How to Pay Employees in Cash Legally & Avoid Penalties
This article is part of a larger series on How to Do Payroll.
Paying employees via cash is a valid option, but it is not an efficient method and can be a headache to ensure it’s 100% legal. Since there are no records of cash payments, it’s important to ensure that your payroll reporting is accurate and concise. This includes providing detailed pay stubs, paying your employees on a fixed and regular schedule, and making all tax payments accurately and on time.
From keeping track of when payroll taxes need to be paid to keeping detailed records, an organized process is key when paying your team using cash. Here are some of the best practices you’ll want to follow to ensure you remain compliant.
1. Calculate & Withhold Payroll Taxes & Deductions Correctly
Paying your employees in cash isn’t a pass you can use to avoid learning how to do payroll. You need to perform the basic steps all employers are responsible for.
Calculating Taxes & Deductions
As the employer, you will calculate and deduct all employee taxes. This includes Social Security (6.2%), Medicare (1.45%), and all applicable income taxes (federal, state, and local). In addition to taxes, you’ll be responsible for withholding any relevant deductions or garnishments. These are often very closely regulated by governing bodies and need to be calculated and deducted accurately and on time.
If you need help calculating FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes for your cash employees, use our free calculator below:
You’re also responsible for paying some employer payroll taxes out of your business’s funds. You’ll need to track your calculations, from gross to net pay (and everything in between), to ensure that you get it right. You will be charged penalties if you send payments late or accidentally short the government.
Paying Payroll Taxes
Handling payroll taxes is usually one of the biggest issues employers deal with when trying to do their payroll using cash. The IRS and some state and local governments require you to withhold taxes from your employees’ paychecks, meaning you’ll need to deduct the amounts due and then send it to the proper agencies.
These government agencies typically don’t accept cash, so you’ll need a way to access at least some of your money electronically. This means that even if you choose to pay your employees with cash, you will need to have a way to make electronic tax payments.
2. Be Diligent About Tracking Work Hours
Assuming you have hourly workers, you’ll need an effective way to track employee work hours. This is important regardless of how you choose to pay your staff and is a huge component when paying with cash.
One reason tracking work hours is so important is due to labor laws that govern how long your employees can work before they need to be paid overtime. Federal law requires you to pay any hours worked over 40 in a workweek at time and a half—or 1.5x the employee’s regular rate. In addition to federal regulations, you’ll need to check your state overtime laws as many of them set their own regulations.
Our state payroll guides walk employers through everything they need to know—including minimum wage and overtime requirements—to run payroll within the respective state. Check out the specifics for your state below:
State Payroll Directory
3. Pay Employees on a Regular Schedule
It’s best to establish a standard payroll process that includes which days or dates you will regularly pay your employees and follow it accordingly. Weekly, biweekly (every two weeks), and semimonthly (twice a month) are the most common pay periods.
Most states have minimum pay frequency requirements you have to follow to avoid being penalized. Monthly is usually the longest amount of time that most states will allow you to have in between payroll payments. However, in some states, like Virginia, Ohio, and California, semimonthly is the minimum requirement.
For more information on pay cycles and pay frequency laws for all states, along with a free payroll period calendar to help you stay on track, check out our article on pay periods.
4. Open a Bank Account Specifically for Payroll
Earlier, we discussed the need to be able to electronically transfer your money to pay expenses like payroll taxes. To take this a bit further, we recommend opening a bank account that’s specifically reserved for payroll transactions. Do this even if you have a general business checking account; keeping payroll funds separate makes them easier to track and document for audit purposes (you need to maintain an excellent paper trail because you’re more likely to be audited if you’re paying employees cash).
Here are a few rules to follow regarding your payroll bank account:
- Don’t convolute the transaction list with unnecessary deductions and withdrawals. If you’re paying employees every two weeks, then commit to withdrawing all funds you need to distribute at one time per pay period. And pay taxes, deductions, and other payroll expenses on the same dates each month, when possible.
- Only run payroll transactions through this account—no exceptions.
- Have a regular deposit schedule. This will make reviewing transactions easier to sift through, and it’ll be easier to show auditors where your funds are coming from.
