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Ready For Your Payroll Software Update? 105

Posted by timothy
from the open-wide dept.
SEWilco writes "A federal payroll tax reduction for two months is being pushed by the President. Paying less money to the government seems good, but if the law is changed it will change the payroll taxes in January and February. Many of us can well imagine what that will do to the many payroll systems which are already programmed with the 2012 tax rates."
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Ready For Your Payroll Software Update?

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  • by spaceplanesfan (2120596) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @09:25AM (#38433330)

    Attention! We need you, all you COBOL programmers!.

    • Attention! We need you, all you COBOL programmers!.

      Heheh. But seriously, payroll software is designed to handle arbitrary changes in the tax rates. A simple update of tax tables is all that would be required to deal with this. Assuming your employer's trusty accountant remembers to do it.

      • A simple update of tax tables is all that would be required to deal with this.

        Unless a program's tax table data structure isn't sufficiently fine-grained to deal with multiple tax tables that apply to different parts of a single year.

        • by Slashdot Parent (995749) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:08PM (#38435610)

          Unless a program's tax table data structure isn't sufficiently fine-grained to deal with multiple tax tables that apply to different parts of a single year.

          I can't speak for all payroll software packages, but QuickBooks can definitely handle this. All rates are specified with arbitrary effective dates. I'd be shocked if any payroll system could not handle mid-year changes. Stuff changes mid-year all the time.

          • by tepples (727027)
            Thank you for the information. Now I have a second question: If payroll tax has always been a flat percentage, does the infrastructure exist in QuickBooks to support a switch to a tax schedule that's progressive like income tax? Other comments to this topic explain how the first $18,000 or so is taxed at a lower rate.
            • by Relayman (1068986)
              Payroll tax since 1980 has not been a flat percentage. The graduated tax rates are built into the income tax table. The OP is talking about Medicare and FICA tax rates which have been flat but also the same for the whole year.
              • by matthewd (59896)

                "Payroll tax" is often used to refer to the Social Security tax, when one wishes to obscure the nature of the tax (ie that it funds the Social Security program). "Withholding tax" is more normally used to refer to federal income tax based on the income tax tables.

                What the Senate bill did on the Social Security tax was set a limit of $18,350 (1/6 of 110,100, the limit for the entire year) for the first two months of the year that the 4.2% rate applies to. 6.2% applies above that limit. After the first two

                • by Relayman (1068986)
                  "Payroll tax" covers all the taxes. "Withholding" or "Income" taxes cover part, and "FICA" or "Social Security" cover other taxes.

                  But you are certainly correct: No tax software today can handle the calculation that the Senate came up with and it all will have to be reprogrammed quickly for employees making over $9,175 per month. Oh, that leaves 80% of the employers without having to make any change.
          • by Sloppy (14984)

            Stuff changes mid-year all the time.

            Stuff does, but for these taxes I think this may be the first time in history. (I'm admittedly a few years behind the times on this one.) If the software naively treats taxes in a special way different from the myriad other withholdings and expenses, I can see this being a slight pain in the ass. Back when I was working on this stuff, the 1987 version of our program would not have been able to handle this, whereas the 1988 version could, because unifying the code simply

            • by mattack2 (1165421)

              I could be wrong, but I thought in the past there have been 'manual' fixes (e.g. in payroll of companies), which ended up with a payment to the employee as correction on the next paycheck for example.

    • by mrmtampa (231295)

      Attention! We need you, all you COBOL programmers!.

      It's a twenty minute task but I'll have to bill by the month.

    • by eyenot (102141)

      Wax. I have the Wax of Excel +2 in my ears. Roll for sultry fixability.

  • Hardly a Surprise (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The possible extension -- or not -- of the reduced payroll tax has been discussed in the news for some time. I'd hope that at least some of the people who maintain these systems have been paying attention. It's just a change in the withholding tables, after all.

    • by skids (119237) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:37AM (#38434176) Homepage

      It's just an extension. If some payroll department cannot handle this, how did they handle the original tax break? Add to that, why is it suddenly Obama's fault that the congress can't get its act together and pass a clean bill (e.g. one that doesn't have a "lets grind up orphans and serve them in school lunches" provision or whatnot.)

      • by Galestar (1473827)

        Add to that, why is it suddenly Obama's fault that the congress can't get its act together and pass a clean bill

        Because everything's Obama's fault! Having you been watching the Republican primary debates? They tell you every 5 minutes.

