While California is the state that makes headlines for its frequent legislation and tough employment guidelines, Washington is very similar. It’s considered a risky state to bring on independent contractors due to its strict worker classification rules. The high stakes for mistakes mean it’s important for businesses to take care to stay in good standing.
Federal rules around worker classification continue to make it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors. Each administration has its own approach to worker classification, but democratic administrations tend to have their sights set on prioritizing misclassification.
In addition to the federal legislation, states have their own rules. Washington has some of the strictest requirements surrounding worker classification and it’s important for companies to pay attention because violators risk strict penalties such as fines, possible jail time, and damage to their reputations.
Why Does The Government Care About Worker Classification?
It depends on who you ask. Governing officials are quick to say their first motivation is watching out for workers. Beyond that, it’s clear that there are serious funds on the line, too. Independent contractors write off business expenses and sometimes underreport income while small businesses can avoid certain taxes with fewer W2 employees. In addition, independent contractors are more difficult to track and tax accurately than W2 employees.
What Does it Mean For Business?
Properly classifying workers is a highly-complicated task. The distinction can depend on factors such as the ability to hire or fire a worker, the kind of occupation, the method of payment, location of the worker and more. Some employers lean toward hiring employees, feeling it gives workers more ownership in the company’s success. Others say leaning on independent contractors makes their business model sustainable. Either way, some companies have had to restructure operations completely or bolster their Human Resources departments to make sure they’re above board.
What About The Workers?
Washington’s approach to worker classification (among other topics) purportedly intends to protect workers and provide reasonable protections, which is why many consider it one of the most worker-friendly states. Still, some independent contractors find such an approach makes it difficult for them to operate.
Independent contractors set their own schedule and manage their own businesses. While they are still responsible for paying taxes, they can also take advantage of many write-offs. Along with the perks, they do have the responsibilities that come with owning their own business. They run their own books, pay quarterly taxes, advertise, purchase their own equipment, and deal with the seasonal nature of business. Independent contractors also don’t get paid time off and are responsible for purchasing their own health insurance.
Some workers prefer the stability and possibility for advancement that come with being an employee and having a greater presence at the office and familiarity with the ins and outs of the company.
What Best Practices Mitigate a Company’s Risk?
Unless a company is made up 100% of full-time employees, this subject is relevant to operations. Failure to classify employees correctly could result in fines, back taxes, and even jail time. To stay well on top of worker classification rules, businesses can first determine if their operations are exempt from applicable laws. From there, they can follow classification news and observe how changes play out in practice. For those without the capacity or interest in having an internal team dedicated to the task, engaging a partner can be a great option. Working with an Employer of Record (EOR) or Professional Employer Organization (PEO) is standard best practice in this evolving freelancer economy.
While both provide payroll and insurance services, the differentiating factor is that an EOR relieves employers of much of the regulatory risk involved in working with independent contractors while a PEO operates as a co-employer and does not assume the employment risk.
What Are The Stakes for Mistakes?
Big companies like Uber make headlines for their missteps and pay equally big fines for their worker classification choices. Still, it can be a costly mistake to think it’s only the big companies that face consequences. By rescinding the Trump Administration’s Worker Classification Rule, the Biden administration made it easier for workers to argue for minimum wage and overtime protections/compensation. In addition to having to pay back 100% of the matching FICA taxes they would have paid had they classified the worker correctly up front, employers can end up subject to additional penalties.
Misclassifying workers does not save money in the long run. Perhaps scarier than the possibility of monetary damages, misclassification has landed some business leaders under house arrest.
In addition, class-action lawsuits, failed audits, and negative headlines can damage a company’s reputation to the point where both workers and consumers are hesitant to engage with the company. It’s just not worth it!
With the increasingly narrow definition of an independent contractor, the US is embarking on the real-time evolution of the economy. The most common mistakes when engaging contractors in Washington are misclassifying workers, (of course!), being lax about training requirements, or making privacy and meal wage/overtime errors.
As the economic landscape shifts and independent contractors rise in prevalence, the financial stakes and potential for missed revenue rise, too. In response, government agencies have been ramping up their focus on the subject. The IRS and DOL are not alone. States are attempting to crack down on misclassification while tightening the reins on training requirements as well as payroll guidelines.
Where the money goes, lawyers follow. There’s big money in class action lawsuits and new cases are always being filed. While fear is never productive, companies should be very, very conscientious when engaging independent contractors in Washington. Companies must be very vigilant to protect their business, stay compliant, and reduce the risk for fines and unpleasant attention from the IRS.
When is Engaging a Partner a Good Idea?
If you don’t have the in-house team to do the job right, it’s worth considering working with a partner. The bottom line is that doing business in Washington is complicated and the consequences for errors can be very damaging. While the onus is on employers to classify workers correctly and stay in line with the state’s changing requirements, it’s possible to navigate a rocky landscape with relative ease.
In our world, accurate worker classification and top-notch risk management when it comes to overtime, meal wage, and other laws are always the priority. We are the first to be aware when change is in the air. We track rules in every state as well as on a federal level and offer services to help clients stay compliant. Curious where your business stands? Reach out for a free consultation on your risk profile.