Payroll expense tax

Find out more about the Payroll Expense Tax in this online training:

Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, 10 a.m.

Register here

In this training you will:

  • Find out how the tax is assessed
  • Learn how to determine your tax liability
  • Understand tax filing requirements
  • Have the chance to ask questions about the filing and payment process 

Please be aware that written communications and webinar registration information - including email addresses, names, and business affiliations - are potentially subject to public disclosure, in whole or in part, pursuant to the Washington State Public Records Act, RCW 42.56 et seq.

See the presentation from the Sept. 8, 2021 webinar.

Overview

The payroll expense tax, due on Jan. 31, 2022, is required of businesses with:

  • $7 million or more of payroll expense in Seattle for the past calendar year (2020), and
  • payroll expense in Seattle for the current calendar year (2021) paid to at least one employee whose annual compensation is $150,000 or more.

Director's Rule 5-980 provides information and examples to determine whether your business is subject to the Payroll Expense Tax and how to calculate your tax payment.

If you have questions, please email tax@seattle.gov or call our general information line at (206) 684-8484.

See an example of the Payroll Expense Tax Filing Form

Read the Code SMC Chapter 5.38

  • This tax is imposed in addition to any license fee or tax imposed by the City, State or other government agency.
  • The payroll expense tax is in addition to the City of Seattle's fees for business license tax certificates and both the Washington State and City of Seattle B & O tax.

Payroll Expense Tax FAQs

The Seattle Payroll Expense Tax is a business excise tax applicable to all business that are engaging in business in Seattle.   

Businesses that have Seattle annual payroll of at least $7 million in the prior calendar year.

The first tax return is due January 31, 2022. Businesses subject to the tax will consolidate all quarterly tax filing information for 2021 and report the combined information in the 4th quarter. Starting in 2022, the payroll expense tax will be reported and paid on a quarterly basis.

No. The payroll expense tax is a tax on employers that have Seattle annual payroll expense of $7 million or more. The payroll expense tax is levied upon businesses, not individual employees. The tax is paid by the employer and there is no individual withholding. The law specifically precludes employers from withholding the tax from their employees.

Only businesses that have $7 million or more of payroll expense in Seattle in the previous calendar year and have payroll expense in Seattle paid to employees whose annual compensation is $150,000 or more need to file a payroll expense tax return. 

   Payroll expense of less than $100 million Payroll expense of $100 million but less than $1 billion Payroll expense of $1 billion or greater
Annual compensation
$0 - $149,999.99
N/A N/A N/A
Annual compensation
$150,000 - $399,999.99
Rate = 0.7% Rate = 0.7% Rate = 1.4%
Annual compensation
$400,000 or more
Rate = 1.7% Rate = 1.9%

Rate = 2.4%

Beginning January 1, 2022, and on January 1 of every year thereafter, the dollar threshold and exemption amount will be adjusted for inflation.

The payroll expense tax can be paid electronically or manually. FileLocal is the online tax filing portal for the City of Seattle. This is the same portal many taxpayers currently use to file and pay a variety of other Seattle business taxes, including B&O, Commercial Parking, Admissions, etc. Payroll Expense Tax forms will be available to download from our website. Manual forms can be completed and mailed to the address provided on the back of the form. Returns are not deemed filed until both tax filing and payment are received. 

The payroll expense tax can be filed through FileLocal using the business's customer number. Businesses engaging in business in Seattle must have a Seattle Business License Tax Certificate. This certificate contains the customer number assigned to the business. Businesses filing the payroll expense tax manually need to include the customer number as well as legal name and address on the filed form. If a business does not have a Business License Tax Certificate, they can apply for a Business License Tax Certificate at FileLocal. If you are filing returns as a preparer on behalf of another business, you can create a Preparer Account in FileLocal to file returns on behalf of your client. The business will need to grant you permission to file their returns in FileLocal

We are in the process of developing the payroll expense tax return. Tax forms for the payroll expense tax will be available here on or before July 1, 2021. The preferred method of filing this tax is electronically, using FileLocal

Payroll expense means compensation paid in Seattle to employees. Compensation has the same meaning for purposes of the payroll expense tax as it does for the Washington State Family and Medical Leave program. Compensation includes all payments for personal services, including commissions and bonuses and the cash value of all earnings paid in any medium other than cash.

For each tax year, the taxpayer shall select one of the two methods listed below to determine the compensation paid in Seattle to the taxpayer's employees. The taxpayer shall follow the same method for all employees for the entire tax year.

Hours method

The amount of compensation paid in Seattle to employees shall be:

1. One hundred percent of the compensation paid to employees who perform work exclusively within Seattle; and

2. For employees who perform work partly within and partly outside Seattle, the compensation paid in Seattle to those employees shall be, for each individual employee, the portion of the employee's annual compensation which the total number of the employee's hours worked within Seattle bears to the total number of the employee's hours worked within and outside Seattle.

3. Taxpayers who calculate payroll expense using this method may exclude from the measure of the tax the payroll expense of employees who work within Seattle less than 40 hours during the tax year.

If the taxpayer does not select the method above, then the amount of compensation paid in Seattle to employees shall be determined as follows.

