Thanks to affordable technology, more and more companies have been allowing employees to work remotely in recent years. It’s become feasible to procure laptops, set up security protocols, use cloud servers and rely on employees’ home Wi-Fi connections to create functional virtual workspaces. In turn, many of these businesses have lowered overhead costs such as office rent and utilities.

Of course, with the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many companies have had to mandate that any employees who can work from home do so. As a result, virtual team building has become more important than ever.

Ensure consistency of processes and expectations

When employees work from home, many of the processes they use to complete tasks and fulfill duties may change slightly — or even drastically — to fit the technology used to execute them. This can cause confusion and lead to mistakes or conflicts that affect employee morale.

Make sure every virtual team develops and follows processes that produce results consistent with those generated on your physical premises. Doing so may require a concerted effort that slows productivity temporarily while everyone gets on the same page.

Meanwhile, reinforce with workers that your expectations of them are the same whether they work on-site or remotely. They shouldn’t feel as if they must work extra hard from home to “prove themselves,” but they do need to demonstrate that they’re getting things done.

Hold regular meetings — and “irregular” ones

Among the biggest challenges for work-from-home employees is feeling disconnected from their fellow team members. Brief, regularly scheduled Web-based meetings are a good way to address this dilemma. These gatherings allow everyone to see or hear one another (or both) and provide employees with the opportunity to voice concerns and contribute ideas.

If a given team is relatively new at working remotely, or you just want to bring any group of employees closer together, you could also hold special meetings specifically geared toward team building. There’s a wide variety of icebreakers, games and activities that teams can use to learn more about each other and to gain comfort in communicating.

For example, you can invite participants to share stories and photos of their pets, hold trivia contests or even sing karaoke. Just be sure to tailor such team-building efforts to your company’s culture and be wary of pushing remote workers too far out of their comfort zones.

Find a way

Whether your business has had employees working remotely for years or just recently had to ask workers to stay home because of COVID-19, there are plenty of ways to help them communicate better and enhance their performance as a team. We offer assistance in measuring productivity and making smart investments in the right team-building technology.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

A natural place to turn when disaster strikes is insurance. The very reason you pay premiums and deal with the paperwork is to have these risk management policies in place when necessary. But, when it comes to business interruption coverage, you may have to adjust your expectations if you intend to file a claim because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Differing views

Business interruption insurance generally provides cash flow to cover revenues lost and expenses incurred while normal operations are suspended because of an applicable event. So, many business owners are now asking an unavoidable question: Is the COVID-19 pandemic an applicable event?

Many insurers are saying no, claiming the “force majeure” legal defense. This refers to situations in which unexpected external circumstances prevent a party to a contract — in this case, the insurance company — from meeting its obligations.

Insurers are also citing policy language that stipulates coverage applies only when a policyholder suffers a loss of income as a result of physical loss or damage to covered property. COVID-19 doesn’t qualify as a physical loss, they argue. In addition, insurers contend their policies don’t cover loss of income because of market conditions or an economic slowdown.

Lawsuits have already been filed challenging the insurance companies. Attorneys, representing business owners, are arguing that the recent rise of SARS, MERS and the Avian flu have given insurance companies ample opportunity to anticipate a global pandemic.

Attorneys have additionally pointed out that the virus can attach itself to physical surfaces. Thus, they contend, it does result in a physical loss as businesses are losing revenue and incurring expenses for disinfection and prevention.

Preparatory steps

As these lawsuits play out, you may wonder whether it’s worth your time to file a business interruption claim related to the pandemic. The answer depends on your policy’s language, as well as the facts and circumstances of your company’s situation.

To decide whether and how to proceed, review your policy carefully. Look at the type of losses covered, as well as exclusions and limitations. You may want to consult an attorney, as insurance policy language and structure can be confusing.

If you decide to move ahead with a claim, you’ll need to document the adverse financial impact of the pandemic, including:

  • Loss of income, as defined under your policy,
  • Customer attrition rates, and
  • Incremental expenses incurred, such as site security or cleaning services.

Many policies require policyholders to notify the insurer of a loss within a certain period, so you may need to move quickly.

No easier

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, receiving a payout for a business interruption claim was typically not a cut-and-dried affair. Suffice to say, doing so hasn’t gotten any easier. We can help you assess and document financial losses and expenses before deciding whether to file a claim.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, your business may be using independent contractors to keep costs low. But you should be careful that these workers are properly classified for federal tax purposes. If the IRS reclassifies them as employees, it can be an expensive mistake.

