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Payroll Tax: What It Is, How to Calculate It

By Jennifer Dunn — Reviewed by Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA on March 20, 2020

Editor’s note: due to COVID-19, President Trump is considering reducing payroll tax to 0% for the rest of the year. However, as of March 20, nothing has been decided yet. This page will be updated with the latest information.

The day you hire your first employee, you become responsible for payroll tax. Despite the name, payroll tax is not a single tax, but a blanket term used to refer to all taxes paid on the wages of employees.

If you have employees, you are going to be responsible for both:

  • Deducting a portion of employee wages to pay certain taxes on their behalf

  • Paying payroll taxes on each of your employees out of your own revenue

In this guide, we’ll show you how to calculate employer payroll taxes (the taxes you as the employer will pay) as well as how much employee tax to remit to the government.

Further reading: Payroll—What It Is and How to Do It

If you don’t have employees

If you run a small business but you don’t have employees, you’ll still have to remit payroll taxes—for yourself. This is called self-employment tax, and is effectively Medicare plus Social Security for yourself (which amounts to 15.3% of your net business income).

Learn more: Self-Employed Taxes (A Simple Guide)

Summary of payroll taxes

There are two types of payroll taxes: ones that come out of your own pocket, and ones that you just collect from employee paychecks and remit to the government.

Payroll taxes that come out of your pocket:

  • FICA tax: covers social security and Medicare. This cost is shared by employer and employee. The employer portion is 6.2% for social security and 1.45% for Medicare, and you’ll collect and remit the same amount from your employees.

  • FUTA tax: covers unemployment insurance. The total amount is 6.0%. However, most states have a 5.4% credit, meaning most employers only pay 0.6%.

Payroll taxes that you just collect and remit:

  • Federal income taxes

  • State and local taxes

We’ll cover each of these in detail, beginning with federal income tax withholding, since it’s the most commonly asked about.

What is the percentage of federal income tax withheld?

As an employer, you withhold income tax on behalf of your employees and then remit those taxes quarterly to federal, state, and local tax authorities.

To calculate how much of your employee’s federal income tax to withhold, you’ll need a copy of their Form W-4, as well as your employee’s gross pay.

Your next step is to determine the method you want to use to calculate withholding. Most employers have two options, the wage bracket method and the percentage method. While not exactly simple, the wage bracket method is the more straightforward way to calculate payroll tax.

How to calculate federal income tax withholding using the Wage Bracket Method

  1. In IRS Publication 15-A, find the tables marked “Wage Bracket Percentage Method Tables.” Use the table corresponding to your employee’s pay period.

  2. Check form W-4 to determine whether the employee files income tax as married or single and the number of allowances they claim.

  3. Find the employee’s gross wage for the pay period in columns A and B. The wage should be over the amount found in column A but under the amount found in column B.

  4. Subtract the amount found in Column C.

  5. Multiply the result by the percentage found in Column D.

  6. Check form W-4 to determine if the employee requests additional tax withheld from each paycheck. If they do, add that amount to the final number.

  7. The end result is the amount you should withhold from the employee’s paycheck for that pay period.

wage-bracket-2019 Source: IRS Publication 15-A

The Percentage Method is much more complicated—not recommended if you’re doing this alone. If you want to learn more about the Percentage Method, you can read all about both methods in IRS Publication 15-A.

Once you’ve figured out how much income tax to withhold from your employees’ paychecks, your next step is to figure out how much FICA to withhold (more on that below), and how much you’ll be required to pay on their behalf.

Calculating FICA

FICA stands for “Federal Insurance Contributions Act.” It’s a mandatory payroll tax deduction used to pay for programs like Social Security (disability insurance, old age, survivors) and Medicare (covering health insurance for folks over 65).

When it comes to funding FICA, your employee pays 50% from their paycheck while you, the employer, pay 50% out of your own revenue. As the employer, you are required to withhold and pay the amount your employee is responsible for from her paycheck, and remit those funds on their behalf.

Current FICA tax rates

The current tax rate for social security is 6.2% for the employer and 6.2% for the employee, or 12.4% total. The current rate for Medicare is 1.45% for the employer and 1.45% for the employee, or 2.9% total.

Combined, the FICA tax rate is 15.3% of the employees wages.

Do any of your employees make over $137,700? If so, the rules are a little different. Read more at the IRS website.

How to calculate FICA payroll tax

Social Security withholding

To calculate Social Security withholding, multiply your employee’s gross pay for the current pay period by the current Social Security tax rate (6.2%).

This is the amount you will deduct from your employee’s paycheck and remit along with your payroll taxes.

Example Social Security withholding calculation:

$5,000 (employee’s gross pay for the current pay period) x .062 (current Social Security tax rate) = $310 (Social Security tax to be deducted from employee’s paycheck)

Medicare withholding

To calculate Medicare withholding, multiply your employee’s gross pay by the current Medicare tax rate (1.45%).

Example Medicare withholding calculation:

$5,000 (employee’s gross pay for the current pay period) x .0145 (current Medicare tax rate) = $72.50 (Medicare tax to be deducted from employee’s paycheck

Employer matching

As an employer, you are responsible for matching what your employees pay in FICA taxes. So in this case, you would also remit $310 for Social Security tax and $72.50 for Medicare tax.

Calculating FUTA

FUTA stands for Federal Unemployment Tax Act. It’s an employer-paid payroll tax that pays for state unemployment agencies.

The FUTA tax rate is 6% on the first $7,000 of wages paid to employees in a calendar year. However, the actual rate that employers pay is actually 0.6%, since each state receives a credit to cover the remaining 5.4% of FUTA payments.

Unfortunately, some states are currently ineligible for the full credit. You can learn more in our guide to FUTA.

FICA vs FUTA

While FICA is a payroll tax that contributes toward Social Security and Medicare, FUTA (Federal Unemployment Tax Act) is an employer-paid payroll tax that funds state workforce agencies and unemployment insurance.

They also require different tax forms.

You’ll report FICA on Form 940 - Employer’s Annual Federal Unemployment Tax Return at the end of the financial year.

You’ll report FUTA quarterly using Form 941 - Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return

How to make payroll tax payments

Calculating your payroll taxes is the hard part. Actually making the payments is easy.

You just enroll in the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), then make your payment online. It’s the only way to make a payroll tax payment (mailing checks isn’t allowed).

You can access EFTPS here.

State and local payroll tax

Employers are also responsible for paying state and local (city, county, etc.) payroll tax on behalf of employees. As with federal payroll tax, part of this tax is employer paid and part is employee paid. Keep in mind that “employee paid” just means that you, the employer, withhold a certain amount from your employee’s paycheck and then remit it as part of your payroll taxes.

In addition to state payroll tax (State Unemployment Tax, or SUTA), employers are also responsible for remitting state income tax on behalf of their employees.

State and local payroll taxes are governed at the state and local level, and every state’s payroll tax rules are different. The Federation of Tax Administrators published a list of each state’s taxing authority. You can find out more about payroll tax in your state and local area there.

You can outsource payroll tax

Payroll tax is complex. The calculations are nitpicky and penalties are steep. Even paying payroll taxes just a day late comes with a 2% penalty on the amount due, with that penalty rising as high as 15% for past due payroll taxes.

We highly recommend outsourcing your payroll to a company like Gusto. They’ll take the headache out of everything from paying your employees the right amount at the right time, to handling pesky withholding calculations and payroll taxes.


This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.

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