The IRS has issued guidance for employers claiming the employee retention credit under Act Sec. 2301 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), as modified by Act Secs. 206 and 207 of the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020 (Relief Act), for the first and second calendar quarters in 2021. The guidance amplifies previous guidance which addressed amendments made by section 206 of the Relief Act for calendar quarters in 2020.
In general, eligible employers can claim a refundable employee retention credit against the employer share of Social Security tax equal to 70 percent of the qualified wages they pay to employees after December 31, 2020, through June 30, 2021. Qualified wages are limited to $10,000 per employee per calendar quarter in 2021. Thus, the maximum employee retention credit available is $7,000 per employee per calendar quarter, for a total of $14,000 for the first two calendar quarters of 2021.
For calendar quarters beginning after 2020, an employer is generally eligible for the credit if it was carrying on a trade or business during the calendar quarter for which the credit is determined, and either (1) had operations that were fully or partially suspended during the calendar quarter due to governmental orders limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings due to COVID-19, or (2) experienced a decline in gross receipts for the calendar quarter when compared to the same quarter in 2019.
The guidance explains changes made to the employee retention credit for the first two calendar quarters of 2021, including:
- the increase in the maximum credit amount,
- the expansion of the types of employers that may be eligible to claim the credit,
- modifications to the gross receipts test,
- revisions to the definition of qualified wages, and
- new restrictions on the ability of eligible employers to request an advance payment of the credit.
The guidance does not address the employee retention credit provided by Code Sec. 3134, enacted by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, for wages paid after June 30, 2021, and before January 1, 2022. The IRS will address Code Sec. 3134 in future guidance.
Highlights of some of the items addressed in the guidance are summarized below.
Eligible employers. While the employee retention credit is not available to most governmental employers, it is available to tax-exempt organizations described in Code Sec. 501(c)(1), and to any governmental entity that is a college or university or whose principal purpose is providing medical or hospital care. For this purpose, a college or university means an educational organization as defined in Code Sec. 170(b)(1)(A)(ii) and Reg. §1.170A-9(c)(1). An entity that has the principal purpose or function of providing medical or hospital care means an entity that has the principal purpose or function of providing medical or hospital care within the meaning of Code Sec. 170(b)(1)(A)(iii) and Reg. §1.170A-9(d)(1).
Decline in gross receipts. One way an employer can be eligible for the credit is if it experienced a decline in gross receipts. Whether an employer is an eligible employer based on a decline in gross receipts is determined separately for each calendar quarter, and is based on an 80 percent threshold compared to the same calendar quarter in 2019.
If an employer did not exist as of the beginning of the first calendar quarter of 2019, the employer generally determines whether the decline in gross receipts test is met in the first calendar quarter of 2021 by comparing its gross receipts in that quarter of 2021 to its gross receipts in the first calendar quarter of 2020. If an employer did not exist as of the beginning of the second calendar quarter of 2019, the employer generally determines whether the test is met in the second calendar quarter of 2021 by comparing its gross receipts in that quarter of 2021 to its gross receipts in the second calendar quarter of 2020. An employer may also elect to use an alternative quarter to calculate gross receipts.
Eligible employers must maintain documentation to support the determination of the decline in gross receipts, including which calendar quarter an eligible employer elects to use in measuring the decline.
Qualified wages. Whether wage payments by an eligible employer will be considered qualified wages depend, in part, on the average number of full-time employees an eligible employer employed during 2019. For the first and second calendar quarters of 2021, large eligible employers are those whose average number of full-time employees during 2019 was greater than 500. For these employers, qualified wages are wages paid to an employee for time that the employee is not working for the reasons the credit is allowed.
Small eligible employers are those whose average number of full-time employees during 2019 was 500 or less. For these employers, qualified wages are the wages paid an employee whether the employee is working or not working for the reasons the credit is allowed.
An employer may not claim a credit under Code Secs. 41, 45A, 45P, 45S, 51, or 1396 with qualified wages for which it claims the employee retention credit, but it may be able to take a credit under these provisions for wages for which it did not claim an employee retention credit if the particular credit’s requirements are met.
Claiming the credit. Eligible employers may continue to access the employee retention credit for the first and second calendar quarters of 2021 prior to filing their employment tax returns by reducing employment tax deposits in anticipation of the credit. However, advance payment of the employee retention credit is available only to small eligible employers, who can may elect to receive an advance payment of not more than 70 percent of the average quarterly wages paid in calendar year 2019.
For this purpose, average quarterly wages generally means the average of wages or compensation determined without regard to the social security wage base, paid in each calendar quarter in 2019. The guidance provides details for calculating average quarterly wages. Small eligible employers that come into existence in 2021 are ineligible to receive advance payment.
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