Payroll tax in Washington state: What employers need to know [2023]


Sep 25, 2023

When it comes to handling payroll tax, businesses across the US don't just grapple with federal laws—they also need to navigate the intricate web of state-specific regulations. In the state of Washington, both large enterprises and small businesses must navigate specific payroll tax rules overseen by the Washington Employment Security Department.

Compared to the broad federal guidelines, Washington's rules offer a distinctive blend, encompassing everything from general payroll taxes to specific premiums like the WA Cares Fund and the Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave. From determining exemptions to calculating social security tax and Medicare tax, understanding these regulations is pivotal, whether you're managing a weekly or bi-weekly pay period. 

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the heart of Washington state's payroll tax framework, offering insights and guidance for businesses striving to remain compliant while efficiently managing their finances. Let's unravel the complexities of the state's payroll tax system and ensure that every dollar and cent aligns with the rules of the state of Washington.

The 5 Washington state payroll taxes

In the state of Washington, as with many states, there are distinct rules governed by the Washington Employment Security Department relating to payroll taxes. However, additional support and regulations come from the Department of Labor & Industries as well as the Department of Revenue. For businesses paying hourly wage or salary, understanding these regulations from your very first employee's paycheck is crucial. 

Washington has its own unique mix of payroll taxes. Specifically, there are five key types of payroll taxes that employers should be aware of:

  1. State Unemployment Insurance (SUI) Tax
  2. Workers’ Compensation Insurance
  3. Paid Family and Medical Leave Premiums
  4. Long-Term Care Insurance (WA Cares Fund)
  5. State Wage Tax Withholding

Each of these taxes is crucial in its own right, and understanding their specifics is essential for businesses to operate smoothly within the state’s regulatory framework. We'll delve into the details of each of these taxes in the next sections.

State Unemployment Insurance (SUI) Tax

State Unemployment Insurance Tax, commonly referred to as SUI, is a tax that Washington employers are obligated to pay to the state. The primary purpose of this tax is to fund unemployment benefits for workers who lose their jobs and meet certain eligibility criteria. The tax amounts that employers contribute directly support the Employment Security Department, ensuring that they can offer timely benefits to unemployed individuals.

Washington adjusts its unemployment insurance rates annually based on an employer's experience rating and the state's overall unemployment trust fund balance. Rates can also vary based on the sector or industry of employment.

Here's a detailed breakdown of the State Unemployment Insurance (SUI) Tax in Washington:

Who pays


Tax rate

Varies based on filing status, industry type, and experience rating (0.13% to 5.72% for 2023)

Taxable wage limit

$52,700 for 2023, but always cross-check with the Department of Revenue. Ensure you're updated on any exemptions or pricing changes.

Maximum tax

Calculated from gross pay, considering aspects like Medicare tax and net pay; $3,228 (5.72% of $56,500) for 2023

It's worth noting that the tax rate assigned to each employer depends on several factors, including the number of former employees who've claimed unemployment benefits and the company's payroll size. The taxable wage limit represents the maximum annual amount of an employee's earnings subject to the SUI tax.

Workers’ compensation insurance tax

Workers’ Compensation Insurance is a state-mandated insurance program that provides compensation to employees who suffer job-related injuries and illnesses. It's an essential aspect of employees’ wage considerations in the state. Notably, in addition to regular employees’ wages, some companies also factor in life insurance premiums as a part of their compensation benefits in the state.

Affiliated closely with the Department of Labor & Industries, this tax ensures that workers injured or ill due to job activities are aptly compensated. Unlike some other states where employers can opt for private insurance, in Washington, the majority of businesses get their coverage directly from the state. It's an essential aspect of employees’ wage considerations in the state. 

The tax paid towards workers' compensation insurance is determined based on the classification of the work done by employees, the reported hours they work, and the total wages paid. Employers report these figures, and rates vary considerably based on the inherent risks associated with specific job classifications.

Here's a breakdown of the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Tax in Washington:

Who pays

Employers and Employees (split cost)

Tax rate

Varies by job classification and claims history

Taxable wage limit

No limit (all wages are subject to the tax)

Maximum tax

No maximum (depends on classification and reported hours)

Employers need to be diligent in ensuring accurate reporting and payment. Over or underestimating can lead to financial penalties or potential shortfalls in coverage. Furthermore, understanding the specific job classifications and associated rates is crucial for accurate budgeting and financial forecasting.

