Employee or Contractor?
By Danielle Fitzpatrick
Taxpayers often ask about the difference between being an independent contractor and an employee. Although it may seem like they both perform similar work, there are some significant differences when it comes to their responsibilities and when filing annual income-tax returns.
Perhaps you are currently working for an employer and are considering becoming a contractor, or maybe you have just graduated college with a degree and are trying to decide which option is best for you. Whichever route you decide to take, it is important to know the differences so that you can plan accordingly.
Differences in Responsibilities
You are considered an employee when the business you work for has the right to direct and control the work you perform. You are given specific instructions on when and where to work, and are often provided training and the necessary equipment needed to perform specific duties. As an employee, you receive regular wages and may be eligible for benefits such as insurance, retirement, vacation, and sick pay.
You are considered a contractor when services are provided for a specific period of time. Rather than being paid a regular wage, you are paid a flat fee for contractual services. As an independent contractor, you are not eligible for benefits or training through the businesses you are performing services for. You are in charge of your own schedule and typically have several clients for which you are providing services.
Differences at Tax Time
One of the biggest differences between being an employee and a contractor is how your income is taxed on your income-tax return. Unfortunately, the difference is often not realized until an individual files their return and is faced with a significant tax burden.
As an employee, your employer pays 50% of your Medicare and Social Security (FICA) taxes. The other 50% is withdrawn from your regular paycheck along with federal and state (if applicable) tax withholdings. If any expenses are incurred and unreimbursed by your employer, the expenses are not deductible for the employee. On an annual basis, you receive a Form W-2, which shows your taxable income along with all taxes that you had withheld throughout the year.
“One of the advantages of being a contractor is that you can deduct expenses you incur in relation to the income you receive. Record keeping is extremely important when becoming self-employed in order to ensure that you are tracking all applicable income and expenses.”
As a contractor, you are considered self-employed (a sole proprietor). You are now responsible for 100% of the FICA taxes, also known as self-employment taxes. No federal or state tax withholdings are withdrawn from the income you receive, and you may be required to make quarterly estimated tax payments. On an annual basis, you receive a Form 1099-MISC showing the gross income you received in excess of $600 for each business you performed services for. All of the income you receive as a contractor is reportable on Schedule C, which is filed with your individual income-tax return, or on a business tax return if you choose to become incorporated.
One of the advantages of being a contractor is that you can deduct expenses you incur in relation to the income you receive. Record keeping is extremely important when becoming self-employed in order to ensure that you are tracking all applicable income and expenses. Expenses that may help offset your income include, but are not limited to, vehicle expenses, travel expenses, supplies, fees paid for continuing education, and the renewal of professional licenses.
Say you are an employee making $25 an hour and working 40 hours a week. For this example, note that nothing is being withheld for benefits. Your paycheck would look like the following:
Weekly Pay ($25 x 40 hrs.) $1,000
Federal Taxes Withheld $200
State Taxes Withheld $50
FICA Taxes Withheld $77
Total Weekly Pay $673
Now, say you are a contractor and charge $25 an hour to provide services to three businesses totaling 40 hours for the week. You receive a total of $1,000 for the week. In addition, you purchased $30 in office supplies and drove 250 miles for the week. Your net income for the week would be:
Gross Income $1,000
Office Supplies $30
Mileage Expense $145
Taxable Net Income $825
Now you’re thinking, why am I not a contractor? I bring home over $300 more a week! Yes, you bring home more for the week, but you cannot forget that taxes are not being withheld from your income. You will be responsible for paying these taxes on a quarterly basis and/or when you file your tax return.
As an employee, you report $1,000 as taxable wages on your income-tax return, from which federal and state taxes have already been withheld and will hopefully cover your tax liability. As a contractor, you have taxable net income of $825, but you are now responsible for self-employment tax, in addition to regular income tax that you have not yet paid.
So, should you become an independent contractor or an employee? There is no right or wrong answer; each individual needs to make their own decision and determine what will work best for them and their situation. However, whichever route you decide to take, be sure to consult your tax professional for advice to eliminate any potential surprises and ensure that you are prepared when it comes to filing your annual income-tax returns.
Danielle Fitzpatrick, CPA, is a tax manager at Melanson Heath. She is part of the Commercial Services department and is based out of the Greenfield office. Her areas of expertise include individual income taxes and planning, as well as nonprofit taxes. She also works with many businesses, helping with corporate and partnership taxes and planning.