Quebec employers are increasingly resorting to placement agencies to quickly meet their need for occasional workers. While this new business model is gaining in popularity and offers many advantages, it also upsets the traditional bipartite “employer-employee” relationship. Thus, since the placement agency functions as an intermediary between the client and the worker, a tripartite employment relationship is created. This raises the issue as to whether the employer-employee relationship remains intact and, if so, then who is responsible for the source deductions. The Court of Québec recently answered these questions in the case of Agence Océanica inc. v. Agence du revenu du Québec.1
In this case, the placement agency, Océanica (hereinafter “Océanica”), was in the business of providing nursing staff for the short-term needs of hospitals, residential and long-term care centres (CHSLDs) and local community service centres (CLSCs) (hereinafter the “clients”). It operated as an intermediary between the clients and nurses: clients informed Océanica of their nursing staff requirements and Océanica did the recruiting. At the clients’ workplace, the nurses received their instructions from the clients, particularly in terms of the duties to be performed by them and their work methods, acting under the clients’ supervision. Océanica billed the clients for the nurses’ compensation, plus an amount for Océanica’s profit margin. Based mainly on the testimony of the nurses working for Océanica, it was apparent that they had no written employment contract with Océanica, they bore no risk of profit or loss, and they paid for their employment expenses themselves, without reimbursement by Océanica.
Océanica considered the nurses to be self-employed workers rather than employees. Thus, the compensation paid to the nurses would not be subject to the applicable source deductions in Quebec, i.e. for the QPP (Québec Pension Plan), QPIP (Québec Parental Insurance Plan), HSF (Health Services Fund) and CNT (Commission des normes du travail).
On the other hand, the Agence du revenu du Québec (hereinafter the “ARQ”) submitted that the nurses were not self-employed workers, but rather employees, and therefore assessed Océanica for the amounts due, plus penalties and interest, on account of the aforementioned source deductions on the compensation paid to the nurses.
Océanica appealed the assessment by the ARQ to the Court of Québec for a ruling on whether the nurses were employees or self-employed workers.
THE COURT OF QUÉBEC’S DECISION
After conducting a general review of the definitions of the concepts of employer and employee under various tax statutes, the Court admitted that there was not much substance to these definitions and that they were not very helpful in characterizing such a complex relationship as the one that existed between Océanica and its nurses. Nevertheless, the Court found that the payment of compensation was of particular importance for a person to qualify as an “employer” for purposes of the Taxation Act 2 (Quebec).
As for the concept of the employment contract under the Civil Code of Québec, 3 the Quebec case law has noted on many occasions that it must be analyzed on the basis of its three components, namely the performance of work, the compensation, and the relationship of subordination between employer and employee, with subordination being the main criterion for a finding of employee status. However, in the context of a tripartite relationship involving an intermediary, as opposed to the classic employment relationship between two parties, determining who is the true employer based on the subordination criteria may be difficult. Instead, a more general and broader analysis of the criterion of the employees’ legal subordination must be conducted and other criteria should also be considered, such as the selection of the employees, hiring, training, discipline, evaluation, etc. Thus, the Court took a more general approach to the relationship between Océanica and its nurses which was not limited to the nurses’ functions and to the degree of supervision exercised by Océanica over them.
The fact that some of the classic functions of the employer (i.e. recruiting, training and supervision) were shared between Océanica and the clients did not change the nature of the nurses’ work per se. Indeed, if the clients had not been there to offer employment and Océanica had not functioned as the link between the clients and nurses, the nurses would have been unable to offer their services. The nurses were integrated into the clients’ businesses and acted under their supervision. The nurses were not administering a business. To claim that the nurses were self-employed workers because Océanica, by itself, did not fulfill all the attributes of a classic employer would have led to an absurd result. For these reasons, the Court held that it was an error to claim that Océanica’s nurses were self-employed workers.
Therefore, the Court found that the nurses were employees of Océanica. Indeed, the judge stated that by inserting itself into the classic relationship between the clients and the nurses, Océanica assumed some of the employer’s functions, such as the recruiting and payment of the nurses’ compensation. In this regard, the Court found that Océanica acted as the clients’ mandatary and had entered into binding obligations on their behalf. As a result, Océanica became responsible for the clients’ tax liabilities, in accordance with the concept of mandate set out in the Civil Code of Québec. 4
The Court essentially took a two-pronged approach to this decision. Firstly, it dismissed Océanica’s argument that the nurses were self-employed workers. Secondly, since the nurses were found to be employees, the Court had to determine who was liable for the source deductions. The Court strongly emphasized the role of the person paying the compensation in reaching the conclusion that the nurses were employees of Océanica, since Océanica paid them their wages directly.
At first sight, this decision confirms the role of the employment agency as an employer of workers and its obligation to make the source deductions in Quebec from the compensation paid to them. Thus, employment agencies should remember that they must be vigilant with respect to the status of their personnel and the tax obligations for which they are responsible.
However, the Court’s conclusion regarding the mandator-mandatary relationship between Océanica and the clients may lead to confusion. Indeed, it is unclear what effect this conclusion would have in a situation in which the placement agency is delinquent and fails to make the requisite source deductions.
Finally, it should be noted that Océanica has appealed this decision to the Québec Court of Appeal. Hopefully, the Court of Appeal will take the opportunity to clarify the conclusion of the Court of Québec. We will be following these developments closely. Until then, caution is advised…