The historical $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill approved by the Senate would provide a tax break for employers who make student loan payments on behalf of their employees.
Under the Section 2206 of the bill (pdf), employers are allowed to pay off a portion of student loan balances for their employees and new hires on a tax-free basis. An employer may contribute up to $5,250 each year toward an employee’s student loans, and those payments would not be treated as wages, and therefore would be excluded from income and payroll taxes to both the employee and the employer.
The $5,250 cap applies to both the student loan repayment benefit as well as other educational assistance, such as tuition and fees, provided by the employer. The provision addresses any student loan payments made by an employer on behalf of an employee after the date of enactment and before Jan. 1, 2021.
Current federal tax law allows employers to provide their employees with up to $5,250 tax-free in education assistance benefits for undergraduate or graduate programs each year, helping only those who are currently college students. But it doesn’t grant a tax break to employers who help workers pay off student loans on degrees they’ve already earned.
Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said the provision might not necessarily help those who are most in need.
“It gives employers a big incentive to set up loan repayment plans under which they will effectively pay employees who have student loans more than employees who don’t,” Delisle wrote on Twitter. “That doesn’t make sense. The reasons people have student debt are varied—the debt is not a proxy for hardship.”
“They are universally available regardless of family income,” he added. “And what do you know, high income families borrow the most for undergraduate degrees.”
Delisle also warned that the policy might encourage people to take loans that they don’t actually need. “If having a student loan gets you a bigger paycheck or lets you it in pretax dollars, then it’s just smart to make sure you take out a loan even if you don’t need to,” he wrote. “This incentive gets bigger with each new benefit (forgiveness, etc.) that policymakers throw at student debt.”
The provision is similar to the Employer Participation in Repayment Act, introduced by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) in 2019. The bill had the support of some high-profile employers including Starbucks, Raytheon, and Hewlett Packard.