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What is contractor classification?

Nov 01, 2019

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When onboarding an independent contractor, organizations must classify aspects of the contingent worker relationship to ensure compliance with the correct tax and employment laws. Misclassification of workers happens when tax authorities and/or regulatory bodies deem one or more of an organization’s contract workers as actual employees. 

Managing a blended or contingent workforce is a logistical challenge in the ever-growing gig economy, and contractor classification is one of the biggest risks facing organizations that operate one.  

Between 10–20 per cent of employers misclassify at least one worker, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimates organizations have misclassified millions of workers in the U.S. alone.  

When onboarding contingent workers, these insights will help categorize and classify your worker relationships, so you can focus on moving your business forward.

Common types of classification

The issue of worker classification arises from government concern that organizations may be attempting to avoid tax obligations by misclassifying workers – either accidentally or on purpose. While classification is primarily an on-boarding activity, organizations must be vigilant to ensure the status of the relationship does not change over time and invalidate the original classification. To ignore this may result in future reassessments and penalties.

Below are the common types of contractor classification considerations:

• Legal Status
• Employer payroll
• Overtime status
• Right to work status (I-9)
• Health and safety sensitive

Why does contractor classification matter?

The first thing to understand about classification is that a worker is not classified by their title or by the wording in their contract (e.g., “Independent Contractor Agreement”). Instead, it’s the context of the worker’s role that determines their classification.

If your organization operates a contingent or blended workforce, correct contractor classification is critical to avoiding tax, government and brand related consequences like wage claims, fines, back payments, class-action lawsuits, benefits owed to re-classified employees and reputational damages.

Classification also provides clarity on employer obligations. Employers have certain obligations to traditional employees that they don’t have to contingent workers, such as pension plan or insurance premium contributions and income tax deductions; whereas contractors take on these responsibilities themselves. Furthermore, contractor classification helps organizations manage the engagement with the worker and provide a unique and tailored onboarding experience. Similar to traditional employees, contingent workers want to feel as though the organization they're working with is excited to have them on board, is prepared for the engagement and has all required internal processes in place.

Who handles contractor classification?

Some organizations’ internal HR function will handle classification of employees, and many times, contingent workers are slipping through the cracks. As such, competitive organizations are no longer approaching the management of their contingent workforce in an ad-hoc or as needed basis, and many are turning to a third party to assist in creating an effective contingent workforce management program that drives high levels of compliance.

These third parties include:

Managed Services Provider (MSP): An MSP will manage all or part of a contingent workforce needs according to client requirements. MSPs may or may not offer a Vendor Management System (VMS) of their own, but they normally combine some type of VMS technology into the program(s). 

Vendor Management System (VMS): A VMS is a technology solution that provides visibility into an organization’s contingent worker program, including every worker, the length of their engagement and project scope. Basic system functions handle everything from requisition to off-boarding, hiring approvals and processing of time sheets and invoices.

Independent Contractor Engagement Specialists (ICES): ICES will act as an Agent or Employer of Record for IRS purposes in the U.S..

What is the process for handling exceptions?

Contractor classification can be something of a balancing act, and to ensure compliance, employers should audit their processes, documentation and internal rules with the latest legislation and classification systems.  

There are also certain scenarios that fall outside the 90 per cent of regular classifications. In such cases, who is accountable for making the final decision? Without a defined escalation process for exceptions, front line management, more often than not, is forced to take on the responsibility of classification as well as their day-today-operations, which can lead to a poor on-boarding experience, delayed on-boarding, last minute rejections, poor documentation or in the worst case scenario, misclassification.

What is the role of a staffing agency?

Staffing firms have a role to play — in meeting clients’ changing skills requirements, advising on the best solutions available to meet their business goals and delivering innovative services that transform how they acquire and manage talent.  

Furthermore, due to the risks involved with the misclassification of workers, service providers like staffing agencies embed classification as an integral component into their contractor on-boarding process, and these classification systems evolve over time to be current with the changing realities of contract and employment law.  With expertise in contract labor, a trusted partner can help organizations avoid the risks of misclassification – while also protecting the interests of the skilled workers represented.


Contractor classification isn't the only risk organizations face when managing a blended or contingent workforce. If you're interested in engaging contingent talent, or want deeper insights into how to manage the risks posed by your current program, download our free whitepaper A Checklist for Contingent Worker Risk:   

DOWNLOAD CHECKLIST

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