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What’s a “nonemployee”?

A custodian cleans ahead of the return of students for the upcoming semester at Apples Pre-K School on Aug. 26 in Stamford, Connecticut.

Employee or nonemployee? John Moore/Getty Images

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While working on this season of “The Uncertain Hour,” we heard a lot of words and phrases that sounded weird to our ears. So each week we’re going to explain a bit of jargon. To get a new “Uncertain Term” in your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter! To go with our season five trailer, this week’s Uncertain Term is “nonemployee.” 

Let’s start with what this word is not: employee. That term goes back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when factory workers started organizing and demanding protections in the workplace. Lawmakers struggled with what to call them (workmen? hirelings? laborers?) and ultimately landed on employee.

The term was meant to encompass all the workers whose labor a company relies on, who a company was legally required to give employment protections to — things like workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance or a guaranteed minimum wage. 

A nonemployee, then, is not that. But when you think about companies using the term nonemployee — and they use it a lot these days — it’s kind of absurd. Aren’t we all technically nonemployees of anywhere that we don’t work?

In today’s corporate world, nonemployee is a useful way to describe all the people whose labor contributes to the company but who don’t work directly for the company — like independent contractors, franchise owners, consultants and people who work for subcontractors and temp agencies.

Many companies have official nonemployee head counts or departments dedicated to managing nonemployees. There are whole industries focused specifically on providing a nonemployee workforce to companies.

The designation reveals the trickiness of the relationship companies have with these workers, whose labor they profit from, while distancing themselves from some of the potential costs, responsibilities and liabilities that come with an employee. With employees, you’re on the hook; With nonemployees, not so much. 

To get a new “Uncertain Term” in your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter! And for more on this thing we used to call employment, check out the latest season of “The Uncertain Hour“! Listen to the trailer below and subscribe wherever you get podcasts.

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