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Higher education and blockchain 101: It's not just for bitcoin anymore

01.04.19

As a new year is upon us, many people think about “out with the old and in with the new”. For those of us who think about technology, and in particular, blockchain technology, the new year brings with it the realization that blockchain is here to stay (at least in some form). Therefore, higher education leaders need to familiarize themselves with some of the technology’s possible uses, even if they don’t need to grasp the day-to-day operational requirements. Here’s a high-level perspective of blockchain to help you answer some basic questions.

Are blockchain and bitcoin interchangeable terms?

No they aren’t. Bitcoin is an electronic currency that uses blockchain technology, (first developed circa 2008 to record bitcoin transactions). Since 2008, many companies and organizations utilize blockchain technology for a multitude of purposes.

What is a blockchain?

In its simplest terms, a blockchain is a decentralized, digital list (“chain”) of timestamped records (“blocks”) that are connected, secured by cryptography, and updated by participant consensus.

What is cryptography?

Cryptography refers to converting unencrypted information into encrypted information—and vice versa—to both protect data and authenticate users.

What are the pros of using blockchain?

Because blockchain technology is inherently decentralized, you can reduce the need for “middleman” entities (e.g., financial institutions or student clearinghouses). This, in turn, can lower transactional costs and other expenses, and cybersecurity risks—as hackers often like to target large, info-rich, centralized databases.

Decentralization removes central points of failure. In addition, blockchain transactions are generally more secure than other types of transactions, irreversible, and verifiable by the participants. These transaction qualities help prevent fraud, malware attacks, and other risks and issues prevalent today.

What are the cons of using blockchain technology?

Each blockchain transaction requires signature verification and processing, which can be resource-intensive. Furthermore, blockchain technology currently faces strong opposition from certain financial institutions for a variety of reasons. Finally, although blockchains offer a secure platform, they are not impervious to cyberattacks. Blockchain does not guarantee a hacker-proof environment.

How can blockchain benefit higher education institutions?

Blockchain technology can provide higher education institutions with a more secure way of making and recording financial transactions. You can use blockchains to verify and transfer academic credits and certifications, protect student personal identifiable information (PII) while simultaneously allowing students to access and transport their PII, decentralize academic content, and customize learning experiences. At its core, blockchain provides a fresh alternative to traditional methods of identity verification, an ongoing challenge for higher education administration.

As blockchain becomes less of a buzzword and begins to expand beyond the realm of digital currency, colleges and universities need to consider it for common challenges such as identity management, application processing, and student credentialing. If you’d like to discuss the potential benefits blockchain technology provides, please contact me.

Related Industries

This spring, I published a blog about the importance of data governance in higher education institutions. In the summer, a second blog covered implementing baseline principles for data governance. With fall upon us, it is time to transition to discussing three critical steps to create a data governance culture. 

1.    Understand the people side of change.

The culture of any organization begins and ends with its people. As you know, people are notoriously finicky when it comes to change (especially change like data governance initiatives that may alter the way we have to understand or interact with institutional data). I recommend that any higher education institution apply a change management methodology (e.g., Prosci®, Lewin’s Change Management Model) in order to gauge the awareness of, the desire for, and the practical realities of this change. If you apply your chosen methodology in an effective and consistent manner, change management will help you increase buy-in and break down resistance. 

2.    Identify and empower the right people for the right roles.

Higher education institutions often focus on data governance processes and technologies. While this is necessary, you can’t overlook the people part of data governance. In fact, you can argue it is the most important part, because without people, there will be no one to follow the processes you create or use the technologies you implement. 

