysis
As welcome as the opportunity to resolve potential payroll tax exposures through participation in the Settlement Program, businesses considering using the Settlement Program also will need to understand and prepared to address various non-tax legal concerns. Because worker misclassification tends to impact on a broad range of legal obligations and risks, businesses evaluating or planning to use the Settlement Program are act quickly, but carefully, to evaluate and determine whether and how to use the Settlement Program and to identify and take appropriate steps to address both the tax-related liabilities targeted for resolution under the Settlement Program, as well as misclassification exposures likely to arise with respect to workers to be reclassified in connection with the use of the Settlement Program.
When conducting this evaluation and deciding whether to use the Settlement Program, businesses also need to keep the wider implications of the analysis and their decisions regarding how to handle a potential aggressive or misclassification as a worker as a non-employee. A determination of potential aggressive or misclassification for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code’s payroll tax rules generally will necessitate the need to evaluate potential exposures that may arise from the worker misclassification under other federal and state laws.
Typically, in addition to treating a worker as a non-employee for tax purposes, a business also will treat the worker as a non-employee for immigration law eligibility to work, wage and hour, employment discrimination, employee benefits, fringe benefits, worker’s compensation, workplace safety, tort liability and insurance and other purposes. Consequently, a determination that reclassification is advisable for tax purposes generally will prompt the need to consider how to address the worker reclassification and attendant risk for purposes of other legal risks and requirements, as well as those covered by the Settlement Program. Businesses will need to consider how the voluntary reclassification of workers and settlement under the Settlement Program may impact their exposures and obligations under other laws. As the Settlement Program does not provide relief from the exposures arising from misclassification under other laws, businesses should be prepared to evaluate the advisability of reclassification of the worker for purposes of these other laws, the potential exposures attendant to misclassification of workers under those laws, and risks, challenges and opportunities for mitigating these exposures.
Businesses Cautioned To Conduct Evaluations & Discussions In Attorney-Client Privilege Due To Complexity & Significance of Potential Exposures
Conducting and discussing the Settlement Program and other related concerns within the scope of attorney-client privilege is particularly important because of the potentially significant civil and even criminal liability exposures that may arise from misclassification of workers for purposes of the various relevant laws. Because of the broad reaching and potentially significant non-tax exposure inherent in these discussions, business leaders are cautioned that the evidentiary privileges that often provides protection against disclosure of certain discussions with accountants and certain other non-attorney tax advisors for purposes of certain tax laws may be inadequate in scope to protect discussions against discovery for purposes of these other laws. Accordingly, while businesses definitely should incorporate appropriate tax advisors into the evaluation process, most businesses before commencing meaningful discussions with or engaging assessments by their accounting firm or other non-attorney tax advisor will want to engage counsel and coordinate the involvement of their accounting and other non-attorney tax advisors through qualified legal counsel to protect and maximize the ability to conduct the analysis of their risks and options within the protection of attorney-client privilege.
For Help With These Or Other Matters
If you need assistance in conducting a risk assessment of or responding to an IRS, Labor Department or other legal challenges to your organization’s existing workforce classification or other labor and employment, employee benefit or compensation practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.
Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising and representing employer, employee benefit and other clients before the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor, Immigrations & Customs, and other agencies, private plaintiffs and others on worker classification and related human resources, employee benefit, internal controls and risk management matters.
A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experience worker classification and other employment, employee benefits and workforce matters, Ms. Stamer works extensively with employers, employee benefit plan sponsors, insurers, administrators, and fiduciaries, payroll and staffing companies, technology and other service providers and others to develop and operate legally defensible programs, practices and policies that promote the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.
A featured presenter in the recent “Worker Classification & Alternative Workforce: Employee Plans & Employment Tax Challenges” teleconference sponsored by the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these and other employee benefit and human resources matters who is active in many other employee benefits, human resources and other management focused organizations.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefits Council, the immediate past Chair and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, the Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, the Gulf States Area TEGE Council Exempt Organizations Coordinator, past-Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, and the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications.
You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, find out about upcoming training or other events, review some of her past training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer at www.CynthiaStamer.com.
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