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Over the past year, many government stimulus programs were enacted to help businesses and individuals combat the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants have been one of the hardest hit industry segments and should explore any and all avenues possible to subsidize efforts to keep the doors open and employees on the payroll.

One of the subsidies enacted within the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act back in March 2020 was the Employee Retention Credit (ERC). It was overshadowed by the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) because the law at the time stated if your company received a PPP loan, it was not eligible to also claim the ERC. Therefore, many companies disregarded the ERC as the PPP loan was a more advantageous program.

In December 2020 this dynamic changed. Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, taxpayers are now able to receive a PPP loan and claim the ERC. What’s more, this change was made retroactive to all of 2020. This change of law, along with an easing of the eligibility requirements, opens the door for many restaurants to claim this valuable credit.

How is the credit determined in 2020?

The credit is equal to 50% of qualified wages determined on an employee-by-employee basis and must be calculated separately for each quarter the company is eligible during 2020. The maximum wages allowed in 2020 for all quarters for each employee is $10,000, thus allowing for a maximum credit of $5,000 per employee. Eligible wages generally include payroll and employer paid health plan expenses. A company may not, however, claim the credit on wages that were paid using a PPP loan that was forgiven or wages that were used to determine other payroll tax credits such as WOTC and FFCRA credits. There are many detailed considerations and calculations, including interplay with PPP funds, which need to be made. Restaurants should consult with their tax advisor for assistance to maximize their ERC.

I got a PPP loan, how much will my credit be?

As can be seen in the example, the credit available to restaurants can be a meaningful portion of total payroll for the year in addition to the PPP loan that was received. This is because of two traits common among many restaurants during 2020:

  1. Government orders forced most restaurants to limit in-store dining throughout the majority of the year. In many cases, the restaurant business would therefore qualify for the ERC as being “partially suspended” for the duration of the order [1]. Since PPP loans were designed to cover only 2.5 months of wages, there are sufficient wages remaining to also claim the ERC.
  2. Many restaurant employees earn less than $10,000 per year. Therefore, a high percentage of the business total payroll costs qualify for the credit.

What are the eligibility requirements?

To qualify, businesses must meet one or more of certain eligibility requirements, including a substantial decline in gross receipts and being suspended by a government order due to COVID-19. While generally obtainable to restaurants, these requirements must be reviewed thoroughly with an advisor to ensure the business is eligible.

How do I claim the credit?

The credit is a payroll tax credit and is claimed on Form 941. Because all Forms 941 have been filed for 2020, eligible companies will need to adjust their quarterly payroll reports using Form 941-X to claim the credit.

What’s the impact on my income taxes?

You do not need to claim the credit received as taxable income. However, the business must reduce the wage deduction on their income tax return by the amount of the credit received. If your income tax returns have already been filed, an amendment would be necessary.

Is this credit available in 2021?

Yes! In fact, the credit is even higher in 2021. Businesses may claim a credit equal to 70% of qualified wages and the wage limits resets each quarter. The result is a maximum of $7,000 per employee per quarter for all of 2021. So, an employer could claim $7,000 per quarter or up to $28,000 per employee if they are eligible for all four quarters in 2021.

Once an afterthought, the ERC is now a valuable benefit to many restaurant owners. Although it requires detailed record keeping and careful calculation, the reward can help sustain your operations. Contact Baker Tilly’s Employee Retention Credit advisors for further guidance.


[1] Eligibility requirements should be reviewed thoroughly.  Safe harbor tests on gross receipts and other metrics may also apply.

Wade R. Huseth
Todd C. Bernhardt
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