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What Is Payroll Tax?

Payroll taxes are the taxes employers are mandated to withhold from their employees' compensation: wages, bonuses, commission, etc. These are then paid to the government and encompass a variety of tax components.

The amount withheld depends on several factors, including the employee's income and the specific regulations of the country or jurisdiction.

If you're handling payroll yourself, it's important to remember that it's not just about deducting a lump sum; it's about accurately processing and remitting the right amounts.

Inaccuracies or delays in tax remittance can lead to legal consequences. There's a potential for hefty fines and, in severe cases, legal actions against your business.

Mishandling payroll taxes can lead to financial hiccups. Over or underpaying can disrupt your financial planning and budgeting, not to mention the time and resources needed to correct errors, even if the business only has one employee.

Payroll Tax Amounts

Let's break it down. What are the taxes you need to be aware of and how much do you need to contribute?

Federal Income Taxes

These are calculated based on the amount an employee earns through wages and other income sources and their withholding allowances.

Social Security and Medicare Taxes

Known collectively as FICA taxes, both employers and your employees contribute to these. The Social Security tax is 6.2%, paid by both the employee and the employer, for a total of 12.4%. Note that as of 2024 the upper taxable limit for social security is $168,000.

The tax for Medicare is 1.45% for the employer and 1.45% for the employee, for a total Medicare tax of 2.9%. For individuals earning over £200,000, an additional 0.9% is charged to the employee.

Federal Unemployment Tax (FUTA)

Employers are responsible for paying the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) tax, which funds unemployment benefits for workers who have lost their jobs. The FUTA tax rate is 6% on the first $7,000 of wages paid to each employee in a calendar year. 

However, employers may receive a credit of up to 5.4% for paying state unemployment taxes, resulting in a net FUTA tax rate of 0.6%.

State Unemployment Tax (SUTA)

Employers are also responsible for paying state unemployment taxes, which fund unemployment benefits at the state level. SUTA tax rates and wage bases vary by state and are subject to state-specific regulations.

Payroll tax vs Income tax

While both are deducted during the payroll cycle, there’s a difference between payroll taxes and income taxes.

Payroll taxes are the FICA, FUTA, and SUTA taxes—fixed amounts that go toward specific government programs.

Income taxes are calculated based on an employee’s total earnings and fund numerous government programs from education to infrastructure and, of course, defense.

Managing Payroll Taxes Efficiently

With so many components, managing payroll taxes can feel daunting. Here's how to keep things streamlined:

  • Maintain up-to-date employee records: Maintain accurate records of employee compensation and keep records of tax withholdings, including federal income tax, Social Security tax, Medicare tax, and any state or local taxes. All employees must fill out their Form W-4 for paying income tax.
  • Staying updated with regulations: Tax laws evolve. It's your responsibility to stay updated with the latest changes and ensure your processes align. In the U.S., The IRS website is a natural starting point.
  • Make use of payroll software: Modern payroll software can automate calculations and help you stay compliant. It's an investment that often pays off in saved time and reduced errors. To help, here’s our pick of the best payroll software.
  • Regular audits: Frequently reviewing your processes can help catch and rectify mistakes early. Regular checks ensure everything runs smoothly.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

A few missteps can lead to significant problems. Here's what to watch out for:

  • Late payments. Timeliness is key. Late payments are met with fees that increase the longer the payment is past due.
  • Misclassification of employees. Freelancer or full-time? Your employee's classification affects their tax bracket so ensure you get this right.
  • Using outdated tax rates and tables. Using outdated tax rates, tables, or forms can result in incorrect calculations of payroll taxes. Always use the most current tax rates and tables provided by the IRS to ensure accuracy.
  • Failure to account for taxable benefits. Forgetting to include taxable fringe benefits, such as bonuses, commissions, or non-cash compensation, in payroll calculations can lead to underreporting of income and underpayment of taxes.
  • Overlooking employee withholding allowances. Neglecting to account for employee withholding allowances (essentially exceptions) or changes in filing status specified on Form W-4 can lead to incorrect federal income tax withholding amounts.
  • Inaccurate calculation of overtime pay. Incorrectly calculating overtime pay rates for non-exempt employees can result in underpayment of wages and payroll taxes. Follow federal and state overtime pay rules and calculate overtime wages accurately.

The Importance Of Being Diligent

Managing payroll taxes is a significant responsibility for employers. With potential legal and financial implications, it's vital to approach the task with diligence and accuracy. 

By understanding the components, utilizing the right tools, and staying informed, you can ensure your business stays compliant and financially sound.

Further handy resources to help you manage a smooth payroll process:

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By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.