To find the right people, you need to identify and establish three specific roles for your institution: data trustees, data stewards, and data managers. Once you have organized these roles and responsibilities, data governance becomes easier to manage. Some definitions:

Data trustees (the sponsors) – senior leadership (or designees) who oversee data policy, planning, and management. Their responsibilities include: 

  • Promoting data governance 
  • Approving and updating data policies​​
  • Assigning and overseeing data stewards
  • Being responsible for data governance

Data stewards (the owners) – directors, managers, associate deans, or associate vice presidents who manage one or more data types. Their responsibilities include:

  • Applying and overseeing data governance policies in their functional areas
  • Following legal requirements pertaining to data in their functional areas
  • Classifying data and identifying data safeguards
  • Being accountable for data governance

Data managers (the caretakers) – data system managers, senior data analysts, or functional users (registrar, financial aid, human resources, etc.) who perform day-to-day data collection and management operations. Their responsibilities include:

  • Implementing data governance policies in their functional areas
  • Resolving data issues in their functional areas 
  • Provide training and appropriate documentation to data users
  • Being informed and consulted about data governance

3.    Be consistent and hold people accountable.

Ultimately, your data governance team needs accountability in order to thrive. Therefore, it is up to data trustees, data stewards, and data managers to hold regular meetings, take and distribute meeting notes, and identify and follow up on meeting action items. Without this follow through, data governance initiatives will likely stall or stop altogether. 

More information on data governance 

Are you still curious about additional guiding principles of data governance in higher education? Please contact the team
 

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People Power: Enacting Sustainable Data Governance

Read this if you are an Institutional Research (IR) Director, a Registrar, or are in the C-Suite.

In my last blog, I defined the what and the why of data governance, and outlined the value of data governance in higher education environments. I also asserted data isn’t the problem―the real culprit is our handling of the data (or rather, our deferral of data responsibility to others).

While I remain convinced that data isn’t the problem, recent experiences in the field have confirmed the fact that data governance is problematic. So much, in fact, that I believe data governance defies a “solid,” point-in-time solution. Discouraged? Don’t be. Just recalibrate your expectations, and pursue an adaptive strategy.

This starts with developing data governance guiding principles, with three initial points to consider: 

  1. Key stakeholders should develop your institution’s guiding principles. The team should include representatives from areas such as the office of the Registrar, Human Resources, Institutional Research, and other significant producers and consumers of institutional data. 
  2. The focus of your guiding principles must be on the strategic outcomes your institution is trying to achieve, and the information needed for data-driven decision-making.
  3. Specific guiding principles will vary from institution to institution; effective data governance requires both structure and flexibility.

Here are some baseline principles your institution may want to adopt and modify to suit your particular needs.

  • Data governance entails iterative processes, attention to measures and metrics, and ongoing effort. The institution’s governance framework should be transparent, practical, and agile. This ensures that governance is seen as beneficial to data management and not an impediment.
  • Governance is an enabler. The institution’s work should help accomplish objectives and solve problems aligned with strategic priorities.
  • Work with the big picture in mind. Start from the vantage point that data is an institutional asset. Without an institutional asset mentality it’s difficult to break down the silos that make data valuable to the organization.
  • The institution should identify data trustees and stewards that will lead the data governance efforts at your institution
    • Data trustees should have responsibility over data, and have the highest level of responsibility for custodianship of data.
    • Data stewards should act on behalf of data trustees, and be accountable for managing and maintaining data.
  • Data quality needs to be baked into the governance process. The institution should build data quality into every step of capture and entry. This will increase user confidence that there is data integrity. The institution should develop working agreements for sharing and accessing data across organizational lines. The institution should strive for processes and documentation that is consistent, manageable, and effective. This helps projects run smoothly, with consistent results every time.
  • The institution should pay attention to building security into the data usage cycle. An institution’s security measures and practices need to be inherent in the day-to-day management of data, and balanced with the working agreements mentioned above. This keeps data secure and protected for the entire organization.
  •  Agreed upon rules and guidelines should be developed to support a data governance structure and decision-making. The institution should define and use pragmatic approaches and practical plans that reward sustainability and collaboration, building a successful roadmap for the future. 

Next Steps

Are you curious about additional guiding principles? Contact me. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for a future blog that digs deeper into the roles of data trustees and stewards.
 

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Governance: It's good for your data

“The world is one big data problem,” says MIT scientist and visionary Andrew McAfee.

