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Helping employees understand their health care accounts

Many businesses now offer, as part of their health care benefits, various types of accounts that reimburse employees for medical expenses on a tax-advantaged basis. These include health Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRAs) and Health Savings Account (HSAs, which are usually offered in conjunction with a high-deductible health plan).

For employees to get the full value out of such accounts, they need to educate themselves on what expenses are eligible for reimbursement by a health FSA or HRA, or for a tax-free distribution from an HSA. Although an employer shouldn’t provide tax advice to employees, you can give them a heads-up that the rules for reimbursements or distributions vary depending on the type of account.

Pub. 502

Unfortunately, no single publication provides an exhaustive list of official, government-approved expenses eligible for reimbursement by a health FSA or HRA, or for a tax-free distribution from an HSA. IRS Publication 502 — “Medical and Dental Expenses” (Pub. 502) comes the closest, but it should be used with caution.

Pub. 502 is written largely to help taxpayers determine what medical expenses can be deducted on their income tax returns; it’s not meant to address the tax-favored health care accounts in question. Although the rules for deductibility overlap in many respects with the rules governing health FSAs, HRAs and HSAs, there are some important differences. Thus, employees shouldn’t use Pub. 502 as the sole determinant for whether an expense is reimbursable by a health FSA or HRA, or eligible for tax-free distribution from an HSA.

Various factors

You might warn health care account participants that various factors affect whether and when a medical expense is reimbursable or a distribution allowable. These include:

Timing rules. Pub. 502 notes that expenses may be deducted only for the year in which they were paid, but it doesn’t explain the different timing rules for the tax-favored accounts. For example, a health FSA can reimburse an expense only for the year in which it was incurred, regardless of when it was paid.

Insurance restrictions. Taxpayers may deduct health insurance premiums on their tax returns if certain requirements are met. However, reimbursement of such premiums by health FSAs, HRAs and HSAs is subject to restrictions that vary according to the type of tax-favored account.

Over-the-counter (OTC) drug documentation. OTC drugs other than insulin aren’t tax-deductible, but they may be reimbursed by health FSAs, HRAs and HSAs if substantiation and other requirements are met.

Greater appreciation

The pandemic has put a renewed emphasis on the importance of employer-provided health care benefits. The federal government has even passed COVID-19-related relief measures for some tax-favored accounts.

As mentioned, the more that employees understand these benefits, the more they’ll be able to effectively use them — and the greater appreciation they’ll have of your business for providing them. Our firm can help you fully understand the tax implications, for both you and employees, of any type of health care benefit.

© 2020

Does your business have a unique selling proposition?

Many business owners — particularly those who own smaller companies — spend so much time trying to eliminate weaknesses that they never fully capitalize on their strengths. One way to do so is to identify and explicate your unique selling proposition (USP).

Give it some thought

In a nutshell, a USP states why customers should buy your product or service rather than a similar one offered by a competitor. A USP might be rather obvious if you offer a type of state-of-the-art technology or specialize in a certain kind of service that’s not widely available. Many businesses, however, will need to dedicate some serious thought and discussion to identifying their USP — and they may need to do so every year or two to adapt to market changes.

Ask the right questions

Involve employees from every level of your company in brainstorming sessions to develop your USP. During these meetings, consider the answers to questions such as:

  • What makes our products or services distinctive?
  • What aspect of our business is most important to its growth?
  • Which elements of what we do are the most difficult for competitors to copy?
  • Why should customers buy from us instead of the competition?

As you might have noticed, knowledge of your competitors is critical to developing a strong USP. You can’t differentiate your business from theirs unless you’re familiar with what competitors are selling, how they sell their products or services, and how they support those sales in terms of customer service. To this end, you may need to undertake some “competitive intelligence” efforts to gather needed information.

Integrate it into the sales process

Your USP should be a powerful, concise statement that customers and prospects will immediately understand and recognize as fulfilling their wants or needs. Among the most commonly cited examples is package delivery giant FedEx’s “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Although the company doesn’t use this slogan anymore, it remains a perfect example of a USP that’s clear and memorable.

Of course, your USP must be more than just words. Once established, it should serve as a sort of “mantra” for your sales team. That is, after identifying your customers’ needs during the sales process, they should use the USP (or an iteration of it) to explain to customers why your product or service is the right choice. Just be careful not to overuse your USP in sales and marketing materials, including on your website.

Now may be the time

Given the monumental changes that have occurred in the U.S. economy and in many industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, now may be an imperative time to reconsider and relaunch your USP. We can help you evaluate your sales numbers, as well as return on investment in marketing efforts, to carefully craft the right approach.

© 2020

IRS announces per diem rates for business travel

In Notice 2020-71, the IRS recently announced per diem rates that can be used to substantiate the amount of business expenses incurred for travel away from home on or after October 1, 2020. Employers using these rates to set per diem allowances can treat the amount of certain categories of travel expenses as substantiated without requiring that employees prove the actual amount spent. (Employees must still substantiate the time, place and business purposes of their travel expenses.)

The amount deemed substantiated will be the lesser of the allowance actually paid or the applicable per diem rate for the same set of expenses. This notice, which replaces Notice 2019-55, announces:

  • Rates for use under the optional high-low substantiation method,
  • Special rates for transportation industry employers, and
  • The rate for taxpayers taking a deduction only for incidental expenses.

Updated general guidance issued in 2019 regarding the use of per diems under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) remains in effect.

High-low method

For travel within the continental United States, the optional high-low method designates one per diem rate for high-cost locations and another for other locations. Employers can use the high-low method for substantiating lodging, meals and incidental expenses, or for substantiating meal and incidental expenses (M&IE) only.

Beginning October 1, 2020, the high-low per diem rate that can be used for lodging, meals and incidental expenses decreases to $292 (from $297) for travel to high-cost locations and decreases to $198 (from $200) for travel to other locations. The high-low M&IE rates are unchanged at $71 for travel to high-cost locations and $60 for travel to other locations. Five locations have been added to the list of high-cost locations, two have been removed and 10 that remain on the list are now considered high-cost for a different portion of the calendar year.

Although self-employed persons can’t use the high-low method, they can use other per diem rates to calculate the amount of their business expense deduction for business meals and incidental expenses (but not lodging), or for incidental expenses alone. (Employees can no longer deduct their unreimbursed expenses because of the suspension of miscellaneous itemized deductions by the TCJA, so these other rates are effectively unavailable to them.) The special rate for the incidental expenses deduction is unchanged at $5 per day for those who don’t pay or incur meal expenses for a calendar day (or partial day) of travel.

A simpler process

The per diem rules can greatly simplify the process of substantiating business travel expense amounts. If the amount of an allowance is deemed substantiated because it doesn’t exceed the applicable limit, any unspent amounts don’t have to be taxed or returned. If an employer pays per diem allowances that exceed what’s deemed substantiated, however, the employer must either treat the excess as taxable wages or require actual substantiation. When substantiation is required, any unsubstantiated portion of the allowance must be returned or treated as taxable wages. Please contact us to discuss the rules further.

© 2020

Prioritize customer service now more than ever

You’d be hard-pressed to find a business that doesn’t value its customers, but tough times put many things into perspective. As companies have adjusted to operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, prioritizing customer service has become more important than ever.

Without a strong base of loyal buyers, and a concerted effort to win over more market share, your business could very well see diminished profit margins and an escalated risk of being surpassed by competitors. Here are some foundational ways to strengthen customer service during these difficult and uncertain times.

Get management involved

As is the case for many things in business, success starts at the top. Encourage your management team and fellow owners (if any) to regularly interact with customers. Doing so cements customer relationships and communicates to employees that cultivating these contacts is part of your company culture and a foundation of its profitability.

Moving down the organizational chart, cultivate customer-service heroes. Post articles about the latest customer service achievements on your internal website or distribute companywide emails celebrating successes. Champion these heroes in meetings. Public praise turns ordinary employees into stars and encourages future service excellence.

Just be sure to empower employees to make timely decisions. Don’t just talk about catering to customers unless your staff can really take the initiative to act accordingly.

Systemize your responsiveness

Like everyone in today’s data-driven world, customers want immediate information. So, strive to provide instant or at least timely feedback to customers with a highly visible, technologically advanced response system. This will let customers know that their input matters and you’ll reward them for speaking up.

The specifics of this system will depend on the size, shape and specialty of the business itself. It should encompass the right combination of instant, electronic responses to customer inquiries along with phone calls and, where appropriate, face-to-face (or direct virtual) interactions that reinforce how much you value their business.

Continue to adjust

By now, you’ve likely implemented a few adjustments to serving your customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses have done so, with common measures including:

  • Explaining what you’re doing to cope with the crisis,
  • Being more flexible with payment plans and deadlines, and
  • Exercising greater patience and empathy.

As the months go on, don’t rest on your laurels. Continually reassess your approach to customer service and make adjustments that suit the changing circumstances of not only the pandemic, but also your industry and local economy. Seize opportunities to help customers and watch out for mistakes that could hurt your company’s reputation and revenue.

Don’t give up

This year has put everyone under unforeseen amounts of stress and, in turn, providing world-class customer services has become even more difficult. Keep at it — your extra efforts now could lay the groundwork for a much stronger customer base in the future. Our firm can help you assess your customer service and calculate its impact on revenue and profitability.

© 2020

Employers have questions and concerns about deferring employees’ Social Security taxes

The IRS has provided guidance to employers regarding the recent presidential action to allow employers to defer the withholding, deposit and payment of certain payroll tax obligations.

The three-page guidance in Notice 2020-65 was issued to implement President Trump’s executive memorandum signed on August 8.

Private employers still have questions and concerns about whether, and how, to implement the optional deferral. The President’s action only defers the employee’s share of Social Security taxes; it doesn’t forgive them, meaning employees will still have to pay the taxes later unless Congress acts to eliminate the liability. (The payroll services provider for federal employers announced that federal employees will have their taxes deferred.) 

Deferral basics

President Trump issued the memorandum in light of the COVID-19 crisis. He directed the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to use his authority under the tax code to defer the withholding, deposit and payment of certain payroll tax obligations.

For purposes of the Notice, “applicable wages” means wages or compensation paid to an employee on a pay date beginning September 1, 2020, and ending December 31, 2020, but only if the amount paid for a biweekly pay period is less than $4,000, or the equivalent amount with respect to other pay periods.

The guidance postpones the withholding and remittance of the employee share of Social Security tax until the period beginning on January 1, 2021, and ending on April 30, 2021. Penalties, interest and additions to tax will begin to accrue on May 1, 2021, for any unpaid taxes.

“If necessary,” the guidance states, an employer “may make arrangements to collect the total applicable taxes” from an employee. But it doesn’t specify how.

Be aware that under the CARES Act, employers can already defer paying their portion of Social Security taxes through December 31, 2020. All 2020 deferred amounts are due in two equal installments — one at the end of 2021 and the other at the end of 2022. 

Many employers opting out

Several business groups have stated that their members won’t participate in the deferral. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and more than 30 trade associations sent a letter to members of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Treasury calling the deferral “unworkable.”

The Chamber is concerned that employees will get a temporary increase in their paychecks this year, followed by a decrease in take-home pay in early 2021. “Many of our members consider it unfair to employees to make a decision that would force a big tax bill on them next year… Therefore, many of our members will likely decline to implement deferral, choosing instead to continue to withhold and remit to the government the payroll taxes required by law,” the group explained.

Businesses are also worried about having to collect the taxes from employees who may quit or be terminated before April 30, 2021. And since some employees are asking questions about the deferral, many employers are also putting together communications to inform their staff members about whether they’re going to participate. If so, they’re informing employees what it will mean for next year’s paychecks.

How to proceed

Contact us if you have questions about the deferral and how to proceed at your business. 

© 2020