The true cost of employees: How much does an employee *really* cost?

Published: 2018/11/29 | Updated: 2023/1/27 | Carlos Quintana
Calculating employee costs

Table of Contents

Employers pay more than just the salaries of their employees. Explore the main variables to help calculate the actual annual cost of your workforce.

How much does an employee cost? This article addresses some of the basic considerations you need to know when hiring someone in the private sector in the United States (some of the things that you will find here are easily adaptable to other countries, like social security related expenses).

Our case is based on salaried employees as opposed to hourly rate workers. While many employers and institutions (including the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor) prefer to work around hours rather than salaries, we have opted for the latter to give you a better idea of the real annual costs of your employees.

Simple formulas to calculate the cost of your employee

Calculating your labor rates is a complex exercise that requires a careful examination of different variables like the industry you belong to, the type and characteristics of the role you are planning to cover, the location of your company, and the kind of benefits and legal expenses you are willing and required to pay for that employee. While this may be intimidating at first, there are some basic variables that will always affect your labor rates. We will explore those variables so you can better calculate the potential costs posed by a new hire.

Let’s start with Joe Hadzima, a Senior Lecturer at MIT who provides a simple formula to calculate the actual cost of an employee. According to Hadzima, once you have taken into consideration basic salary, taxes and benefits, the real costs of your employees are typically in the 1.25 to 1.4 times base salary range. In other words, an employee earning $30,000 will cost you somewhere between $37,500 and $42,000.

Similarly, and while trying to answer the question “How much does an employee really cost?,” CNN’s reporter Jose Pagliery said that the real salary of an employee ends up “being 18% to 26% more than a worker’s base salary.” That said, let’s take the formulas we have just mentioned and see how they work for specific salaries:

How much should I pay for an employee?
Employee’s base salary Real annual cost per employee
Hadzima (1.25 to 1.4 times of base salary)
Real annual cost per employee
Pagliery (18% to 26% more than base salary)
$30,000 $37,500/42,000 $35,400/$37,800
$40,000 $50,000/56,000 $47,200/50,400
$50,000 $62,500/70,000 $59,000/63,000
$60,000 $75,000/84,000 $70,800/75,600
$70,000 $87,500/98,000 $82,600/88,200
$80,000 $100,000/112,000 $94,400/100,800
$90,000 $112,500/126,000 $106,200/113,400
$100,000 $125,000/140,000 $118,000/126,000

As we can see, the two formulas provide similar numbers that we can take as an idea of the potential cost of a new hire. However, we will now explore the basic ingredients you need to know in order to calculate your labor costs. We will come back to these numbers to see how they compare with our findings.

Factors that affect base salary

The base salary is affected by some of the factors we mentioned at the beginning of this article. Location, for instance, affects salaries in a decisive way even if we are considering the same role. Costs of living are the main drive, as you can see from the following chart we created using the cost of living calculator from CNNMoney.

From / To Miami San Antonio New York Denver San Francisco
Miami $40,000 $30,769 $83,322 $39,091 $67,343
San Antonio $52,000 $40,000 $108,318 $50,818 $87,545
New York $19,203 $14,771 $40,000 $18,766 $32,329
Denver $40,930 $31,485 $85,259 $40,000 $68,909
San Francisco $23,759 $18,276 $49,491 $23,219 $40,000

Based on the above, if you live in Miami with a salary of $40,000, a comparable salary in Manhattan would be around $83,322 just because the costs of living in New York City are much higher than in the Miami-Dade County area. However, a comparable salary in San Antonio, Texas, where the cost of living is lower than Miami, would be around $30,769. Again, this calculator is useful in terms of providing an indication of how your salary will compare in different cities across the country taking into consideration things like housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, and health care.

Sometimes, a combination of those factors can create huge salary differences even among people with the same role. The following chart based on the percentiles and wages differences illustration from the Bureau of Labor Statistics exemplifies this issue for commercial pilots.

Percentile wages and wage difference
for commercial pilots, May 2014
10th percentile (10% made less, 90% made more 50th percentile: Median (50% made less, 50% made more) 90th percentile (90% made less, 10% made more
$32,500 $75,620 $141,210
Wage difference between 10th percentile and 90th percentile: $105,960

The binding costs you need to cover

Every employer in the U.S. needs to pay taxes and unemployment insurance for their employees. Companies are required by law to cover social security, Medicare as well as state and federal taxes. Let’s see in detail.

1. FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act)

This mandatory payroll deduction serves to cover Social Security and Medicare. The employer needs to cover 6.20% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare.

2. FUTA & SUTA (unemployment insurance)

Employers need to pay for both the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) and State Unemployment Tax Act (SUTA). As far as FUTA goes, companies are only required to pay 6% of taxes for the first $7,000 earned by any employee. That said, most companies will pay $420 annually to cover federal unemployment. The only exception to that rule is California, where companies need to pay 2.1% or $147 annually.

On the other hand, SUTA (sometimes also referred to as SUI – State Unemployment Insurance) is calculated in a different way and can change significantly across states. Generally speaking, however, SUTA oscillates between 2.7% and 3.4%.

3. Workers’ Compensation Insurance

In order to insure employees against injuries, every employer needs to pay for workers’ compensation. Considering that risks are highly different among industries and specific jobs, this cost varies a lot. To calculate workers’ comp, each type of job is covered with a specific rate for every $100 of salary. The following numbers from the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) illustrate how workers’ comp is calculated across different jobs:

Description Class code Rate per $100 Base salary Cost/Employee
Clerical/Office 8810 $0.12 $28,000 $33.60
Landscaping 0042 $6.94 $36,000 $2,498.40
Retail Store 8017 $1.33 $30,000 $399.00
Medical Office 8832 $0.3 $40,000 $120.00
Restaurant 9082 $1.50 $30,000 $450.00
Painter 5474 $8.99 $32,000 $2,876.80

If you notice, workers’ comp for jobs where injuries are more common is a lot higher. Having said that, we can figure out now how much an employer needs to pay for Social Security, Medicare, federal and unemployment insurance and workers’ comp. Let’s see the details in the following chart, assuming a 3% rate of SUTA and $0.12 for workers’ comp:

Type of cost Percentage of employee’s base salary Base salary $30,000 Base salary $70,000
FICA Social Security 6.2% $1,860 $4,340
FICA Medicare 1.45% $435 $1,015
Unemployment insurance FUTA 6% of first $7,000 $420 $420
Unemployment insurance SUTA 2.7%-3.4% $900 $2,100
Workers’ Comp $0.12 for each $100 of wages $36 $84
Total $3,651 $7,959

Now that we understand this, let’s see some of the standard benefits that employees usually get in the private sector.

The regular benefits most employers are willing to provide

Besides Medicare, most companies offer private health insurance to their employees. In fact, health insurance represents the highest cost of all benefits. According to data discussed by Joe Hadzima, health insurance for an employee making $50,000 a year will cost between $2,000-$3,000 (single employees) and $6,000-$7,000 (for families). Similarly, Christina Merhar, Senior Editor for Zane Benefits, states that the yearly amount an employer pays for health insurance in the U.S. runs between $5,000 and $12,000.

Besides health insurance, many companies also offer life insurance (around $150 on the first $50,000 of your wages) and long term disability insurance (approximately $250 per year). Next to all this, dental insurance is one of the most popular benefits in the private sector.

In general, the cost of dental insurance varies depending on factors like the number of employees, the type of coverage provided and the location of your business. Generally speaking, dental insurance premiums cost somewhere between $25 to $50 a month, an estimate that fits into the annual cost of $240-$650 that Joe Hadzima assigns to dental insurance.

After health-related insurance, many employers are also willing to cover additional benefits like 401(k) plans, personal devices (laptops, cell phones) and vehicle costs. As far as 401(k) goes, Jose Paglieri states that the “average contribution to 401(k) plans is 2.5% of a worker’s salary.”

