Employees holding benefits symbols
From healthcare plans to office accessibility upgrades, there are certain employee-related expenses that can be deducted from a business owner's taxes. — Getty Images

As a small business owner, you may have considered offering your employees benefits like health insurance and retirement savings plans.

"When employees receive benefits, they have higher satisfaction, which decreases turnover and increases retention," said Topher Reynoso, head of health benefits compliance at Gusto. "Offering benefits also levels the playing field when it comes to recruiting talent, which is important in our tight labor market."

Funding these programs can be a significant upfront expense, especially on a tight startup budget. However, many of these benefits-related costs can be deducted when you file your business taxes.

If you offer the following employee benefits to your team, you might be able to save on your tax bill.

[Read more: 3 Things You Need to Know About Employee Benefits in 2019]

Health care plans

Health care is one of the most important benefits workers expect from their employers — and often the most expensive. However, Chayim Kessler, CPA and managing member at MiamiBeachCPA LLC, noted that contributions toward your employees' health insurance coverage can be considered a tax credit "as long as you have less than 25 full-time staff, the paid premiums are under the SHOP Marketplace and the paid average annual wages are less than the prescribed amount by the IRS."

HRAs

Not sure if you can afford to offer an employer-sponsored health care plan? Health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) are a much more flexible and accessible option for small businesses, thanks to recent regulatory changes like the Qualified Small Employer HRA (QSEHRA) and the Individual Coverage Health Reimbursement Arrangement (ICHRA).

"Instead of funding a group health plan, employers can set a monthly budget for benefits and reimburse employees tax-free for plans they choose on the individual market," said Amy Skinner, a spokesperson for Take Command Health. "This increasingly popular trend of offering QSEHRAs is gaining traction because of its flexibility, efficiency and cost-control to the employer and portability, personalization and more choices for the employees."

Skinner also noted that an HRA takes the burden of managing a health plan and underlying health risks off of the employer. Instead, your employees choose the health care coverage that best suits their needs, and you can simply support them.

[Read more: What You Need to Know About Qualified vs. Non-Qualified Benefit Plans]

Section 125 deductions

Reynoso recommends looking into Section 125 deductions to reduce your tax burden as an employer.

"These are items that can be deducted from employee pay on a pre-tax basis and are exempt from federal income tax withholding, Social Security and Medicare taxes," Reynoso told CO—. "These have the potential to lower employer payroll tax and lower employees' taxable income, which is a real win-win."

Paid employee leave

If you offer paid leave for medical and personal reasons, you might be eligible to take a tax credit, said Kessler. Typically, the credit ranges from 12.5% to 25% of the leave paid to the employee.

Retirement plans

According to Will Lopez, head of Gusto's accountant community, the most common benefits-related tax deductions for small business owners are retirement vehicles like SEP IRAs, SIMPLE 401(k)s and 401(k)s.

While there are limits to the amount, you can usually deduct contributions you make to your employees' retirement plans, as well as your own. You might also be eligible for the Retirement Plans Startup Costs Tax Credit, which allows you to claim a tax credit for costs associated with starting a SEP, SIMPLE IRA or qualified plan.

Office renovations for accessibility

While repainting the office won't count toward your tax deductions, any type of renovation that helps accommodate employees with disabilities may be considered tax-deductible.

"If your office has undergone renovations to make it more accessible to differently abled people, then you can claim credit as long as your small enterprise has less than $1 million in revenue and less than 30 full-time staff," said Kessler.

Offering benefits is definitely an investment by small business owners, but it's a worthwhile one.

Topher Reynoso, head of health benefits compliance, Gusto

Tuition reimbursement

More companies than ever are offering tuition reimbursement as part of their compensation package, and with good reason: Both employees and employers can reap the benefits. Investing in employees’ education helps attract and retain top talent, subsequently lowering recruiting costs as well as strengthening a company’s reputation and overall success. Even better, tuition reimbursement comes at a minimal cost to organizations, as it is a tax-deductible perk.

In the tuition reimbursement process, an employee will pay upfront for college, graduate or continuing education coursework. Once the semester is complete, the employer reimburses the employee for some or all of their previously paid tuition, so long as the student meets all listed criteria. This criterion may vary by company, but it typically includes a minimum grade or overall GPA, as well as coursework that is related to the employee’s job or industry.

While this may sound like a high expense, money spent on tuition or education reimbursement is tax-deductible — up to $5,250 per employee per year. Employers can deduct this per-employee amount from their own taxes each year. There are also additional government reimbursement programs that may apply to individuals taking job- or duty-specific coursework. As long as a business has the upfront capital for reimbursement, the actual long-term cost is oftentimes minimal and well worth it for companies and their staff alike.

If you’re planning to implement a tuition assistance program, you’ll want to seek legal assistance to ensure it meets federal, state and local laws and guidelines.

Tools and resources

Many “reasonable and necessary” business expenses also qualify for tax breaks. For example, professional publications and other continuing education materials can be deducted from your business taxes. Tools and uniforms purchased by the employer also qualify for a deduction, though some may deduct the cost of these items from their employees' paychecks.

In some circumstances, business meals are also tax-deductible. Meals purchased while traveling for work or meeting with clients, as well as during social or recreational activities (such as a company retreat or holiday party), are fully deductible as of the 2021 and 2022 tax seasons. Meals provided for employees at the cafeteria, break room or other business locations are deductible at 50%.

Commuting reimbursements vary by circumstance. Businesses can no longer deduct reimbursement for many regular commuting benefits, such as transit passes or parking unless they are necessary for ensuring an employee’s safety. Bicycle commuting reimbursements can still be deducted, though these amounts must be included in employee pay.

Travel reimbursements, on the other hand, are largely tax-deductible. Employers can deduct employees’ expenses related to transportation, lodging and any other associated costs. Temporary work assignments, work retreats and conferences or conventions all fall under this category. Long-term work assignments (over one year in length) do not qualify.

Achievement awards

If your organization offers awards for safety achievement or length of service, there’s good news: Certain types of these awards are exempt from FICA taxes. The cost of any achievement award that comes in the form of tangible personal property, such as plaques or jewelry, can be deducted from your business taxes.

There are certain IRS requirements for achievement awards to be tax-deductible. The limit for qualified plan awards — one that is given as part of an established, written program that does not favor highly paid employees — is $1,600 per employee per year. The limit for non-qualified awards that do not meet the above criteria is $400 per employee per year. Additionally, the IRS has limitations on how frequently awards can be given and who can receive them. Safety awards cannot be given to more than 10% of eligible employees in a given year; length-of-service awards cannot be given more often than every five years, nor during the employee’s first five years.

Keep in mind that achievement awards given in forms other than tangible personal property are not eligible for this tax deduction. For example, gifts of cash or their equivalent, gift cards or certificates, tickets to events, vacations, meals, lodgings, stocks, bonds and securities are not tax-deductible.

Questions to ask your CPA

As you determine the best ways to take advantage of benefits-related tax deductions, our sources recommend asking your CPA or tax planner the following questions:

  • Can I reimburse my employees for their health insurance?
  • How much will I save if I offer a QSEHRA instead of a traditional group plan for my staff?
  • What type of HRA works best for my business?
  • What information and documents do I need to prepare?
  • How might I benefit from tax deductions or credits?
  • What are some recent changes in terms of tax filing?
  • How might I reduce my tax bill?

"Offering benefits is definitely an investment by small business owners, but it's a worthwhile one," said Reynoso.

[Read more: A Complete Guide to Filing Your Business Taxes]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published December 13, 2021