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

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

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

The recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides a refundable payroll tax credit for 50% of wages paid by eligible employers to certain employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The employee retention credit is available to employers, including nonprofit organizations, with operations that have been fully or partially suspended as a result of a government order limiting commerce, travel or group meetings.

The credit is also provided to employers who have experienced a greater than 50% reduction in quarterly receipts, measured on a year-over-year basis.

IRS issues FAQs  

The IRS has now released FAQs about the credit. Here are some highlights.

How is the credit calculated? The credit is 50% of qualifying wages paid up to $10,000 in total. So the maximum credit for an eligible employer for qualified wages paid to any employee is $5,000.

Wages paid after March 12, 2020, and before Jan. 1, 2021, are eligible for the credit. Therefore, an employer may be able to claim it for qualified wages paid as early as March 13, 2020. Wages aren’t limited to cash payments, but also include part of the cost of employer-provided health care.

When is the operation of a business “partially suspended” for the purposes of the credit?The operation of a business is partially suspended if a government authority imposes restrictions by limiting commerce, travel or group meetings due to COVID-19 so that the business still continues but operates below its normal capacity.

Example: A state governor issues an executive order closing all restaurants and similar establishments to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, the order allows establishments to provide food or beverages through carry-out, drive-through or delivery. This results in a partial suspension of businesses that provided sit-down service or other on-site eating facilities for customers prior to the executive order.

Is an employer required to pay qualified wages to its employees? No. The CARES Act doesn’t require employers to pay qualified wages.

Is a government employer or self-employed person eligible?No.Government employers aren’t eligible for the employee retention credit. Self-employed individuals also aren’t eligible for the credit for self-employment services or earnings.

Can an employer receive both the tax credits for the qualified leave wages under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the employee retention credit under the CARES Act? Yes, but not for the same wages. The amount of qualified wages for which an employer can claim the employee retention credit doesn’t include the amount of qualified sick and family leave wages for which the employer received tax credits under the FFCRA.

Can an eligible employer receive both the employee retention credit and a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program? No. An employer can’t receive the employee retention credit if it receives a Small Business Interruption Loan under the Paycheck Protection Program, which is authorized under the CARES Act. So an employer that receives a Paycheck Protection loan shouldn’t claim the employee retention credit.

For more information

Here’s a link to more questions: https://bit.ly/2R8syZx . Contact us if you need assistance with tax or financial issues due to COVID-19.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you’re a business owner, be aware that a recent tax law extended a credit for hiring individuals from one or more targeted groups. Employers can qualify for a valuable tax credit known as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC).

The WOTC was set to expire on December 31, 2019. But a new law passed late last year extends it through December 31, 2020.

Generally, an employer is eligible for the credit for qualified wages paid to qualified members of these targeted groups: 1) members of families receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, 2) veterans, 3) ex-felons, 4) designated community residents, 5) vocational rehabilitation referrals, 6) summer youth employees, 7) members of families in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, 8) qualified Supplemental Security Income recipients, 9) long-term family assistance recipients and 10) long-term unemployed individuals.

Several requirements

For each employee, there’s a minimum requirement that the employee has completed at least 120 hours of service for the employer. The credit isn’t available for certain employees who are related to the employer or work more than 50% of the time outside of a trade or business of the employer (for example, a maid working in the employer’s home). Additionally, the credit generally isn’t available for employees who’ve previously worked for the employer.

There are different rules and credit amounts for certain employees. The maximum credit available for the first-year wages is $2,400 for each employee, $4,000 for long-term family assistance recipients, and $4,800, $5,600 or $9,600 for certain veterans. Additionally, for long-term family assistance recipients, there’s a 50% credit for up to $10,000 of second-year wages, resulting in a total maximum credit, over two years, of $9,000.

For summer youth employees, the wages must be paid for services performed during any 90-day period between May 1 and September 15. The maximum WOTC credit available for summer youth employees is $1,200 per employee.

Here are a few other rules:

  • No deduction is allowed for the portion of wages equal to the amount of the WOTC determined for the tax year;
  • Other employment-related credits are generally reduced with respect to an employee for whom a WOTC is allowed; and
  • The credit is subject to the overall limits on the amount of business credits that can be taken in any tax year, but a 1-year carryback and 20-year carryforward of unused business credits is allowed.

Make sure you qualify

Because of these rules, there may be circumstances when the employer might elect not to have the WOTC apply. There are some additional rules that, in limited circumstances, prohibit the credit or require an allocation of it. Contact us with questions or for more information about your situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

All complaints will be swiftly and thoroughly investigated.” No doubt this sentence, or something similar, appears in your company’s employee handbook. Unfortunately, there will likely be a time when you’ll have to put those words into action. Whether an employee alleges discrimination or harassment, or reports a coworker for theft or fraud, you’ll need to handle the complaint appropriately.

Keep these five best practices in mind to avoid unnecessary legal complications:

1. Maintain confidentiality. Take every precaution to keep details of the allegation private — especially the identities of the accused and the accuser. Remind managers that they need to have all conversations behind closed doors, store all meeting notes securely and speak only to those people who are necessary to the investigation. Assure workers involved in the investigation that it will be held in strict confidence and inform them that they aren’t free to talk about any part of the process.

