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Contractor vs. Employee: Agreement on Contractor Status Is Not Enough

In a May 8, 2018 Tax Court of Canada case, the Court reviewed whether the taxpayer was earning insurable and pensionable amounts related to her work at a health care clinic for 2015 and part of 2016 up to her termination. Classification as an employee would subject the business to various CPP, EI, and other withholdings for past and future years. Such classification could also subject the payer to other significant non-withholding liabilities such as employment benefits, wrongful dismissal, vacation pay, and sick pay.

The taxpayer’s work commenced at the clinic in 2008, at which point both the taxpayer and the clinic agreed that the taxpayer was an independent contractor. She originally provided clerical services and over time took on additional duties which included acting as a chiropractic and physiotherapist assistant and a Pilates instructor. In 2016 the taxpayer realized she should have been collecting and remitting GST/HST on services performed for the clinic. The taxpayer filed a voluntary disclosure related to this GST/HST matter. At this point the taxpayer and clinic decided that the taxpayer and similar workers should become employees.

Taxpayer determined to be an employee

The Court stated that while it appeared that the taxpayer believed she was an independent contractor (evidenced, as an example, by her efforts regarding GST/HST collection), the objective reality must be examined. The Court looked to the following factors to find that the individual was an employee:

  • Control – With the exception of the Pilates sessions, the services were supervised either directly by the payer or by a referring health professional, as required by the legislation governing the services she provided. The taxpayer had no discretion as to how those services were to be offered and followed the exercise routine established by the health professional. The taxpayer was in a subordinate position. While the taxpayer had some autonomy (she was not required to be at the clinic if no appointment was booked), there were other restrictions on her. She was required to operate under the clinic brand and was not allowed to operate out of her home studio when seeing clinic patients. While there was a relaxed work culture at the clinic, the ultimate authority rested with the owner of the clinic. This indicated an employment relationship.
  • Ownership of Tools – The clinic owned the equipment used by the worker in addition to bearing the costs associated with the equipment, consistent with employment status.
  • Chance of Profit and Risk of Loss – The worker was paid an hourly rate for clerical work and a percentage of client billings for work as an assistant and Pilates instructor. Apart from the hourly rate, the Court found that the earnings were primarily a result of the success of the clinic, the flow of patients, and referrals received. Likewise, the risks borne by the taxpayer were no different than an ordinary employee whose future is tied to the success or failure of the business. While the taxpayer did pay for additional training, it was not necessarily indicative of a contractor relationship as ambitious employees may take similar steps to advance their career. The clinic was responsible for mishaps or liability issues – the taxpayer was not required to maintain any type of insurance coverage. Finally, the taxpayer was not expected to actively seek out clients as they were provided in a regular and predictable fashion through referrals by the clinic. The fact that the taxpayer could seek out clients to see at her home studio was not highly relevant. This weighed in favour of employment.
  • Integration of Work into Payer’s Business – While the taxpayer had a wide latitude with respect to her Pilates sessions, the Court found that this was ancillary to the health services provided by the clinic, which was fully integrated with the clinic. The Court stated that she could not have gone out and “hung out her own shingle.” The owner of the clinic conceded that to the outside world the taxpayer would have been perceived to be an employee as, for example, the taxpayer was referred to as “staff” and attended office functions and parties. This indicated employment status.

It appeared that the taxpayer was led to believe that she could be an independent contractor if she agreed and chose to do so. However, the Court found that the express intention of the parties as to the nature of their relationship was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and should be disregarded.

The Court determined that the taxpayer was an employee, earning insurable and pensionable amounts for the years in question.

Even though there is a clear understanding between the worker and the payor/business that services will be performed as an independent contractor, the reality and conditions of the working relationship must be examined to determine if it truly is an independent contractor relationship. Consider reviewing terms of worker engagement with a professional.