Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (H.R. 748, "CARES Act") was signed into law on March 27, 2020. The CARES Act is the third stimulus bill aimed at providing relief to employers and individuals affected by COVID-19. Below is a high-level summary of the provisions related to small business assistance, tax, retirement, paid leave, unemployment insurance, and direct payment to individuals. Small businesses should work with an experienced financial advisor to carefully assess available assistance programs to determine the interplay and best option for their specific circumstances.

Note: Some of the programs discussed below have been amended by the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). For more information, go here (CAA) and here (ARPA).

Paycheck Protection Program

Updated: 12/31/2020

For first-time loan applicants, businesses and nonprofit organizations with 500 or fewer employees, as well as sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed individuals, may be eligible for a loan program available through the Small Business Administration. This program, called the Paycheck Protection Program, provides federally guaranteed loans, in amounts determined by a formula, with a maximum loan amount of $10,000,000. (The cap for second PPP loans issued to borrowers who previously had a PPP loan is $2 million.) Loan proceeds can be used for payroll, mortgage interest or rent, health-care benefits payments, utility payments, and certain other costs, and are forgivable in an amount equal to the sum of such costs incurred or payments made during the 24 weeks after loan disbursement, if employers meet certain requirements, including maintaining employment and wage levels. Additionally, businesses that previously received a PPP loan may also be able to receive a second PPP loan if they have 300 or fewer employees and meet other eligibility requirements.

Note: For eligibility, restrictions, and other details about the PPP visit the Small Business Loans section of our Resource Center here.

Expanded SBA Express Loans (Section 1102)

Businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 employees, sole proprietorships and independent contractors that have suffered economic injury due to COVID-19 may also be eligible for a loan under the existing SBA "Express" Loans program. The SBA Express Loans program helps small businesses obtain loans in a faster and easier way (usually within 36 hours). These loans provide businesses with revolving lines of credit for working capital purposes.

The CARES Act expands the allowable uses for loans under this program to permit payroll support, including paid sick leave, supply chain disruptions, employee salaries, mortgage payments and other debt obligations, to provide immediate access to funds for affected small businesses. The CARES Act increases the maximum loan amount for SBA Express loans from $350,000 to $1,000,000, until December 31, 2020. The CARES Act also reduces the cost of participation in the program by providing fee waivers, an automatic deferment of payments for up to one year, and no prepayment penalties.

Note: For more details, visit the Small Business Loans section of our Resource Center here.

Small Business Debt Relief Programs

For small businesses with current non-disaster SBA loans, under the CARES Act, the SBA will cover all loan payments on these loans, including principal, interest and fees, for six months. This relief will also be available to new borrowers who take out loans within six months of March 27, 2020. PPP Loans are not eligible for this debt-relief program.

The loans eligible for this relief include those guaranteed by the SBA, such as the SBA Business Loan Program (including the Community Advantage Pilot Program, but excluding PPP Loans) or Title V of the Small Business Investment Act. Loans made by an intermediary to a small business using loans or grants received under the SBA’s Microloan Program are also eligible.

Note: For more details, visit the Small Business Loans section of our Resource Center here.

Employee Retention Credit for Employers Subject to Closure Due to COVID-19 (Section 2301)

Updated: 11/18/2021

Private-sector employers may be eligible for a refundable tax credit against federal employment taxes for "qualified wages" paid by employers to employees during the COVID-19 crisis. The tax credit was set to apply to qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020.

Update: On November 15, 2021, the President signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes an early/retroactive sunset of the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERC) as of September 30, 2021, except for recovery startup businesses. Employers should not apply any ERC amounts after September. Other than for recovery startup businesses, any ERC amounts that were applied after September will need to be reversed and paid to the IRS. We are actively monitoring this situation as well as evaluating how we can best help support clients that need to submit repayments to the IRS. For more important information regarding this change, please review our recent Eye on Washington.

Eligible Employers:

For the purposes of the Employee Retention Credit, eligible employers are those that carry on a trade or business during the calendar year, including a tax-exempt organization, that either:

  • Fully or partially suspends operation during any calendar quarter due to orders from an appropriate government authority limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings (for commercial, social, religious, or other purposes) due to COVID-19; or
  • Experiences a "significant decline in gross receipts" during the applicable calendar quarter.

Note: The American Rescue Plan Act also extended the tax credit to new businesses which started after February 15, 2020, with average annual receipts of under $1,000,000. They are referred to as recovery startup businesses. For such businesses, the amount of the credit may not exceed $50,000 per quarter.

Significant Decline in Gross Receipts:

For 2020, a significant decline in gross receipts is defined as a drop of at least 50 percent when compared with the same calendar quarter in 2019.

For 2021, a significant decline in gross receipts is defined as a drop of at least 20 percent when compared with the same calendar quarter in 2019, but employers have the option of using the gross receipts from the immediately preceding calendar quarter and the corresponding quarter in 2019 to determine whether they meet this threshold.

The significant decline in gross receipts ends with the first calendar quarter that follows the first calendar quarter for which the employer's gross receipts for the quarter are greater than 80 percent of its gross receipts for the applicable calendar quarter during 2019.


