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New Independent Contractor Ruling Puts Businesses in the Crosshairs

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a final rule, effective March 11, 2024, updating the department’s guidance on how to determine who is an employee or independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

While misclassifying employees as independent contractors has never been acceptable, it now will likely result in unprecedented fines and penalties, potentially crippling businesses. This definitive regulation aims to address the risk of misclassification. With its enactment, the delineation between independent contractors and employees becomes much more narrow. If that's not enough, there is a new Whistleblower Campaign that financially incentivizes those who report misclassifications.

The distinction, governed by the FLSA, is critical in determining various rights, benefits, and legal obligations of businesses. Navigating this classification can be complex and requiring a thorough understanding of the criteria outlined by the FLSA. However, it is necessary to stay compliant and eliminate potential risk.

Determining Worker Classification

At its core, the FLSA mandates that individuals performing services for an employer are either employees or independent contractors. While employees are typically under the direct control of the employer and entitled to various protections such as minimum wage, overtime pay, and benefits, independent contractors operate with greater autonomy and are responsible for managing their own taxes and benefits. Several crucial factors determine whether an individual qualifies as an employee or an independent contractor.

These factors include the degree of control exercised by the employer, the opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill, the nature of the working relationship, the investment in facilities and equipment, whether the business function the worker performs is integral, the methods of payment reporting, the economic dependence of the worker, and the level of skill and initiative from the worker.

These factors are assessed collectively, with no single factor being determinative. In the following sections, we will analyze these critical determinants.

Degree of Control

One of the primary considerations is the extent to which the employer controls the manner and means by which work is performed. Employees typically work under the direction and supervision of the employer, whereas independent contractors have greater freedom to determine how and when they accomplish their tasks. As an example, if you set the schedule for the worker or an "hours worked" quota, they are likely an employee under the new ruling.

The Opportunity for Profit or Loss Depending on Managerial Skill

If an individual's ability to generate profit or incur loss hinges on their managerial skills, they are inclined to be categorized as an independent contractor. Conversely, if their earnings remain unaffected by managerial decisions, they are more likely to be viewed as an employee. This factor essentially assesses whether the individual assumes financial risk and exercises managerial authority in their work.

Nature of the Working Relationship

The permanency and exclusivity of the working relationship also play a crucial role. An ongoing, indefinite relationship suggests an employer-employee dynamic, while a project-based or temporary arrangement may still permit an independent contractor status.

Investment in Facilities and Equipment

Independent contractors often invest in their own tools, equipment, and resources necessary to complete their work, whereas employees typically rely on the employer's facilities and resources.

Integral Part of Business

If the tasks performed by an individual are crucial to the essential operations of the employer's business, they are more likely to be classified as an employee. Conversely, if the tasks are secondary to the primary functions of the employer's business, the individual may be more likely to be considered an independent contractor. Essentially, this factor evaluates the extent to which the individual's work is integrated into the overall operations.

Methods of Payment Reporting

Independent contractors are typically issued a Form 1099, which documents the total amount paid to them during the tax year but does not withhold taxes. On the other hand, employees receive a Form W-2, which not only reports their earnings but also includes details on tax withholdings, such as federal income tax, Social Security, and Medicare. This differentiation is significant because it impacts how taxes are handled and reported to the IRS.

Economic Dependence

If an independent contractor relies solely on one company for employment, they are deemed an employee of that company rather than an independent contractor. In other words, if an independent contractor is economically dependent on only one company for their livelihood, they are considered an employee of that company rather than an independent contractor.

Level of Skill and Initiative

The FLSA considers the degree of skill required for the job and the level of initiative exercised by the worker. Independent contractors are typically hired for their specialized skills and are responsible for managing their workload and business affairs.

Breakdown of the Final Ruling

In this ruling, the DOL opted to utilize the well-established "economic reality" test commonly employed in legal contexts to determine whether a worker qualifies as an employee or an independent contractor. This test considers the entirety of the circumstances, with no single factor being conclusive.


Within the previously outlined factors, the 2024 ruling intricately examines particular details that experienced modifications in the final ruling. By delving into these details, the ruling aims to provide clarity and guidance, particularly in areas where ambiguity previously existed. However, this newfound clarity will present challenges for businesses in their current operations.


This rule addresses the fundamental matter of workers' economic dependence on their employers. It emphasizes that the degree of reliance on a single entity for income can override other considerations typically associated with independent contractor status, such as freedom in work arrangements.