That’s a daunting (though hardly surprising) quote for many in data-rich sectors, including higher education. Yet blaming data is like blaming air for a malfunctioning wind turbine. Data is a valuable asset that can make your institution move.

To many of us, however, data remains a four-letter word. The real culprit behind the perceived data problem is our handling and perception of data and the role it can play in our success—that is, the relegating of data to a select, responsible few, who are usually separated into hardened silos. For example, a common assumption in higher education is that the IT team can handle it. Not so. Data needs to be viewed as an institutional asset, consumed by many and used by the institution for the strategic purposes of student success, scholarship, and more.

The first step in addressing your “big” data problem? Data governance.

What is data governance?

There are various definitions, but the one we use with our clients is “the ongoing and evolutionary process driven by leaders to establish principles, policies, business rules, and metrics for data sharing.”

Please note that the phrase “IT” does not appear anywhere in this definition.

Why is data governance necessary? For many reasons, including:

  1. Data governance enables analytics. Without data governance, it’s difficult to gain value from analytics initiatives which will produce inconsistent results. A critical first step in any data analytics initiative is to make sure that definitions are widely accepted and standards have been established. This step allows decision makers to have confidence in the data being analyzed to describe, predict, and improve operations.
     
  2. Data governance strengthens privacy, security, and compliance. Compliance requirements for both public and private institutions constantly evolve. The more data-reliant your world becomes, the more protected your data needs to be. If an organization does not implement security practices as part of its data governance framework, it becomes easier to fall out of compliance. 
     
  3. Data governance supports agility. How many times have reports for basic information (part-time faculty or student FTEs per semester, for example) been requested, reviewed, and returned for further clarification or correction? And that’s just within your department! Now add multiple requests from the perspective of different departments, and you’re surely going through multiple iterations to create that report. That takes time and effort. By strengthening your data governance framework, you can streamline reporting processes by increasing the level of trust you have in the information you are seeking. Understanding the value of data governance is the easy part/ The real trick is implementing a sustainable data governance framework that recognizes that data is an institutional asset and not just a four-letter word.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog series: The how of data governance in higher education. In the meantime, reach out to me if you would like to discuss additional data governance benefits for your institution.

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Data is a four-letter word. Governance is not.

The late science fiction writer (and college professor) Isaac Asimov once said: “I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.” Had Asimov worked in higher ed IT management, he might have added: “but above all else, I fear the lack of computer staff.”

Indeed, it can be a challenge for higher education institutions to recruit and retain IT professionals. Private companies often pay more in a good economy, and in certain areas of the nation, open IT positions at colleges and universities outnumber available, qualified IT workers. According to one study from 2016, almost half of higher education IT workers are at risk of leaving the institutions they serve, largely for better opportunities and more supportive workplaces. Understandably, IT leadership fears an uncertain future of vacant roles—yet there are simple tactics that can help you improve the chances of filling open positions.

Emphasize the whole package

You need to leverage your institution’s strengths when recruiting IT talent. A focus on innovation, project leadership, and responsibility for supporting the mission of the institution are important attributes to promote when recruiting. Your institution should sell quality of life, which can be much more attractive than corporate culture. Many candidates are attracted to the energy and activity of college campuses, in addition to the numerous social and recreational outlets colleges provide.

Benefit packages are another strong asset for recruiting top talent. Schools need to ensure potential candidates know the amount of paid leave, retirement, and educational assistance for employees and employee family members. These added perks will pique the interest of many candidates who might otherwise have only looked at salary during the process.

Use the right job title

Some current school vacancies have very specific job titles, such as “Portal Administrator” or “Learning Multimedia Developer.” However, this specificity can limit visibility on popular job posting sites, reducing the number of qualified applicants. Job titles, such as “Web Developer” and “Java Developer,” can yield better search results. Furthermore, some current vacancies include a number or level after the job title (e.g., “System Administrator 2”), which also limits visibility on these sites. By removing these indicators, you can significantly increase the applicant pool.

