Trump’s payroll tax cuts are a terrible opening bid to address the economic fallout of COVID-19: But employer tax credits can be part of the economic response if they finance direct benefits for workers

Unconditional tax cuts for employers are a terrible policy response to the economic fallout of COVID-19. But employer tax credits that are tied to the provision of specific benefits for workers can be a useful way to deliver emergency help. In the long run, key benefits like paid sick leave and strong unemployment insurance should not rest on employer tax credits, but these credits might be the best way to deliver emergency benefits right now.

The Trump administration has put forward the idea of cutting both employee- and employer-side payroll taxes as the centerpiece of an economic response to the COVID-19 epidemic. This is a terrible opening bid. In late 2010, the Obama White House and a Republican-led Congress agreed on a temporary payroll tax cut for employees only as a compromise measure to provide economic stimulus.

But the employee-side payroll tax cut is an even worse potential compromise this time. One reason is that it would not get enough money out the door and into households’ pockets quickly enough. A COVID-19 recession will come fast and people will need lots of help quickly. A payroll tax cut will dribble out gradually over time. Another reason is the employee-side payroll tax cut is poorly targeted and sends lots of money to high-income households. A COVID-19 recession is laser-targeted at sectors with lots of low-wage workers, and the response should be too. So, even employee-side payroll tax cuts are a poor centerpiece of any policy package responding to the coming slowdown.

Employer-side payroll tax cuts are even much worse. They are a pure windfall to business and would do nothing for workers in the short run. These employer-side cuts should be flatly opposed.

There is, however, a potential role for employer tax credits as a way to stand-up emergency paid sick leave or work sharing or unemployment insurance. The optimal way for these programs to work is to have them be an ongoing part of our social safety net that take effect automatically during downturns. In the case of work-sharing and unemployment insurance, these should be social insurance programs financed in the long run by payroll taxes. Paid sick leave should be a mandated labor standard. But since we do not have strong systems in place to provide these benefits to workers affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19 in the short run, and because placing new costs on employers just as revenue potentially craters might not be optimal, we could use employer tax credits to finance the emergency provision of key benefits like paid sick leave and expanded unemployment insurance.

Economists Jared Bernstein and Jesse Rothstein, for example, have a proposal to use employer tax credits to finance quicker-acting unemployment insurance that allows workers to stay on payroll and be paid even while not working during a COVID-19 downturn. Dean Baker made a similar proposal as the Great Recession loomed.

Policy discussions about buffering the economy from the COVID-19 shock are moving very quickly and lines are being drawn. It remains the case that large direct payments to households and having the federal government pick up states’ Medicaid spending for a year are likely the most valuable macroeconomic support that could be provided because they’re well-targeted to counteract the particular damage inflicted by a COVID-19 recession.

It also remains the case that unconditional employer tax cuts should be rejected flatly as a solution. But there does remain a potential role for employer tax credits in helping deliver benefits to workers. As long as these tax credits are used solely for this purpose, they should be considered.