Resources > Law & Business Guides > Employee Benefits

Social Security

Social Security, in the United States, currently refers to the Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program.  The original Social Security Act and the current version of the Act, as amended encompass several social welfare or social insurance programs. The larger and better known initiatives of the program are listed in the table below.  Social Security in the United States is a social insurance program funded through dedicated payroll taxes called FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act). Tax deposits are formally entrusted to Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, or Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund, Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund or the Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund. The main part of the program is sometimes abbreviated (OASDI), in reference to its three beneficiaries (OA for retirement, S for widows and survivors income, D for the disabled, and I for insurance). When initially signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the term Social Security covered unemployment insurance as well. The term, in everyday speech, is used only to refer to the benefits for retirement, disability, survivorship, and death, which are the four main benefits provided by traditional private-sector pension plans. In 2004 the U.S. Social Security system paid out almost $500 billion in benefits. By dollars paid, the U.S. Social Security program is the largest government program in the world. The better known initiatives of the program are listed below:

  1. Unemployment Insurance;
  2. Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance;
  3. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families;
  4. Health Insurance for Aged and Disabled (Medicare);
  5. Grants to States for Medical Assistance Programs (Medicaid); and
  6. State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)

Federal Insurance Contributions Act

The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax is a United States payroll (or employment) tax imposed by the federal government on both employees and employers to fund Social Security and Medicare—federal programs that provide benefits for retirees, the disabled, and children of deceased workers. Social Security benefits include old-age, survivors, and disability insurance (OASDI); Medicare provides hospital insurance benefits.

Tax Calculation

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states that three-fourths of taxpayers pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes. The FICA tax is considered a regressive tax on income (with no standard deduction or personal exemption deduction) and is imposed (for the year 2007) only on the first $97,500 of gross wages. The tax is not imposed on investment income (such as interest and dividends).

Regular Employees

For 2007, the employee's share of the Social Security portion of the tax is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit of $97,500 of compensation. This limit, known as the Social Security Wage Base, goes up each year based on average national wages and, in general, at a faster rate than the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The employee's share of the Medicare portion is 1.45% of wages with no limit. The employer is also liable for separate 6.2% and 1.45% Social Security and Medicare taxes, respectively, making the total Social Security tax 12.4% and the total Medicare tax 2.9% of wages. (Self-employed people are responsible for the entire FICA percentage of 15.3% (= 12.4% + 2.9%), since they are both the employer and the employed; however, see the section on self-employed people for more details.)

If a worker starts a new job halfway through the year and has already earned the wage base limit for Social Security, the new employer is not allowed to stop withholding it until the wage base limit has been earned with them. There are some cases, such as a successor-predecessor transfer, in which the payments that have already been withheld can be counted toward the year-to-date total.

If a worker has overpaid toward Social Security by having more than one job or by having switched jobs during the year, that worker will get a refund when they file their Federal income tax return.

Self-Employed

A tax similar to the FICA tax is imposed on the earnings of self-employed individuals, such as independent contractors and members of a partnership. This tax is imposed not by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act but instead by the Self-Employment Contributions Act of 1954, which is codified as Chapter 2 of Subtitle A of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 1401 through 26 U.S.C. § 1403 (the "SE Tax Act"). Under the SE Tax Act, self-employed people are responsible for the entire percentage of 15.3% (= 12.4% [Soc. Sec.] + 2.9% [Medicare]); however, the 15.3% multiplier is applied to 92.35% of the business's net earnings from self-employment, rather than 100% of the gross earnings; the difference, 7.65%, is half of the 15.3%, and makes the calculation fair in comparison to that of regular (non-self-employed) employees. It does this by adjusting for the fact that employees' 7.65% share of their SE tax is multiplied against a number (their gross income) that does not include the putative "employer's half" of the self-employment tax. In simpler words, it makes the calculation fair because employees don't get taxed on their employers' contribution of the second half of FICA, therefore self-employed people shouldn't get taxed on the second half of the self-employment tax. Similarly, self-employed people also deduct half of their self-employment tax (schedule SE) from their gross income on the way to arriving at their adjusted gross income (AGI). Again, this evens the playing field for self-employed persons in comparison to regular employees, who don't pay general income tax on their employers' contribution of the second half of FICA, just as they didn't pay FICA tax on it either.

These calculations are made on Schedule SE: Self-Employment Tax, although that is not readily apparent to novice self-employed taxpayers, owing to the schedule's rather opaque name, which makes it sound like it is part of the general federal income tax. Some taxpayers have complained that Schedule SE's title should be changed to something such as "Self-Employment FICA Tax", so that its separateness from the general income tax is apparent, perhaps not realizing that the SE tax is not imposed by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) at all, and that neither SE taxes nor FICA taxes are "income taxes" imposed under Chapter 1 of the Internal Revenue Code.

