Small Business

Why Trump’s payroll tax holiday may be a lose-lose for workers and their firms

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Smith Reynolds Regional Airport in Winston-Salem, N.C., September 8, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

It’s been nearly two weeks since President Donald Trump’s payroll tax deferral took effect – and large employers so far seem to have little appetite for the holiday.

Starting on Sept. 1, employers could defer collection of the 6.2% tax employees pay toward Social Security. This deferral is in effect through the end of the year and applies to workers making less than $ 4,000 per biweekly pay period – roughly $ 104,000 on an annualized basis.

Though implementing the deferral would give workers a temporary 6.2% bump in pay, the employer is responsible for recouping the deferred taxes – along with the regular withholding – from Jan. 1 through April 30.

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That means take-home pay will go down early next year for those workers.

There is no guarantee of forgiveness of those taxes, as that would require Congress to pass legislation discharging the liability.

“For employers looking at the deferral, they see this as a minimal benefit — like a short-term loan, if you will, because the amount has to be paid back next year,” said Robert Delgado, principal at KPMG in San Diego.

“Oftentimes the cost of implementing it will outweigh the benefit to the employee, as well as the potential complications,” he said.

Indeed, a few major firms have already said they wouldn’t change their withholdings, including Costco Wholesale Corp., the United Parcel Service, FedEx Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Home Depot Inc., Wells Fargo and CVS Health, according to the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.

The House of Representatives has also said that it would not roll out the deferral to its employees. As of Monday, the Senate is still weighing how it will proceed.

Higher expenses

sierrarat | E+ | Getty Images

One of the issues employers are currently grappling with is the fact that they are on the hook for penalties, interest and “additions to tax” starting on May 1 if they are unable to withhold and pay the deferred taxes from workers’ paychecks.

Questions still remain on how employers would recoup the funds from workers who leave before the year is over.

Some say that employers could pull a lump sum of the deferred taxes from a departing employee’s last paycheck. Firms can “make arrangements” with workers to collect the funds, according to guidance from the IRS.

But that could lead to higher costs for companies.       

It’s an all-around lose-lose.
Albert J. Campo
managing partner at AJC Accounting Services

“There’s the cost of compliance from the employer’s side,” said Albert J. Campo, CPA and managing partner at AJC Accounting Services in Manalapan, New Jersey.

“Even if you had an employee sign a contract and say that if they leave that they agree to pay it back, are the employers going to go through the legal expense of suing?” he asked.

“It’s an all-around lose-lose,” Campo said. “You’re spending more money to pursue the legal action, and the employer would probably suck it up and pay it.”

Some of the difficulties employers face in implementing the tax holiday include tracking which workers get the deferral. This means “turning off” withholding for some employees but not others, according to Delgado of KPMG.

Other complexities may arise, including the fact that a worker may not always qualify for the deferral. For instance, commissions, bonuses and exercising stock options might bump an employee out of the sub-$ 4,000 threshold in a given pay period. That means they won’t be subject to the deferral for that particular paycheck, said Delgado.

“Many employers don’t have a large payroll department,” he said. “They’re often hiring a third-party to manage the payroll.”

Bad news in 2021 for workers

Employers taking on the deferral also have the task of explaining to workers that they’re going to see a decrease to their pay in early 2021 as the employer withholds and remits the deferred payroll tax to the IRS.

Workers will need to understand that they may need to save the increase in pay they receive this fall to make up for the decrease in pay early next year.

The timing of the pay reduction is less than ideal.

“Right after the holidays, when you’re so credit-heavy because you’ve done your Christmas shopping, now you’re taking a pay cut for the first couple of months,” said Campo of AJC Accounting Services.

“From the employee’s perspective, you’re basically borrowing from the future at that point,” he said.

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