Workforce and Workplace Trends: The Empirical Challenges and Policy Significance

By Diane Ring

On Thursday, my co-author (Shu-Yi Oei) and I had the opportunity to present on “Tax Related Challenges for Platform Workers” at the United States Government Accountability Office in downtown Boston. We enjoyed discussing our past and current research regarding taxation, platform workers, labor and emerging workforce trends with GAO researchers.

Our talk at GAO was particularly timely because we’re in the process of writing a book chapter for a new empirical volume, tentatively entitled “The Law and Policy of the Gig Economy: Qualitative Analysis,” which is forthcoming at Cambridge University Press (ed. Deepa Das Acevedo). This volume will address the promise of qualitative empirical approaches to studying the gig economy. Our contribution will build on our previous work in which we looked at the public online conversations among Uber and Lyft drivers regarding challenges they face in tax compliance.

Even without considering the impacts of the 2017 Tax Reform on both the gig economy and the broader workforce (which we have examined here, here and here), significant empirical questions remain regarding the tax and economic pressures faced by gig and contingent workers. Some, but not all, of those questions can be addressed by examining tax return and survey data. Add in tax reform to the mix (think the new section 199A deduction, the suspension of employee business deductions and the offshoring international provisions (section 250 and 956A)) and it’s clear we have a lot of work to do to better understand the interplay between tax and labor policies across many fields and how this will impact the future of the workplace. Our view is that it will take a combination of empirical approaches to get a well-textured picture of how tax impacts work.

U.S. Business Community Calls for Ratification of Tax Treaties in U.S. — Again

By Diane Ring

I have been wondering for the past few years why the business community has not put more pressure on the Senate to resolve the tax treaty roadblock created by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). In 2011, newly-elected Senator Paul announced objections to the ratification of tax treaties and protocols and sought to block Senate consideration of those tax agreements in the pipeline. Senator Paul contended that the exchange of information provisions in the treaties violated taxpayers’ 4th amendment rights to privacy in their banking and financial data and that U.S. disclosure of such data to treaty partners would violate the due process rights of taxpayers. He succeeded in blocking the agreements (none have been ratified since 2010) and the result is a backlog of negotiated but unratified U.S. tax treaties and protocols.

A single senator can delay vote on a treaty and keep debate open. Negotiation with Senator Paul has not proven fruitful because he fundamentally objects to the information exchange provisions. However, other senators do have procedural recourse to end debate on a treaty and bring it to a vote. Under a process known as “cloture” (see Senate Rule XXII), a vote of 60 senators can force the end of debate. But this procedural path also requires an additional 30 hours of debate and the Senate can conduct no other business during this time. Thus, the cloture option puts a significant price tag on efforts to end the ratification impasse.

In a 2016 article (When International Tax Agreements Fail at Home: A U.S. Example), I mapped the historical and Senate procedural factors leading to the standstill on tax treaty ratification in the U.S. and the business community’s failed efforts to lobby  ratification of tax treaties. For example, in 2013 several major U.S. business trade groups (including the Technology Industry Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Foreign Trade Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the United States Council for International Business) sent a letter to Senator Bob Corker stressing the importance of approving pending tax treaties and protocols. Senator Paul remained unmoved by business community pleas and apparently, the problem had not been considered serious enough to warrant commencement of cloture.

But it now appears that the business community has been reviving its public efforts to pressure the Senate to act: Continue reading “U.S. Business Community Calls for Ratification of Tax Treaties in U.S. — Again”

Tax and Changing Labor Markets: The OECD Weighs In

By: Diane Ring

Across the globe, policy makers are wrestling with the possibility that the nature of work is changing and that those changes might be positive or negative. One of the most prominent changes identified is the rise of “non-standard” work, essentially work that is not part of a traditional employer-employee relationship. The rise of the gig economy, and perhaps its even greater growth in the public imagination, have fueled concerns about the prospect of disappearing employment and its replacement with less stable and less desirable non-employee work options.