Exempt Full-Time Students

A special case in FICA regulations includes exemptions for student workers. Students enrolled full-time in a university and working part-time for the same university are exempted from FICA payroll taxes, so long as their relationship with the university is primarily an educational one.

Unemployment Compensation

Unemployment Compensation is an amount received by an unemployed worker, originating from the United States or a State. In the United States, this compensation is classified as a type of social welfare benefit. According to the Internal Revenue Code, these types of benefits are to be included in a taxpayer’s gross income.

Federal-State Joint Programs

In the United States, there are 50 state programs of Unemployment Insurance plus one each in the District of Columbia and in Puerto Rico. Through the Social Security Act of 1935, the Federal Government of the United States effectively coerced the individual states into adopting plans of Unemployment Insurance, by imposing a federal tax (the FUTA tax), the larger share of which would only be rebated to employers if the state operated a UI plan meeting federal standards. Within those constraints, the individual states and territories raise their own contributions and run their own programs. The federal government sets broad guidelines for coverage and eligiblity, but states vary in how they determine benefits and eligilibity.

Federal rules are drawn by the United States Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. For most states, the maximum period for receiving benefits is 26 weeks. There is an extended benefit program (authorized through the Social Security Acts) that may be triggered by state economic conditions. Congress has often passed temporary programs to extend Benefits during economic recessions. Most recently, this was through the Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation (TEUC)program. The TEUC program has now expired.

Application Process

Generally, the worker must be unemployed through no fault of his/her own (generally through lay-offs). Unemployment benefits are based on reported covered quarterly earnings. The amount of earnings and the number of quarters worked are used to determine the length and value of the unemployment benefit. It generally takes two weeks for benefit payments to begin, the first being a "waiting week", which is not reimbursed, and the second being the time lag between eligibility for the program and the first benefit actually being paid.

To begin a claim, you must apply for benefits (there are a few exceptions where an employer will apply for you). Generally, the certification includes your affirming that you are "able and available for work", the amount of any part-time earnings you may have had and whether you are "actively seeking work" These certifications are usually either by internet or via an IVR (interactive voice response) telephone call, but in a few states may be by mail.Once you apply, the state will notify you whether you have sufficient wages to qualify and what your weekly benefit rate will be. The state will also review the reason you were separated from employment.

To actually receive benefits, you must certify to your eligibility every one or two weeks (this varies by state).  Only after claiming benefits will you receive money. In most states this will be in the form of a check or in a minority of states, optionally, by direct deposit.

Old Age, Survivors & Disability Insurance

The largest component of OASDI is the payment of retirement benefits. Throughout a worker's career, the Social Security Administration keeps track of his or her earnings. The amount of the monthly benefit to which the worker is entitled depends upon that earnings record and upon the age at which the retiree chooses to begin receiving benefits. For the entire history of Social Security, benefits have been paid almost entirely by using revenue from payroll taxes. This is why Social Security is referred to as a pay-as-you-go system. In approximately a decade (2019), payroll tax revenue is projected to be insufficient to cover Social Security benefits and the system will begin to withdraw money from the Social Security Trust Fund. The existence and economic significance of the Social Security Trust Fund is a subject of considerable dispute because its assets are special Treasury bonds; i.e., the money in the trust fund have been loaned back to the federal government to pay for other expenses (hence it is said that the fund consists of nothing but "IOUs").

Primary Insurance Amount

While the worker's retirement income benefit is based on his PIA (primary insurance amount), the PIA is also used to calculate the other benefits for disability, widows, and survivors monthly income. The PIA is based on the average of the highest 35 years of the worker's covered earnings (before deduction for FICA). Covered earnings in any year are limited by that year's Social Security Wage Base, the maximum earnings that could be subject to the OASDI portion of FICA payroll tax ($97,500 in 2007). If the worker has fewer than 35 years of covered earnings, zeros are substituted for each year in the difference between 35 and the actual number of years of covered earnings. Years of covered work more than 2 years before the calculation year are indexed upward to reflect the increase in the national wage via the average wage index (AWI) from the time at which the earnings were covered in the past to the most recent value of the AWI (which is two years ago). One-twelfth of this 35-year average is the average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). The PIA then is 90% of the AIME up to the first (low) bendpoint, and 32% of the excess of AIME over the first bendpoint but not in excess of the second (high) bendpoint, plus 15% of the AIME in excess of the second bendpoint.

Normal Retirement Age

The earliest age at which (reduced) benefits are payable is 62. Full retirement benefits depend on a retiree's year of birth. Those born before 1938 have a normal retirement age of 65. Normal retirement age increases by two months for each ensuing year of birth until the 1943 year of birth, when it stays at age 66 years until the year of birth 1955. Thereafter the normal retirement age increases again by two months for each year ending in the 1960 year of birth, when normal retirement age stops at age 67 for all born thereafter.  The normal retirement age for spousal retirement benefits shifts the year-of-birth schedule upward by two years, so that those spouses born before 1940 have age 65 as their normal retirement age.  A worker under 70 and eligible for retirement can delay receiving benefits past full retirement age, and thereby increase the worker's eventual retirement benefit and the surviving spouse's benefit. (delayed retirement credit) Spousal and children's benefits are not affected.