      • If some payroll department cannot handle this, how did they handle the original tax break?

        Might they have handled it by assuming that all such tax breaks will start and stop when the ball drops on New Year's Eve?

      • According to a similar article I read this morning, the democrats had worded their bill such that the rich would get minimal effect out of the two month extension. Something like extending it for the first $18350 of everyone's salary, the rest of the tax cut would come in the "rest of the year extension." If they didn't do that then the rich get their full benefit during the two month extension and have no benefit from an extension. If they had been voting on a full year plan then yes it would be a stupi
  • Srsly? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @09:28AM (#38433358)

    They'll load a different tax rate table. I'm sure it's modular enough they can just change a table (or two, or three) and be done.

    Seems easy to me. But then I write software for a living, so what would I know.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yea, I have to say, this is only a complicated change for seriously poorly written payroll software. And are we really making the argument that in the middle of a massive recession it's acceptable to have our economic policy handcuffed because someone wrote some really crappy payroll software and doesn't want to fix it?

    • Re:Srsly? (Score:4, Informative)

      by spudnic (32107) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:47AM (#38434330)

      This is exactly it. And almost every shop that processes payroll subscribes to a service that updates the tax tables for you as the laws change. www.bsi.com is one.

      I'm sure they have the tax tables written up either way the vote goes so they can get it out the door.

      • by Relayman (1068986)
        But what one commenter pointed out is that they're changing the way the tax is calculated. That'll require a software change.
        • by spudnic (32107)

          In my example, all tax is calculated in the BSI software. It talks directly to the ERP. There are a handful of tax software companies like this. Very few HR/Payroll systems actually calculate their own taxes. Too much to keep up with, especially if you had to keep up with all of the crazy county/parish/municipality taxes for all potential places where any of your employees live.

    • And it's not like tax table changes are rare events to begin with. I used to maintain the payroll software for our small business, and we'd typically get a few tax table updates each year.
  • Software update? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @09:40AM (#38433498) Homepage

    If your payroll software is that crappy that you have to update it for this change then please buy some real stuff. All you do is change the tax tables.

    Honestly, what crap software out there requires a full software update to change tax tables?

    • Right, plus I'm sure the tax software companies already have multiple tables drawn up, one for each proposal.

      This is not a Y2K type issue. Unless Congress develops something truly weird, there will be no problem.

      What might be a problem is if congress doesn't get it's rear in gear until March, then passes a retroactive tax cut.
    • I wonder how many payroll systems out there were hard coded to the assumption that taxes only change on a year-to-year basis, not a month-to-month basis, so you can only load a tax table for a whole year, not a tax table for the next two months?

      It may be that a software update will be necessary to change the code to add the ability to load a tax table for just one month, or a range of months, or an arbitrary range (e.g. 21st Jan to 15th April). I think if I were writing tax software, after what has happened

      • Re:For two months? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:20AM (#38434002)
        Actually, I don't think that is it. My bet would be that most payroll systems are coded to assume that everyone who pays the payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) pay the same percentage up to the limit (you only pay these taxes up to a certain amount because you only collect based on income up to a certain amount). They are now introducing a system whereby those who earn less than a certain amount pay less than those who earn more than that (and the cutoff point is different from the amount which you don't pay this tax on the income above that amount--although you still pay for everything less than that amount that you earn).
        • Re:For two months? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by emurphy42 (631808) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:55AM (#38435396) Homepage
          This. More specifically, Googling (2012 Social Security tax cut) leads to http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/12/20/payroll-processors-say-two-month-fix-undoable/ [foxnews.com]

          According to the proposed law, the two-month extension of a 4.2 percent taxable wage is applied only to the first $18,350 of income. Wages exceeding $18,350 paid during the first two months of 2012 would be subject to a 6.2 percent Social Security tax rate.

          Yes, any decent payroll software has tax table updates, but they don't all support multi-tier rates like this. I consult on an accounting suite with a payroll module, and they had to release a full-on code patch this year to support a change in Connecticut that took effect in August, whereas they usually just release simple updates that save you the trouble of hand-entering all the new rates.

      • I would be shocked if any payroll software did anything other than arbitrary date ranges. There is just no way to predict what type of harebrained cockamamie scheme our legislature might devise.

        I use QuickBooks for my business, and I can tell you that everything from tax tables to IRS mileage reimbursement rates to unemployment insurance rates are all specified as arbitrary effective dates.