2. Conduct productive interviews. Be prepared with an opening statement that describes what’s being investigated, then ask open-ended questions that encourage employees to say more than “yes” or “no.” Ask all interviewees the same questions so that you can compare answers, identify patterns and uncover discrepancies. Also, have a witness present to verify what occurred during the interviews.

3. Avoid bias. Keep an open mind while gathering facts. Just because an employee has a reputation around the office as a “troublemaker” or “crank,” doesn’t mean that person is lying or guilty of an impropriety. Consider hiring a third-party investigator, such as a fraud expert, to handle interviews. This can help preserve impartiality and show all parties that the investigation is being taken seriously.

4. Document activities. Make detailed notes on all the steps of your investigation. Include the dates and times of workspace searches, computer forensic activity and conversations. After every interview or action taken, review your notes to ensure they capture all relevant information.

5. Close the loops. Even if an investigation turns up no evidence of misconduct or criminal behavior, you need to follow up and close the loop with those involved. When complaints are found to have merit, take appropriate action as quickly as possible. You may be able to handle some minor issues with in-house personnel. But consult your legal and financial advisors — and possibly law enforcement — in more serious cases.

Contact us if you need help investigating a fraud allegation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

This year, the optional standard mileage rate used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business decreased by one-half cent, to 57.5 cents per mile. As a result, you might claim a lower deduction for vehicle-related expense for 2020 than you can for 2019.

Calculating your deduction

Businesses can generally deduct the actual expenses attributable to business use of vehicles. This includes gas, oil, tires, insurance, repairs, licenses and vehicle registration fees. In addition, you can claim a depreciation allowance for the vehicle. However, in many cases depreciation write-offs on vehicles are subject to certain limits that don’t apply to other types of business assets.

The cents-per-mile rate comes into play if you don’t want to keep track of actual vehicle-related expenses. With this approach, you don’t have to account for all your actual expenses, although you still must record certain information, such as the mileage for each business trip, the date and the destination.

Using the mileage rate is also popular with businesses that reimburse employees for business use of their personal vehicles. Such reimbursements can help attract and retain employees who drive their personal vehicles extensively for business purposes. Why? Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as business mileage, on their own income tax returns.

If you do use the cents-per-mile rate, be aware that you must comply with various rules. If you don’t, the reimbursements could be considered taxable wages to the employees.

The rate for 2020

Beginning on January 1, 2020, the standard mileage rate for the business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 57.5 cents per mile. It was 58 cents for 2019 and 54.5 cents for 2018.

The business cents-per-mile rate is adjusted annually. It’s based on an annual study commissioned by the IRS about the fixed and variable costs of operating a vehicle, such as gas, maintenance, repair and depreciation. Occasionally, if there’s a substantial change in average gas prices, the IRS will change the mileage rate midyear.

Factors to consider

There are some situations when you can’t use the cents-per-mile rate. In some cases, it partly depends on how you’ve claimed deductions for the same vehicle in the past. In other cases, it depends on if the vehicle is new to your business this year or whether you want to take advantage of certain first-year depreciation tax breaks on it.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider in deciding whether to use the mileage rate to deduct vehicle expenses. We can help if you have questions about tracking and claiming such expenses in 2020 — or claiming them on your 2019 income tax return.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Autumn brings falling leaves and … the gridiron. Football teams — from high school to pro — are trying to put as many wins on the board as possible to make this season a special one.

For business owners, sports can highlight important lessons about profitability. One in particular is that you and your coaches must learn from your mistakes and adjust your game plan accordingly to have a winning year.

Spot the fumbles

More specifically, your business needs to identify the profit fumbles that are hurting your ability to score bottom-line touchdowns and, in response, execute earnings plays that improve the score. Doing so is always important but takes on added significance as the year winds down and you want to finish strong.

Your company’s earnings game plan should be based partly on strong strategic planning for the year and partly from uncovering and working to eliminate such profit fumbles as:

  • Employees interacting with customers poorly, giving a bad impression or providing inaccurate information,
  • Pricing strategies that turn off customers or bring in inadequate revenue, and
  • Supply chain issues that slow productivity.

Ask employees at all levels whether and where they see such fumbles. Then assign a negative dollar value to each fumble that keeps your organization from reaching its full profit potential.

Once you start putting a value on profit fumbles, you can add them to your income statement for a clearer picture of how they affect net profit. Historically, unidentified and unmeasured profit fumbles are buried in lower sales and inflated costs of sales and overhead.

Fortify your position

After you’ve identified one or more profit blunders, act to fortify your offensive line as you drive downfield. To do so:

Define (or redefine) the game plan. Work with your coaches (management, key employees) to devise specific profit-building initiatives. Calculate how much each initiative could add to the bottom line. To arrive at these values, you’ll need to estimate the potential income of each initiative — but only after you’ve projected the costs as well.

Appoint team leaders. Each profit initiative must have a single person assigned to champion it. When profit-building strategies become everyone’s job, they tend to become no one’s job. All players on the field must know their jobs and where to look for leadership.