The question of whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee for federal income and employment tax purposes is a complex one. If a worker is an employee, your company must withhold federal income and payroll taxes, pay the employer’s share of FICA taxes on the wages, plus FUTA tax. Often, a business must also provide the worker with the fringe benefits that it makes available to other employees. And there may be state tax obligations as well.

These obligations don’t apply if a worker is an independent contractor. In that case, the business simply sends the contractor a Form 1099-MISC for the year showing the amount paid (if the amount is $600 or more).

No uniform definition

Who is an “employee?” Unfortunately, there’s no uniform definition of the term.

The IRS and courts have generally ruled that individuals are employees if the organization they work for has the right to control and direct them in the jobs they’re performing. Otherwise, the individuals are generally independent contractors. But other factors are also taken into account.

Some employers that have misclassified workers as independent contractors may get some relief from employment tax liabilities under Section 530. In general, this protection applies only if an employer:

  • Filed all federal returns consistent with its treatment of a worker as a contractor,
  • Treated all similarly situated workers as contractors, and
  • Had a “reasonable basis” for not treating the worker as an employee. For example, a “reasonable basis” exists if a significant segment of the employer’s industry traditionally treats similar workers as contractors.

Note: Section 530 doesn’t apply to certain types of technical services workers. And some categories of individuals are subject to special rules because of their occupations or identities.

Asking for a determination

Under certain circumstances, you may want to ask the IRS (on Form SS-8) to rule on whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Businesses should consult with us before filing Form SS-8 because it may alert the IRS that your business has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.

It may be better to properly treat a worker as an independent contractor so that the relationship complies with the tax rules.

Be aware that workers who want an official determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.

If a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS will send a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return the form to the IRS, which will render a classification decision.

Contact us if you receive such a letter or if you’d like to discuss how these complex rules apply to your business. We can help ensure that none of your workers are misclassified.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Many businesses were unprepared when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic required them to close their physical offices and shift to remote operations. Your company, for example, may have had to scramble to set up a virtual private network (VPN) or move files to the cloud. And while adapting to working from home, employees may have let your usual security procedures slide.

From a cybercrime perspective, working from home generally isn’t as safe as working in the office. So you need to look for ways to protect your disbursed workforce and prevent criminals from gaining access to your digital assets.

Here are five ideas:

  1. Invest in education. Require remote employees to participate in security-related training that covers “old-school” phishing scams as well as new COVID-19 variations. As schemes emerge (check the Federal Trade Commission’s website at ftc.gov for the latest), notify employees and remind them what to do if they think they’ve fallen victim to a scam.
  1. Enable automatic updates. To keep the operating systems of employee computers safely patched, remind workers to enable automatic software updates. Also, double-check that every employee-assigned device is fortified with current malware and antivirus software. 
  1. Revisit access privileges. To maintain productivity, most employees need access to the same systems at home as they had in the office. However, consider reviewing which workers have access to certain files, network controls and cloud accounts — and whether they really need access now. Remember that when employees work from home, their partners, children and visitors may have easy access to their computers. To protect your company, ensure systems generate user audit trails that can be followed in the event of a breach.
  1. Protect WiFi connections. While working from home, employees use their personal WiFi connections to access your company’s IT environment. Unfortunately, many people use the default WiFi password or a simple password that hackers can easily break. To foil fraud perpetrators, employees should change it to a complex combination of letters and other characters. If possible, require them to use a VPN with two-factor authentication.
  1. Secure your videoconferences. Most videoconferencing services employ multiple layers of security. But some platforms offer greater protection than others. Before choosing one, perform a simple Google search to read user reviews and security bug reports. Once you’ve selected a service, communicate security protocols before allowing employees to use it for company business.

Finally, provide employees with access to a technical support desk so they can report problems — and get solutions — as quickly as possible. Working from home may be new for a lot of Americans, but fraud is a familiar foe for most. If can be defeated with appropriate knowledge and tools.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS recently issued Notice 2020-23, expanding on previously issued guidance extending certain tax filing and payment deadlines in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. This guidance applies to specified filing obligations and other “specified actions” that would otherwise be due on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020. It extends the due date for specified actions to July 15, 2020.

Specified actions include any “specified time-sensitive action” listed in Revenue Procedure 2018-58, including many relating to employee benefit plans. The relief applies to any person required to perform specified actions within the relief window, and it’s automatic — your business doesn’t need to file any form, letter or other request with the IRS.

