Bottom Line: California income tax withholding collections this week were 4 percent below the comparable week in 2019, although total withholding since late March remains 2.4 percent above the same period last year.
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 evolving economic situation.
The first graph compares withholding payments received this week to payments received in the comparable week in 2019, which ran from Monday, October 14 to Friday, October 18 of that year. Withholding was down 4 percent from the comparable week in 2019. Collections were very low on Tuesday, as the day after Columbus Day is always one of the slowest processing days of the year.
The second 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 October 16 are up 2.4 percent ($876 million) from the same period in 2019. Last week, the tracker showed an increase of 2.5 percent ($910 million).
The final graph shows the year over year changes in cumulative withholding for California in 2020, the United States in 2020 (from the federal income tax), and California in 2009 at the trough of the Great Recession. California’s withholding picture has improved lately, unlike federal withholding this year or the state’s own withholding at the same stage in 2009. While California’s economy has been hurt at least as badly by the recession as the national economy has, its withholding collections have likely held up better because its income tax falls more heavily on the higher-paid workers who have experienced fewer employment losses than their lower-paid counterparts. Federal withholding this week was down 38 percent from 2019, due in part to a timing issue. California withholding this week in 2009 was down 24 percent from 2008.