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Payroll Taxes: A Guide for Small Business Owners


As a small business owner, managing payroll taxes is an essential aspect of running a successful enterprise. But, staying compliant with complex tax regulations and ensuring the financial well-being of your business demands a solid understanding of various payroll tax requirements.

In this guide, we aim to provide an overview of different types of payroll taxes, explore crucial distinctions between employees and independent contractors, and offer valuable insights to support your journey toward effective payroll tax management. 

With a clear grasp of these fundamentals, you'll be empowered to make informed decisions that bolster your business's stability and long-term growth.


What are Payroll Taxes & Why Care About Them?

Payroll taxes are mandatory withholdings from an employee's salary, which include federal taxes, state taxes, Social Security, and Medicare. These taxes are a crucial obligation for all businesses, including small ones.

As a small business owner or entrepreneur, you should be aware of your responsibilities in relation to payroll tax compliance. This involves the proper calculation of tax withholdings for each employee based on their income and deductions. 

By staying informed about payroll tax requirements and regulations, you can ensure the smooth operation of your business. You also have to familiarize yourself with different aspects of payroll taxes, such as deadlines, rates, or forms required to be filed. 

While this seems like something only your accountant or payroll manager should care about, as the business owner, it’s good practice to be up to date with all the requirements. By staying informed about payroll tax requirements and regulations, you can ensure the smooth operation of your business.

Overall, accounting for payroll taxes effectively ensures greater financial stability within your small business. It not only preserves cash flow but also helps maintain a positive reputation with employees and governmental bodies alike. In turn, this fosters trust and confidence among stakeholders, which is vital for long-term success.


Types of Payroll Taxes You Need to Know About

Besides worrying about accurate payroll tax calculations, you also need to be aware of all your payroll tax obligations at federal, state, and local levels. Otherwise, you can’t make sure you are complying with all the rules and regulations in place.

In short, payroll taxes can be divided into three main categories: employer taxes, employee withholdings, and taxes paid by both.

Employer Taxes

  • Federal Unemployment Tax (FUTA): This tax funds unemployment compensation programs for eligible workers who lose their jobs. Employers pay FUTA tax based on a percentage of employee wages up to a wage base limit (6% on the first $7,000 earned).
  • State Unemployment Tax (SUTA): Similar to FUTA, SUTA is also used for funding unemployment benefits but at the state level. Rates vary by state and depend on factors like industry and experience rating.

Employee Withholdings

  • Federal Income Tax: Employers must withhold federal income tax from each employee's paycheck based on their filing status, exemptions, and income level as outlined in IRS Form W-4.
  • State and Local Income Tax: Depending upon your business location, you may need to withhold state and local income taxes from employees' paychecks. Rates vary by tax jurisdiction.
  • Social Security & Medicare Taxes (FICA): The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) requires employers to withhold Social Security (6.2%) and Medicare (1.45%) paid by both the employee and employer.
  • Additional Medicare Tax: Applicable for high-wage earners, paid only by the employee.

Both Employer and Employee

  • FICA Taxes: Total liability of 15.3% split between the employer and employee (12.4% for Social Security, 2.9% for Medicare).

Additional considerations:

  • Self-employed individuals are responsible for paying their full FICA contributions.
  • Some states and local municipalities have additional payroll taxes covering specific programs, such as short-term.

Independent Contractors vs. Employees

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2023, 10.1% of the workforce is currently self-employed. This means that around 16.2 million people work as independent contractors, freelancers, or collaborators.

This means that many US companies, regardless of size, must learn how to deal with the challenge of remote and hybrid teams. But the increased development of the gig economy and self-employed workers also impacts payroll and payroll taxes.

That’s because there are clear and very important distinctions between self-employed collaborators and employees. The main differences stand in legal status, tax implications, and the level of control exercised by a company over a person’s work. 

Let’s see what this means:

Legal Status

Employees are legally considered part of the company and have certain rights, such as minimum wage protection, overtime pay, workers' compensation coverage, and various state-mandated benefits. Independent contractors are considered self-employed individuals who work for different clients based on contractual agreements.

Tax Implications

Employers withhold payroll taxes (income, Social Security, Medicare) from an employee's paycheck and share in paying FICA taxes. However, independent contractors are responsible for managing their own payroll taxes through self-employment tax (which covers Social Security and Medicare) as well as estimating and paying federal/state income tax quarterly. This independent contractor's guide to generating a pay stub can help self-employed contractors stay legally compliant. You can use tools like Keeper’s 1099 vs. W-2 pay calculator to determine the more cost-effective decision for your business.