Filing extensions beyond July 15, 2020, may be sought using the appropriate extension form, but the extension won’t go beyond the original statutory or regulatory extension date. Here are some highlights of Notice 2020-23 specifically related to employee benefit plans:

Form 5500. The relief window covers Form 5500 filings for plan years that ended in September, October or November 2019, as well as Form 5500 deadlines within the window as a result of a previously filed extension request. These filings are now due by July 15, 2020. Notably, the relief window does not include the July 31, 2020 due date for 2019 Form 5500 filings for calendar-year plans. Those plans may seek a regular extension using Form 5558.

Retirement plans. The extended deadlines apply to correcting excess contributions and excess aggregate contributions (based on nondiscrimination testing) and excess deferrals. They also apply to:

  • Plan loan repayments,
  • The 60-day timeframe for rollover completion, and
  • The deadline for filing Form 8955-SSA to report information on separated plan participants with undistributed vested benefits.

The relief for excess deferrals is a change from previous guidance indicating that 2019 excess deferrals still needed to be corrected by April 15, 2020. In addition, while loan relief is already available to certain individuals for specified reasons related to COVID-19, this relief appears to apply more broadly — albeit for a shorter period. The Form 8955-SSA due date is the same as for the plan’s Form 5500, so the extension applies in the same manner.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The notice extends the 60-day timeframe for completing HSA or Archer Medical Savings Account (MSA) rollovers. It also extends the deadline to report HSA or Archer MSA contribution information by filing Form 5498-SA and furnishing the information to account holders. The regular deadline for the 2019 Form 5498-SA would be June 1, 2020, placing it squarely within this relief period.

Business owners and their plan administrators should carefully review Notice 2020-23 in conjunction with Revenue Procedure 2018-58 to determine exactly what relief may be available. For example, the revenue procedure covers various cafeteria plan items, but many deadlines may fall outside the notice’s window. We can provide you with further information about this or other forms of federal relief.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The law providing relief due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic contains a beneficial change in the tax rules for many improvements to interior parts of nonresidential buildings. This is referred to as qualified improvement property (QIP). You may recall that under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), any QIP placed in service after December 31, 2017 wasn’t considered to be eligible for 100% bonus depreciation. Therefore, the cost of QIP had to be deducted over a 39-year period rather than entirely in the year the QIP was placed in service. This was due to an inadvertent drafting mistake made by Congress.

But the error is now fixed. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020. It now allows most businesses to claim 100% bonus depreciation for QIP, as long as certain other requirements are met. What’s also helpful is that the correction is retroactive and it goes back to apply to any QIP placed in service after December 31, 2017. Unfortunately, improvements related to the enlargement of a building, any elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework continue to not qualify under the definition of QIP. 

In the current business climate, you may not be in a position to undertake new capital expenditures — even if they’re needed as a practical matter and even if the substitution of 100% bonus depreciation for a 39-year depreciation period significantly lowers the true cost of QIP. But it’s good to know that when you’re ready to undertake qualifying improvements that 100% bonus depreciation will be available.

And, the retroactive nature of the CARES Act provision presents favorable opportunities for qualifying expenditures you’ve already made. We can revisit and add to documentation that you’ve already provided to identify QIP expenditures.

For not-yet-filed tax returns, we can simply reflect the favorable treatment for QIP on the return.

If you’ve already filed returns that didn’t claim 100% bonus depreciation for what might be QIP, we can investigate based on available documentation as discussed above. If there’s QIP that was eligible for 100% bonus depreciation, note that the IRS has, for past retroactive favorable depreciation changes, provided taxpayers with detailed guidance for how the benefit is claimed. Specifically, the IRS clarified how much flexibility taxpayers have in choosing between a one-time downward adjustment to income on their current returns or an amendment to the return for the year the QIP was placed in service. We will evaluate what your options are as anticipated IRS guidance for the QIP correction is released. 

If you have any questions about how you can take advantage of the QIP provision, don’t hesitate to contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Paying workers “under the table” or with cash can save businesses a bundle in taxes. But the potential consequences are grave. Not only is this practice illegal and could result in severe financial penalties, but it also shortchanges employees.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made this abundantly clear. As many laid-off workers who were paid under the table have learned, they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if their state has no record of their employer contributing to the insurance pool. They may have trouble getting other financial assistance as well. You should protect your business and its workers by following the rules.