Calendar Qtr

Gross Receipts 2019

Gross Receipts 2020

% of 2019 Qtr

Retention Credit Eligible in 2020
















An employer's gross receipts were $100,000, $190,000, and $230,000 in the first, second, and third calendar quarters of 2020. Its gross receipts were $210,000, $230,000, and $250,000 in the first, second, and third calendar quarters of 2019. Thus, the employer's 2020 first, second, and third quarter gross receipts were approximately 48%, 83%, and 92% of its 2019 first, second, and third quarter gross receipts, respectively. Accordingly, the employer had a significant decline in gross receipts commencing on the first day of the first calendar quarter of 2020 (the calendar quarter in which gross receipts were less than 50% of the same quarter in 2019) and ending on the first day of the third calendar quarter of 2020 (the quarter following the quarter for which the gross receipts were more than 80% of the same quarter in 2019). Thus, the employer is entitled to a retention credit with respect to the first and second calendar quarters.

Qualified Wages:

Qualified wages are wages and compensation paid by an eligible employer to employees after March 12, 2020, and before the applicable expiration date. Qualified wages include the eligible employer's qualified health plan expenses. The definition of qualified wages also depends, in part, on the average number of full-time employees employed by the eligible employer during 2019.

  • If the eligible employer averaged more than 100 full-time employees (as defined under the Affordable Care Act Section 4980H) in 2019, qualified wages are the wages paid to an employee for time that the employee is not providing services due to either: (1) a full or partial suspension of operations by government order due to COVID-19; or (2) a significant decline in gross receipts. For these employers, qualified wages taken into account for an employee may not exceed what the employee would have been paid for working an equivalent duration during the 30 days immediately preceding the period of economic hardship.
  • If the eligible employer averaged 100 or fewer full-time employees in 2019, qualified wages are the wages paid to any employee during any period of economic hardship described above.

For wages paid from January 1, 2021 through the applicable expiration date, the above thresholds increase to more than 500 full-time employees and 500 or fewer full-time employees, respectively. Additionally, the 30-day rule for employers with more than 500 full-time employees doesn't apply to this period.

The American Rescue Plan Act relaxes restrictions on "Severely Financially Distressed Employers," defined as those that can demonstrate that gross receipts are less than 10 percent of the gross receipts of the corresponding base period (generally the same calendar quarter in 2019). These organizations may apply the credit to all wages paid to employees (up to the applicable $10,000 per employee per quarter limit), notwithstanding that they have over 500 employees. Normally employers with more than 500 full-time employees can only take the credit for wages paid to employees for time that the employee is not providing services (i.e., paid time off).

Maximum Credit:


For wages paid in 2020, the credit equals 50 percent of the qualified wages (including qualified health plan expenses) that an eligible employer pays in a calendar quarter. The maximum amount of qualified wages taken into account with respect to each employee is $10,000 for the year, so the employer's maximum credit for qualified wages paid to any employee is $5,000.

Example 1: The eligible employer pays $10,000 in qualified wages to Employee A in Q2 2020. The Employee Retention Credit available to the eligible employer for the qualified wages paid to Employee A is $5,000.

Example 2: The eligible employer pays Employee B $8,000 in qualified wages in Q2 2020 and $8,000 in qualified wages in Q3 2020. The credit available to the eligible employer for the qualified wages paid to Employee B is equal to $4,000 in Q2 and $1,000 in Q3 due to the overall limit of $10,000 on qualified wages per employee for all calendar quarters.


For wages paid from January 1, 2021 through the applicable expiration date, the credit equals 70 percent of the qualified wages that an eligible employer pays in a calendar quarter. The cap on wages taken into account also increases to $10,000 per calendar quarter

In 2021, employers with 500 or fewer employees during 2019 may elect to receive an advance payment of the credit in an amount up to 70 percent of the average quarterly wages paid by the employer in 2019.


  • Employers who receive PPP loans may still be eligible for the tax credit to the extent qualified wages aren't paid using forgiven PPP loan proceeds.
  • Credit is reduced by any Paid Family and Medical Leave Credit under IRC § 45S.
  • Excludes paid sick leave or paid family leave wages paid under the FFCRA, however, this credit may apply to wages paid to the same employee once they return to work.
  • Excludes wages paid for which the employer receives a Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC).


Deferral of Employer Social Security Taxes (Section 2302)

Updated: 10/28/2021

Employers may defer payment of the employer share of the Social Security tax, beginning after the effective date of the CARES Act through December 31, 2020. Deferred tax amounts would be paid over two years, in equal amounts due on December 31, 2021 and December 31, 2022.


The tax credits addressed elsewhere generally apply to employer Social Security taxes, potentially reducing or even eliminating such taxes for the balance of 2020. As a deferral, these taxes will become collectible by the IRS starting in December 2021. Employers should keep careful track of amounts accrued and be prepared to pay the amounts when due.

Note that the government recently passed the Payroll Protection Program Flexibility Act which, among other things, permits companies that received a Payroll Protection Program loan to continue deferring Social Security taxes through December 31, 2020.