        • by clintp (5169)

          I would be shocked if any payroll software did anything other than arbitrary date ranges. There is just no way to predict what type of harebrained cockamamie scheme our legislature might devise.

          I work in payroll software and it's *far* more insane than this. This is just a timed rate change. When bigger stuff happens -- like the dual employer/employee federal withholding change last year or the COBRA credit the year before -- things get crazy.

          When last-minute crap like that happens the *IRS* isn't even sure what to do. If a change gets passed, it will take a few days for the IRS to read the law and draft rules about how it'll work: the law is never specific enough and the IRS still needs to int

        • by matthewd (59896)

          Dive into Quickbooks then and see if you can get it to work. What you need to do is apply a 4.2% rate to wages under $18,350 in January and February, and a 6.2% rate that applies to wages over $18,350 but below $110,100 in January and February, and a 0% rate to wages above $110,100 in January and February. Then For March thru December, you need to specify a third rate, TBD, for wages under $110,100, 0% above that limit. The three paired amounts (wages paid and tax withheld for each category) then need to

    • by Kamiza Ikioi (893310) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:06AM (#38433818) Homepage

      Honestly, what crap software out there requires a full software update to change tax tables?

      Quicken 0.1a Private Garage Alpha "Cain" Edition running on 386 SX with DOS 5 known best for its 9/9/9 Sim City tax tables, no floating point operations, and inability to distinguish between charitable and political contributions.

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        By the way, his real tax was 9,9,9,9, the last 9 being the fact that corporations under his tax law wouldn't be able to write off their expenses, such as payroll against their revenues, but payroll taxes are not paid by corporations, it's paid by employees. Corporations really don't pay taxes. The 'corporate' income taxes are paid by shareholders/owners, the payroll tax is paid by employees, the sales taxes are paid by customers and personal income taxes are paid by employees (that's why Warren Buffet is f

    • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:07AM (#38433824)
      The problem is that it is only for two months and it is only for people who earn less than a certain amount. This is not income tax (which has varied according to how much you make since before computers were used to calculate payroll). This is for Social Security and Medicare taxes, which traditionally have been the same percentage for everyone up to a certain dollar amount of income (everything over that is not taxed). This only applies to people who make less than a certain amount. So, I suspect that, unlike income tax, this has traditionally been done by a straight percentage calculation (one that traditionally, also, automatically debited the same amount out of the the employer's payroll account without showing it on the paystub).
      • by ShakaUVM (157947)

        >>This is for Social Security and Medicare taxes

        Even calling them "taxes" is a bit of a stretch.

        Call them what they are - contributions to your future retirement - and suddenly the "tax cut" loses a lot of its support. It's all about how you frame a debate in politics...

    • by cdrudge (68377)

      Not to mention almost the exact same thing happened last year [irs.gov] with the 2011 tax cuts. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

      • Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

        You seem to have that quote wrong, its more like this: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me ... you can't get fooled again.

    • by The Bastard (25271) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:17AM (#38434808)

      Earlier in my career, I worked on a payroll system. It's not as straightforward as one might think, as payroll systems rarely are similar. In fact, the term "payroll" should really be replaced with "compensation", and "system" replaced with "rules engine system".

      In a simple small business, compensation is probably pretty straightforward. Hourly employees, owner takes a salary. But what if an owner takes a draw against the the equity of the business?

      Up the chain a bit, you now may have union dues to account for, bonuses, stock options instead of "cash", severance, and various other--often contractually obligated--quirks. Does health insurance count as compensation from the company? The smartphone with ultra data plan? The company car?

      On the political side, what are the basic rules? What are the exemptions the politicians put in for their buddies?

      There are a lot of little gotchas in "payroll" systems, and the use case testing needs to be spot on. Because no one wants their paycheck screwed up.

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        Of-course all of this should be eliminated and replaced with a consumption tax. Not only are the income taxes collected in a way that is illegal and unconstitutional, but they are also extremely harmful to the investment, as they reduce that investment while allowing the government to grow regardless of what people decide to spend, while the government is supposed to be a percentage of spending, not percentage of earnings.

        All government services must be paid for, and if people don't have money to spend, tho

        • by mattack2 (1165421)

          Not only are the income taxes collected in a way that is illegal and unconstitutional

          Then why don't you sue your state and the federal government, and take it all the way to the Supreme Court?

    • Honestly, what crap software out there requires a full software update to change tax tables?