Focus on service, not just technology

Each year, institutions deploy an increasing number of Software as a Service (SaaS) and hosted applications. As higher education institutions invest more in these applications, they need fewer personnel for day-to-day technology maintenance support. In turn, this allows IT organizations to focus limited resources on services that identify and analyze technology solutions, provide guidance to optimize technology investments, and manage vendor relationships. IT staff with soft skills will become even more valuable to your institution as they engage in more people- and process-centric efforts.

Fill in the future

It may seem like science fiction, but by revising your recruiting and retention tactics, your higher education institution can improve its chances of filling IT positions in a competitive job market. In a future blog, I’ll provide ideas for cultivating staff from your institution via student workers and upcoming graduates. If you’d like to discuss additional staffing tactics, send me an email.

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No science fiction: Tactics for recruiting and retaining higher education IT positions

We humans have a complex attitude toward change. In one sense, we like finding it. For instance: “Now I can buy something from the vending machine!” In reality, we try to avoid change as much as possible. Why? Because it’s frightening. Consider this quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

The key word in that quote is “sudden.” Because the more we prepare for change, the less painful it becomes. One crucial way to prepare for change is to assess how ready we are for something new.

Which brings us to you. The fact you are reading a blog post with the words “Readiness for Enterprise Systems” in its title suggests that you have considered, or are considering, changing your institution’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system or other enterprise software, such as LMS, SIS, CRM, etc. This change is no minor adjustment.

Enterprise systems are complex, impacting institutional activities at many levels, from managing student records, finances, and human resources, to enabling student enrollment and registration. Is your institution prepared for transformation across the organization? To find out, assess your institution’s readiness for change. To help illustrate what an assessment might entail, I’ll outline BerryDunn’s method.

Step #1: Understanding Key Indicators for Readiness
When assisting a client to determine readiness, BerryDunn begins engaging stakeholders from across the institution (e.g., staff, faculty, and students) to understand the current environment. This allows us to address seven key indicators for change readiness:

  1. Stakeholder Buy-In. The key to success in changing an ERP platform is for users to understand the value that the change will bring. “Do stakeholders know how the new system will benefit them? Or, from their perspective, ‘What’s in it for me (aka, WIIFM)?’”
  2. Executive Sponsorship. In order to obtain stakeholder buy-in, leaders have to communicate effectively with various parties about change. They will be required to display strong and consistent leadership when stakeholders are faced with challenges with vendors, timing, scope creep, or other issues. “Are leaders prepared to lead the charge? Are they committed to change?”
     
  3. Vendor Ability. Each institution has specific operational needs and programmatic objectives. ERP vendors will highlight their strengths and may de-emphasize weaknesses that may exist in their products. “Are vendors actually able to meet the institution’s functional needs and align their software with strategic objectives?”
     
  4. Business Process Redesign. As mentioned above, it can be a struggle to align operational needs and programmatic objectives with vendor software. It’s even harder to achieve this while ensuring that, in implementing a new ERP system, an institution won’t lose valuable functionality that had been provided by the previous ERP. “Does the client fully understand the impact of a new ERP system on their processes?”
     
  5. Project Management. Proactive project management is critical when changing an ERP system. Project managers need to engage institutional stakeholders, project sponsors, and vendors to keep them apprised of progress. “Are project managers empowered to maintain strong communication with all stakeholders?”
     
  6. Data Governance. Another key indicator of ERP readiness is how well-defined data management is before implementation. ERP replacement projects are jeopardized when institutions don’t understand their data assets, or don’t know what level of data migration is necessary. “Is the institution prepared for data migration?”
     
  7. Software Change Management. As ERP vendors move their products to the cloud, the software they sell will become less customizable, but more configurable. In other words, customers won’t necessarily be able to modify the base software code, but they will have more options in regards to defined fields, workflow, and user interface. Although this sounds limiting, it is actually an opportunity to streamline operations, add discipline to software update timelines, and require organizations to consider how to best complete their administrative functions. It is critical that an institution adapt its software change management practices to meet this reality. “Do the institution’s software change management practices reflect how software is delivered by vendors today?”

