In Ottawa, many workers believe themselves to be “independent contractors” either because they prefer this characterization or because their employers have described them in those terms. Unfortunately, both might be incorrect and being improperly considered an independent contractor when you are actually an employee can have weighty implications for your annual tax payments and also your legal entitlements if and when the employment relationship ends.
What’s in a name?
Like our dear (albeit impulsive) Juliet, who recognized early on “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, the Ontario courts have long recognized that, when it comes to a potential employer-employee relationship, it is not the title one is assigned, but rather the nature of the relationship that is determinative.
To complicate matters further, the courts have created a third category between employees and independent contractors: these individuals are named “dependent contractors”. Once again, the crucial question is the nature of relationship.
Factors for determining if you are an employee or a contractor
To determine the relationship between the parties, one must first determine whether an employment relationship exists. The leading case on the first step is 671122 Ontario Ltd. V. Sagaz Industries Canada Inc.,  2 SCR 983. According to that case, the central question is whether the person who has been engaged to perform the services is performing them as a person in business on his own account. In making this determination, the level of control the employer has over the worker’s activities will always be a factor. The Court also identified the following (non-exhaustive) factors to consider:
[i] whether the worker provides his or her own equipment,
[ii]whether the worker hires his or her own helpers,
[iii] the degree of financial risk taken by the worker,
[iv] the degree of responsibility for investment and management held by the worker, and
[v] the worker’s opportunity for profit in the performance of his or her tasks.
If those factors signal that the worker is a contractor rather than an employee, the second step in the inquiry is to determine whether the engaged party is an Independent or a Dependent contractor: McKee v. Reid’s Heritage Homes Ltd. 2009 ONCA 916 (CanLII).
In McKee, the Ontario Court of Appeal noted, “the dependent contractor category arises as a ‘carve-out’ from the non-employment category and does not affect the range of the employment category.” The Court held that the most significant factor for identifying a dependent contractor is an exclusive relationship (i.e. the contractor provides his or her services only to one business or enterprise). The Court noted that this factor is also relevant at the first stage of the test:
[T]he proper initial step is to determine whether a worker is a contractor or an employee… Under that analysis, the exclusivity of the worker is listed as a factor weighing in favour of the employee category (Belton’s first principle). The next step, required only if the first step results in a contractor conclusion, determines whether the contractor is independent or dependent, for which a worker’s exclusivity is determinative, as it demonstrates economic dependence. Therefore, exclusivity might be a “hallmark” of the dependent contractor category vis-à-vis the broader category of contractors. However, it continues also as a factor in determining whether the worker is not a contractor at all, but rather an employee, in the first-step analysis.
Implications of being an employee vs contractor
The taxation implications if CRA deems you to be an employee are significant, as are the implications to the employer, who will be then obligated to provide you with employment benefits as per the Employment Standards Act, 2000, as well as make the necessary EI and CPP contributions. If you are not an employee under the law, there may still be important consequences, depending on whether you are characterized as independent vs dependent. The most important consequence is that a “dependent contractor” is owed some form of reasonable notice of termination of employment. Click here to read more about reasonable notice.
When entering into any employment or contractual agreement, individuals are well advised to obtain independent legal advice in order to fully understand the implications of the agreement they are entering into.
[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]