      They've fired everybody who understood payroll taxes and rely on the vendor to 'make it work'.

  • Anti-cyclic thinking (Score:4, Interesting)

    by captainpanic (1173915) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @09:49AM (#38433580)

    It's fine to do some anti-cyclic economy... and I understand the merits.

    But wasn't it the idea that you reduce expenses in boon times, and go anti-cyclic, and thereby spend more in bad times?
    But the last decade, the USA has clearly acted cyclic, not anti-cyclic. The US has spent money like its life depended on it (and many thought it really did, with terrorists lurking in every corner of the world, all aiming to bomb the US back into the Middle Ages).

    It's surprising to see that there is even more money available... and it makes me wonder who will go down first in economic terms: the EU, or the USA.

    • by ThinkWeak (958195)

      It's surprising to see that there is even more money available... and it makes me wonder who will go down first in economic terms: the EU, or the USA.

      There isn't any real money available, we're just borrowing from the future. We're essentially breaking our system so bad that the standard of living in the US isn't going to improve for well over a decade.

      Someone, somewhere has to to realize that we will have to pay all this back. Our taxes are going to go up and the longer we put it off, the worse it's going to be.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        "There isn't any real money available, we're just borrowing from the future"
        That is completely false. You are a victim of republican FUD.

    • But wasn't it the idea that you reduce expenses in boon times, and go anti-cyclic, and thereby spend more in bad times?

      No. Its that you reduce deficits in boom times, which isn't the same thing as reducing expenses.

      But the last decade, the USA has clearly acted cyclic, not anti-cyclic. The US has spent money like its life depended on it

      The last decade hasn't been "boon times" or "boom times", its been fairly weak growth during the parts of it that weren't recessions, with even worse distributional effects e

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @09:54AM (#38433644)

    As others have said, updating the rates in the tax tables is trivial. It actually takes us more time to go through change management process and get no less than 4 levels of approval to make the changes in the production payroll system.

  • What? (Score:5, Funny)

    by lennier1 (264730) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:06AM (#38433812)

    A bunch of idiots introduces the need for a change in the last minute? That's something I'm sure no developer would've expected.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Last minute? If you work or are in charge of a payroll system, and this is last minute news for you, find a different job.

  • I use surepayroll, rebranded through my bank. I don't even think of this crap anymore, I just pay us and then do something I enjoy more.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      My accountant doesn't even manage his own office's payroll. They outsource to one of the many payroll processing companies. With criminal and civil liabilities you're so much better off paying the cost to outsource, it's really pretty cheap.

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:32AM (#38434114) Homepage

    At ~7m lines of legal language, the federal tax code is as large as many operating systems in complexity. Writing code that can correctly handle its business rules is probably as complex as many of the systems that Wall Street puts into place for real-time trading and risk analysis.

    As a conservative, I hate to say Clinton was right, but Bill Clinton knocked it out of the park when he said we need to just lower rates and then wipe out most of the exemptions and credits. His only fault was not advocating the complete abolition of those things so the tax code would be predictable.

    • by Slavik81 (1457219)

      This has been proposed a lot recently. It was the real hope for a grand bargin between Republicans and Democrats. However, the sticking point was whether the change would be revenue neutral. Republicans demanded it be dropped by at least as much as was saved, Democrats wanted to drop the tax rate by less than what would be saved in exemptions and credits.

  • Modern tax apps have to deal with things like this. But "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

    I'm sure my company and many others will be doing a test run before issuing 10s of thousands of checks and direct deposits.

    I'd bet more than a few companies restore from backup and lose tax rate updates. Probably not big companies, but plenty of small ones where accounting and IT don't have their own "department" and don't have processes that drive everyone crazy mo

  • by PortHaven (242123) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @10:40AM (#38434220) Homepage

    "We never think before we act, and when we act, we act with politics in mind. Not intelligence in mind."

    Progress - a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal) :

    Congress - opposite of progress.

  • by wcrowe (94389)

    You're killing me. Do you have your tax rates hard-coded in the software, or what?

  • I am actually surprised this is newsworthy. This one is not a change at all.
    We've been dealing with changes in taxation since we designed our first retail product in 1986. When we added employee time tracking and more tax reports, the number of tax rules multiplied by about 3. If congress doesn't pass an extension, then we post a small update notice and all our sites (in the US) will have it within a minute, or the next time they launch our software.
    You want to talk newsworthy, convince all local government

  • ...the problem is that many companies/institutions close the pay period and issue pay stubs well in advance of the pay date. For example, I'm paid on the 1st of the month, but my January 1 pay check is for a pay period that ends December 22 (this Thursday), and by the evening of December 23 I will have an electronic pay stub waiting for me that shows my Social Security deduction for January 1. If Congress extends the tax holiday on, say, December 27, that doesn't leave much time to update the system, re-i
    • by tokul (682258)

      And it's no way to run the world's largest economy.