Step #2: Establish Agreed-Upon Metrics
Based on our analysis from Step #1, we then score these indicators of readiness based on a maturity scale from 0 – 5, using the following parameters:

0  Non-existent
1  Aware, but not ready to change
2  Aware and open to change, but lack understanding of path forward
3  Accept that change is needed, but clear action plan is not in place
4  Accept that change is imminent and is being planned for
5  Readiness for change has broad understanding, is accepted, and is being executed 

Step #3: Score the Readiness of Your Organization
When you work with a consulting firm to assess your institution’s readiness for change, you should expect tangible takeaways that will inform stakeholders and provide a baseline metric. For example, we prepare a brief report that outlines a score for each of the seven maturity indicators of ERP readiness and provides supporting information for the basis of each score.

Here is an example of a Software Change Management section from a hypothetical ERP Readiness Report:

READINESS INDICATORS

BASIS FOR SCORE

SCORE (0 – 5)

Software Change Management

The University does have an effective software change management methodology, and a standard process for prioritizing requests to its current ERP system. This model may change significantly if a cloud system is chosen, and will require a new approach to configuration and asset management.

3


Finally, based on the weighted aggregate score of the report, BerryDunn determines the institution’s readiness for change, and provides recommendations on how to remediate low scores, and sustain higher scores.

Now for the good news. By setting a baseline early in your readiness planning, the scoring can be revisited over time to measure progress and provide project leadership with a simple, but effective, approach to tracking change management within the organization.

Next Steps
As you can see, implementing a new ERP doesn’t have to be a monstrous experience. You simply need to determine your ERP readiness, and follow a common-sense plan for change management. If you’d like to talk more about this process, send me an email: dhoule@berrydunn.com. I look forward to learning about the great changes your institution has planned.

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Assessing organizational readiness for enterprise systems

Read this if you administer a 401(k) plan.

On December 20, 2019, the Setting Every Community up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act was signed into law. The SECURE Act makes several changes to 401(k) plan requirements. Among those changes is a change to the permissible minimum service requirements.  
 
Many 401(k) retirement plan sponsors have elected to set up minimum service requirements for their plan. Such requirements help eliminate administrative burden of offering participation to part-time employees who may then participate in the plan for a short period of time and then keep their balance within the plan. Although plan sponsors do have the ability to process force-out distributions for smaller account balances, a minimum service requirement, such as one year of service, can help eliminate this situation altogether.  

Long-term part-time employees now eligible

The SECURE Act will now require that long-term part-time employees be offered participation in 401(k) plans if they are over the age of 21. The idea behind the requirement is that 401(k) plans are responsible for an increasingly larger amount of employees’ retirement income. Therefore, it is essential that part-time employees, some of which may not have a full-time job, have the ability to save for retirement.  
 
Long-term is defined as any employee who works three consecutive years with 500 or more hours worked each year. This new secondary service requirement becomes effective January 1, 2021. Previous employment will not count towards the three-year requirement. Therefore, the earliest a long-term part-time employee may become eligible to participate in a plan under the secondary service requirement is January 1, 2024.  

403(b) plans not affected 

Please note this provision is only applicable for 401(k) plans and does not impact 403(b) plans, which are subject to universal availability. Furthermore, although long-term part-time employees will be allowed to make elective deferrals into 401(k) plans, management may choose whether to provide non-elective or matching contributions to such participants. These participants also may be excluded from nondiscrimination and top-heavy requirements.  
 
This requirement will create unique tracking challenges as plans will need to track hours worked for recurring part-time employees over multiple years. For instance, seasonal employees who elect to work multiple seasons may inadvertently become eligible. We recommend plans work with their record keepers and/or third-party administrators to implement a tracking system to ensure participation is offered to those who meet this new secondary service requirement. If a feasible tracking solution does not exist, or plans do not want to deal with the burden of tracking such information, plans may also consider amending their minimum service requirements by reducing the hours of service requirement from 1,000 hours to 500 hours or less. However, this may allow more employees to participate than under the three-year, 500-hour requirement and may increase the employer contributions each year. 