Paid family and medical leave premiums

Washington's Paid Family and Medical Leave program provides workers with partial wage replacement when they take time off for qualified medical and family reasons. This includes events such as childbirth, serious health conditions, or caring for a family member with a severe medical condition. The program is funded through premiums paid by both employers and employees.

The premiums collected finance both family and medical leave benefits. As of now, the total premium rate is set by the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD). While employers are responsible for paying a portion of the premium, they can also withhold a percentage from their employee’s wages to cover the remainder.

Here's a breakdown of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Premiums Tax in Washington:

Who pays

Both employers and employees

Tax rate

0.8% of gross wages (not including tips; subject to changes by the ESD)

Taxable wage limit

First $137,700 of an employee's annual earnings (as of 2021)

Maximum tax

$549.08 (0.4% of $137,700)

Long-term care insurance (WA Cares Fund)

The WA Cares Fund represents Washington state's initiative to provide long-term care benefits to its residents. It aims to support people who require assistance with daily activities due to declining health or cognitive impairment. The fund is structured as an insurance program, and it's financed by worker contributions. Starting January 1, 2022, nearly all employees in Washington began contributing to the WA Cares Fund through a payroll deduction.

This program ensures that residents have an established benefit they can utilize for long-term care services when they need them, reducing the overall financial strain on families. The coverage is comprehensive, including services like home care, assisted living, nursing home care, and memory care.

Here's an overview of the Long-Term Care Insurance tax associated with the WA Cares Fund:

Who pays


Tax rate

0.58% of gross wages

Taxable wage limit

No wage limit; all wages are subject to the tax

Maximum tax

No maximum; the tax applies to all wages without a cap

State wage tax withholding

State wage tax withholding is the process through which employers deduct a specified amount from an employee's paycheck to remit to the state's tax agency. This tax is essentially the employee's contribution towards the state's tax revenue and functions similarly to federal income tax withholding. However, it's worth noting that Washington is one of the few states that does not impose a personal income tax. Therefore, employers in Washington do not need to withhold state income tax from an employee’s paycheck.

However, employers in Washington must remain vigilant about other tax obligations and ensure they adhere to federal income tax withholding guidelines, in addition to state-specific taxes such as the WA Cares Fund and the Paid Family and Medical Leave Premiums Tax.

Given that there's no state income tax in Washington, the table for State Wage Tax Withholding is as follows:

Who pays

N/A (No state income tax in Washington)

Tax rate


Taxable wage limit


Maximum tax


Employers should always consult with tax professionals or relevant state agencies to ensure complete understanding and compliance with all tax obligations, whether at the state or federal level.

Payroll tax due dates in Washington

Navigating payroll tax due dates in Washington is crucial for businesses to avoid penalties and ensure compliance. Here's a concise overview of the key dates and penalties associated with missed payments:

  • Quarterly reporting: Many Washington payroll taxes, such as the State Unemployment Insurance Tax and Paid Family and Medical Leave Premiums Tax, necessitate quarterly submissions:
    • 1st quarter: Due by April 30
    • 2nd quarter: Due by July 31
    • 3rd quarter: Due by October 31
    • 4th quarter: Due by January 31 of the following year
  • Workers’ Compensation Insurance Tax: Depending on your business's size and nature, this tax may require monthly or quarterly reporting. The Department of Labor & Industries provides specific guidelines.
  • Long-Term Care Insurance (WA Cares Fund): Like many state taxes, this also follows a quarterly reporting and payment structure.
  • Federal taxes: Besides state-specific obligations, employers also need to address federal payroll taxes, including FICA taxes, which are the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. These can be paid monthly or semi-weekly through the EFTPS.

Penalty for late payments: Washington imposes penalties ranging from 5% to 20% of the unpaid tax amount for late submissions, depending on the delay's length. Interest may also accrue on unpaid amounts, making timely payments pivotal.