The degree to which this shift is taking place is an empirical question which has been difficult to pin down. As my co-author Shu-Yi Oei and I have explored in our paper, Tax Law’s Workplace Shift (forthcoming in the Boston University Law Review), data on the changing nature of work comes from empirical studies, which suffer from limitations due to the questions asked, the terminology employed, and comparability of studies over time and across databases. But regardless of any precise conclusions on the rate at which work is changing, there are valid reasons to be concerned and inquire about the impact of tax law on any such shifts. The OECD has begun to weigh in on these questions, releasing a new working paper entitled Taxation and the Future of Work: How Tax Systems Influence Choice of Employment Form, by Anna Milanez and Barbara Bratta (March 21, 2019).

The OECD Project

In this paper, the OECD tackles the question of whether tax considerations may be driving any increases in non-standard work. Using three labor scenarios—traditional employee, self-employed worker, and incorporated worker (e.g., a personal services corporation)—the paper asks how the tax burdens change across the three labor scenarios in eight test countries (including the United States).

In particular, the paper measures the “tax payment wedge” in each labor scenario in each country.

Payment wedge = total employment costs minus worker take home pay                                                                                  total employment costs

where total employment costs equal take home pay, income tax, employee social security contributions, employer social contributions, and payroll taxes minus any cash transfers (i.e. cash payments from the government to the worker, such as those made with respect to dependent children).

What did the OECD find across these eight test countries? Continue reading “Tax and Changing Labor Markets: The OECD Weighs In”

Section 199A’s Workplace Shift

By Diane Ring

As we mark the one year anniversary of tax reform, the aftermath continues to dominate tax policy analysis. New § 199A, which my co-author, Shu-Yi Oei, and I initially explored here and here and here, continues to attract significant attention, both in terms of the provision’s likely substantive effects, and the legislative, regulatory, and political issues it raises.

One of the most compelling, yet underanalyzed, questions is how § 199A could impact labor and dramatically reshape work, the workforce, and the workplace. In a new paper posted on SSRN on December 3, titled “Tax Law’s Workplace Shift,“ Shu-Yi and I tackle these issues in detail. In brief, the paper explores the factors that will determine whether § 199A is likely to cause a workplace shift from employee to independent contractor arrangements, and, if it does, how such a shift should be normatively evaluated. Ultimately, we show how our evaluation of these § 199A workplace effects must depend on the types of workers and work at issue. Continue reading “Section 199A’s Workplace Shift”

The Stages of International Tax Reform (Insights from this Weekend’s ABA Tax Section Meeting)

By: Diane Ring

Since December 2017, tax conferences in the United States have focused substantially on the H.R. 1 tax reform legislation. No surprise there — the 2017 changes are among the most significant in the past thirty years. But over the past five months, through attending numerous tax conferences featuring international tax practitioners, I’ve observed some interesting developments in the nature of the discussions and debates at these conferences. These changes are pretty revealing about the process of absorbing the true impact of the new tax law, particularly in international tax. This weekend’s ABA May Tax Section Meeting in Washington, D.C. highlighted some of these trends.

Continue reading “The Stages of International Tax Reform (Insights from this Weekend’s ABA Tax Section Meeting)”

The Gig Economy Battles Continue: 9th Circuit Weighs In on Seattle Uber Driver Ordinance

By: Diane Ring

Today the 9th Circuit weighed in on the validity of a Seattle ordinance that requires businesses contracting with taxi-drivers, for-hire transportation companies, and “transportation network companies” to bargain with drivers if a majority of drivers seek such representation. The legislation, which effectively enables Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize, drew objections from Uber, Lyft and the Chamber of Commerce— which sued the City of Seattle. In an August 2017 post, I reviewed the ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, which concluded that the Seattle ordinance was an appropriate exercise of the city’s authority and did not violate the Sherman Act (because of state action immunity) and was not preempted by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  So what did the 9th Circuit say?

