The hazard of hazy definitions: a case study

It didn't seem like too much to ask.

After more than 35 years teaching home-study courses at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan, Ellen Bennett thought she deserved a pension when her supervisor told her five years ago that her services were no longer needed.

At least, she thought so when she learned her coworker was getting one.

"It's not right if you've been at a place for 35 years," she says, seated in her modest Manhattan apartment, her voice shaking slightly. "You should get something, don't you think?"

But despite her consistent work, teaching certificate, and listing in the school's catalog, Ms. Bennett was told she was an independent contractor. She was not, therefore, entitled to unemployment benefits, a pension, or health insurance.

Adding fuel to the fire: The IRS determined in October 1996 that Bennett was, in fact, a full-time employee. She sent the IRS decision to the School of Design, hoping it would satisfy the pension requirement, but she got no response.

The school also did not return repeated calls.

Complicating Bennett's case is that when she filed a claim of age discrimination against her former employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC said she was an independent contractor.

Part of the problem is that different entities - the IRS, EEOC, state workers' compensation and unemployment insurance agencies, and pension-plan committees - can rule on the independent-contractor question differently.

Although most agencies and the courts use something like the IRS's test, an IRS determination is not definitive. "Each state and each agency within each state has a different standard," says attorney John McGucken of Maryland's office of Unemployment Insurance.

So, as Bennett has found out, winning the fight on one front by no means guarantees a victory on the others.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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