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Certified Wages For the Worker Retention Credit score

If you had employees on the payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could claim up to $26,000 in tax credits for each one, using the Employee Retention Credit (ERC). However, your credit amount depends on the qualified wages paid to your workers. 

To help you determine how much you can claim, let’s explore what counts as qualified wages for the Employee Retention Credit.

What are Qualified Wages For the Employee Retention Credit?

The Employee Retention Credit is a refundable payroll tax credit designed to provide relief to businesses that paid their employees despite facing economic strain from the COVID-19 pandemic.

You must meet a hardship requirement to claim the credit unless you’re a recovery startup business. That means experiencing economic strain in the form of a decline in your gross receipts or a suspension of your operations.

If you’re eligible, you can claim the ERC for a portion of the qualified wages you paid each employee in 2020 and 2021. More specifically, you can claim 50% of their first $10,000 in 2020 and 70% of their first $10,000 in each quarter of 2021, excluding the fourth. That’s a total of $26,000 each.

In addition to employee salaries, qualified wages include certain health plan expenses you incurred to maintain their group health plan, plus whatever costs they covered through pre-tax salary reduction contributions.

There may also be limitations on which employees qualify for the credit. If you meet the criteria to be a “large employer,” you can claim only the credit for the qualified wages you paid to those not providing services in 2020 and 2021. Here’s how it works:

If you had less than 100 employees on average in 2019, then the wages you paid to all your employees are qualified for 2020. If you averaged more than 100 employees, then only the wages you paid to employees who weren’t working are qualified that year.

For the 2021 tax year, the threshold increased to 500 employees. Wages paid to all your workers are qualified, if you averaged less than 500 in 2019. Otherwise, only non-working employee wages are qualified for 2021.

Examples of Qualified Wages

Like many aspects of the Employee Retention Credit, the qualified wages rules are complicated and challenging to grasp in the abstract. To help you understand how they work, let’s look at a few practical examples.

Qualified Wages for Small Employers

Say you own a cleaning business that’s had ten employees on the payroll since 2015. Each receives a $35,000 salary and costs you $5,000 in qualified health plan expenses annually. Three stopped providing services between September 31, 2020, and March 31, 2021, but you kept them all on the payroll.

In 2020 and the first three quarters of 2021, you have a significant enough decline in gross receipts to be eligible for the ERC. And because you only had ten employees on average in 2019, you’re considered a small employer in both years.

As a result, you can claim the ERC for the qualified wages you paid to all your employees. Fortunately, with $35,000 in salaries and $5,000 in health plan expenses, each earns $10,000 in eligible compensation per quarter, just enough to maximize your credit.

In 2020, you can claim 50% of the first $10,000 for ten employees, which is $50,000. In 2021, you can claim 70% of the first $10,000 for ten employees each quarter. That’s $21,000 for each employee in 2021, which is $210,000.

Qualified Wages For Large Employers

This time, say you own a cleaning business that’s grown large enough to operate across the state, with a whopping 750 employees on the payroll. However, 250 of your workers provided no services between September 31, 2020, and June 30, 2020. 

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume that they each have $40,000 in qualified compensation per year, and you experience a decline in gross receipts that makes you eligible for the ERC in all periods.

Because you averaged 750 employees in 2019, you’re considered a large employer for 2020 and 2021. As a result, you can only consider qualified wages paid to workers not providing services when calculating your tax credit amount.

In 2020, you can claim 50% of the first $10,000 paid to the 250 workers that stopped working on September 31. All would have earned $10,000 apiece in that final quarter of 2020, so you could claim $1.25 million in tax credits that year.

In 2021, you can claim 70% of the first $10,000 paid to those same workers in each of the two quarters they weren’t providing services. As a result, you can claim $14,000 for 250 employees that year, which is $3.5 million.

Can Owner Wages Qualify For the ERC?

If you structure your business as a corporation, you can pay yourself an annual salary. That raises the question of whether or not owner wages qualify for the Employee Retention Credit.

Unfortunately, the answer is probably not. It isn’t strictly forbidden, but it’s unlikely that you’ll meet the requirements to be able to do so. If you’re a majority owner with more than 50% of the stock, you’d need to have no living ancestors, siblings, or descendants.

If you’re a minority owner with less than 50% of the stock, your wages should be eligible if you don’t share ownership with your relatives. That all seems a little arbitrary, so let’s explore the reasoning.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruled that wages you pay to employees related to majority owners of your company don’t qualify for the ERC. A majority owner of a corporation owns at least 50% of the company’s stock. Their relatives are people with whom they have one of the following relationships:

  • Child or a descendant of a child
  • Brother, sister, stepbrother, or stepsister
  • Father or mother, or an ancestor of either
  • Stepfather or stepmother
  • Niece or nephew
  • Aunt or uncle
  • Son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law

The IRS has also ruled that “constructive ownership and familial attribution” rules apply to this situation. These state that people own the stock of their living ancestors, siblings, and descendants, by extension.

As a result, through slightly circular reasoning, any majority owner with at least one of these relatives is technically related to someone with majority ownership by extension. Therefore, their wages are ineligible for the ERC.

Example of Ineligible Majority Owner Wages

Say that you own 100% of Corporation A. You also have a big family, including a daughter. Because she has a qualifying relationship with you, a majority owner, the IRS also considers her a majority owner of Corporation A by extension.

Unfortunately, as her father, you have a qualifying relationship with her, too. And because she’s a majority owner, any wages paid to you are ineligible for the ERC.

Example of Ineligible Minority Owner Wages

This time, say you own 34% of Corporation A. However, you share ownership of the company with your two siblings. Each owns half the remaining shares, with 33% ownership each.

Because you’re all siblings, the IRS treats you all as if you own each other’s shares for the sake of the ERC. That means each of you effectively owns 100% of the company due to family attribution rules, making you all majority owners by extension.

As a result, each of you has a qualifying relationship with a majority owner, and none of the wages paid to you qualify for the ERC.

Apply For the Employee Retention Credit

Eligible employers who paid qualified wages to their employees during 2020 and 2021 can claim thousands of dollars through the ERC. While the period to earn the credit has passed, you still have time to claim them retroactively before the deadline.

If you’d like help with the process, our guided application tool can walk you through it step by step. It’s free to use, so give it a try today!

Learn More: If you have more questions about the Employee Retention Credit or qualified wages, our other resources may be able to help:

See If You Qualify For The ERC

Lendio’s easy-to-use ERC application is designed to simplify the process at every step. 

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