Paying the piper

In general, compensation is subject to federal income and employment taxes, as well as taxes that may be assessed on state and local levels. Employees are personally responsible for federal income tax on their wages, and both employees and employers are responsible for paying employment taxes.

The main employment tax, mandated by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), comprises three elements:

1. A 6.2% OASDI, or Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (or Social Security tax),

2. A 1.45% Hospital Insurance (HI) tax on all wages (known as the Medicare tax), and

3. An additional 0.9% Medicare surtax on wages exceeding $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers.

Employers must also pay unemployment tax under the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA). That tax is 6% on the first $7,000 of wages, but it may be effectively reduced to as little as 0.6% due to credits for state unemployment programs.

Other responsibilities

Employers’ responsibilities usually extend beyond taxes. You may be required to pay overtime and provide benefits to employees — ranging from qualified retirement plans to family medical leave time — all governed by federal laws. Employees without such benefits who become sick with COVID-19 don’t qualify for paid leave. They may be forced to work anyway to support their families and, thus, spread the infection further.

To support employees in the event they’re laid off, employers often must pay for different types of employee insurance, including Workers’ Compensation, unemployment insurance and, depending on the state, disability insurance. In addition, the Affordable Care Act imposes minimum health insurance coverage requirements on employers with 50 or more full-time employees (and full-time equivalent employees).

Note: These warnings don’t apply to workers who are legitimate independent contractors. Contractors, who work for themselves, are responsible for paying their own taxes and providing their own benefits. But you must properly handle these workers by meeting certain tests in order to have them classified as independent contractors.

Consider the real cost

Paying taxes and providing benefits to employees are necessary costs of doing business. While they take a chunk out of your bottom line, not paying them can cost you, your workers and, ultimately, the general economy, even more. Contact us for help managing expenses and reducing taxes legally.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As businesses across the country grapple with the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many must decide whether to downsize their workforces to lower payroll costs and stabilize cash flow. If your company is contemplating such a move, you’ll likely want to consider the choice within the choice: that is, should you lay off workers or furlough them?

Basic difference

The basic difference between the two is simple. Layoffs are the ostensibly permanent termination of employees from their positions, though you can rehire some of these individuals when business improves. Meanwhile, a furlough is a mandatory or voluntary suspension from work without pay for a specified period.

In most states, furloughed workers are still considered employees and, therefore, don’t receive a “final” paycheck. Check with an employment or labor attorney, however, to make sure your state’s furlough laws don’t trigger final pay requirements.

Employee benefits are another issue to explore. Reach out to your health insurance provider to see whether a furlough is a triggering event for COBRA health care coverage purposes. In addition, employees can sometimes be dropped from a group health plan if they don’t work enough hours. Ask about potential problems this might cause under the Affordable Care Act.

Applicable laws

If you’re a midsize business, and layoffs or furloughs begin to look unavoidable, it’s particularly important to coordinate the move with legal counsel. Under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, employers with 100 or more employees must provide written notice at least 60 days before a plant closing or mass layoff.

To have a mass layoff, at least 50 workers at a single site must be laid off for more than six months (or have their hours reduced by at least 50% in any six-month period). Because furloughs generally last for less than six months, a WARN notice wouldn’t likely be required. But you should still check with your employment attorney regarding applicable state laws and any other potential legal ramifications.

Unemployment benefits

To soften the blow, you can inform furloughed employees that they’re generally eligible for unemployment benefits — assuming their previous year’s wages are enough to qualify. Although a waiting period often applies before an employee can start receiving unemployment benefits, many states have waived these waiting periods because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Again, double-check with your attorney to fully understand the unemployment insurance rules before communicating with employees.

Formulate a strategy

Unprecedented unemployment numbers show that many businesses have had to downsize. It’s worth noting that, if you can hang on to your employees, recently passed tax relief created a refundable credit against payroll tax. (Rules and limits apply.) Our firm can help you assess your employment costs and formulate a strategy for optimally sizing your workforce.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued guidance providing relief from failure to make employment tax deposits for employers that are entitled to the refundable tax credits provided under two laws passed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The two laws are the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed on March 18, 2020, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, which was signed on March 27, 2020.

Employment tax penalty basics

The tax code imposes a penalty for any failure to deposit amounts as required on the date prescribed, unless such failure is due to reasonable cause rather than willful neglect.

An employer’s failure to deposit certain federal employment taxes, including deposits of withheld income taxes and taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) is generally subject to a penalty.