Let’s see how all the benefits we have mentioned look for employees with base salaries of $30,000 and $70,000. To give you a better idea, we have picked a specific amount for each cost:

How much does an employer pay for benefits?
BASE SALARY $30,000 $70,000
Health insurance ($5,000/12,000) $7,000 $7,000
Dental ($240/650) $450 $450
Life insurance ($150 on $50,000) $150 $150
Long term disability insurance ($250) $250 $250
401(k) (2.5% of salary) $750 $1,750
Total benefits $8,600 $9,600

Arriving at the total cost of your employee

At this point, we have all the variables we need to calculate the annual cost of an employee. Now, we just need to add everything and see what we get. Let’s take a look at the following chart:

Annual cost of an employee
BASE SALARY $30,000 $70,000
Total FICA, FUTA, SUTA and workers’ comp $3,651 $7,959
Total benefits $8,600 $9,600
Total annual cost $42,251 $87,559

According to our findings, we would need to pay $42,251 for an employee with a base salary of $30,000, which means we need to add to that base salary $12,251 to cover taxes and benefits. That amount is about 40% of the total annual cost, which is pretty close to the upper end that Hadzima ($42,000) estimates for a base salary of $30,000. Pagliery’s higher end ($37,800) is way below that number.

On the other hand, the real annual cost of someone with a base salary of $70,000 would be around $87,559, which means a percentage of 25% of total compensation in taxes and benefits to pay for that employee. That number is almost equal to the lower end of Hadzima’s range ($87,500) and a bit below Pagliery’s higher end ($88,200), which confirms the fact that the higher the salary, the lower the percentage employers end up paying on top of the base salary.

How to use employee costs to understand and optimize your business

Accurately calculating employee cost is not just a good hiring practice, it’s an essential budgeting task. Once you have a clear idea of each employee’s costs, this data can be integrated into your business intelligence tools, helping you to effectively track and budget projects and clients. BeeBole’s Standard Cost module, for example, allows you to assign an hourly cost for each employee, which will then be used in the tool’s reports on budgeting and profitability.

Why is this important to companies using tools like ours? Because managers can monitor the costs and profitability of certain clients or projects in real time to ensure they never go over budget, and identify where the money sucks are. Of course, in order to reach an hourly figure you’ll first need to use our tips from above to calculate the total cost for that employee.

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Insights gained from incorporating employee costs into your business intelligence is sure to save you time and money in the long run.
Furthermore, having a clear understanding of everything that goes into maintaining an employee may change the way you look at your human capital. Nevertheless, while substantial, these costs shouldn’t be viewed as an unfair burden on your company, as investing in your workforce is key to sustaining a successful business.


Please let us know your thoughts. Any suggestions, corrections? Thank you!

Writer specialized in finance, tech and SaaS. Apart from writing, he loves football and cultural walks around Rome.

Comments

Hi Cherie
Yes, in our opinion, and according to what we know from many of our customers at BeeBole: training is part of the compensation package, so it could be indeed part of an employee cost.
Thank you for reading us
Elena

I thought it was very interesting that you explained that a normal employer usually pays about 5,000 to 12,000 in yearly benefits. My business has grown a lot in the past few months and I find myself in need to hire exterior employees to help out, but I need to find the right benefits to give them. I think it would be fantastic to find a plan that would work with everyone that I hire.

Determining the proper wage or cost of hiring a new employee is not easy, which is discussed here. To solve these problems, people turn to experts. Helpful articles like this session might prove a help for everyone.

I just started reading this article, so more may follow, but please examine the first chart: “How much should I pay for an employee?” The second column, Pagliery, is calculated incorrectly. The multipliers should be 1.18 and 1.26. You used +21.95% and +35.13%. That is why the two formulas seem to provide similar results. In reality, the highest end of Pagliery (+26%) should be within 1% of the lowest end of Hadzima (+25%). The difference between the low end of Pagliery and the high end of Hadzima differ by 22%. That is not even close. There were two data entry errors on your spreadsheet.

Hi Chris,

Thank you very much for your comment. You were totally right and we have updated the article accordingly. Best!

Hi Jill,

Thank you very much for your comment!
We didn’t consider PTO in our article for two reasons:
First, PTO is not required by federal or state law.
Second, you pay the same cost to a salaried employee regardless of how much PTO they are entitled for under contract. Whether it is one week or 2 months, the cost for the company is the same.

Best,

Carlos

I agree with the calculation above. In thinking about the salary of employee, we should put into consideration everything from basic to the benefits and other things that the company offered. Thank you for sharing.

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