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Employer Payroll Taxes: How to Calculate Them

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    Every legitimate business must comply with local, state and federal payroll taxes. But without properly understanding how to calculate them, tax management can be a tall order. Read about the most common employer payroll taxes, their penalties and how to simplify compliance.

    Navigating employer payroll taxes can feel like a maze, especially for new business owners or those assuming payroll duties for the first time. Despite their complexities, these taxes fund essential government programs. And every legitimate business in America should ensure compliance with local, state and federal laws.

    So what exactly are employer payroll taxes and how are they calculated?

    From the intricacies of Social Security and Medicare taxes to understanding federal and state unemployment taxes, we’ll demystify the complexities of these obligations. We’ll also:

    • explain all the different types of payroll taxes
    • provide you with clear steps for calculating them
    • help you manage these responsibilities confidently

    How to calculate employer payroll taxes

    Calculating employer payroll taxes requires a clear understanding of the applicable rates and wage bases for each tax category, which can differ based on the type of tax and jurisdiction.

    For FICA taxes, the first step is to determine the employer and employee’s contributions, which are split equally between the two based on a percentage of the employee’s wages. The Social Security portion is applied up to a certain wage limit, while the Medicare portion applies to all wages without a cap.

    For example, if an employee earns a certain annual salary, the employer and employee would each contribute an equal amount toward Social Security and Medicare based on the set percentages of the employee’s wages.

    FUTA taxes are the responsibility of the employer alone, applying to the first portion of each employee’s earnings per year. Employers could be eligible for a credit against this tax if they pay state unemployment taxes on time and in full, which can reduce the effective rate significantly. The actual tax amount depends on the employee’s earnings up to the applicable wage base.

    SUTA taxes are determined by individual state laws and can vary widely, with factors like the employer’s industry and claim history affecting the rate. This tax is applied to the first portion of the employee’s earnings, with the specific wage base and rate depending on the state.

    When calculating these taxes, employers need to adjust for any changes in legislation, rates or wage bases, as well as variations in employee earnings, to ensure accurate tax contributions and compliance with state and federal laws.

    Employer payroll tax rates in the U.S.

    Employer payroll tax rates in the U.S. reflect a blend of federal mandates and state-specific regulations, particularly regarding SUTA taxes and other state-level obligations like disability insurance and paid family leave. The rates and tax structures can significantly alter an employer’s overall payroll tax burden.


    In California, SUTA rates can range from 1.5% to 6.2%, depending on the employer’s experience rating and the balance of the state’s unemployment insurance fund. California employers are also required to contribute to the State Disability Insurance (SDI) program, with a contribution rate of 1.1% for 2024.


    Texas offers a starting SUTA rate for new employers that is generally around 2.7% of the first $9,000 of an employee’s wages. The state stands out for not having a state income tax, which simplifies the payroll process in some respects, though employers still have to manage federal and state unemployment insurance contributions.

    New York

    In New York, the situation is more complex. SUTA rates for employers vary widely, from about 0.05% to 14.03% depending on the employer’s experience rating and the state’s unemployment fund status.

    New York also mandates employer contributions to its Paid Family Leave program, which can be about 0.37% of an employee’s wages — up to a cap of $333.25 per year.


    Florida provides a relatively low SUTA rate for new employers, around 2.7% of the first $7,000 of each employee’s wages. Like Texas, Florida doesn’t have a state income tax, reducing some administrative burdens but still requiring careful management of unemployment insurance contributions.

    Filing requirements for employer payroll taxes

    To ensure compliance with IRS regulations, employers must adhere to several key forms and deadlines. Here’s a brief overview.

    Forms required to file employer payroll taxes

    To file employer payroll taxes, you’ll need multiple forms to report and pay federal, state and (sometimes) local taxes. These forms are necessary to comply with tax laws and administer employee payroll taxes. Here’s a quick summary of the most common.

    Federal payroll tax forms

    1. Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return. This form is used to report wages paid, federal income tax withheld from employees, and both the employer’s and employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. It’s filed quarterly.
    2. Form 940, Employer’s Annual FUTA Tax Return. Employers use Form 940 to report annual FUTA taxes, which fund state workforce agencies. This form is filed annually.
    3. Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement. At the end of each year, employers are required to provide all employees with a W-2, which reports the individual’s annual wages and the amount of taxes withheld from their paycheck.
    4. Form W-3, Transmittal of Wage and Tax Statements. Along with the W-2s, employers have to file a Form W-3 to the Social Security Administration. This form summarizes the total earnings, taxes withheld, and Social Security and Medicare contributions for all employees.
    5. Form 945, Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax. This form is used to report and pay withheld federal income tax from non-payroll payments, which includes things like pensions, annuities, IRAs and gambling earnings.

