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Trump left a $7 million mess after delaying census workers' payroll taxes

After former President Donald Trump signed a presidential memo in August 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau was directed to stop collecting payroll taxes from certain employees in the final months of last year. The bureau is now trying to get some former temporary workers to pay what they owe.
After former President Donald Trump signed a presidential memo in August 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau was directed to stop collecting payroll taxes from certain employees in the final months of last year. The bureau is now trying to get some former temporary workers to pay what they owe.

Updated November 8, 2021 at 2:56 PM ET

The U.S. Census Bureau has been stuck with a $7 million accounting mess after former President Donald Trump's administration ordered the federal agency to pause payroll taxes last year for certain employees, including many temporary 2020 census workers, NPR has learned.

The bureau was one of many federal agencies directed to stop collecting some employees' share of a payroll tax that helps fund the Social Security system in the final months of 2020. The deferral applied to workers earning less than $4,000 before taxes each pay period.

"In total, $7,078,909 in payroll tax collections were deferred for 177,964 temporary employees," the bureau confirmed to NPR in a statement.

Trump touted the push as a way to get "bigger paychecks for working families" during the coronavirus pandemic. The former administration had said it would try to convince Congress to forgive the payroll taxes. But with no movement from lawmakers, the extra money essentially became a temporary loan that workers had to pay back eventually.

And it's created an accounting challenge for the bureau, which employed hundreds of thousands of workers temporarily for last year's national head count.

Difficulty in reaching former workers has led the bureau to defer collecting more than $2 million of those unpaid Social Security taxes, the agency told NPR on Monday after this story was first published.

"We determined that 147,619 employees owed substantially less than what it would cost to collect the debt from them," said the bureau, which did not answer NPR's questions about how it's covering those costs.

The bureau added that it has "communicated with impacted employees on multiple occasions that this was happening" and has sent letters and emails to 28,000 or so former census workers who owe unpaid taxes.

"It's kind of a shock seeing that email from the Census Bureau just so long after the fact," says Alex Almeida of Phoenix, who received notices in September, close to a year after ending a clerk job at a local census office in November 2020. "It was very upsetting in a way, like this is the thanks we get for all our efforts."

The deadline for paying the deferred taxes is the end of this year, according to the IRS, although paying through Jan. 3, 2022, will be considered on time because Dec. 31 is a federal holiday. The bureau says it's also offering payment plan options in case former staffers cannot return the amount they owe all at once.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.