“Just the facts” used to determine independent contractor or employee

That’s Jack Webb who played Sergeant Joe Friday of the LAPD, arguably the most popular police character in television history in the 1951-1959 series Dragnet. (The 1987 movie spoof of Dragnet in which Dan Aykroyd played the Joe Friday character didn’t do the original justice). Friday’s catch phrase used in his investigations, "Just the facts, ma’am," remains indelibly etched in the minds of television fans.

It’s also the basis of determining whether a worker is properly classified as either an independent contractor or an employee. It’s a topic I’ve written about before in my posts, Who’s your employee: inquiring minds and the IRS want to know in 2006 and The great debate: employee vs. independent contractor in 2007. And it’s an issue that’s just always there.

Brian Hall in his firm’s (Porter Wright Morris & Arthur) blog, Employer Law Report, warns us about The Hidden Costs of "Independent Contractors". Brian discusses a recent case in which the court found that the workers were employees and not independent contractors. The court’s decision was based on "just the facts".

The financial implications of such misclassification can be enormous. Penalties and interest involving payroll taxes can pile up if someone is incorrectly treated as an independent contractor. And in the case of a retirement plan, the employer would have to make up the benefits the individual would have received.

It’s an issue we are particularly sensitive to with our clients at this time of year as we start to receive employee census data for 401(k) discrimination testing. One of the questions we ask is "Do you have any independent contractors?" A "yes" response initiates a discussion that the employer have a process in place that the independent contractor classification will hold up in the event of an audit.