Spouse's Benefit

Any current spouse is eligible, and divorced or former spouses are eligible generally if the marriage lasts for at least 10 years. (State marriages of same sex couples are not recognized by OASDI for spousal benefits because the federal DOMA law excluded them for federal recognition for federal rights.±) While it is arithmetically possible for one worker to generate spousal benefits for up to five of his spouses that he/she may have, each must be in succession after a proper divorce for each after a marriage of at least ten years. Because age 70 is the latest retirement age, and because no state recognizes marriage before teenage years, there are no more than 5 successive spousal benefits in ten-year intervals. This spousal retirement benefit is half the PIA of the worker; this is different from the spousal survivor benefit, which is the full PIA. The benefit is the product of the PIA, times one half, times the early-retirement factor if the spouse is younger than normal retirement age. There is no increase for starting spousal benefits after normal retirement age. This can occur if there is a married couple in which the younger person is the only worker and is more than 5 years younger. Only after the worker applies for retirement benefits may the non-working spouse apply for spousal retirement benefits.

Note that, since the passage of the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act, in 2000, the spouse and children of a worker who has reached normal retirement age can receive benefits on the worker's record whether the worker is receiving benefits or not. Thus a worker can delay retirement without affecting spousal and children's benefits. The worker may have to begin receipt of benefits, to allow the spousal/children's benefits to begin, and then subsequently suspend his own benefits in order to continue the postponement of benefits in exchange for an increased benefit amount.

Widow's Benefits

If a worker covered by Social Security dies, a surviving spouse can receive survivors' benefits. In some instances, survivors' benefits are available even to a divorced spouse. A father or mother with minor or disabled children in his or her care can receive benefits which are not actuarially reduced. The earliest age for a nondisabled widow(er)'s benefit is age 60. The benefit is equal to the worker's full retirement benefit for spouses who are at, or older than, survivor's normal retirement age. If the worker dies when the survivor is younger, there is an actuarial reduction.

Children's Benefits

Children of a retired, disabled or deceased worker may receive benefits as a "dependent" or "survivor" if they are under the age of 18, or between 18 and 19 and have not yet graduated from high school, or are over the age of 18 and were disabled before the age of 22.

Disability

A worker who has worked long enough and recently enough (based on "quarters of coverage" within the recent past) to be covered can receive benefits five months after the date that the worker became disabled, regardless of his or her age. The eligibility formula requires a certain number of credits (based on earnings) to have been earned overall, and a certain number within the ten years immediately preceding the disability, but with more-lenient provisions for younger workers who become disabled before having had a chance to compile a long earnings history.

The worker must be unable to continue in his or her previous job and unable to adjust to other work, with age, education, and work experience taken into account; furthermore, the disability must be long-term, lasting 12 months, expected to last 12 months, resulting in death, or expected to result in death. As with the retirement benefit, the amount of the disability benefit payable depends on the worker's age and record of covered earnings.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) uses the same disability criteria as the insured social security disability program, but SSI is not based upon insurance coverage. Instead, a system of means-testing is used to determine whether the claimants' income and net worth fall below certain income and asset thresholds.  Severely disabled children may qualify for SSI. Standards for child disability are different from those for adults.

Medicare

Medicare is a health insurance program administered by the United States government, covering people who are either age 65 and over, or who meet other special criteria.  Medicare is partially financed by payroll taxes imposed by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) and the Self-Employment Contributions Act of 1954. In the case of employees, the tax is equal to 2.9% (1.45% withheld from the worker and a matching 1.45% paid by the employer) of the wages, salaries and other compensation in connection with employment. Until December 31, 1993, the law provided a maximum amount of wages, etc., on which the Medicare tax could be imposed each year. Beginning January 1, 1994, the compensation limit was removed. In the case of self-employed individuals, the tax is 2.9% of net earnings from self-employment, and the entire amount is paid by the self-employed individual.

Eligibility

In general, individuals are eligible for Medicare if they (or their spouse) worked for at least 10 years in Medicare-covered employment and are at least 65 years old and are a citizen or permanent resident of the United States of America.  Individuals who are under 65 years old can also be eligible if they are disabled or have end stage renal disease. People under 65 and disabled must be receiving disability benefits from either Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board for at least 24 months before Medicare automatic enrollment occurs.  Many beneficiaries are dual-eligible. This means they qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid. In some states those with certain income, Medicaid will pay the beneficiaries Part B premium for them (most beneficiaries have worked long enough and have no Part A premium), and also pay any drugs that are not covered by Part D.