Under this ruling, actions carried out for compliance with laws and regulations are regarded as indicators of control from the employer, unless done solely for compliance. However, delineating this boundary could prove difficult, especially given that many laws require both the company and independent contractor to adhere to them.


The updated rule also revises the interpretation of the "integral part of the business" factor, aligning "integral" with work deemed "critical, necessary, or central" to the company's core operations. This adjustment shifts the analytical focus towards evaluating if the specific business function performed by the worker is necessary, rather than assessing the individual worker's significance to the organization.

Failure to comply with this law on classifying employees and independent contractors could lead to significant legal consequences for businesses, potentially resulting in hefty fines and penalties that may extend back up to seven years. Additionally, non-compliance may lead to damaged relationships with workers, loss of trust from partners, and a tarnished reputation in the industry.

Whistleblower Campaign

Employee misclassification typically occurs when employers incorrectly (and intentionally) classify workers, affecting their rights and benefits. The most common example is classifying a worker as an independent contractor when they should be classified as an employee. These employers may incorrectly categorize workers to evade payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, or adherence to labor laws. Misclassification can lead to underreporting of employment taxes, resulting in government revenue loss.


The IRS Whistleblower Office pays money to individuals who blow the whistle on those who fail to pay the tax they owe, often through misclassification. Informing the IRS about misclassified employees through the whistleblower program enables individuals to highlight tax non-compliance and possibly receive a reward. This mechanism emphasizes the significance of accurately classifying workers for tax purposes. If the IRS utilizes the information the individual provides, leading to the recovery of unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest, the individual may qualify to receive financial compensation as a reward. 

This campaign aims to enhance tax compliance by incentivizing individuals to report misclassified employees, which could result in a large scope of ramifications to your business if you are unable to remain compliant following the latest ruling.

Impact on Businesses

Misclassifying workers can have serious consequences for employers, including legal liabilities, fines, and back wages owed to misclassified workers. These consequences can threaten the livelihood of your business and business owners. Additionally, misclassified employees may be deprived of essential protections and benefits guaranteed under the FLSA, such as minimum wage and overtime pay, which will surely be assessed in the penalties and fines.

This elucidates the Department of Labor's inclination towards employee classification, which could pose challenges for companies that have previously been reliant on independent contractors.

Employers need to precisely categorize workers according to the criteria outlined in this regulation to prevent inaccuracies in reporting W-2s or 1099s to the IRS. Failure to do so can result in penalties and adverse consequences for your company.

To mitigate the varying risks of misclassification and ensure compliance with the FLSA, employers must:

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of working relationships and job duties to accurately determine classification.

  • Seek legal guidance when uncertain about classification decisions.

  • Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and expectations in written agreements or contracts.

  • Regularly review and update classification decisions to reflect changes in working arrangements.

Furthermore, considering that larger employers often encompass multiple departments where there's a potential for missing or overlooking the company-wide message concerning proper worker classification, it's advisable to promote the concept of standardization. This ensures that everyone possesses a comprehensive understanding of the factors outlined in this ruling and that each job description is meticulously accurate.

The Role of a PEO

A Professional Employer Organization (PEO) can play a vital role in assisting businesses with this ruling regarding employee classification. PEOs have extensive knowledge and experience in employment laws and regulations. Below are a few ways a PEO can assist you in navigating the implications of this ruling.


They can help businesses understand the implications of the DOL's ruling and ensure compliance with employee classification guidelines. 

PEOs typically conduct thorough assessments and audits of a company's current employment practices to identify any potential misclassifications or compliance gaps. This proactive approach will help mitigate risks associated with non-compliance.


They can help businesses develop and implement policies and procedures that align with the DOL's guidelines and promote compliance with employee classification regulations. This includes establishing standardized processes for worker classification and documentation.


In the event of whistleblower allegations related to employee misclassification, PEOs can assist businesses in conducting internal investigations and responding to inquiries from regulatory authorities. They can help businesses navigate the process and address any compliance issues identified.


Can provide businesses with the expertise, resources, and support needed to navigate the complexities of employee classification regulations.

A PEO can provide optimal assistance when precise worker classifications are promptly and effectively communicated. Failing in this responsibility as an employer to maintain clear communication with your PEO could endanger the stability of both the PEO and your business, given the wide-ranging implications that may occur.


Cornerstone PEO will maintain vigilance in monitoring and reporting on developments regarding the proposed independent contractor rule. For more information on the "Final Rule: Employee or Independent Contractor Classification Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, RIN 1235-AA43" click on "Learn More" below to access to DOL website.


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