When notified of the need to garnish wages by a federal/state agency or court, business owners may not always be clear on their responsibilities. It's important that employers understand their obligations under applicable laws when a wage garnishment is received, since failure to comply with a garnishment order can result in fines and penalties.
Garnishments have specific forms and rules governing payroll calculations, and if an employee has multiple garnishments, the situation can become increasingly complex. Review these answers to some frequently asked questions regarding the employee wage garnishment process:
What is wage garnishment?
A wage garnishment is any legal or equitable procedure where some portion of a person's earnings is withheld by an employer for the payment of a debt. This is typically initiated through a court order or government agency action (such as an IRS levy) that requires an employer to withhold a percentage of an employee's compensation. When notified of an order to garnish wages, an employer is legally obligated to make the appropriate deductions from an employee's salary and direct payments to a designated agency or creditor.
Situations that incur wage garnishment typically include:
- Child support;
- The default of a student loan;
- Unpaid taxes; and
- Other consumer debts.
Voluntary wage assignments elected by the employee, such as those for medical insurance or pre-tax benefits programs, are not considered wage garnishments. When an employer receives notification of a wage garnishment, it is important to remember that it is time-sensitive, and failure to process the garnishment within the allotted time frame may lead to penalties.
Situations subject to wage garnishment: alimony, child support, the default of a student loan, unpaid taxes, and other consumer debts.
Which wages can be garnished?
For most garnishments including child support, creditor garnishments, and student loans, Title III of the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) requires that the amount of pay garnished should be based on an employee's "disposable earnings," meaning the amount remaining after legally mandated deductions. Broadly speaking, disposable income is the employee's total compensation, less mandatory deductions including federal, state, and local taxes; state unemployment insurance contributions; and Social Security taxes. This includes salaries, bonuses, and sales commissions, as well as earnings derived from retirement plans and pensions. Tips aren't usually regarded as earnings for garnishment, but service charges are considered earnings.
How much money can be garnished?
The maximum amount of wages garnished varies depending on the garnishment, but they range from 15 percent of disposable earnings for student loans to as much as 65 percent of disposable earnings for child support (if the employee is at least 12 weeks in arrears).
In states that have enacted laws differing from federal wage garnishment requirements, employers must comply with state laws demanding a lesser garnishment. And because state laws differ (North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas generally prohibit wage garnishment for consumer debts altogether), employers should ascertain what's required of them by state law before proceeding with garnishment. No matter how high the debt, employees will always be allowed to keep a certain percentage of their paycheck for general living expenses.
Can employers fire a worker due to garnished wages?
Under CCPA provisions, an employer cannot discipline or terminate an employee whose wages are being garnished for a solitary debt. However, federal laws and CCPA provisions do not extend protection for employees with multiple wage garnishments. Some states may provide greater protection for employees by increasing the number of garnishments that can serve as the basis for termination or by prohibiting all terminations because of garnishments, so it is important to understand any applicable state regulations that may affect your business.
In some states, provisions exist that allow employers to seek reimbursement from the employee for administrative costs related to excessive garnishments. Additionally, some types of garnishments, such as child support, allow for similar provisions that authorize employers to recoup administrative expenses. The limits on the maximum amount of the administrative fee that can be deducted vary by state. When considering employment actions in relation to an employee who has active garnishments, it is recommended to consult a knowledgeable HR source or employment attorney.
How will I be notified if an employee's wages need to be garnished?
Employers are typically notified of a wage garnishment via a court order or IRS levy. They must comply with the garnishment request, and typically start withholding and remitting payment as soon as the order is received. IRS wage garnishment and levy paperwork will walk you through the steps of completing the wage garnishment. Paperwork should also include any relevant contact information, which you should not hesitate to use if you have any questions. This is certainly one scenario where it's in your best interest to contact many people rather than attempt to guess and create possible errors.
Employers are required to comply with every garnishment request. As soon as they receive an order, business owners typically need to start withholding and remitting payment.
What are my obligations as an employer?
Upon being notified of a wage garnishment court order, an employer should immediately alert the employee to the situation in writing. Depending on the garnishment, there may be a form provided for this (i.e., Form 668 for a federal levy). An employer can also draft a letter detailing the specifics of the wage garnishment order, the amount to be taken from each payment, and the length of time the wages will be garnished.
Concurrently, an employer should notify their HR and/or payroll departments so they can start the wage garnishment process and ensure that payments are sent to the appropriate agency or creditor (whether the employee wishes to comply or not). Taking these actions protects the business from any legal repercussions for failing to respond to the order.
After the employee's debt has been paid, the procedure for stopping the garnishment will vary depending on the type of garnishment. For federal levies, employers will receive a 668-D form, for child support the employer will receive a notice or letter from the state, and creditors will send employers a "Notice of Termination/Release of Wage Garnishment Order" for creditor garnishments.
Employers should have a basic understanding of garnishments and a plan in place to respond when they occur. Consider working with a professional to ensure your plan and procedures are compliant with applicable laws based on your specific situation. Using a garnishment payment service can help you remit funds to the correct agency and help protect against undue liability and lawsuits.