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Employee, Independent Contractor or something in between?

As an employment law lawyer, one of the most common issues I face is confusion from clients over whether they are (or a particular worker is) an “employee,” or “independent contractor.” It is important to understand how workers are classified, and what that means for them in terms of rate of pay, benefits, and legal protections upon termination. Employers must be diligent in properly classifying their workers, as failure to do so can result in serious penalties and tax consequences.

Employees vs Independent Contractors

Strict definitions for the terms “employee,” “independent contractor,” and “dependent contractor” have not been very useful, so courts have relied upon various common law tests for determining the differences between them. Despite these tests, it is not always easy to determine the proper classification of any individual worker.

Employees

A worker may be an employee under the law even if they have agreed in writing to be classified as an independent contractor, submit invoices, or use their own vehicle while completing work tasks.

If having a contract or submitting invoices doesn’t make someone an independent contractor, what does?

In determining whether a worker is an employee, there is not one single overriding factor. Each worker’s situation will be viewed independently, and several different factors will be weighed. With that being said, a worker may be an employee if some of the following factors describe their work situation:

  • The employer provides all the tools and equipment needed to perform work duties;
  • Pay does not fluctuate according to how quickly or how well work is done. For example, the worker is not paid more if a task is finished by Wednesday, instead of Friday;
  • The employer can discipline or suspend;
  • The worker does not determine what job tasks need to be completed;
  • The worker does not set his own rate of pay for his services;
  • The employer determines the location where work is performed; or
  • The employer determines when tasks need to be completed by.

If a worker is an employee under the law, then she is entitled to all the employment rights and protections found in the Employment Standards Act. These rights and protections include:

  • Minimum wage;
  • Overtime pay;
  • Vacation pay;
  • Protected leave; and
  • Notice, or termination pay in-lieu-of notice.

Independent Contractors

Factors that the Court considers in deciding on the issue are similar, but opposite, to those considerations for employees, and include:

  • The worker owns or provides the tools and equipment needed to perform work duties;
  • The worker is in business for him/her self. This means the worker has the ability to make a profit (if the work is done quickly, efficiently, or inexpensively, for example) but also that their is a risk that he looses money (if, for example, the worker under estimated his costs, or circumstances arise that make the work more expensive than anticipated);
  • The worker may be paid more or less money depending on when the job tasks are completed;
  • The worker can subcontract the job tasks;
  • The employer cannot discipline the worker but he could cancel the contract;
  • The worker can work for multiple organizations at the same time; and
  • The worker exercises some control in where or when work is done and who performs that work.

An independent contractor will not have any of the rights outlined above for employees, unless such rights have been negotiated in a valid Independent Contractor Agreement.

What does the case law say?

In Belton et al. v. Liberty Insurance Company of Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeal heard a case where the classification of insurance agents as employees or independent contractors was the central issue. Mr. Belton, and similar workers, were commissioned sales agents, selling insurance for Liberty Insurance. Each agent had signed a written employment agreement with Liberty Insurance in which they acknowledged they were independent contractors. Liberty Insurance eventually presented the agents with new contracts, which reduced their commission rates and added minimum production levels. The agents refused to sign the new contracts, and Liberty Insurance terminated their employment. The agents sued their employer for wrongful termination. The trial judge concluded that the agents were employees under the law, not independent contractors.

In reviewing this case on appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal noted that a written agreement stating workers will be classified as independent contractors is not determinative of the proper classification under the law. The Court also outlined the specific factors the trial judge had identified as factors she had weighed in reaching her conclusion:

  1. Whether or not the agent was limited exclusively to the service of the principal;
  2. Whether or not the agent is subject to the control of the principal, not only as to the product sold, but also as to when, where and how it is sold;
  3. Whether or not the agent has an investment or interest in what are characterized as the “tools” relating to his service;
  4. Whether or not the agent has undertaken any risk in the business sense or, alternatively, has any expectation of profit associated with the delivery of his service as distinct from a fixed commission;
  5. Whether or not the activity of the agent is part of the business organization of the principal for which he works. In other words, whose business is it?

The Court of Appeal acknowledged, as the Trial Court had, that there was no direct contact allowed between the agents and their customers regarding policy changes or renewals, all of the agents had Liberty Insurance managers, the agents were not permitted to advertise using Liberty Insurance’s name, and the agents did not have any ownership rights to their customers. Therefore, that the agents were employees of Liberty Insurance, not independent contractors.

Dependent Contractors

The courts have more recently recognized a middle ground between employee and independent contractor by the classification of some workers as “dependent contractors.”

It is important to note that the courts are not creating an entirely new third category of workers with this distinction. Instead, dependent contractors are considered a subset of “contractors,” who merit different treatment upon termination than independent contractors do.

In McKee v. Reid’s Heritage Homes Ltd., the Court of Appeal heard a case which illustrates this distinction. Heritage Homes, owned by Reid, entered into a written independent contractor agreement with Nu Home Consultant Services, which was operated by its owner McKee. McKee was to advertise and sell 69 homes for Reid, for a fee of $2,500 per home sold. Reid was to have sole use of McKee’s services until the relationship ended. The 69 homes were quickly sold, and the contractual relationship continued. The relationship even continued after Reid’s death, at which time his son-in-law, Blevins, succeeded him.

Blevins eventually decided that McKee and her sub-agents should have to work as direct employees. McKee requested the new employment agreement be put in writing, but the parties were never able to reach mutually agreeable terms. The employment relationship subsequently ended, and McKee sued for wrongful termination. After examining the relevant factors, the trial court found McKee to be an employee, and awarded her eighteen months of termination pay in lieu of notice.

In reviewing this case, the Court of Appeal looked at the classifications of employees, independent contractors and dependant contractors:

I conclude that an intermediate category exists, which consists, at least, of those non-employment work relationships that exhibit a certain minimum economic dependency, which may be demonstrated by complete or near-complete exclusivity. Workers in this category are known as “dependent contractors” and they are owed reasonable notice upon termination.

The Court of Appeal went on to explain that the first step “is to determine whether a worker is a contractor or an employee.” If the first step determines the worker to be a contractor, then step two “determines whether the contractor is independent or dependent, for which a worker’s exclusivity is determinative, as it demonstrates economic independence.”

The courts have made it clear that dependent contractors are entitled to reasonable notice, or termination pay in lieu of notice. The length of notice can be specified in an employment agreement. If there is not a valid employment agreement speaking to this issue, then the length of appropriate notice will vary on a case by case basis, determined by the weighing of several factors.

Final Thoughts

It can often be difficult to determine how a worker should be classified. There are great differences in these classifications, and those differences can have a huge impact on both employees and employers.

The fact is that that vase majority of workers classified by their employers as independent contractors are not. If you are a worker, you are probably not an independent contractor. If you are an employer, that person coming into your workplace everyday is probably an employee. Regardless of what your contract may say, a Court may decide that the worker is entitled to all the protections in the Employment Standards Act.

For employees, if you have concerns that you have been improperly classified, speak to a knowledgeable Ontario employment lawyer as soon as possible. The lawyer can go over the specific details of your employment situation and give you advice on which classification is the most appropriate for you. With this information, you will know what rights are due to you while still employed, and also at the end of the employment relationship.

For employers, I also recommend speaking to an employment lawyer if you have concerns about the proper classification of your workers. Failure to properly classify workers can result in serious penalties. You may be stuck with large severance payments because your improper classifications caused you to fail to meet the notice requirements. If workers are properly classified, these are issues that can be specified to in a written employment contract. This limits your overall exposure. A lawyer well-versed in such employment issues can help you make the best decisions for your business.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


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