Benefits

The "Original Medicare" program has two parts: Part A (Hospital Insurance), and Part B (Medical Insurance). Only a few special cases exist where prescription drugs are covered by Original Medicare, but as of January 2006, Medicare Part D provides more comprehensive drug coverage. Medicare Advantage plans are another way for beneficiaries to receive their Part A, B and D benefits.

Part A: Hospital Insurance

Part A covers hospital stays. It will pay for stays in a skilled nursing facility as well if certain criteria are met:

  1. The hospital stay must be at least three days, three midnights, not counting the discharge date.
  2. The nursing home stay must be for something diagnosed during the hospital stay or for the main cause of hospital stay. For instance, hospital stay for broken hip and then nursing home stay for physical therapy would be covered.
  3. If the patient is not receiving rehabilitation but has some other ailment that requires skilled nursing supervision then the nursing home stay would be covered.
  4. The care being rendered by the nursing home must be skilled. Medicare part A does not pay for custodial, non-skilled, or long-term care activities, including activities of daily living (ADLs) such as personal hygiene, cooking, cleaning, etc.

The maximum length of stay that Medicare Part A will cover in a skilled nursing facility per ailment is 100 days. The first 20 days would be paid for in full by Medicare with the remaining 80 days requiring a co-payment (as of 2007, $124.00 per day). Many insurance companies have a provision for skilled nursing care in the policies they sell.  If a beneficiary uses some portion of their Part A benefit and then goes at least 60 days without receiving skilled services, the 100-day clock is reset and they qualify for a new 100-day benefit period.

Part B: Medical Insurance

Part B medical insurance helps pay for some services and products not covered by Part A, generally on an outpatient basis. Part B is optional and may be deferred if the beneficiary or their spouse is still actively working. There is a lifetime penalty (10% per year) imposed for not taking Part B if not actively working.

Part B coverage includes physician and nursing services, x-rays, laboratory and diagnostic tests, influenza and pneumonia vaccinations, blood transfusions, renal dialysis, outpatient hospital procedures, limited ambulance transportation, Immunosuppressive drugs for organ transplant recipients, chemotherapy, hormonal treatments such as lupron, and other outpatient medical treatments administered in a doctor's office. Medication administration is covered under Part B only if it is administered by the physician during an office visit.

Part B also helps with durable medical equipment (DME), including canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and mobility scooters for those with mobility impairments. Prosthetic devices such as artificial limbs and breast prosthesis following mastectomy, as well as one pair of eyeglasses following cataract surgery, and oxygen for home use is also covered.

As with all Medicare benefits, Part B coverage is subject to medical necessity. Complex rules are used to manage the benefit, and advisories are periodically issued which describe coverage criteria. On the national level these advisories are issued by CMS, and are known as National Coverage Determinations (NCD). Local Coverage Determinations (LCD) only apply within the multi-state area managed by a specific regional Medicare Part B contractor, and Local Medical Review Policies (LMRP) were superseded by LCDs in 2003.

Part C: Medicare Advantage Plans

With the passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Medicare beneficiaries were given the option to receive their Medicare benefits through private health insurance plans, instead of through the Original Medicare plan (Parts A and B). These programs were known as "Medicare+Choice" or "Part C" plans. Pursuant to the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, the compensation and business practices changed for insurers that offer these plans, and "Medicare+Choice" plans became known as "Medicare Advantage" (MA) plans. In addition to offering comparable coverage to Part A and Part B, Medicare Advantage plans may also offer Part D coverage.

Part D: Prescription Drug Plans

Medicare Part D went into effect on January 1, 2006. Anyone with Part A or B is eligible for Part D. It was made possible by the passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. In order to receive this benefit, a person with Medicare must enroll in a stand-alone Prescription Drug Plan (PDP) or Medicare Advantage plan with prescription drug coverage (MA-PD). These plans are approved and regulated by the Medicare program, but are actually designed and administered by private health insurance companies. Unlike Original Medicare (Part A and B), Part D coverage is not standardized. Plans choose which drugs (or even classes of drugs) they wish to cover, at what level (or tier) they wish to cover it, and are free to choose not to cover some drugs at all. The exception to this is drugs that Medicare specifically excludes from coverage, including but not limited to benzodiazepines, cough suppressant and barbiturates. Plans that cover excluded drugs are not allowed to pass those costs on to Medicare, and plans are required to repay CMS if they are found to have billed Medicare in these cases.

It should be noted again for beneficiaries who are dual-eligible (Medicare and Medicaid eligible) Medicaid will pay for drugs not covered by part D of Medicare, such as benzodiazepines, and other restricted controlled substances.

 
Table of Contents
Glossary
Department of Labor

Design Your Own Website, Today!
iBuilt Design Software
Give it a try for Free