5. Have Employees Sign That They Received Their Paychecks
An important process to implement is an approval system you can use to document that employees received their pay. There is inherently no paper trail with cash payments, and some people can be dishonest—it’s not unheard of to have an employee claim that they never received their pay.
To reduce the chances of fraud or confusion, we recommend creating a simple spreadsheet you can use for each pay period that includes the following:
- Pay date
- Pay period for which employees are being paid
- Each employee’s name
- The amount they’re being paid (You should have employees count the cash in front of you before signing off to the amount to ensure they are receiving the correct amount)
- Space for a signature
You should also insert your company logo or name on it for even more transparency. If possible, then have employees receive pay stubs along with your cash payments—this ensures that there is no confusion regarding what was paid and when.
6. Create an Arsenal of Payroll Records & Store Them
Employers that pay their workers in cash do it for different reasons. If your reason is to avoid paperwork and bureaucracy, you should reconsider. You won’t have to write checks or learn to deal with payroll software, but you will need to maintain sufficient documentation that makes it clear how much money you’re paying out, who you’re paying, what work you’re paying for, and so forth.
Since you’re winging payroll on your own, you’ll be responsible for creating many of these documents yourself, such as:
- Pay stubs
- Bank records (statements and transaction reports)
- Accounting records
- Hiring documents (I-9, W-4 Forms, and offer letters)
- Time cards
7. Monitor How Much Your Payroll Amounts To
Once you start paying out more than $5,000 weekly, you should consider other ways to pay your employees. You’ll be placing yourself at greater risk of theft or loss by carrying that amount of cash around.
Also, avoid making repeated withdrawals of more than $10,000 in cash at one time. The bank is required by law to report cash withdrawals of those amounts to the IRS. This will raise red flags, and you’ll likely face an audit after a few reports, even if your payroll process is legit.
8. Observe Payroll Laws
We’ve mentioned a few laws in this article—minimum wage, overtime, etc.—but we encourage you to familiarize yourself with other payroll laws as well to prevent any payroll compliance issues.
For instance, determine whether you have to purchase workers’ comp for your employees (most likely, you do) and how you’ll pay it out (this will come out of your business funds, not employee paychecks). And, if your employees receive tips, you’ll need to establish a system for allocating (if you go that route) and paying them out. You also need to be familiar with tip reports and tipped minimum wage (a lower minimum wage rate you’re allowed to pay if employees earn enough tips).
Paying Employees Under the Table
While paying your workers in cash is completely legal, paying them under the table (informal payments with no taxes and no records) is illegal and could land you in jail. Employers that engage in paying employees under the table do so to avoid creating any kind of paper trail that would set off red flags with the IRS.
If you (or someone you know, just in case you’re researching for them) need more convincing that paying under the table is a bad idea, ponder the following reasons why it won’t work, especially if you intend to have a successful business:
- Paying in cash leads to more scrutiny and a higher potential for audits. IRS audits are very thorough and attempting to hide transactions from them can get you into deeper trouble.
- It becomes harder to hide workers as your business and revenue grow. No business owner wants to continue barely breaking even or operating at a loss.
- Employees don’t receive future Social Security or Medicare benefits if their pay isn’t legit. Once they begin to feel cheated, you’re more likely to be outed.
If you’re thinking you can ride out the risk of paying employees under the table until you’re caught and just pay a little cash to get out of it, think again. The consequences can be steep:
- Of course, you’ll pay back taxes.
- You’ll also owe interest and penalties that grow exponentially the farther back the IRS manages to trace your under the table pay activity.
- Worse, you can lose your business. If the expenses are too great, then you’ll go bankrupt.
- And even worse than losing your business, you can be prosecuted for tax evasion, which could land you in prison for up to five years.
Paying employees their paychecks in cash is 100% legal if you follow the right process. However, it’s not the most efficient way to distribute payroll, and it won’t eliminate the need for establishing an organized payroll process, proper documentation, or a bank account. Spend time researching how to do payroll, as well as the ins and outs of the laws that govern it before you begin.