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What’s The Cost Of Unemployment Insurance To The Employer?

by Sherri Dimmock on Jan 19, 2021 4:11:32 AM

If you’re like most businesses, you’re paying into the unemployment insurance program. With unemployment rates higher than ever during COVID-19, these costs may now be a greater cause for concern, and you’re likely worried about how you’ll be able to afford to pay them.

Complete Payroll Solutions is an outsourced payroll provider to over 7,000 businesses throughout the Northeast. Our payroll professionals handle payroll tax withholdings for the unemployment insurance program and know the factors that go into determining your federal and state unemployment tax rates.

To help you understand your financial obligations when it comes to unemployment insurance and steps you can take to control them, in this article, we’ll explain:

  • How unemployment insurance works
  • How federal and state unemployment costs are calculated
  • What factors can drive up your rates
  • Opportunities to potentially save on unemployment insurance

After reading this article, you will have insight into your company’s unemployment insurance costs and what you can do to reduce your financial burden.

How does unemployment insurance work?

Unemployment insurance is a combined federal and state program that provides cash benefits to eligible workers that are unemployed through no fault of their own. That means those who quit a job voluntarily or are fired for cause are typically ineligible.

The program temporarily replaces a portion of lost wages for workers who have been laid off, are available to work, and are looking for work. Generally speaking, unemployment insurance provides up to 26 weeks of benefits and, on average, replaces about half of a worker’s previous wages, this varies by state. For example, in Massachusetts, regular unemployment benefits can last up to 30 weeks. 

When issued, federal law extensions can affect the length of time employees can collect, such as during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Each state will also have a maximum amount that an individual can collect. In New Hampshire, the weekly limit is $504 while in Connecticut, the amount is $667.

How much does unemployment insurance cost the company?

The unemployment insurance program is almost always funded by employer contributions through the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) and State Unemployment Tax Act (SUTA). These are payroll taxes that are based on a percentage of employees’ earnings. Most businesses, other than those exempted like nonprofits and religious organizations, must pay these taxes.

While in most states, only the employer pays unemployment taxes, three states also require employee contributions to unemployment insurance: Alaska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In these states, you would withhold and pay the SUTA tax to the state on your workers’ behalf:

To understand how your payroll taxes are calculated, it’s important to know how the FUTA and SUTA rates are set.

What is the FUTA tax rate?

The FUTA tax rate for 2021 is 6% on the first $7,000 of employee wages (a max of $420 per year per employee). However, companies can qualify for a tax credit of up to 5.4% based on their timely payment of state unemployment taxes. So for these businesses, the rate would be as low as .6%. Just be aware that employers in a credit reduction state, listed here, can’t claim the full credit.

What is the SUTA tax rate?

State unemployment tax is calculated on a percentage (called experience rating, which we’ll discuss below) of each worker’s earnings up to a wage limit that varies by state. For example, the wage base limit for Massachusetts is currently $15,000, which means you’ll only pay the tax on the first $15,000 of an employee’s wages.

In the Northeast states, the wage limits are as follows:

  • Connecticut: $15,000
  • Maine: $12,000
  • Massachusetts: $15,000
  • New Hampshire: $14,000
  • New York: $11,800
  • Rhode Island: $24,600
  • Vermont: $14,100 

What factors impact the cost of unemployment insurance?

While the FUTA rate is fixed, your SUTA tax rate is variable and set by the state. To determine this rate, the state considers:

  1. Your industry, for example, you’ll likely have a higher rate if you run a construction business because they have a high amount of turnover
  2. Your experience with unemployment insurance over a period of time known as the lookback period, meaning, how many former employees filed claims and how long they collected benefits

When you first start your business, your state’s unemployment tax agency will initially assign you a standard new employer rate. After a specified period of time, for example, three years in Massachusetts, the state will assign you a rate based on the two factors we just discussed. The SUTA rate may change every year or even as soon as quarterly in some states like New Hampshire.

To calculate your unemployment tax, you would multiply your SUTA rate by each employee’s earnings up to the wage limit for your state.

For example, let’s say you have an accounting business with 10 employees in New Hampshire, where the taxable wage limit is $14,000 and your tax rate is 5%.

How can I save on unemployment taxes?

Since the number of workers who collect unemployment during the lookback period is the primary factor behind your SUTA tax rate, the fewer workers who collect, the lower your tax rate will be.

As a result, one way to keep your SUTA tax rate lower is to reduce employee turnover. There are several steps you can take to help retain your workers:

  1. Hire employees who fit with your culture
  2. Look for versatile workers who can transfer into other roles as your business’ needs change
  3. Provide clear expectations and timely feedback to employees
  4. Invest in training your current staff

Another way to potentially lower your SUTA tax rate is how you handle layoffs. For example, if you opt to pay severance for departing employees for a certain period of time, that could eliminate or reduce the amount of time they’ll collect unemployment benefits and, therefore improve your experience during the lookback period.

You’ll also want to keep good documentation when terminating employees for cause, since these workers are typically not eligible to collect unemployment. With a proper paper trail that demonstrates their misconduct, such as violating a company policy, you will increase the likelihood that their claim for unemployment benefits gets denied. It’s a good idea to have an employee handbook that explains all of your policies so expectations are clear.

How do I get unemployment taxes right?

While unemployment taxes can be costly and may be challenging for your business to pay, you’ll want to make sure you make accurate and timely payments on both a federal and state level to avoid further financial consequences to your company. For example, if you’re a Massachusetts employer, interest will accrue on unpaid principal at a rate of 12% per year from the quarter due date until fully paid.

Since unemployment taxes are such an important part of your payroll, it’s essential that you get your calculations, deductions, and deadlines right. To help you understand how to maintain your compliance with your unemployment insurance program responsibilities, read our 2021 guide for employers.


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