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The Economics of PEOs: The 411 on what PEOs cost and how they invoice

By Shraga Jacobowitz

Okay, it’s time to address the elephant (or should we say the piggybank) in the room.  I know as you read all my (I hope, helpful) articles, you’ve been wondering about one thing…..What’s the bottom line?  While PEOs seem too good to be true, offering an array of benefits for so little cost, they really are THAT good!

So how do PEOs do this? And how much is it going to cost you?

PEOs are able to offer so much for so little because of their very structure.  Companies using PEOs are entering into a co-employment arrangement, which actually means that your employees are not only employed by your company, but also by the PEO (much LARGER) company.  This co-employment allows your company to offset some of your liabilities and receive benefits usually only offered to much larger companies.

You may already know the benefits of PEOs. If not, you can always check out our inaugural newsletter article or any of the other newsletters that covered this topic.  And once you understand how a PEO can save you money, you can get down to the crux of things. As the saying goes, “there are no free lunches.”  And we’re back to that all important question, “What’s it going to cost me?”

So, of course, a PEO will charge you for their service, but their cost outweighs the savings you receive from partnering with a PEO tenfold.  Keep in mind when partnering with a PEO that in many cases even after factoring the fees of a PEO for their service, they are delivering a much bigger net savings to their clients.  As part of a PEO, you are being offered savings on your health benefits, workers comp and creating a lower-risk environment. In addition, partnering with the majority of PEOs can eliminate the need to have a HR department and will definitely eliminate the need to use a Payroll processing company, saving you even more money across the board.  As for the PEO cost, like everything else in the PEO world, every PEO is different. But there are three basic price models offered by a PEO:

The Flat Rate

The Percentage

The Bundle

I’m sure you’ve all already picked out your favorite pricing structure, but just in case you’re not sure which is best for you, here’s a quick rundown of the three options:

  1. The Flat Rate: Here the PEO will charge you a flat rate per employee. People like this because they know what they’re paying. The downside of this is you’re paying the same amount no matter how much time each of those employees put in and how much they benefit from your PEO partnership. Rates usually vary depending on company size and/or a number of other variables and fall between $60 and $200 per employee.
  2. The Percentage: These PEOs charge a percentage of your gross payroll each month. The downside is as this will fluctuate payroll to payroll, there’s no consistency in fees and you never know what to expect. In addition, this pay structure may throw you some surprises along the way, in the form of higher service fees when you give an employee a raise or provide bounces further increasing your cost/fee for the PEO. Its simple math, the percentage on a $1000 weekly pay is going to jump up when you raise that employee’s pay rate to $1500/week. The upside is in many cases, it can actually end up cheaper than the flat rate. Again, this is simple math, i.e., dividing your percentage fee by your number of employees may show you that your percentage rate WILL often fall out cheaper than the flat rate amount. Rates are usually based within a range of 2 and 4 percent.
  3. The Bundle: While we generally like bundle deals (I mean, who doesn’t like the TV, Internet, Phone packages), you generally don’t want a bundled PEO rate. This means the PEO invoices you one percentage which includes your payroll taxes, workers comp costs, (and in some cases your employee benefits cost) and their administrative fee in one lump percentage against your gross wages per pay cycle.  Honestly, I don’t see any upside to this price structure, unless you just don’t want to be bothered with the actual cost of things and prefer to pay bills blindly (and if that’s the case, I have a bridge to sell you).   The downside to this is that you have no idea what your costs are and therefore have no way of tracking, reconciling or reporting your individual expenses. Besides that, not knowing what you pay, makes it quite difficult to shop around or negotiate lower rates for those items that are experience rates.

But be aware, not all bundles are created the same, some PEOs will bundle everything while others will bundle Workers Comp and Administrative fees.  If you’re looking for something bundle, the latter may be a better bet.

Regardless of which price structure you decide is best for you, it’s good to know that most PEO quotes will include six standard costs (whether they are bundled or not):

  1. FICA
  2. FUTA
  3. SUTA
  4. Workers Compensation
  5. Employee Benefits Premiums
  6. Administrative Fees

Not sure what these are, you can check out Unscrambling the ABC’s of the PEOs and Wrapping up the ABC’s of PEOs, but for our purposes, all you have to know is the first two, both federally mandated employee withholdings will not (or I should say SHOULD NOT) differ from PEO to PEO. When it comes to the next three, that is when you will see a difference in your quotes. Because SUTA (State Unemployment Tax), Workers Compensation and Employee Benefits Premium rates depend on a variety of factors (such as operating state, number of claims –whether unemployment or workers comp claim, and the workers comp code they are using), each PEO will offer these at different rates. This is where you can start comparing prices.  And finally, as discussed above, the administrative fees will depend on how the PEO decides to charge you.

Like I said above MOST PEOs will have these six standard costs (and if they don’t, that’s an immediate red flag), but it is also important that these six costs are broken down on the invoices you receive from the PEO.  While this seems obvious, many PEOs proposal will show you this breakdown but not include it on their invoices. Before signing on with a PEO, make sure you ask about their invoicing practices or ask your handy PEO consultant (like ARC) how to navigate the billing and invoice process.

My final word of advice, ALWAYS LOOK FOR HIDDEN FEES.  These fees can be anything from additional charges for HR Services, EPLI, additional support or added technology modules, employee training. Many times, these fees will not be included in the original quote. Before signing on, ask the PEO for documentation of all fees and read everything word for word, including footnotes, endnotes, addendums (and any other way a PEO can sneak in additional charges).

Sounds like a lot of work? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

My ultimate word of advice that will always stand true: Contact a PEO Broker or consultant such as ARC Consultants (of course) to do the heavy lifting for you. Because these consultants have relationships with many PEOs, they know the ins-and-outs of each PEO’s price structure, whether there are hidden fees, who offers supplementary services for free, who charges for them, and just about everything you need to know about choosing the right PEO at the best rate for you.

Want to know more information about price comparing PEOs and selecting a PEO that fits all your needs? Contact ARC Consultants today.

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