If you have questions regarding your particular situation, please contact our Employee Benefit Audits team. We’re here to help.

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New permissible minimum service requirements for 401(k) plans

Read this if your organization, business, or institution is receiving financial assistance as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Updated: September 8, 2020

We expect to receive guidance on how to determine what qualifies as lost revenue sometime in the fall, and will post additional information when that becomes available. If you would like the information sent to you directly, please contact Grant Ballantyne.

New information continues to surface about the reporting requirements of the CARES Act Provider Relief Funds (PRFs). The most recent news published by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) states the funds will be subject to the Single Audit Act requirements. What does this mean and how does it impact your organization? Here’s a brief synopsis. 

A Single Audit (often referred to as a Uniform Guidance audit) is required when total federal grant expenditures for an organization exceed $750,000 in a fiscal year. It is important to note that while an organization may have received funds exceeding the threshold, it is the expenditure of these funds that counts toward the Single Audit threshold.  

PRFs help with healthcare-related expenses or lost revenue attributable to COVID-19. Guidance on what qualifies as a healthcare-related expense or lost revenue is still in process, and regular updates are posted on the FAQs of the US Department of Health & Human Services website.

You may remember, there were originally quarterly reporting requirements related to PRFs. On June 13, 2020 HHS updated their FAQ document to reflect a change in quarterly reporting requirements related to PRFs. According to the updated language, “Recipients of Provider Relief Fund payments do not need to submit a separate quarterly report to HHS or the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. HHS will develop a report containing all information necessary for recipients of Provider Relief Fund payments to comply with this provision.”

Organizations that receive more than $150,000 in PRFs must still submit reports to ensure compliance with the conditions of the relief funds, but the content of the reports and dates on which these are due is yet to be determined (as of August 4, 2020). The key distinction to remember here is that this limit is based on total funds received, regardless of whether or not expenditures have been made. 

As more information comes out, we will update our website. At the moment the main takeaways are:

  • Expending $750,000 of combined relief funds and other federal awards will trigger a Single Audit
  • Receiving $150,000 of PRFs will cause reporting requirements, on a to-be-determined basis
  • Tracking PRF expenditures throughout the fiscal year will be essential for the dual purpose of reporting expenditures and accumulating any potential Single Audit support

If you would like to speak with a BerryDunn professional about reporting under the Single Audit Act, please contact a member of our Single Audit Team.

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Provider Relief Funds Single Audit

Read this if your organization, business, or institution is receiving financial assistance as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Updated: August 5, 2020

Many for-profit and not-for-profit organizations are receiving financial assistance as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been some guidance, there are still many unanswered questions. One unanswered question has been whether or not any of this financial assistance will be subject to the Single Audit Act. Good news―there’s finally some guidance:

  • For organizations receiving financial assistance through the Small Business Administration (SBA) Payroll Protection Program (PPP), the SBA made the determination that financial assistance is not subject to the Single Audit.
  • The other common type of financial assistance through the SBA is the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. The SBA has made the determination that as these are direct loans with the federal government, they will be subject to the Single Audit. 

It is unlikely there will be guidance within the 2020 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Compliance Supplement related to testing the EIDL program, as the Compliance Supplement anticipated in June 2020 will not have any specific information relative to COVID-19. The OMB announced they will likely be issuing an addendum to the June supplement information specific to COVID-19 by September 2020.

Small- and medium-sized for-profit organizations, and now not-for-profit organizations, are able to access funds through the Main Street Lending Program, which is comprised of the Main Street New Loan Facility, the Main Street Priority Loan Facility, the Main Street Expanded Loan Facility, the Nonprofit Organization New Loan Facility, and the Nonprofit Organization Expanded Loan Facility. We do not currently know how, or if, the Single Audit Act will apply to these loans. Term sheets and frequently asked questions can be accessed on the Federal Reserve web page for the Main Street Lending Program.

