May 22, 2020
Bottom Line: Income tax withholding this week was 9 percent below the comparable week last year, a comparable drop to the same week during the Great Recession.
California employers are required to make regular income tax withholding payments for their employees, which can provide a real-time indication of the direction and magnitude of the aggregate change in the employers’ payrolls. Most withholding payments are for employees’ wages and salaries, but withholding is also due on bonuses and stock options received by employees. We caution against giving too much weight to withholding numbers in any given week because a single anomalous day can result in numbers that are difficult to interpret. Nonetheless, given the pace and severity of the shift in the state’s economy resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, tracking weekly withholding is worthwhile as a way to assess the state’s rapidly changing economic situation.
The first graph compares withholding payments received this week to payments received in the comparable week in 2019, which ran from Monday, May 20 to Friday, May 24 of that year. Withholding was down 9 percent from the comparable week in 2019. The first three days had very low collections but the last two days were very high, suggesting that the processing pattern has changed from 2019 to 2020.
The second graph compares the year-over-year percent change in withholding (withholding this week relative to the same week in 2019) to the weekly changes observed in March, April, and May of 2009, when the state was in the depths of the Great Recession. The drop in withholding this week was very similar to the drop from the comparable week during the Great Recession.
The final graph shows total withholding collections since Monday March 23, when we first started to see evidence of an impact of the pandemic on withholding. As shown in the graph, total collections between March 23 and May 15 are down 5.5 percent ($656 million) compared to 2019. As of last week, the gap was 5.0 percent ($517 million).