Two recent Colorado Supreme Court cases, Industrial Claims Appeals Office v. Softrock Geological Services, Inc., 2014 CO 30, No. 12SC501 (May 12, 2014) and its companion Western Logistics, Inc. v. Industrial Claims Office, 2014 CO 31, No. 12SC911 (May 12, 2014), clarify that the determination of whether an individual is an independent contractor or employee for purposes of unemployment tax liability is based on the “totality of the circumstances” and not the rigid application of the nine-factor test set forth in C.R.S. § 8-70-115(1)(c).
Under the Colorado Employment Security Act (CESA), employers are required to pay unemployment taxes on wages paid to employees but not on payments made to independent contractors. A division of the Industrial Claims Appeal Office (ICAO) routinely audits businesses to determine whether a business is classifying its employees appropriately and collecting and submitting the correct amount of tax. Under CESA, an employer can prove that an individual is an independent contractor by demonstrating that (1) the individual is free from the employer’s control and direction, and (2) the individual is “customarily engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession or business related to the service performed.” C.R.S. § 8-70-115(1)(b).
Alternatively, under C.R.S. § 8-70-115(1)(c), an employer could submit a written document signed by both the employer and the individual that meets nine conditions. These conditions are that the employer will not do any of the following:
- Require the individual to work exclusively for the person for whom services are performed, except that the individual may choose to work exclusively for the said person for a finite period of time specified in the document;
- Establish a quality standard for the individual, except that the employer can provide plans and specifications regarding the work but cannot oversee the actual work or instruct the individual as to how the work will be performed;
- Pay a salary or hourly rate but rather a fixed or contract rate;
- Terminate the work during the contract period unless the individual violates the terms of the contract or fails to produce a result that meets the specifications of the contract;
- Provide more than minimal training for the individual;
- Provide tools or benefits to the individual, except that the materials and equipment may be supplied;
- Dictate the time of performance, except that a completion schedule and a range of mutually agreeable work hours may be established;
- Pay the individual personally, except for making checks payable to the trade or business name of the individual; and
- Combine the employer’s business operations in any way with the individual’s business, but instead maintains such operations as separate and distinct.
In Softrock, ICAO held that an individual was an employee because he provided services only to the employer during the period in question and therefore he did not have an independent trade or business. The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed, holding that ICAO incorrectly relied on a single factor. Instead, the court of appeals found that ICAO should have determined whether the individual was an employee by considering the nine factors set forth in C.R.S. § 8-70-115(1)(c).
The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals that the there is no single factor test and that the nine factors should be considered. However, the supreme court found that the nine factors required to be set forth in a document are not exclusive, but rather a fact-finder should also consider “the dynamics of the relationship between the employer and the putative employee and should not be limited to only considering nine factors.” According to the court, it would also be appropriate to consider such factors as “whether the putative employee maintained an independent business card, listing, address or telephone; had a financial investment such that there was a risk of suffering a loss on the project; used his or her own equipment on the project; set the price for performing the project; employed others to complete the project; and carried liability insurance.”
The court also held that the fact that the putative employee did not provide services to another does not conclusively establish that the individual is an employee. Rather, the determinative issue is “whether the putative employee chose to work for another in the field, regardless of, among other things, the intent of the parties, the number of weekly hours the putative employee actually worked for the employer, or whether the putative employee even sought other work in the field.”
The decision in Softrock means that the determination of whether an individual is an independent contractor or an employee for purposes of collecting unemployment compensation tax is no longer limited to the application of the nine factors set out in C.R.S. § 8-70-115(1)(c), or that the alternative single factor test factor test is dispositive. Instead, an employer can present additional information beyond the nine factors to establish the relationship. Further, the fact that an individual provides services only to one business does not conclusively establish that the individual is an employee. Rather, it is appropriate to determine the motivation of the individual and the circumstances surrounding the individual’s actions. In sum, a fact-finder will be required to look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the relationship to determine whether a service provider is an employee or an independent contractor.