By: Joseph C. Dugan, Trial Attorney, Department of Justice, Civil Division*
On February 14, 2019, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a Valentine’s Day treat: a comprehensive report following a TIGTA audit concerning self-employment tax compliance by taxpayers in the emerging “gig economy.”
As Forbes noted last year, over one-third of American workers participate in the gig economy, doing freelance or part-time work to supplement their regular incomes or stringing together a series of “gigs” to displace traditional employment. Popular gig services include ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft; arts-and-crafts hub Etsy; food delivery services GrubHub and Postmates; and domestic support networks Care.com and TaskRabbit. Even Amazon.com, the second-largest retailer in the world and a traditional employer to many thousands of workers in Seattle and at Amazon distribution centers worldwide, has gotten in on the gig economy with its Amazon Flex service. And for those interested in more professional work experience to pad their resumes, Fiverr connects businesses with freelance copywriters, marketers, and graphic designers. The power of smartphones and social media, coupled with flat wage growth in recent years, makes the digital side hustle appealing and, for many households, necessary.
From a tax revenue perspective, the gig economy is great: it is creating billions of dollars of additional wealth and helping to replenish government coffers that the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has left a little emptier than usual. From a tax compliance perspective, however, the gig economy presents new challenges. Gig payers generally treat their workers as independent contractors, which means that the payers do not withhold income tax and do not pay the employer portion of FICA. Instead, the contractor is required to remit quarterly estimated income tax payments to the IRS and to pay the regressive self-employment tax, which works out to 15.3% on the first $128,400 in net earnings during TY2018, and 2.9% to 3.8% on additional net earnings. That self-employment tax applies even for low-income freelancers (i.e., it cannot be canceled out by the standard deduction or nonrefundable credits).
While the proper classification of gig workers is a legal question subject to some debate, platforms hiring these workers generally treat them as independent contractors. Taxpayers new to the gig economy and unfamiliar with Schedules C and SE may not be aware of their self-employment tax obligations. If they are aware, they may not be too eager to pay, especially if back-of-the-envelope planning during the tax year failed to account for this additional, costly tax.
In light of this emerging economic narrative and evidence that the portion of the Tax Gap attributable to self-employment tax underreporting is on the rise, TIGTA undertook an audit. TIGTA identified a population of 3,779,329 taxpayers who received a Form 1099-K (an information return commonly used by gig economy payers, as discussed below) from one of nine major payers between TY2012 and TY2016. The audit found that 25% of those taxpayers did not report income on either Schedule C (where self-employment income should be reported) or Form 1040 line 21 (where self-employment income is often incorrectly reported). The TIGTA audit further found that, after adjusting for taxpayers who filed Schedule C with a profit of less than $400 (who may not owe self-employment tax) and taxpayers who earned less than $400 on combined Forms 1099-K received by the IRS, 13% of taxpayers did not file a Schedule SE and did not pay self-employment taxes.
These TIGTA findings are revealing. As Leandra Lederman and I discuss in a forthcoming article, Information Matters in Tax Enforcement, there is a host of evidence that information reporting increases tax compliance. As a suggestive starting point, according to IRS statistics, the voluntary individual compliance rate for income subject to substantial information reporting is 93%, while the voluntary individual compliance rate for income subject to little or no reporting is under 37%. TIGTA’s report does not provide percentages that permit a direct comparison with overall IRS compliance estimates. However, the high rates of complete failure to report income tax and employment tax by gig workers receiving a 1099-K seem to suggest that the 1099-K requirement is not as effective as its drafters hoped. Given the transparency of the earnings to the IRS, a likely explanation for this failure is that some gig workers simply do not understand their tax obligations.
But there’s another problem: a substantial amount of gig income is not clearly subject to an information reporting requirement at all. Back in the day, if a payer hired an independent contractor and paid the contractor over $600 during the tax year, the payer was required under Code section 6041(a) and IRS guidance to file Form 1099-MISC, an information return that put both the IRS and the taxpayer on notice of the income. In 2008, however, Congress enacted Code section 6050W, which, upon its effective date in 2011, required “third-party settlement organizations” (TPSOs) to report payments on what is now Form 1099-K, subject to a generous $20,000/200 transaction threshold. A tiebreaker rule set forth in Treas. Reg. § 1.6041-1(a)(1)(iv) provides that a payer subject to reporting requirements under both Code section 6050W and Code section 6041(a) should comply with the former provision only. As a practical matter, this means that payers who consider themselves to be TPSOs (the definition of which is ambiguous and obviously drafted without reference to the emerging gig economy) can report payments for their higher-earning contractors while leaving contractors with under $20,000 or under 200 transactions invisible to the IRS. What are the chances that an Uber driver who earns a few hundred bucks a month in compensation for rides might genuinely, or conveniently, forget to report those receipts come tax time if she hasn’t received a 1099? Pretty good, if prior Tax Gap research is any indication.
