Internal Revenue Service Will Conduct Thousands of Random Employer Audits Beginning in 2010 Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials recently stated that the IRS will randomly audit approximately 6,000 U.S. employers for employment tax compliance and proper worker classification. According to reports, the audits will begin in February 2010 and are expected to be completed within three years.1

The IRS intends to audit employers of all sizes and types, including non-profit organizations. The audits are part of the IRS’ National Research Program and have a two-fold purpose, (1) to generate revenue from non-compliant employers and (2) to serve as a statistical sample of employers that are in compliance while identifying areas of non-compliance and techniques used to avoid employment taxes.

The IRS expects to test how much of the estimated $15 billion “tax gap” attributed to employment taxes actually exists and may be closed.2 Also, the IRS expects the statistical evidence will help determine whether legislative or enforcement changes are necessary to address common employment tax evasion techniques.3 As a result, the audits are expected to be exhaustive and will concentrate on five employment tax issues:

  1. worker classification,
  2. fringe benefits,
  3. non-filers,
  4. officers’ compensation and
  5. employee expense reimbursements.4

While the audits will begin with the examination of federal employment tax returns (Forms 941), the process will involve many other documents that pertain to the employers’ practices in these five areas.

A major focus of the audit will be on employers that have improperly classified their workers as independent contractors instead of employees. There are many temptations to misclassify workers: (a) shifting the cost of employment taxes to workers, (b) avoiding employee benefit costs, and (c) eliminating responsibilities under employment laws, such as civil rights or wage and hour laws. However, employers who misclassify their workers as independent contractors risk significant tax liabilities upon detection by the IRS, even if the employee paid the employment taxes due.5

Other issues that may be raised include proper treatment of (i) fringe benefits and per diems as tax-free, rather than as compensation subject to income and employment taxes, (ii) employee expense reimbursements that must comply with accountable plan rules for exclusion from employees’ gross income and (iii) executive compensation as reasonable in amount. The wide-ranging audit program is part of a trend to crack down on employment tax non-compliance, which includes heightened enforcement at the federal level6 and an increasing number of states sharing information with the IRS regarding questionable tax practices.7 Employers of every size and type should realize that their compliance with federal employment tax obligations may be scrutinized, and that they should review their compliance programs with their tax advisors before the audits begin.