COVID-19 relief credits

Employers paying qualified sick leave wages and qualified family leave wages required by the Families First Act, as well as qualified health plan expenses allocable to qualified leave wages, are eligible for refundable tax credits under the Families First Act.

Specifically, provisions of the Families First Act provide a refundable tax credit against an employer’s share of the Social Security portion of FICA tax for each calendar quarter, in an amount equal to 100% of qualified leave wages paid by the employer (plus qualified health plan expenses with respect to that calendar quarter).

Additionally, under the CARES Act, certain employers are also allowed a refundable tax credit under the CARES Act of up to 50% of the qualified wages, including allocable qualified health expenses if they are experiencing:

  • A full or partial business suspension due to orders from governmental authorities due to COVID-19, or
  • A specified decline in business.

This credit is limited to $10,000 per employee over all calendar quarters combined.

An employer paying qualified leave wages or qualified retention wages can seek an advance payment of the related tax credits by filing Form 7200, Advance Payment of Employer Credits Due to COVID-19.

Available relief

The Families First Act and the CARES Act waive the penalty for failure to deposit the employer share of Social Security tax in anticipation of the allowance of the refundable tax credits allowed under the two laws.

IRS Notice 2020-22 provides that an employer won’t be subject to a penalty for failing to deposit employment taxes related to qualified leave wages or qualified retention wages in a calendar quarter if certain requirements are met. Contact us for more information about whether you can take advantage of this relief.

More breaking news

Be aware the IRS also just extended more federal tax deadlines. The extension, detailed in Notice 2020-23, involves a variety of tax form filings and payment obligations due between April 1 and July 15. It includes estimated tax payments due June 15 and the deadline to claim refunds from 2016. The extended deadlines cover individuals, estates, corporations and others. In addition, the guidance suspends associated interest, additions to tax, and penalties for late filing or late payments until July 15, 2020. Previously, the IRS postponed the due dates for certain federal income tax payments. The new guidance expands on the filing and payment relief. Contact us if you have questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

To stem the tide of joblessness caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has officially launched the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The program’s stated objective is “to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.”

What does the program offer?

The PPP was authorized under a provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It provides up to eight weeks of cash-flow assistance through 100% federally guaranteed loans to eligible recipients to maintain payroll during the COVID-19 crisis and cover certain other expenses.

Under the program, eligible recipients may qualify for loans of up to $10 million determined by eight weeks of previously established average payroll. The first loan payment is deferred for six months. All loans will have an interest rate of 1%, a maturity of two years, and no borrower or lender fees.

If the recipient maintains its workforce, up to 100% of the loan is forgivable if the loan proceeds are used to cover the first eight weeks of payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities. (The U.S. Treasury Department anticipates that no more than 25% of the forgiven amount can be for non-payroll costs.)

How is payroll defined?

Under the PPP, payroll includes:

  • Employee salaries (up to an annual salary of $100,000),
  • Hourly wages,
  • Cash tips,
  • Paid sick or medical leave,
  • Group health insurance premiums,
  • Retirement benefit payments,
  • State or local tax on employee wages, and
  • Compensation to a sole proprietor or independent contractor of up to $100,000 per year.

If the PPP recipient doesn’t retain its entire workforce, the level of forgiveness is reduced by the percentage of decrease. However, if the laid-off workers are rehired by June 30, the full amount of the loan may still be forgiven.

Who’s eligible?

Eligible recipients are small businesses with fewer than 500 employees (including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and self-employed persons). Private nonprofits and 501(c)(19) veterans organizations affected by COVID-19 may also qualify. In addition, businesses in certain industries with more than 500 employees may be eligible if they meet the SBA’s size standards for those industries.

The PPP begins retroactively on Feb. 15, 2020, and ends June 20, 2020. (The retroactive start allows eligible recipients to bring back workers who were laid off because of the crisis.) Qualifying companies may apply for a loan at lending institutions approved to participate in the program through the SBA’s 7(a) lending program. Applications may also be available through participating federally insured depository institutions, federally insured credit unions and Farm Credit System institutions.

When should you apply?

The Treasury Department released the PPP Application Form on March 31, and lenders could begin processing applications on April 3. If you believe your small business may be eligible to participate, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as possible because funds are limited under the program. We can help you confirm your eligibility, complete the application and optimally manage any loan funds you receive.

© 2020 Covenant CPA