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What's the Difference Between an Owner/Operator and an Independent Contractor?

The trucking industry is one of the largest employers in the United States, with roughly 9 million people in trucking-related jobs. Of that number, 3.5 million are truck drivers. Many truck drivers are classified as either independent contractors or owner/operators—two titles that are often incorrectly used interchangeably. The reality is this: An owner/operator is always an independent contractor, but an independent contractor is not always an owner/operator. While this may seem like semantics, the truth is there are very real distinctions that impact a driver’s workload, finances, and autonomy.

What is an Owner/Operator?

An owner/operator, in short, is someone who both owns their equipment—or finances their equipment through a financial institution on their own accord—and operates their equipment as their career. In other words, an owner/operator is “an independent contractor with a business attached to their name.” Owner/operators have the ability to operate under their own authority, which means they can legally transport freight independently without a carrier company contracting them. One of the upsides to being an owner/operator is you get to keep all of the revenue generated for each haul. Because owner/operators own their trucks and function as businesses, they face more responsibilities than independent contractors. Unlike many independent contractors, owner/operators are responsible for all of the maintenance and repairs on their trucks, the record-keeping for their taxes, the insurance for themselves as well as any other drivers they may employ, and scheduling and planning out their pickups and deliveries.

Not all owner/operators are 100% independent, though; some choose to lease onto a carrier company. Leasing onto a carrier company means an owner/operator provides the company with a truck and driver in exchange for guaranteed steady workflow from the carrier company for the duration of the contract. While this is a type of independent contracting, the driver still owns the truck and is therefore classified as an owner/operator. There is a downside, however, to leasing as an owner/operator; if an owner/operator gets into a lease with a carrier company, the driver cannot “haul freight for other companies or brokers that the company they are leased to [does] not have an agreement with.”

What is an Independent Contractor?

An independent contractor is a driver who signs into an agreement with a carrier company that will provide them with operating authority and guaranteed hauls for the duration of their contract. In exchange for the operating authority and guaranteed hauls, independent contractors usually have to give a percentage of their earnings to the carrier as part of the contract agreement. Furthermore, independent contractors do not necessarily own their trucks; oftentimes, they have to lease the equipment from the carrier company contracting them. While leasing the equipment from the company is more cost-effective up-front, if the driver decides to leave the carrier, the truck stays with the company and the driver is out of the money they paid to lease the vehicle during their time with the company.

One major benefit to being an independent contractor is contractors who are not in a lease-to-purchase agreement typically have less responsibility when it comes to the maintenance of the truck or any repairs that may come up during a haul as the driver does not own the vehicle. This is important because repairs on semi-trucks run anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000—and that’s without taking into account lost wages while the truck is off the road. With this in mind, many novice drivers begin their careers as independent contractors until they are financially ready to branch off on their own.

What Are the Biggest Differences Between an Owner/Operator and an Independent Contractor?

Ultimately, the difference between owner/operators and contractors comes down to three important aspects: ownership of the truck, operating authority, and autonomy. As an owner/operator, if you are unhappy with the company you are carrying for, you can leave and take your truck with you. Independent contractors, however, may not own the truck they’re driving, so if they’re unhappy with the carrier company, they can leave but won’t retain ownership of the truck—the carrier will. As an owner/operator, you also have the operating authority to legally deliver freight throughout the United States without a contract through a carrier. As an independent contractor, on the other hand, you can only operate a truck under the operating authority provided by the carrier you contract for. Even if you own your truck as an independent contractor but do not have legal operating authority in the United States, if you leave the company providing you with operating authority, you lose the ability to legally haul freight. There are pros and cons to being an owner/operator or an independent contractor, and depending on where you are in your driving career, you should take the time to weigh your options carefully and make the decision that is best for you.

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