    Additional forms and state-specific requirements

    • SUTA filings. Employers must also file state-specific unemployment tax forms. These taxes fund state unemployment benefits.
    • Other state and local forms. Depending on a company’s location, it may need to file additional forms for state disability insurance, paid family leave and local taxes.

    Special situations

    • Form 944, Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return. Small employers (those whose annual liability for Social Security, Medicare and withheld federal income taxes is $1,000 or less) may be allowed to file Form 944 annually instead of filing Form 941 quarterly.
    • Form 1099-NEC, Nonemployee Compensation. If the employer pays independent contractors $600 or more in a year, they’re required to file Form 1099-NEC for each contractor.

    Penalties for late/nonpayment of payroll taxes

    When it comes to payroll taxes, the IRS emphasizes timeliness and accuracy, and the penalties for late payment (or nonpayment) can be severe. These penalties can vary depending on the type of tax and the extent of the delay in filing. Here’s an overview of penalties employers might face.

    1. Failure to file. If an employer fails to file payroll tax returns on time, the IRS imposes a penalty based on the time elapsed since the deadline. The penalty starts at 5% of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that a return is late, up to a maximum of 25%.
    2. Failure to pay. Employers who fail to pay taxes reported on their filed returns could incur a failure to pay penalty. This penalty is 0.5% of the unpaid taxes for each month, or part of a month, after the due date. This penalty is assessed repeatedly until the tax is paid, up to as much as 25% of the unpaid amount.
    3. Failure to deposit. The IRS requires that employers deposit employment taxes according to a schedule, either monthly or semiweekly. Failing to deposit on time can result in penalties that range from 2% to 15% of the underpaid amount, depending on the length of the delay.
    4. Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP). The TFRP is imposed on employers who willfully fail to collect or pay the income and FICA taxes withheld from employees’ wages. This penalty is equal to the full amount of the unpaid trust fund tax.
    5. Interest charges. On top of penalties, interest is charged on taxes not paid by their due date. The interest rate is determined quarterly, equivalent to the federal short-term rate plus 3%.
    6. Fraud penalties. Employers that fraudulently fail to file and pay payroll taxes could face more severe penalties, including criminal charges. This typically results in fines and imprisonment.

    Employer payroll taxes: FAQ

    Do employer payroll taxes vary by state?

    Yes, employer payroll taxes vary by state. On top of federal payroll taxes, employers have to comply with state-specific requirements for SUTA taxes and, in some cases, other state-level taxes like disability insurance taxes or paid family leave. The rates, wage bases and specific tax types can differ significantly from one state to another — a reflection of the unique economic policies and social welfare needs of each state.

    Do employer payroll tax rates change often?

    Employer payroll tax rates can change periodically over legislative updates, economic policies and adjustments to social welfare programs. While some aspects of payroll taxes, like the federal rates for Social Security and Medicare, stay relatively stable over time, other taxes vary annually based on state budget requirements. To ensure compliance and accurate payroll processing, employers need to stay informed of any changes.

    Are there additional taxes an employer has to pay?

    Yes, beyond the standard payroll taxes for Social Security, Medicare and unemployment, employers could be subject to other tax contributions. These can include state-specific taxes such as disability insurance taxes, paid family leave contributions and workers’ compensation insurance premiums. The requirements for these taxes vary by state and sometimes by jurisdiction — another layer of complexity in the world of employer payroll tax.

    Can we use software or a company to file employer payroll taxes for us?

    Yes, businesses can use payroll tax management software (like Paycom) or hire payroll service companies to manage and file employer payroll taxes on their behalf. These services can automatically calculate, withhold and pay employer payroll taxes, ensuring compliance with federal, state and local tax regulations. This can also significantly reduce required labor, minimize the risk of errors and help businesses avoid costly penalties.

    Why do employers have to match payroll tax rates?

    Employers are required to match certain payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, as part of their contributions to these federally mandated programs. Matching ensures that both employers and employees contribute to the funding of these programs, helping keep them solvent and effective.

    Explore Paycom’s resources to learn more about payroll, HR compliance and more.

    DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.