Control over Work

Employers have more control over an employee's duties, hours of work, and performance evaluation criteria, as well as providing necessary tools (such as a VoIP phone system for communication) or resources to complete tasks assigned. Independent contractors usually have greater freedom to determine how they complete projects within the scope of a service agreement while using their own resources.

Small businesses need to be aware of these distinctions because misclassifying workers can lead to various financial, legal, and administrative consequences. These may include penalties, tax liability, employee benefits, legal actions, and even a damaged reputation.

Also, keep in mind that, even when working with remote and/or hybrid tea, the main driver for success is the relationship you can cultivate between workers and managers.

Different entity structures for small businesses have varying tax implications. 

Here are some key points:

  • Partnership: In a partnership, owners share responsibilities and the business’s profits and losses pass through to individual partners. Partners report their share on personal tax returns and pay self-employment taxes on their distributive share of income.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC): An LLC combines partnership and corporation features. By default, it is not taxed separately, and income flows through to individual members. Members pay self-employment taxes on their share of income. Alternatively, an LLC can elect corporate tax treatment, resulting in separate entity taxation with members receiving dividends subject to individual income tax. This flexibility in tax treatment is known as pass-through taxation. Additionally, when discussing LLCs, we must understand the registered agent, which is helpful in a number of ways. In addition to ensuring your business stays compliant with state regulations, they also handle important legal documents and official correspondence on your behalf. With this service, you won't miss critical deadlines or notifications, which could lead to legal troubles or penalties. By keeping your personal information off public records, a registered agent can also help protect your privacy. As the agent's address is used for official correspondence, your privacy is protected. As a whole, a legitimate registered agent like Northwest Registered Agent can help your business manage its legal obligations efficiently and with peace of mind.
  • Corporation: A corporation is a distinct legal entity from its owners. It pays corporate income tax on profits, and shareholders are taxed on dividends received. This is double taxation. However, certain small corporations may qualify for S Corporation status, allowing pass-through taxation like an LLC.
  • S Corporation: An S Corporation enables eligible corporations to pass income, losses, deductions, and credits to shareholders. Shareholders report income on personal tax returns and pay individual income tax. S Corporations have specific requirements, such as limited shareholders and eligible shareholders.

Choosing the appropriate entity structure depends on factors like business size, nature, liability concerns, and tax implications. Consulting with professionals helps determine the best fit for your circumstances. Understanding these tax ramifications aids in optimizing tax strategies, complying with tax laws, and maximizing savings for long-term financial well-being.


Accounting Tools and Software to Use for Payroll

Small businesses don’t always need help from a professional accountant (although it’s highly recommended), but every business needs to use at least some accounting tools to help streamline the process and keep the data centralized.

Below, we compiled a list of some of the most popular options designed for various needs, budgets, and levels of expertise:

  • QuickBooks Online – A highly popular choice, QuickBooks Online offers payroll features seamlessly integrated with bookkeeping functions, tax filing capabilities, and a user-friendly interface suited for any size business.
  • Gusto – Known for its simplicity and ease of use, Gusto provides a comprehensive payroll solution with automatic tax calculations, filing support, employee benefits integration, and excellent customer service.
  • ADP Run – Designed keeping small businesses in mind, ADP Run boasts powerful payroll processing capabilities alongside HR management tools, time tracking features, regulatory compliance support, and customizable reporting options.
  • Paychex – Suitable for both small and large businesses alike, Paychex offers a wide range of services such as payroll processing, tax management support, employee benefits administration, and HR outsourcing solutions.
  • Patriot Payroll – Offering two pricing tiers to cater to varying budgets among small businesses, Patriot Payroll covers essential payroll functions, including direct deposits for employees' salaries or wages, while providing flexibility through add-on features.


Wrap Up

Navigating the world of payroll taxes might seem complex and daunting for small business owners. However, understanding the different types of taxes, their implications for both employers and employees, as well as properly classifying your workforce are critical steps in maintaining a healthy financial position and ensuring compliance with tax regulations. 

By incorporating this guide into your business practices and seeking expert advice when necessary, you'll be better equipped to manage payroll taxes confidently and effectively, enabling your small business to thrive while fulfilling its legal obligations.