How to submit payroll taxes in Washington

Having covered the types of payroll taxes and their respective due dates in Washington, it's now pivotal to understand how to proceed with their submission.

Online payment systems

In Washington, the Employment Security Department (ESD) and other relevant departments offer online payment systems. These platforms streamline the process, allowing employers to pay taxes, view transaction histories, and even file reports.

Direct mail

Some businesses might opt to send their payroll taxes directly through mail. If choosing this method, ensure that all forms are completed accurately and that payments are sent before the deadline to the specified address.

Electronic fund transfer

Larger employers often use Electronic Fund Transfer (EFT) for their payroll tax submissions. This is a direct method where funds are transferred electronically from the business's bank account to the state's treasury.

Rippling’s full-service payroll software

Thinking of a more direct deposit-friendly and hassle-free payment solution? Rippling's payroll software practically runs autonomously. 

Rippling operates with minimal manual intervention. It takes charge of your compliance tasks, helping ensure that your federal, Washington state, and local payroll taxes are filed punctually and with the appropriate agencies.

FAQs about Washington payroll taxes

Are there local tax laws in Washington?

Yes, apart from state payroll taxes, certain cities in Washington, like Seattle, may have additional local tax laws or regulations that businesses need to consider, particularly for things like business and occupation taxes.

Can your tax returns be audited in Washington?

Absolutely. The Washington State Department of Revenue can audit your tax returns to ensure accuracy and compliance. Businesses should always maintain meticulous records to be prepared for potential audits.

Are nonprofit organizations subject to payroll taxes in Washington?

While nonprofit organizations can be exempt from some taxes, they are generally not exempt from all payroll taxes in Washington. It's essential to consult with the state's Department of Revenue or a tax professional to understand specific requirements.

How does the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) relate to payroll tax?

The ESD oversees the unemployment insurance program in Washington and is responsible for collecting unemployment insurance taxes from employers. It plays a critical role in determining tax rates and ensuring compliance.

Is the Washington state minimum wage different from the federal rate?

Yes, Washington state's minimum wage is adjusted annually based on inflation and is typically higher than the federal minimum wage. Employers must ensure they pay the higher of the two rates to their employees.

What is the importance of the Washington Department of Labor & Industries in payroll?

The Department of Labor & Industries in Washington state manages the workers' compensation system. Employers are required to contribute to this fund, which provides benefits to workers injured on the job.

Do self-employed individuals need to pay payroll tax in Washington?

Self-employed individuals in Washington are typically exempt from certain payroll taxes like SUI. However, they might be subject to others, such as long-term care insurance (WA Cares Fund). It's crucial to understand which taxes apply to one's specific business structure.

Do I need to report new hires to any Washington state department?

Yes, employers in Washington are required to report new hires to the Department of Social and Health Services. This helps in enforcing child support obligations.

How does FUTA differ from the state unemployment taxes in Washington?

FUTA (Federal Unemployment Tax Act) is a federal tax, whereas in Washington, unemployment taxes are overseen by the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD). They are separate entities, but both aim to provide funds for unemployed workers.

Are there tools available to help with payroll tax calculations in Washington?

Yes, there are online tax calculators specifically designed for Washington state payroll tax computations. These can be particularly useful for businesses looking to automate and simplify their payroll processes.

How is new hire reporting conducted in Washington?

In Washington, new hire reporting is crucial for compliance. Employers must promptly report any new hires to the state's designated department to ensure adherence to labor laws and other statutory requirements.

Is there a distinction between Social Security tax and Medicare tax in Washington's payroll tax system?

Yes, the Social Security tax and Medicare tax are distinct components. While both are federal FICA taxes deducted from an employee's paycheck, they serve different purposes and have separate rates.

Disclaimer: Rippling and its affiliates do not provide tax, accounting, or legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide or be relied on for, tax, accounting, or legal advice. You should consult your own tax, accounting, and legal advisors before engaging in any related activities or transactions.

last edited: September 25, 2023

The Author

Carissa Tham

A British Columbia-based tech content strategist and writer, Carissa has lived and worked in Singapore, Taiwan, and Canada. Carissa lends her unique global perspectives to growing Rippling’s brand in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.