What Employers Need to Know About the US Tax Reform Act

What Employers Need to Know About the US Tax Reform Act

The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which officially passed both houses of Congress on Wednesday, will have a significant impact on employers throughout the US, by lowering taxes on corporate profits and most employees’ salaries, as well as by changing the tax treatment of executive compensation and a number of other rewards. Here’s a quick look at how tax reform will affect employers and employees, and what HR leaders need to be thinking about right away:

Corporate Tax Reduced

The act permanently reduces the maximum corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent starting in 2018, while providing additional avenues for businesses to avoid being taxed at higher rates. It also includes a one-time tax cut for corporations repatriating cash currently held overseas, and introduces a territorial tax system that imposes a 10.5 percent tax on future foreign profits, benefiting American companies that do a lot of business internationally. This change, which the tech sector is cheering, is meant to encourage businesses to reinvest their foreign profits in the US, but others say this approach has long-term costs that outweigh the apparent immediate benefits.

Some companies announced that they were passing a portion of their tax windfall onto their employees, either with across-the-board bonuses or increases in their internal minimum wage. Moves like these will please President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans, who have long argued that slashing corporate taxes would lead to higher employment and wages. To critics, however, these announcements look more like public relations plays or attempts to curry favor with the administration, while investors, not employees, are expected to see the lion’s share of the gains.

Payroll Scramble

The first thing employers will have to do in the new year in response to these tax changes is to make sure their payroll deductions reflect the new rate and bracket structure, which has been significantly altered. The bill also dispensed with the personal exemption employees are used to using to calculate their taxable income, while roughly doubling the standard deduction. Payroll management companies Paychex and ADP say they expect to make these changes quickly and that employees should start seeing the new rates reflected in their paychecks as early as February. However, the Internal Revenue Service must first produce new withholding tables, which could take more time than usual given the overhaul the bill made to the system of deductions and exemptions. Employers will have to await further guidance on this from the IRS.

Executive Pay

The tax reform bill removes from the tax code a controversial provision introduced in 1993 that capped the tax deductibility of top executives’ compensation at $1 million, unless that compensation was “performance-based.” Originally intended to rein in the explosion of CEO and CFO pay packages, the measure failed to do so, and critics say it actually backfired by encouraging companies to shift executive compensation into stock options and pay for performance. Although it is unclear how the new rule will affect the way top-level executives are paid in the long term, it does give boards some decisions to make right now in order to maximize their tax benefit, such as whether to shift a CEO’s bonus payment from 2018 to 2017 so that it remains tax deductible. For more details, SHRM’s Stephen Miller has a helpful breakdown of the bill’s impact on executive compensation and payroll in general.

Other Employee Benefits

The bill changes the tax treatment of a variety of employee benefits, such as adding a new credit for wages paid to qualifying employees on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but cutting the deduction for commuter benefits. SHRM’s Stephen Miller also provides a comprehensive explanation of these effects here.

Impact on ACA and Health Insurance Market

While Congressional procedure prevented Republicans from using the tax bill to formally repeal the mandate for individual health insurance coverage created under the Affordable Care Act, the bill takes the teeth out of the mandate by zeroing the tax penalty for failing to obtain coverage. This change will have major implications for the individual insurance market, potentially driving up premiums as healthy individuals exit the market, no longer fearing a tax penalty. The bill does not address other aspects of the ACA to which businesses have objected, such as the employer mandate and the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-value health plans, but has emboldened business groups to push for more changes to these controversial policies in the coming year. As health care policy expert Timothy Jost explains in detail, scuttling the individual mandate will have some consequences for the employer-sponsored insurance market as well.