Repayment of Taxes for ADP Clients:

ADP is preparing to assist RUN Powered by ADP® clients with the repayment of their deferred Social Security taxes. Deferred Social Security taxes must be paid back by the dates below to avoid failure-to-deposit penalties:

  • Installment due December 31, 2021 (amount will include 100% of Employee Deferral and 50% of the ELIGIBLE employer deferral due for 2021); and
  • Installment due December 31, 2022 (amount will be the remaining employer deferral amount due for 2022) which can be used to plan for 2022.
Below are two examples of how the repayment process will work:

Example 1:
  • You were eligible to defer $20,000 of your employer's share of Social Security tax for Q3 2020.
  • You deferred $20,000.
  • You must pay $10,000 no later than December 31, 2021, and the remaining $10,000 by December 31, 2022.
Example 2:
  • You were eligible to defer $20,000 of your employer's share of social security tax for Q3 2020.
  • You deferred $5,000 and deposited $15,000.
  • You do not need to pay any amount on December 31, 2021, because you have already paid 50% of the eligible deferred amount ($10,000) and it was applied to the amount due on December 31, 2021.
  • You must pay $5,000 by December 31, 2022.

Tax Exclusion for Employer Student Loan Repayment Benefits (Section 2206)

Updated: 1/7/2021

Employers are permitted to provide a student loan repayment benefit to employees, contributing up to $5,250 annually toward an employee's student loans. Such payments would be excluded from the employee's income. The $5,250 cap applies to both the new student loan repayment benefit and educational assistance under Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). As amended, the provision applies to any student loan payments made by an employer on behalf of an employee after date of enactment and through 2025 (previously December 31, 2021).

Retirement Provisions — Defined Contribution Plan Changes

Distributions (Section 2202):

A new distribution option is available from retirement plans or IRAs to "impacted" individuals of up to $100,000 not subject to the 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty from January 1, 2020 and through the end of the 2020 calendar year.

  • The distribution may be taxed over three years instead of 100 percent in 2020.
  • The standard 20 percent federal tax withholding is not required.
  • These distributions can also be repaid at any time during the three years after they took the distributions.

Loans (Section 2202):

For anyone who is diagnosed with SARS or COVID-19, has a spouse or dependent test positive, or who experiences adverse financial consequences because of SARS or COVID-19, an increased loan amount from $50,000 to $100,000 is available for the 180-day period beginning on the date of enactment of the CARES Act.

Required Minimum Distributions are not required for 403(b), 401(k), and IRAs for calendar year 2020.

Paid Leave and Department of Labor Filing Provisions

Paid Leave for Rehired Employees (Section 3605):

Under the FFCRA, employees who have been employed by the employer for at least 30 calendar days are eligible for PHEL/expanded FMLA. The CARES Act amends the law to extend paid leave to employees who (1) were laid off after March 1, 2020; (2) had worked for the employer for at least 30 of the last 60 days; and (3) were rehired by the employer.

Advance Refunding of Payroll Credit Required for Paid Sick Leave (Section 3606):

The FFCRA allows an employer to claim a refundable tax credit for paid leave granted under the expanded FMLA requirement. The CARES Act expands those provisions by: (1) providing for an advance of the payroll tax credit; (2) requiring the Secretary of the Treasury to prescribe regulations necessary to permit the advancement of the credit; and (3) requiring the Secretary of Treasury to waive penalties associated with the failure to deposit certain payroll taxes.

Unemployment Insurance Provisions

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (Section 2102):

Certain individuals who are not eligible for benefits under other state or federal laws (such as self-employed workers, part-time workers and those with limited work histories) who are unable to work as a result of COVID-19 are eligible for temporary unemployment benefits assistance during their period of unemployment ending on or before December 31, 2020. Benefits are limited to 39 weeks. The provision allows for a partnership between the federal government and states for purposes of paying out benefits.

Emergency Increase in Unemployment Compensation Benefits (Section 2104):

This section provides for a federal-state partnership to make payments of regular compensation to individuals in amounts determined under state law plus $600. States will be fully reimbursed by the federal government for the extra payments.

Temporary Full Federal Funding of the First Week of Compensable Regular Unemployment for States With No Waiting Week (Section 2105):

States that do not impose a waiting week for unemployment benefits will be fully reimbursed by the federal government.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (Section 2107):

States may enter into a partnership with the federal government for an additional 13 weeks of federally funded unemployment compensation to individuals who have exhausted all rights to unemployment benefits under state and federal law for that benefit year (excluding benefits that ended before July 1, 2019) and are not otherwise receiving unemployment compensation under any state, federal, or Canadian law. Individuals must be able to, and be actively seeking, work.

2020 Recovery Rebates for Individuals (Section 6428)

The CARE Act provides for direct financial assistance to Americans in the form of a one-time direct payment in the amount of $1,200 for individuals earning $75,000 or less, $2,400 for individuals filing a joint return earning $150,000 or less, $1,200 for heads of household earning $112,500 or less, and $500 per child. The amount of the payment is reduced by 5 percent for earnings over those dollar amounts and would go away at $99,000 for individuals and $198,000 for married people. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that the administration expects to begin direct payments to individuals within three weeks of the CARE Act being signed into law.