IRS Program for Employee Misclassification

February 7, 2012, by Tamara B. Pow

Has your business been misclassifying workers as independent contractors? If so, you should pay special attention to a recent IRS announcement of its new program giving a break to employers who voluntarily correct such misclassifications. With Silicon Valley being a technology hub, there are thousands of computer programmers and engineers working as independent contractors in San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View. High-tech companies and start-ups that employ these individuals should carefully review their HR files to see if they have misclassified any employee. If a company discovers that it has wrongly classified an employee, it should then evaluate the IRS program to determine if the company should participate in the program.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the importance of companies classifying their workers correctly in order to avoid substantial penalties and taxes. If your company may have misclassified workers, the new IRS program will let you voluntarily correct your errors and just pay a low penalty equal to 1.068% of compensation paid to those workers last year. IRS Announcement 2011-64 provides the details. To qualify for the IRS program, your company must not be under audit, and must have consistently treated the workers as contractors for the past three years. No reasonable basis for the previous misclassification is necessary. Going forward, you must treat the workers correctly as employees. The minimal penalty may be a good idea if you consider that the Labor Department and the IRS are beginning to share leads on misclassified workers. [Kiplinger Tax Letter September 30, 2011, Vol. 86, No. 20.]

However, there are some potential downsides in addition to having to pay the penalty. So, think twice before you come clean with the IRS. First, you will lose IRS Safe Harbor protection on those workers and they will always be treated as employees going forward. Second, as part of the deal, the IRS requires you to agree to extend the statute of limitations for an extra three years, meaning you can be audited for employment taxes and misclassifications for six years. Third, the California Employment Development Department ("EDD") is not participating in the program, so it is not bound by the rules and will likely assess your identified workers for the full three year statutory period. And the EDD is likely to find out about your deal with the IRS because of their agreement with the IRS to share information, and because they will see your employer credit for paying unemployment taxes and it will not reconcile with your quarterly wage reporting, triggering an audit. [Spidell California Taxletter, vol. 33.11, November 1, 2011, pages 124-125.] California has some new misclassification penalties which are significant.

If you still feel that participating in the IRS program is a good idea and will help you sleep better at night because you have been misclassifying workers, think carefully about which workers do and do not need to be reported and re-classified. It may be that only some of your workers are misclassified, but once you claim them as employees under the new IRS program, you are stuck with that classification.

If you believe you need assistance preparing an offer letter or employment agreement for a worker you would have previously hired as an independent contractor, please contact Structure Law Group, LLP for assistance. See my next blog for information about the California penalties and for advice on how to reduce the cost of an employee audit.