      I can assure you that IRS does not run European Union economy.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:44AM (#38435216)
    The December 2010 tax changes meant several official IRS forms were not available until February or even March. A lot of this had to do with basis information now mandated on brokerage 1099s. So the old habit of filing in early February for anticipated refund becomes less possible. Even April filing is threatened by lack of forms and data. More people get the automatic October extension tax-preparers tell me.
    • by tepples (727027)

      So the old habit of filing in early February for anticipated refund becomes less possible.

      Furthermore, if you are in college or have a kid in college, the habit of filing in February to be able to file a FAFSA by March 1 becomes less possible.

  • by Slashdot Parent (995749) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:55AM (#38435386)

    I really wish that they would not extend the payroll tax cut. Not that I'm itching to pay more taxes or anything, but are we giving up all pretense that Social Security is an earned benefit?

    • I really wish that they would not extend the payroll tax cut. Not that I'm itching to pay more taxes or anything, but are we giving up all pretense that Social Security is an earned benefit?

      Its earned by work. The only thing reducing (or even outright eliminating) the payroll tax would give up pretense of is that it is a purchased personal asset rather than an earned benefit.

    • by Toonol (1057698)
      but are we giving up all pretense that Social Security is an earned benefit?

      Losing that pretense might be a good thing; sometimes we need a rude awakening. The myth that each person has a 'social security savings account' somewhere has led to a lot of bad decisions. For better or worse, social security is an entitlement program, paid for out of current taxation and borrowing.
      • Losing that pretense might be a good thing; sometimes we need a rude awakening. The myth that each person has a 'social security savings account' somewhere has led to a lot of bad decisions. For better or worse, social security is an entitlement program, paid for out of current taxation and borrowing.

        Everybody knows that it's a pay-as-you-go system. People don't believe that they have an "account" in the "bank account" sense of the word. But the idea is that you contribute to it now, and you take from it when you're an old fogie. It's more like a pension than a brokerage account.

        Problem is that now the government is saying you don't really have to contribute at the full level to get full benefits. I think this sets a terrible precedent. All of us who are paying at this lower rate should have our benefit

        • by mattack2 (1165421)

          All of us who are paying at this lower rate should have our benefits reduced as a result.

          So this would allow me to pay 0% and forgo all Social Security payments in the future, right?

          I have a 401k. I don't want/need to pay for Social Security (i.e. the government mandated Ponzi scheme)

          If it *were* an individual account (a "forced" 401k, so I don't have to pay for idiots who were too stupid to save), I would be far less against it.

          • All of us who are paying at this lower rate should have our benefits reduced as a result.

            So this would allow me to pay 0% and forgo all Social Security payments in the future, right?

            Personally, I would love this option, but it is unfortunately not available. If I were king of the country, I'd let you opt out. :P

  • A federal payroll tax reduction for two months is being pushed by the President.

    No, its not.

    A continuation of the current federal payroll tax "holiday" for a full year is being pushed by the President. Congress has a broad bipartisan agreement with this goal, but hasn't been able to agree on how to pay for it (Republicans want program cuts, Democrats what tax increases on the wealthy), and the compromise adopted in the Senate has been for a two-month extension to provide time for negotiations on a long-ter

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Stop calling it a tax cut! What they are doing to us has absolutely nothing to do with your actual tax burden. The plan is to just take less out of your paycheck, hence the name: payroll tax reduction. Then, in April 2012, most people will suddenly discover not enough money was withheld to cover their tax bill and they have to come up with cash to pay it. There is a HUGE difference between tax load and payroll deductions.

  • This is a really, truly, stupid article. $300 off-the-shelf Quickbooks, which 90% of all US small businesses use, has been handling this kind of stuff for at least a decade, if not two.

    In other news, I heard that a bug has been found in Windows! How is this going to be addressed? Is Microsoft going to have to send new CD's to everybody on the planet, and everybody will have to re-write all of their Word documents?!?

    To the clueless: tax tables change constantly, and are updated via the Net every time

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