Primarily-assigned method

Compensation is paid in Seattle to an employee if:

1. The employee is primarily assigned within Seattle;

2. The employee is not primarily assigned to any place of business for the tax period and the employee performs 50 percent or more of their service for the tax period in Seattle; or

3. The employee is not primarily assigned to any place of business for the tax period, the employee does not perform 50 percent or more of their service in any city, and the employee resides in Seattle.

An employee that performs more than 50 percent of their duties during the calendar year at a business location of the taxpayer, will be primarily assigned to that business location.

Compensation includes all payments for personal services, including commissions and bonuses and the cash value of all compensation paid in any medium other than cash. Compensation includes remuneration as defined by the Washington State Family and Medical Leave program in RCW 50A.05.010. A list of items that the Washington State Employment Security Department considers compensation can be found in Seattle Rule 5-980(2)(a)(ii)

Compensation does not include:

  1. Tips;
  2. Supplemental benefit payments made by an employer to an employee in addition to any paid family or medical leave benefits received by the employee;
  3. Employee exercised stock options (incentive stock options (ISOs) or non-qualified stock options (NQSOs));
  4. Payments provided to cover a past or future cost incurred by the employee as a result of the employee's expected job functions;
  5. Employer contributions into retirement or disability plans; or
  6. Payments to an owner of a pass-through entity that are not earned for services rendered or work performed (i.e., return of capital, investment income, or other passive activities). 

Compensation includes the value of stocks transferred to the employee during the calendar year if part of a compensation package. This would include stock grants, Restricted Stock Units (RSUs), and Performance Stock Units (PSUs). Stock options and any related gains from exercising stock options are not considered compensation for purposes of the payroll expense tax. 

Yes, compensation also includes employee contributions to deferred compensation plans (e.g., 401(k), 403(b), or other deferred compensation plans) in which a portion of an employee's salary or wages are set aside to be paid at a later date. 

Compensation means remuneration as defined by the RCW 50A.05.010. If the amounts are included as compensation for purposes of the Washington State Employment Security Department's State Family and Medical Leave program, then they should be included for purposes of the payroll expense tax. If employee deductions would not reduce wages reported to the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) for purposes of the Family and Medical Leave program, then they would not be excluded from compensation for the payroll expense tax.

Compensation is based on gross pay. Payroll expense is the gross compensation paid in Seattle to employees. 

The total payroll expense for employees in Seattle that have annual compensation of $150,000 or more, starting with the first dollar paid, must be included in the amount subject to the payroll expense tax. 

Businesses subject to the payroll expense tax are required to maintain and keep complete and adequate records. Records must be kept in such a manner as to enable the tax administrator to determine the payroll expense tax liability of the taxpayer. Records retained must be presented upon request of the tax administrator and demonstrate the payroll expense of the business, including but not limited to; where employees are primarily assigned, perform their services, and reside, and employee compensation. Examples include but are not limited to; W-2 and earnings summaries and workpapers and other employment tax records; work location schedules; teleworking agreements between employee and employer; payroll expense reports; copies of state employment security returns and their workpapers; etc.

Certain business activities are exempt from the tax. These include:

• Grocery businesses. Those businesses in which at least 70 percent of their gross sales is exempt from retail sales tax. This includes wholesalers of food and food ingredients that would be exempt from tax when resold would also be exempt from retail sales tax under RCW 82.08.0293;

• Any business having compensation paid in Seattle to employees of less than $7 million in the previous calendar year;

• Compensation paid in Seattle to an independent contractor whose compensation is included in another business's payroll expense; and

• Any business engaged in business in Seattle that is preempted from taxation by cities under federal or state statutes or regulations. These include insurance businesses and their appointed insurance producers; businesses that only sell motor vehicle fuel; businesses that only distribute liquor; and federal, state, and local government entities. 

Yes. There is not a general payroll expense tax exemption for non-profit 501 C organizations. 

The $7 million exemption threshold is based on the prior year's compensation paid to Seattle employees. For example, to determine if an employer is subject to the payroll expense tax in 2021, an employer will use its 2020 compensation paid to Seattle employees to determine if they have met the $7 million or more in payroll expense threshold. However, businesses must use the current year's compensation paid in Seattle to determine the payroll expense tax due for the year. For example, in 2021, businesses that had $7 million or more in Seattle payroll expenses in 2020 would apply the tax rates based on their 2021 Seattle payroll expense of employees with annual compensation of $150,000 or more. 

A deduction is available for the employer if they are a non-profit healthcare entity. A business that qualifies as a non-profit healthcare entity may deduct the payroll expense of employees whose compensation is $150,000 to $399,999.99 from the payroll expense of the business. The employer would deduct the payroll expense of such employees on the tax return.

A non-profit health-care entity is (1) a non-profit entity that provides comprehensive healthcare services, including primary and specialty care, and non-profit healthcare entities that provides at least 50% of its services to patients covered by Apple Health and TRICARE and to patients who do not have a third-party payor; (2) a non-profit entity that conducts life sciences research and development; or (3) a predominantly capitated provider group with an integrated delivery system operated by a fully non-profit carrier. 

The payroll expense tax was adopted by Ordinance 126108 and amended by Ordinance 126309.

You may contact License and Tax Administration at (206) 684-8484 or tax@seattle.gov.