Classification 101 by GreenLight

Understanding the Difference Between Employees and Independent Contractors

In the world of work, distinguishing between employees and independent contractors is crucial for both employers and workers. The classification determines various aspects, including tax obligations, benefits, and legal responsibilities.The USDOL recently provided new guidance making it harder for a freelancer to be hired on a 1099 basis, but what exactly sets these two categories apart?

Employee vs. Independent Contractor: Unpacking the Basics

Determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor isn’t always straightforward. However, there are some general guidelines that can help differentiate between the two.

Employees, often referred to as W2 workers, typically work under the direction of their employer. They are hired for specific roles and are expected to carry out their duties according to their employer’s instructions. Employees are usually engaged for ongoing work and are required to perform their duties personally.

Independent contractors, sometimes called 1099 workers, operate as their own business entities. They are engaged for specific projects or expertise and are not under the direct control of the entity hiring them. Independent contractors have more autonomy in how, when, and where they work, and they often have the freedom to hire subcontractors to assist them with their tasks.

Classifying Workers: The Federal and State Perspective

When classifying workers, it’s vital to consider the nature of the work, the worker’s level of independence, and the laws that apply. The IRS and USDOL provide federal guidelines, emphasizing factors such as the degree of control the business has over the worker and the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss.

The US Department of Labor recently issued updated guidance, highlighting several key points.The definition of independent contractors has been narrowed. Stricter criteria now focus on factors such as autonomy and the degree of integration into the core business.

Additionally, there’s renewed emphasis on assessing economic dependence. A crucial determinant is whether a worker relies on the employer for their income or operates as an independent business entity. These guidelines underscore the importance of careful assessment to ensure compliance with labor regulations.

However, each state may have its own rules, which often differ from federal guidelines. For instance, California and Massachusetts use the ABC test to classify workers as independent contractors, which is more stringent than federal criteria. Under the ABC test, a worker is considered an independent contractor if they:

A) Are free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work,

B) Perform work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, and

C) Are customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business

Common Indicators of Worker Status

While the rules are varied and complex for determining employee status, some common indications include:

  • Performing the same work as other employees within the organization
  • Working full-time hours for an extended period
  • Being unable to negotiate contract terms

Similarly, common indicators of independent contractor status include:

  • Having specialized skills and working for multiple clients
  • Marketing oneself as a business entity
  • Having the ability to subcontract work
  • Being paid for a deliverable 

How Companies should Treat Employees and Independent Contractors

At GreenLight, we understand the importance of treating all workers with respect and fairness. While employees and independent contractors should be treated equally in terms of respect and civility, their working arrangements may differ.

Independent contractors are expected to maintain a higher level of independence compared to employees. They have greater flexibility in their schedules and work arrangements, are often paid for a deliverable, and they are typically responsible for their own training and expertise. 

Employees, on the other hand, may have more structured work arrangements and are often subject to the direction and control of their employer. They may participate in company trainings and meetings and are typically engaged for ongoing roles rather than specific projects.

Benefits for Employees vs. Independent Contractors

Employees may be eligible for benefits depending on their location, tenure, and company policies. Independent contractors, however, typically do not receive benefits as they are considered self-employed and responsible for their own overhead costs.

In conclusion, understanding the distinction between employees and independent contractors is essential for both employers and workers. While the classification may vary depending on specific circumstances and laws, it’s important to ensure that all workers are treated fairly and in accordance with applicable regulations.

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Jason Posel

Jason Posel

Founder and CEO of, Jason Posel is a sought-after expert in issues related to technology innovation in contingent workforce management, the gig economy, and the Future of Work. London > Atlanta > Miami > Palo Alto > Miami

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