The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the labor market – mandated government lockdowns and workers’ and customers’ fears of contracting the illness resulted in businesses closing or temporarily cutting back and laying off or furloughing millions of employees. In April 2020, the unemployment rate reached 14.8%, the highest rate since such data started to be collected in 1948. While by September 2021 the unemployment rate had declined to 4.8%, millions of job openings went unfilled as former employees were reluctant to return to work. Some businesses still weren’t operating at full capacity because they weren’t able to find enough employees.
If you are a business owner, and are hiring new workers, you may be able to claim a Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) if you hire someone who has been unemployed for 27 consecutive weeks or more or if the individual is from one of several other categories of eligible employees, as explained below. This credit is an income tax credit, unlike some of the pandemic-related credits that are applied to employment taxes of the business.
The WOTC is typically worth up to $2,400 for each eligible employee, but it can be worth up to $9,600 for certain veterans and up to $9,000 for “long-term family assistance recipients.” The credit, which was extended by Congress in late 2020 legislation, is available for eligible employees who begin working for the new employer after 2020 and before 2026.
Generally, an employer is eligible for the WOTC only when paying qualified wages to members of any of the targeted groups listed below. For more details on the required qualifications for each group, see the instructions for IRS Form 8850 (Pre-Screening Notice and Certification Request for the Work Opportunity Credit).
- (1) Qualified IV-A recipients – generally, members of a family that is receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program;
- (2) Qualified veterans;
- (3) Qualified ex-felons – generally, those hired within one year of release from prison;
- (4) Designated community residents – those who are aged 18 through 39 and who are living in an empowerment zone or a rural renewal area*;
- (5) Vocational rehabilitation referrals – handicapped individuals who are referred by rehabilitation agencies;
- (6) Qualified summer youth employees – those who are 16 or 17 years old, have never previously worked for the employer and reside in an empowerment zone*;
- (7) Qualified members of families who participate in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP);
- (8) Qualified Supplemental Security Income recipients;
- (9) Qualified long-term family assistance recipients – those receiving TANF assistance payments; and
- (10) Qualified long-term-unemployed individuals. The period of unemployment cannot be less than 27 consecutive weeks, and must include a period (which may be less than 27 consecutive weeks) in which the individual received unemployment compensation under state or federal law.
* Both empowerment zones and rural renewal areas are listed in the IRS Form 8850 instructions. The empowerment zone designations expired at the end of 2020. However, the legislation that extended the WOTC through 2025 also provides for an extension of the designations to the end of 2025.
For an employer to qualify for the credit, the employee must work a minimum of 120 hours and receive at least 50% of his or her wages from that employer for working in the employer’s trade or business. Relatives of the employer and employees who have previously worked for the employer do not qualify for the credit.
For an employee from most of the targeted groups, the credit is based upon the first $6,000 of first-year wages. If an employee completes at least 120 hours but less than 400 hours of service for the employer, the credit is equal to those wages multiplied by 25%. If the employee completes 400 or more hours of service, the credit is equal to the wages multiplied by 40%. Thus, the maximum credit per employee in one of these groups would be $2,400 (.4 x $6,000). For the summer youth employees, only the first $3,000 of the first-year wages are taken into account, resulting in a maximum per-employee credit of $1,200 (.4 x $3,000)
Two categories allow for higher first-year wages to be eligible when calculating the credit:
- Long-Term Family Assistance Recipients – For this category, the first-year wage that can be taken into account for the credit is increased to $10,000, thus allowing a maximum credit of $4,000 (.4 x $10,000). In addition, this group qualifies for a credit in the second year (immediately following the first year); this is equal to 50% of second-year wages up to $10,000.
- Veterans – The three possible qualifications of veterans (family received SNAP benefits, unemployed, or service-related disability) have applicable first-year wages for the credit of up to $12,000, up to $14,000 and up to $24,000. Thus, the maximum credit for this group is between $4,800 (.4 x $12,000) and $9,600 (.4 x $24,000), depending upon the qualification. The unemployment-based qualification for veterans without a service-related disability is either that the veteran was:
- (1) Unemployed for a period or periods totaling at least 4 weeks (whether or not consecutive) but less than 6 months in the 1-year period ending on the hiring date, or
- (2) Unemployed for a period or periods totaling at least 6 months (whether or not consecutive) in the 1-year period ending on the hiring date.
Certification Process – To be eligible to claim the WOTC, the employer must file Form 8850 with its state workforce agency (SWA) no later than 28 days after an eligible employee begins work. Due to the COVID-19 emergency, the IRS has extended many filing due dates, including if the 28th calendar day falls on or after January 1, 2021, and before October 9, 2021; in that case, employers are allowed to submit Form 8850 to the SWA by November 8, 2021. Once the worker is state-certified as a member of a targeted group and has worked sufficient hours, the employer can claim the WOTC on Form 5884 (Work Opportunity Credit).
- No Multiple Benefits – No deduction is allowed for the portion of wages equal to the WOTC for that tax year. Also, the same wages used to compute the WOTC can’t be used by the employer when claiming the coronavirus-related Employee Retention Credit, the credit for qualified sick and family leave, and the disaster-related employee retention credit.
- Unused Current-Year Credit – The credit is included in the general business credit, and if an employer’s credit is greater than its income-tax liability (including the alternative minimum tax), the excess credit is considered an unused credit that is available for use on another year’s return. The unused credit is first carried back one year (generally by amending the return for the carryback year) and then carried forward until any remaining credit is used up (but for no more than 20 years).
If you are expanding your work force as the pandemic winds down, be sure to keep in mind that you may be eligible to claim the WOTC for eligible employees from the targeted tax groups noted in this article. However, in some circumstances, electing not to claim the WOTC may be more valuable tax-wise for you.