Communicating clearly and building consensus. Explain each initiative to employees and outline the steps you’ll need to achieve them. If the wide receiver doesn’t know his route, he won’t be in the right place when the quarterback throws the ball. Most important, that wide receiver must believe in the play.

Win the game

With a strong profit game plan in place, everyone wins. Your company’s bottom line is strong, employees are motivated by the business’s success and, oh yes, customers are satisfied. Touchdown! We can help you perform the financial analyses to identity your profit fumbles and come up with budget-smart initiatives likely to build your bottom line.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

One of the governing principles of the employee/employer relationship is that employees have a fiduciary duty to act in their employer’s interests. An employee’s undisclosed conflict of interest can be a serious breach of this duty. In fact, when conflicts of interest exist, companies often suffer financial consequences.

Ignorance isn’t bliss

Here’s a fictional example of a common conflict of interest: Matt is the manager of a manufacturing company’s purchasing department. He’s also part owner of a business that sells supplies to the manufacturer — a fact Matt hasn’t disclosed to his employer. And, in fact, Matt has personally profited from the business’s lucrative long-term contract with his employer.

What makes this scenario a conflict of interest isn’t so much that Matt has profited from his position, but that his employer is ignorant of the relationship. When employers are informed about their workers’ outside business interests, they can act to exclude employees, vendors and customers from participation in certain transactions. Or they can allow parties to continue participating in a transaction — even if it runs contrary to ethical best practices. But it’s the employer’s, not the employee’s, decision to make.

Cut off at the pass

Sometimes employees simply neglect to inform their employers about possible conflicts of interest. In other cases, they go to great lengths to hide conflicts — usually because they’re afraid it will jeopardize their jobs or they’re financially benefiting from them. These latter cases can be difficult to detect, which is why your company might fare better by playing offense.

For example, develop conflict of interest policies and communicate them to all employees. Provide specific examples of conflicts and spell out exactly why you consider the activities depicted to be deceptive, unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t forget to state the consequences of nondisclosure of conflicts, such as immediate termination.

Disclosing all

You might also require workers to complete an annual disclosure statement on which they list the names and addresses of their family members, their family’s employers and business interests, and whether the employees have an interest in those entities (or any others).

To help ensure accurate statements, provide employees with a hotline to call if they:

  • Have general questions or concerns about the policy,
  • Don’t understand how the policy relates to their unique circumstances, or
  • Want to report someone who appears to have a conflict of interest.

Also protect your business from conflicted vendors and customers. Before entering into a new agreement, compare the names and addresses on your employee disclosure statements with ownership information provided by prospective business partners.

Maintain standards

Conflicts of interest aren’t always clear cut because what one employer considers a serious conflict might seem negligible to another. But in general, the best way to promote your business’s success is by holding all stakeholders to the highest ethical standards. Contact us for more at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

For many businesses, offering employees a 401(k) plan is no longer an option — it’s a competitive necessity. But employees often grow so accustomed to having a 401(k) that they don’t pay much attention to it.

It’s in your best interest as a business owner to buck this trend. Keeping your employees engaged with their 401(k)s will increase the likelihood that they’ll appreciate this benefit and get the most from it. In turn, they’ll value you more as an employer, which can pay dividends in productivity and retention.

Promote positive awareness

Throughout the year, remind employees that a 401(k) remains one of the most tax-efficient ways to save for retirement. Regardless of investment results, the pretax advantage and any employer match make a 401(k) plan an ideal way to save.

For example, point out that, for every $100 of pay they defer to the 401(k), the entire $100 is invested in the plan — not reduced for taxes as it would be if it were paid directly to them. And any employer match increases investment potential.

At the same time, make sure employees know that your 401(k) plan operates under federal regulations. Although the value of their accounts may go up and down, it isn’t affected by the performance of your business, because plan assets aren’t commingled with company funds.

Encourage patience, involvement

The fluctuations and complexities of the stock market may cause some participants to worry about their 401(k)s — or to try not to think about them. Regularly reinforce that their accounts are part of a long-term retirement savings and investment strategy. Explain that both the economy and stock market are cyclical. If employees are invested appropriately for their respective ages, their accounts will likely rebound from most losses.

If a change occurs in the investment environment, such as a sudden drop in the stock market, present it as an opportunity for them to reassess their investment strategy and asset allocation. Market shifts have a significant impact on many individuals’ asset allocations, resulting in portfolios that may be inappropriate for their ages, retirement horizons and risk tolerance. Suggest that employees conduct annual rebalancing to maintain appropriate investment risk.

Offer help

As part of their benefits package, some businesses provide financial counseling services to employees. If you’re one of them, now is a good time to remind them of this resource. Employee assistance programs sometimes offer financial counseling as well.

Another option is to occasionally engage investment advisors to come in and meet with your employees. Your plan vendor may offer this service. Of course, you should never directly give financial advice to employees through anyone who works for your company.

Advocate appreciation

A 401(k) plan is a substantial investment for any company in time, money and resources. Encourage employees to appreciate your efforts — for their benefit and yours. We can help you assess and express the financial advantages of your plan. Call us at 205-345-9898 or email us at info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA