Small Business Guide to Employee Retention Credit

In the business world, particularly for small enterprises, adapting to unforeseen challenges is crucial. One of the most significant challenges in recent times has been navigating the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this crisis, the U.S. government introduced the Employee Retention Credit (ERC) to help businesses keep their employees on payroll. This guide provides an overview of the ERC tailored specifically for small businesses.

What is the Employee Retention Credit (ERC)?

The Employee Retention Credit is a refundable tax credit aimed at employers, especially those whose operations were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s designed to encourage businesses to keep employees on their payroll even in times of reduced revenues or temporary shutdowns.

Who is Eligible for the ERC?

To be eligible for the ERC, small businesses must:

  • Have experienced a significant decline in gross receipts, which is a 50% reduction in gross receipts when compared to the same quarter in the previous year (for credits in 2020).
  • OR have had their operations fully or partially suspended due to orders from a governmental authority relating to COVID-19.

Calculating the Credit

The ERC is calculated differently depending on the year:

  • For 2020: Employers can claim a credit of 50% of qualifying wages (up to $10,000 in total wages), which means a maximum credit of $5,000 per employee for the year.
  • For 2021: The credit rate is 70% on qualifying wages, allowing businesses to claim up to $7,000 per employee per quarter, translating to a potential $28,000 per employee throughout the year.

Determining Qualifying Wages

For small businesses with 100 or fewer full-time employees in 2020, all wages paid—whether the business was open or subject to a shutdown order—can qualify for the credit. For 2021, this threshold increased to 500 or fewer employees.

It’s essential to note that wages used to calculate this credit cannot be counted for other relief programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Claiming the ERC

Small businesses can claim the ERC when filing their quarterly federal employment tax returns. If your credits exceed the payroll taxes due, the amount will be refunded.

Interaction with Other Aid Programs

While businesses can benefit from both the PPP and the ERC, there’s a catch: any wages used to secure PPP loan forgiveness cannot be double-counted for the ERC. Small businesses need to plan strategically to maximize both benefits.

How the ERC Can Benefit Small Businesses

  • Immediate Cash Flow: By reducing payroll tax liabilities or even receiving a refund, small businesses can bolster their cash reserves, crucial during uncertain times.
  • Retention of Skilled Staff: The primary aim of the ERC is employee retention. This helps businesses bounce back quickly post-pandemic, without the hassle and cost of rehiring and training.
  • Flexibility: The ERC allows small businesses the flexibility to choose the best quarter for claiming the credit, especially beneficial for businesses with fluctuating revenues.

Key Considerations for Small Businesses

  • Documentation: Proper record-keeping is crucial. Ensure you maintain detailed payroll records, documentation highlighting revenue decline, or proof of government mandates that impacted operations.
  • Updated Regulations: As with many government programs, rules and guidelines can change. Stay updated on any modifications to the ERC.
  • Seek Expertise: Given the complexities surrounding the ERC, consulting a tax professional or accountant familiar with the program can be invaluable.

Leveraging the ERC for Future Growth

Beyond the immediate financial relief, small businesses can use the ERC as a stepping stone for future growth:

  • Reinvestment: The funds saved or refunded through the ERC can be channeled back into the business—be it in marketing, expansion, or research and development.
  • Stability: By ensuring employee retention, businesses can guarantee continuity in service and operations, fostering customer trust and loyalty.
  • Financial Planning: Utilizing the ERC can play a role in a small business’s broader financial strategy, potentially influencing decisions on investment, expansion, and other financial commitments.


In challenging economic climates, tools like the Employee Retention Credit can be lifesavers for small businesses. By understanding its nuances, ensuring eligibility, and strategic planning, small business owners can not only navigate the present challenges but also lay the groundwork for future success.

FAQ on Employee Retention Credit for Small Businesses

Q1. What is the main purpose of the Employee Retention Credit (ERC)?
A1. The primary objective of the ERC is to encourage small businesses to keep their employees on payroll during periods of economic downturn or disruptions, especially those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q2. Can a business that took a PPP loan also claim the ERC?
A2. Yes, a business can take advantage of both the PPP and ERC. However, they cannot “double-dip” by using the same wages to obtain PPP loan forgiveness and also claim the ERC.

Q3. How is the ERC claimed by businesses?
A3. Small businesses can claim the ERC by reporting their total qualified wages and related health insurance costs for each quarter on their quarterly employment tax returns.

Q4. Can businesses retroactively claim the ERC for previous quarters?
A4. Yes, businesses can retroactively claim the credit if they find they qualified in a previous quarter by amending the appropriate employment tax returns.

Q5. What are “qualified wages” in the context of the ERC?
A5. Qualified wages include both regular pay rates and certain health care costs paid by the employer. However, the definition varies based on the number of employees and the specific year in question.

Q6. Are there penalties for businesses that claim the ERC incorrectly?
A6. If an overclaim occurs, businesses may be subject to penalties and interest. It’s essential to ensure accuracy and consult with experts to avoid these pitfalls.

Resources for Small Businesses on the ERC

  1. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Official Guidance:
    Comprehensive details on the ERC, eligibility criteria, and claiming process.
    IRS ERC Overview
  2. U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA):
    Provides a plethora of resources, including guidance on the ERC, PPP, and other relief programs tailored for small businesses.
    SBA COVID-19 Relief Options
  3. National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB):
    Offers resources, webinars, and guides specifically curated for smaller businesses.
    NFIB Resource Center
  4. Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs):
    Local centers across the U.S. provide free consulting and low-cost training for small businesses. SBDC consultants can offer guidance on ERC and other relevant topics.
    SBDC Locator
  5. Accounting and Tax Associations:
    Many professional associations, like the AICPA, offer guides, webinars, and workshops on topics like the ERC. Consider engaging a certified accountant familiar with the nuances of the credit.
  6. Local Workshops and Webinars:
    Many local chambers of commerce and business associations host sessions to educate businesses on relief programs like the ERC.

By tapping into these resources, small businesses can ensure they’re well-equipped to make the most of the Employee Retention Credit and navigate the intricacies of the program.


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