On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law, a $1.9 trillion bill that extends many forms of federal assistance for small businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic first introduced by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Two of these provisions are the employee retention credit and the employer payroll tax deferral. These are related but function differently. The employee retention credit provides businesses with an up to $10,000 per full-time employee per quarter payroll tax credit through Jan. 1, 2022, while the employer payroll tax deferral allows your business to postpone paying some payroll taxes due in 2020 by paying half of those taxes at the end of 2021 and the other half at the end of 2022.

Key Takeaways

  • Nearly all businesses and self-employed individuals were eligible for the employer payroll tax deferral.
  • The provision lets you defer payment of the employer share (50%) of Social Security taxes on wages earned from March 27, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2021.
  • This payroll tax deferral was not a payroll tax credit. The credit is covered under another program.

Only for Employer Portion of Social Security Taxes

The deferral (and the credit) applied to the employer portion of Social Security taxes (6.2% of wages). This means that if you were self-employed, you could defer payment of 50% (6.2%) of the 12.4% Social Security self-employment tax. You couldn’t defer payment of Medicare taxes (2.9%) or the employee portion of Social Security taxes (6.2%).

You Could Defer Payments in Advance of Credits

The payroll tax payment deferral was in addition to the provisions of the employee retention credit and credits granted under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). In other words, you could defer payment of your (employer) portion of Social Security taxes (6.2% of wages) for all employees for wages paid between March 27, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021.

Initially, you could continue to defer any payments not covered by either the FFCRA credit or the employee retention credit with one exception. If you received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loan, you could not defer payment once you were informed that the loan had been forgiven. However, that exception was eliminated by the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act of 2020, which went into effect on June 26, 2020.

Near Universal Eligibility

Unlike the credit, the deferral applied to almost all businesses and self-employed individuals, whether affected by COVID-19 or not. The deferral required no special election by employers.

There are two rules you needed to know to maximize your access to this provision and also avoid penalties for late deposit of taxes:

  • As an employer, you are liable for timely payment of employment taxes even if you designate an agent to deposit those taxes for you
  • You must deposit 50% of deferred taxes by Dec. 31, 2021, and the remainder by Dec. 31, 2022, or face significant failure-to-deposit penalties

Accounting for Your Deferral

Form 941, the Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return, was revised for the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2020 to reflect the employer’s deferral of the employer’s share of Social Security tax.

If you are self-employed, you file estimated taxes using Form 1040-ES. Estimated 2020 payments that would have been due April 15 and June 15 were postponed to July 15, 2020, to coincide with the new federal income tax deadline. If you wanted to defer 6.2% of Social Security taxes based on estimated income from March 27, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020, you could deduct that amount from the total taxes due and adjust your quarterly payments accordingly.

Employer Payroll Tax Deferral vs. Employee Retention Credit

In general, there are fewer restrictions on deferring payment of your company’s portion of Social Security taxes than there are on receiving full refundable credit on those taxes. The table below illustrates the main differences between the two provisions.

  Payroll Tax Deferral Payroll Tax Credit
Employers All Partial or full closure by law
Significant decline in gross receipts
Employees All 100 or more full-time, not working
>100 full-time, working or not
Self-employed All None
Timeline March 27, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021 March 13, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021
Taxes affected Employer portion of SS taxes Employer portion of qualified SS taxes
Action Deferral Refundable credit
Taxes due 50% 12/31/21; 50% 12/31/22 None + potential refund
Impact of PPP Loan None No credit if loan received
Impact of FFCRA None No credit for FFCRA credits