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What Exactly Is a Payroll Tax?

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what is a payroll tax?

A payroll tax is a charge that both employers and employees must pay on salaries, tips, and wages. Employers withhold taxes from employees’ paychecks and pay them to the government. 

Federal, state, and municipal income taxes and the employee’s contribution of Social Security and Medicare taxes (FICA) are included. Employers must pay FICA contributions as well as federal and state unemployment taxes.

what you need to understand about payroll taxes

Federal employer payroll taxes, a part of the FICA tax in the United States, cover Social Security and Medicare contributions.

On pay stubs, these are listed as MedFICA and FICA. The federal income tax, which is also taken from employee paychecks, is deposited in the United States Treasury’s general fund.

Most states and some cities and counties collect income taxes, which go straight into their budgets. Also, employers pay federal unemployment taxes for each worker, but employees don’t have to do this.  

Governments in many countries, including the United States, also collect payroll taxes in addition to income taxes. These payroll tax deductions are detailed on a pay stub. The itemized list shows how much is withheld for state, federal, and municipal income taxes and Medicare and Social Security contributions.

Governments use payroll tax revenues to fund programs such as Social Security, worker’s compensation, and healthcare. Local governments may impose a small payroll tax to fund the upkeep and improvement of local infrastructure and services such as first responders, road maintenance, and parks. 

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tax rates

The basis of Medicare and Social Security is that you pay into them during your working years in order to be eligible for withdrawals after retirement or in specific medical circumstances. 

Employees pay 7.65% of their salary for Social Security and Medicare Withholding Rates(1.45% for Medicare and 6.2% for Social Security). An employer must additionally pay the same 7.65% tax as an employee, for a total of 15.3%.  

There is a Social Security income cap above which no Social Security tax is payable. The income threshold in 2022 was $147,000 ($160,200 in 2023), making the FICA element of the US payroll tax regressive. For 2024 the threshold is still the same for employees which is 6.2% and the ones who are self employed their tax rate is 12.4% as they are considered both as employee and employer. However, anyone earning more than $200,000 must pay an additional 0.9% for Medicare. 

you may also like to read: managing your payroll tax obligations a practical guide for business owners

unemployment taxes

The primary responsibility for funding unemployment insurance rests with employers. Employees who are laid off are entitled to unemployment compensation. 

The unemployment insurance rate the employer pays varies according to industry, state, and federal fees. Employees in some states are required to contribute to unemployment and disability insurance.

taxes on self-employment

Self-employed individuals, such as contractors, freelance writers, musicians, and small business owners, are required to pay typical payroll taxes, often known as self-employment taxes.

Unlike most paid employees, self-employed people do not have employers who remit payroll taxes on their behalf. As a result, they are responsible for the tax’s employer and employee components.  

The self-employment tax rate is 15.3%, with a 12.4% contribution to Social Security (old-age, survivors, and disability insurance) included. The other half of the tax is a 2.9% payment to Medicare, with an additional 0.9% surtax on earnings over $200,000.  

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payroll social security tax

Social Security taxes are split between two trust funds. The first one is called the Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI), which provides retirement and survivor benefits. 

In contrast, the second one is the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, which pays out disability benefits to those who qualify. The Social Security Commissioner, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and two public trustees are in charge of these trust funds. 

The employee and the employer are responsible for paying the Social Security tax, which is 6.2% and amounts to 12.4%. Income over $147,000 ($160,200 in 2023) is not subject to Social Security taxes.  For 2024, the same ratio applies to income earned over $168,600. 

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in order to provide a safety net for the injured and retirees. 

High-wage employees were initially excused from paying into the system and collecting Social Security benefits; however, the United States Congress replaced the exemption with a ceiling that typically increases at the same pace as wages. 

medicare payroll tax

Payroll taxes, as previously stated, also go to Medicare. The deductions from payroll are placed into two separate trust funds, namely the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund and the Life Insurance Trust Fund. 

The Hospital Insurance Trust Fund is responsible for funding Medicare Part A and its administrative costs. Part A contributes to the cost of hospitalization, skilled nursing inpatient care, and, in some situations, home care.  

Most people do not pay a premium for Part A (hospital insurance) because they likely paid into the program through payroll taxes throughout their working years. 

The Medicare tax is 1.45% for employers and 1.45% for employees, for a total Medicare tax of 2.9%. Individuals earning more than $200,000 are subject to an extra 0.9% tax. This additional tax applies only to the employee and not to the employer. 

The Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund, which helps pay for Medicare Parts B and D as well as other Medicare program administration expenditures, is the other Medicare trust fund. Part B includes laboratory testing and screenings, outpatient care, x-rays, ambulance service, and a variety of other expenses. Part D covers prescription medications. 

The congressional authority funds This trust fund allocates monies from premiums paid by those enrolled in Parts B and D and other sources, such as interest collected on the fund’s assets.  

income taxes vs. payroll taxes

Although both are deducted from paychecks, there is a distinction between payroll and income taxes. Payroll taxes are collected to pay for specific initiatives, while income taxes are deposited in the general funds of the United States Treasury.  

Everyone pays a flat payroll tax rate that is limited to a yearly limit. On the contrary, income taxes follow a progressive system where the rate of taxation fluctuates based on an individual’s earnings. Any state income tax collected is deposited in the state treasury.


Employees and employers levy Payroll taxes on wages, tips, and salaries. Federal, state, and local taxes and FICA taxes for Social Security and Medicare are included in this category. All of these taxes are deducted from an employee’s pay. Countick can provide hassle-free payroll services for startups so you can streamline business operations and work on business goals more efficiently. 


what constitutes payroll taxes?
Payroll taxes encompass all taxes on a person’s salary, wage, bonus, commission, and tips. These taxes fund Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, government services, and local infrastructure.

what exactly is the FICA tax?
The FICA tax is an acronym that stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act and is used to fund Social Security and Medicare. The overall tax is 15.3%, which is split evenly between a company and an employee, resulting in each paying 7.65%. This includes the Social Security tax (6.2%) and the Medicare tax (1.45%).  

do all individuals pay a payroll tax?
Typically, individuals have a payroll tax automatically deducted from their paychecks. This tax applies to everyone and includes both Social Security and Medicare taxes, which are regressive as everyone pays the same amount, and income tax, which is progressive as individuals earning more pay a higher rate.

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