A recent IRS information letter confirms that “waiting time penalties” paid under California law are not wages for federal income tax withholding purposes. Section 203 of the California State Labor Code imposes penalties on employers that fail to pay final wages to terminated employees within a specified period of time. These penalties are paid to the terminated employees in amounts based on their wages. In Chief Counsel Advice Memorandum 201522004, and recently in IRS Information Letter 2016-0026, the IRS has clarified these penalties are not considered “wages” for federal income tax purposes, because they are intended to punish employers for failing to timely pay final wages; not to compensate employees for work performed. The IRS has now further clarified that these penalties should not be reported on Form W-2. Instead, they should be reported on Form 1099-MISC in the same manner as other non-compensatory liquidated damages. This is significant for California-based employers for two reasons. First, the guidance affects tax reporting. Second, and on a related matter, the guidance clarifies that these penalty payments are not includable as wages for benefit plan purposes under a plan (like a 401(k) or pension plan) that calculates benefits based on “W-2 income.” For additional information, see Chief Counsel Advice Memorandum 201522004 and IRS Information Letter 2016-0026.
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