December 28, 2006

My Friend, Uncle Sam

My flight home Christmas night did not land in Chicago until 1 a.m. - about two hours later than originally scheduled thanks to problems with a connecting flight in Philadelphia. Since I walked into my apartment after 1:30 a.m. and had to be at work in less than 8 hours, I wasn’t the happiest girl in the world - that is until I read my mail.

As usual, after an extended weekend away from my apartment (my standard mode of living over the past month), my mail was crammed in my tiny mailbox. I began to sort through it quickly while throwing down my bags and surveying my dying plants. Something caught my eye - a large envelope from the IRS. Usually personal messages from Uncle Sam send a chill up my spine, but this was a letter I had been waiting for quite some time - since June to be exact.

While taking classes for my paralegal certificate this past spring, we quickly covered employment law. That brief lecture, though, inspired me to take on a former employer of mine.

At the start of 2005, I took a job as a content developer at Cognitive Arts, a company specializing in creating online and print manuals for employee training. I spent my five months there writing about auto and general liability insurance. I was hired as an independent contractor to work on this project despite not being able to read my own insurance policies when I started. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an independent contractor beyond the fact that no taxes were taken from my paychecks, and I received no benefits.

I might not have had such a fierce determination to take on Cog Arts if they had not treated me and every other person there like dispensable pieces of machinery. We worked for their bottom line, and the company gave us nothing in return. This was topped by the fact that they let me go in the shadiest manner possible and then asked me to plan a celebration for the end of our project.

When I filled out my taxes in January, I then understood what it meant to be an independent contractor. It means you owe a shit ton of taxes is what it means. When all was said and done I paid over $1,800 to Uncle Sam due to my independent contractor status. And I was pissed. I was still pissed a few months later when my professor began lecturing my classmates and me about how the government defines an employee versus an independent contractor. It was clear for all intents and purposes that in the eyes of the government I was an employee, despite what my former employer may have said. I did a little research, found some forms, filled them out, attached a paper citing the appropriate legal authorities, sent them on to the Department of Treasury and waited for my reply.

That reply was waiting in my mailbox Monday night. And in the words of the government “in reply to (your) request for a determination of your federal employment tax status with respect to the services you performed in 2005 to Niit USA, Inc., we hold you to have been an employee for federal tax purposes.” In other words, I took down the man - and to the tune of I am hoping around $1,000. Needless to say it felt pretty damn good and my excitement delayed my sleep probably about as much as the flight from Philadelphia. But this time instead of trying to sleep in a cold airport terminal I was restless from visions of the ways I plan to spend the money I rightfully earned.

The lesson here: the system does work and it feels pretty damn good to take on the man, provided you win.

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