Employee Retention Credits: A Simple Guide (COVID-19)

By Brendan Tuytel on April 3, 2020

Editor’s note: The PPP has now been replenished for round two. We encourage all eligible small businesses to apply now through their financial institution or through an online lender as the funds will quickly run out. If you need 2019 bookkeeping completed for your application, Bench can help.

Employers with fewer than 500 employees are now eligible for payroll tax credits, if they keep their employees on payroll throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

These tax credits can significantly lower your tax bill.

However, you cannot qualify for these tax credits if you’re also applying for the Paycheck Protection Program.

Relief is available for qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020, and before January 1, 2021.

What are tax credits?

Every pay period, you withhold a certain amount of an employee’s earnings to be used for federal taxes to be paid out quarterly. The tax credits in these programs are available when you pay out these amounts.

The responsibility lies with you, the employer, to pay these taxes. Tax credits reduce the amount of tax you’re required to pay, but if your tax credit exceeds the amount of tax you’re required to pay, you’ll get a check in the mail for the difference.

For example, if your quarterly federal tax bill is $10,000 and you’re eligible for a $6,000 tax credit, your tax payment will be reduced to $4,000. If the amount you receive as a tax credit is greater than the amount you are due to pay, you are entitled to a check for the remaining amount. So if your tax credit is $12,000 while your quarterly federal tax bill is $10,000, you are entitled to a $2,000 check.

The tax credits rolled out in the following Acts are intended to make those funds available for paying employees and making their continued employment more affordable.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

Announced on March 18th, the FFCRA introduced employer aid in the payment of sick leave and cost of providing leave to individuals directly affected by COVID-19. This pertains to individuals in quarantine, sick from COVID-19, caring for an individual with COVID-19, or caring for a child due to school closure or the closure of child care facilities due to COVID-19.

Paid sick leave for workers

If an employee is required to self-isolate and is unable to work from home, they are eligible to receive 80 hours of 100% paid sick leave.

In the cases of an employee having to take a leave in order to care for an individual can receive up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at 2/3rds of their pay.

The credit you get

For the portion withheld from the paychecks of employees, the amount that is due to be paid in federal employment tax will be reduced by an amount used to pay sick leave.

For example, if you are required to deposit $10,000 in payroll taxes but $8,000 was used to provide paid sick leave, a deposit of only $2,000 will be required. If the paid leave amount is greater than the payroll tax amount, businesses can file a request for an accelerated credit for the remaining amount.

Essentially, the amount you spent on paid sick leave can be completely removed from your payroll taxes.

Am I eligible for this credit?

If any employees are taking leave related to either contracting COVID-19, taking a period of quarantine, or caring for someone affected by COVID-19, you will be qualified for tax credits towards covering their wages.

The CARES Act

The CARES Act is a $2 trillion U.S. federal stimulus bill that brings relief to individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19. In order to be eligible for these credits, you’ll need to prove that you either suspended operations fully or partially due to a COVID-19-related shut down order or show a 50% or greater decline in sales revenue (“gross receipts”) in the same quarter of the prior year.

Here are the CARES Act employee retention credits.

Credit towards qualified wages

If you qualify for this credit, you would receive up to $5,000 per employee, per quarter in 2020 (starting March 13, 2020). The fine print is below.

This tax credit covers the cost of “qualified wages” (which excludes paid sick leave). Qualified wages are generally defined as those subject to the Federal Unemployment Tax Act without regard to the FUTA dollar limit. This also includes health insurance benefits that are paid or incurred on behalf of an employee. The tax credit is applicable to wages paid from March 13, 2020 through December 31, 2020.

The amount of the tax credit is equal to 50% of the first $10,000 in qualified wages per employee in a quarter. This is up to a maximum of $5,000 per employee.

Note: Qualified wages do not include sick leave. This means tax credits can be pursued for both sick leave under the FFCRA and qualified wages under the CARES Act.

Am I eligible for this credit?

To be eligible for these credits towards qualified wages, employers have to prove they either suspended operations fully or partially due to a COVID-19-related shut down order or show a 50% or greater decline in gross receipts in the same quarter of the prior year.

Payment of credit towards qualified wages

If the amount due to the employer is greater than the amount paid in the Social Security amount of payroll tax, the employer will receive a check from the IRS. Otherwise, the amount would be credited from that amount.

Period of non-enforcement

A temporary non-enforcement policy has also been put in place. A 30 day period following the announcement of the FFCRA provides a time period for employers to come under compliance with the Act. Any violations of the Act are permissible so long as the employer is acting in good faith to comply with the Act.

How do I apply for and receive credits?

The IRS is depending on you to self-report tax credits on Line 13 of Form 941. If the credits are in excess of your tax bill, fill out Form 7200 to apply for those additional credits.

Other COVID-19 resources


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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