Not-for-profits have also received additional financial assistance to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, through Medicare and Medicaid, and through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). While no definitive guidance has been received, HEERF funds, which are distributed through the Department of Education’s Education Stabilization Fund, have been assigned numbers in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, which seems to indicate they will be subject to audit. We are currently awaiting guidance if these programs will be subject to the Single Audit Act and will update this blog as that information becomes available.

Healthcare providers are able to access Provider Relief Funds (PRF) through the US Department of Health & Human Services. PRF help with healthcare-related expenses or lost revenue attributable to COVID-19. Guidance on what qualifies as a healthcare-related expense or lost revenue is still in process, and regular updates are posted on the FAQs of the US Department of Health & Human Services website. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), PRF funds will be subject to the Single Audit Act requirements. It is important to note that while an organization may have received funds exceeding the threshold, it is the expenditure of these funds that counts toward the Single Audit threshold.

If you have questions about accounting for, or reporting on, funds that you have received as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact a member of our Single Audit Team. We’re here to help.

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COVID-19: Single audit and uniform guidance clarifications

Read this if you are a business with employees working in states other than their primary work location.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to leave our offices to work remotely. For many businesses, that means having employees working from home in another state. As telecommuting become much more prevalent, due to both the pandemic and technological advances, state income tax implications have come to the forefront for businesses that now have a remote workforce and employees that may be working in a state other than their primary work location. 

Bipartisan legislation known as the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act of 2020 (S.3995) was introduced in the US Senate on June 18, 2020 to address the state and local tax implications of a temporary or permanent remote workforce. The legislation addresses both income tax nexus for business owners and employer-employee payroll tax responsibilities for a remote workforce. Here are some highlights:

Business income tax responsibility

The legislation would provide a temporary income tax nexus exception for businesses with remote employees in other states due to COVID-19. The exception would relieve companies from having nexus for a covered period, provided they have no other economic connection to the state in question. The covered period begins the date employees began working remotely and ends on either December 31, 2020 or the date on which the employer allows 90% of its permanent workforce to return to their primary work location, whichever date comes first.

The temporary tax nexus exception is welcome news for many business owners and employers, as a recent survey by Bloomberg indicated that three dozen states would normally consider a remote employee as a nexus trigger. Additional nexus would certainly add further income tax compliance requirements and potentially additional tax liabilities, complications that no businesses need in this already challenging environment.

Employee and employer tax responsibility

The tax implications for telecommuting vary wildly from state to state and most have not addressed how current laws would be adjusted or enforced due to the current environment. For example, New York implements a “convenience of the employer” rule. So if an out-of-state business has an employee working from home in New York, whether or not those wages are subject to New York state income tax depends on the purpose for the telecommuting arrangement. 

New York’s policy is problematic in the current environment. Arguments could be made that the employee is working for home at their convenience, at the employer’s convenience, or due to a government mandate. It is unclear which circumstance would prevail and as of this writing, New York has not addressed how this rule would apply.

If enacted, the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act would restrict a state’s authority to tax wage income earned by employees for performing duties in other states. The legislation would create a 90-day threshold for determining nonresident income tax liability for calendar year 2020, enhancing a bill in the House which proposes a 30-day threshold.

The 90-day threshold applies specifically to instances where the employee work arrangement is different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For future years, the bill would put in place a standardized 30-day bright-line test, making it easier for employees to know when they are liable for non-resident state income taxes and for employers to know which states they need to withhold payroll taxes. 

What do you need to do?

With or without legislation, the year-end income tax filings and information gathering will be very different for tax year 2020. It’s more important than ever for business owners to have proper record keeping on where their employees are working on a day-to-day basis. This information is crucial in determining potential tax exposure and identifying a strategy to mitigate it. The Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act would provide needed guidance and restore some sense of tax compliance normalcy.

If you would like more information, or have a question about your specific situation, please contact your BerryDunn tax consultant. We’re here to help.
 

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The remote worker during COVID-19: Tax nexus and the new normal