On 10/1/19, the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) held a meeting, chaired by State Controller Betty Yee, focused on compliance for gig workers. You can see by the agenda that many topics were covered including background data on understanding the gig economy which for the meeting meant those finding income opportunities from web platforms such as Uber, Postmates, TaskRabbit or hundreds of other similar sites.
I was honored to participate on a panel on Challenges and Opportunities for Tax Compliance in a Gig Economy. A few points I offered:
- The issue of worker classification is decades old and a big issue that Congress left unaddressed since at least 1978 with “Section 530” of the Revenue Act of 1978. This provision results in some workers being contractors for purposes of the employer’s employment taxes, but employees for other purposes including for the worker’s tax obligations. It is unfortunate that the multitude of classification schemes among federal and state laws has been allowed to continue for so long. I was hoping that the emergence of the platform work arrangement might finally be a time to look at this broken system, but apparently not yet. Instead we are getting more variations (such as California’s AB 5 making many workers employees where other states enacted laws in 2018 clarifying that the platform workers were contractors). The hearing didn’t delve into the possibility of the need for a third category of work arrangement as this was focused on compliance rather than policy changes via legislation.
- We need to provide wider tax education to everyone, such as by including tax education in K-12 curriculum!
- For contractors – change the law to require the hiring person to get a Form W-9 and electronically submit it to IRS and State tax agency. These agencies then check if the person has filed a Schedule C or equivalent form (W-9 requires taxpayer to note type of business entity). If yes – likely nothing need be done. If no, email and mail that worker clear information about their tax obligations as a new self-employed entrepreneur. Connect them to tax agency YouTube videos as well. Ideally, this could also be when the federal government deposits $500 into their new retirement account (or perhaps does that once the first return with the Schedule C is filed).
- Lower the Form 1099-K threshold to match Form 1099-MISC ($600). California should not wait for Congress to do this but should instead do what Massachusetts and Vermont already did and drop the threshold to $600. This will help workers and reduce non-filing and the tax gap. It will also mean that more folks renting their property through Airbnb and similar thresholds get a reporting form (and that the government does as well).
- The IRS has an online withholding calculator for employees that freelancers can also use – but it only works if the taxpayer has wage withholding. The IRS and FTB should create online calculators to make it easy to compute quarterly estimated tax payments (federal and state) and to pay them online even if a taxpayer doesn’t have wage income.
- A gig worker testifying lamented that she would not be able to prove her expenses for mileage on her own but would have to rely on the information provided by Uber and Lyft. That’s a great point. Rather than duplicate the recordkeeping, I suggest that the tax agencies find a way to “certify” the platform’s recordkeeping so that the workers can use that information for tax preparation without issue. This should also help the worker understand the information. For example, did the app also track miles between a drop off and next pick up (it would be helpful for tax recordkeeping if it did).
- A worker might be an employee for California law but a contractor for federal. It will be very important for the worker and payor to understand the tax consequences. For example, there is no form equivalent to a Form W-2 that is only issued to a worker and the EDD and FTB (rather than also to the IRS and Social Security Administration); one will need to be created. While this different in classification is not new, it is likely to affect far more workers starting in 2020.
- A worker may continue to be a contractor for both California and federal but more documentation is needed to show that the work arrangement met the ABC test or met an exception.
- The worker is unfortunately out of a job because the payor doesn’t want to hire them as an employee. I’m concerned that this may be the case for many part-time workers. The person presenting on October 1 from Postmates noted that many on the platform work just 3 to 5 hours per week and then only for about 3 to 5 months. It’s a lot of work to hire these short-term workers as employees. It is also possible that those hired will not get all benefits, such as offering of health insurance as they might be hired to work less than 30 hours per week with no legal requirement to offer coverage. And virtual workers might find that the employer prefers now to just use workers outside of California.
- And there are other possibilities – let’s see what happens.