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Authored by Paul Dillon, Michelle Hobbs and Michael Wronsky

On Aug. 8, 2020, the president declared a payroll tax holiday via a presidential memorandum. The memorandum directs the Department of Treasury (Treasury) to exercise its authority to temporarily suspend the withholding, deposit and payment of some employees’ share of the payroll tax. The suspension is effective for taxes due on wages paid between Sept. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020.

Critical details surrounding the holiday remain outstanding, and guidance from Treasury is needed. However, in the interim, this tax alert highlights the minimal information available and the significant questions and issues that must be addressed.

This payroll tax holiday is essentially a loan that will need to be repaid (likely through additional withholdings from employee paychecks in 2021), unless Congress acts. It is not a full relief of the payroll tax as was enacted in 2009 following the financial crisis. To date, neither chamber of Congress seems inclined to enact similar legislation. Accordingly, we strongly recommend against acting to utilize this deferral in the absence of guidance and clarification from Treasury.

Key takeaways

  • Employer participation is optional. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin informally remarked on Aug. 12 that employers would not be required to suspend withholding from employee salaries and can continue to withhold and remit payroll taxes as usual. It is unclear whether employers will have the authority to allow individual employees to opt in or out of any payroll tax holiday.
  • Not all employees qualify. The memorandum provides the deferral for employees whose wages or compensation “payable during any bi-weekly pay period generally is less than $4,000, calculated on a pre-tax basis,” which equates to a $104,000 annual pre-tax salary. Employers must continue to withhold for employees earning above this threshold.
  • The taxes are still owed. The memorandum strictly defers payment; the payroll taxes must be paid after Jan. 1, 2021. This could create hardships for employers in ensuring they can sufficiently withhold in the next year. Further, repayment of four months’ worth of deferred taxes could create significant economic hardships for lower-income taxpayers, materially reducing or eliminating paychecks likely beginning in January (depending on the employee’s compensation level and amount deferred). Outright forgiveness of these liabilities would require action by Congress, but a payroll tax holiday has been spurned by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during recent economic stimulus negotiations.
  • Program creates potential compliance issues. It is unclear whether an employer would still be responsible for remitting an employee’s deferred taxes in the event the employee leaves employment before they become due. Further, if that employee takes a new job, their new employer may not have the necessary documentation or information to determine whether the employee is still eligible for deferral.
  • Memorandum constitutionality is questionable. It does not appear that the president has the authority under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to defer, implement or set tax rates. In addition, existing IRS regulations appear to prohibit any deferral of payroll taxes, which may preclude Treasury from unilaterally allowing a payroll tax holiday.

We anticipate Treasury will release guidance on the presidential memorandum prior to or shortly after the Sept. 1, 2020, effective date. In the meantime, expect this to be an evolving issue and look for additional updates from Baker Tilly as warranted.

Please contact your Baker Tilly tax advisor with questions on how the above affects your tax situation.

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The information provided here is of a general nature and is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any individual or entity. In specific circumstances, the services of a professional should be sought. Tax information, if any, contained in this communication was not intended or written to be used by any person for the purpose of avoiding penalties, nor should such information be construed as an opinion upon which any person may rely. The intended recipients of this communication and any attachments are not subject to any limitation on the disclosure of the tax treatment or tax structure of any transaction or matter that is the subject of this communication and any attachments.

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