Continue reading “The Gig Economy Battles Continue: 9th Circuit Weighs In on Seattle Uber Driver Ordinance”

Call for Papers: “Reshaping Work in the Platform Economy”

By: Diane Ring

Last October, the international conference “Reshaping Work in the Platform Economy” was held in Amsterdam. I blogged about the two-day event that explored a wide range of legal, business and social issues here and here.  The call for papers for the Fall 2018 conference (October 25 & 26, 2018, Amsterdam) has just been issued:

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Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All Into Independent Contractors? (New Paper on SSRN)

By: Diane Ring

Shu-Yi and I started a blog post on new Section 199A that morphed into a seven-page essay that ultimately found its proper home on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All Into Independent Contractors?

Abstract

There has been a lot of interest lately in new IRC Section 199A, the new qualified business income (QBI) deduction that grants passthroughs, including qualifying workers who are independent contractors (and not employees), a deduction equal to 20% of a specially calculated base amount of income. One of the important themes that has arisen is its effect on work and labor markets, and the notion that the new deduction creates an incentive for businesses to shift to independent contractor classification. A question that has been percolating in the press, blogs, and on social media is whether new Section 199A is going to create a big shift in the workplace and cause many workers to be reclassified as independent contractors.

Is this really going to happen? How large an effect will tax have on labor markets and arrangements? We think that predicting and assessing the impact of this new provision is a rather nuanced and complicated question. There is an intersection of incentives, disincentives and risks in play among various actors and across different legal fields, not just tax. Here, we provide an initial roadmap for approaching this analysis. We do so drawing on academic work we have done over the past few years on worker classification in tax and other legal fields.

What’s Up with the Sharing Economy? (Report from the 13th International Human Rights Researchers Workshop)

By: Diane Ring

Sometimes we do get what we are seeking. In some of my recent work on the sharing economy I have advocated for more discussion and analysis across legal boundaries, so that the rules we develop have outcomes that more closely match our goals and don’t bring unexpected—and undesired—surprises. The two-day conference on “Sharing Economy: Markets & Human Rights” that I have been attending at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, Israel has provided just such an opportunity. The papers presented cover a wide range of legal fields and issues from taxation to discrimination, and will ultimately be published together in the Law & Ethics of Human Rights Journal. Although we are all benefiting from the discussion of our drafts and will continue to revise our work, some interesting themes have emerged already . . .


Continue reading “What’s Up with the Sharing Economy? (Report from the 13th International Human Rights Researchers Workshop)”

The Senate Tax Bill’s “Clarification” of Independent Contractor Status: Tax and Employment Law Tradeoffs

By: Diane Ring

Shu-Yi Oei and I have been tracking the recent tax reform developments as well as a couple of proposed tax bills that deal with worker classification, information reporting, and tax withholding. Based on a description prepared by the Joint Committee on Taxation, it looks like the Senate Tax Bill is going to include a new safe harbor provision guaranteeing worker classification as an independent contractor and will make changes to independent contractor withholding and information reporting. We posted our analysis of this proposal and its potentially serious implications on TaxProf Blog: The Senate Bill and the Battles Over Worker Classification.

Our main points:

1. Not just tax: This worker classification safe harbor is not just about tax, it will likely have impacts on employment/labor law outcomes and protections as well.

2. Not just gig workers: Based on the Joint Committee description, the proposal is not limited to gig economy workers —anyone who meets the safe harbor requirements (which are pretty easy to satisfy in many cases) can be classified as an independent contractor. This may have the effect of encouraging employers to push workers into work relationships that come within the safe harbor. Or, in certain cases, it may facilitate the strategic movement of higher-income workers into independent contractor status — see point 4 below.

Continue reading “The Senate Tax Bill’s “Clarification” of Independent Contractor Status: Tax and Employment Law Tradeoffs”