My coauthor, Leandra Lederman, presaged some of the problems with Code section 6050W and Form 1099-K reporting in a 2010 article, in which she identified factors that inform the determination whether additional information reporting might be successful. As Leandra and I observe in Information Matters, Form 1099-K held little promise from the outset. And the problems inherent in the TPSO reporting regime have only worsened as the worker economy has transitioned more and more toward lean, diversified gigs.
As if all of this weren’t concerning enough, TIGTA also found serious problems with the way the IRS goes about assessing self-employment tax compliance. Due to resource constraints, the IRS’s Automated Underreporter (AUR) program, the first line of offense against noncompliant taxpayers subject to information reporting, only selects and works a fraction of returns flagged for discrepancies by the Information Reporting and Document Matching Case Inventory Selection and Analytics (IRDM CISA) system (an acronym that only a bureaucrat could love). The idea is for AUR examiners to focus on cases that may yield the highest assessments while also pursuing repeat offenders and providing balanced coverage across AUR inventories. Yet, even as the discrepancy rate involving Forms 1099-K issued by the nine gig economy companies at the center of the TIGTA study increased by 237% between 2012 and 2015, the AUR program selected just 41% of these cases for review.
That review is not necessarily robust. TIGTA found that, for TY2011 through TY2013, 57 percent of all self-employment cases selected to be worked by AUR examiners were screened out—that is, closed without further action. Yet for cases not screened out, 45% were assessed additional self-employment tax; and TIGTA estimates that about $44 million in further self-employment tax could have been assessed during TY2013 alone if the screened-out cases had been worked and resolved similarly to those that were not screened out.
TIGTA also found that, while the IRS has implemented several tiers of quality review within the AUR program, little action is being taken to identify and correct error trends, and the review processes themselves are prone to error and mismanagement due in part to a lack of centralized coordination. One unfortunate consequence of these shortcomings in the AUR program is that gig workers who are already confused about their obligations are receiving inaccurate CP 2000 notices (the standard notice that informs a taxpayer of an error detected through AUR). In fact, TIGTA estimates that the AUR program sent taxpayers 23,481 inaccurate CP 2000 notices about their self-employment taxes in FY2017. That error rate is not only bad for taxpayers, it is bad for the government: if self-employment tax is inadvertently omitted from a CP 2000 notice, as a matter of policy the IRS is generally unable to correct that omission even if the IRS later detects the mistake. That additional revenue is simply forfeited.
So, despite all its wonderful potential to increase both economic opportunity for hard-working Americans and access to valuable services for those willing to pay for them, the gig economy has created some new challenges for tax administration. Gig workers are unsure of (or noncompliant with) their self-employment tax obligations; gig payers are unsure of (or taking advantage of) their status as TPSOs; and the AUR program is not keeping up with the changing times. TIGTA proposes a host of corrective actions in the February 14 report, most of which the IRS has endorsed. Among these corrective actions, three that strike me as particularly important are Recommendation 3 (revise the Internal Revenue Manual to clarify those circumstances in which an AUR examiner should enter a note justifying a screen-out decision); Recommendation 10 (develop IRS guidance on how taxpayers should classify themselves under Code section 6050W); and Recommendation 11 (work with Treasury to pursue regulatory or legislative change regarding the Code section 6050W reporting thresholds). The IRS disagrees with Recommendation 10, asserting that the problem is better addressed through a Treasury Regulation than IRS guidance and complaining that the IRS is preoccupied with issuing guidance under the TCJA and reducing regulatory burdens pursuant to E.O. 13,789. That may well be the case, but revenues are being lost every year that gig payers and workers misunderstand, or misapply, their reporting and payment obligations. There is no reason to suppose that the gig economy will start contracting any time soon, so it would be prudent for the IRS and Treasury to allocate resources to address this problem expeditiously. (Yes, I appreciate that the IRS is chronically underfunded and forced to make very difficult choices about how to staff projects. This is a problem that Congress largely created and Congress alone can fix.)
Ultimately, the best course here might be for Congress either to tailor the definition of TPSOs to a narrower subset of payers for whom the higher thresholds actually make sense (e.g., platforms like eBay, whose casual sellers may not net any income through their online rummage sales) or to lower those thresholds to make gig earnings more transparent to the IRS. So long as we maintain the regressive self-employment tax, we ought to ensure that all taxpayers liable for the tax—even tech-savvy taxpayers Ubering their way through the emerging economy—pay their fare share.
* Mr. Dugan writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Department of Justice or any of its components.