What is an Employer of Record

How to hire globally with an EOR

What is a Global PEO

An alternative to EOR

What is a PEO

Hire locally with a PEO

Our Methodology

Why you can trust our guides

Hire Globally

Find international talents

Outsource Recruitment

How to outsource recruitment

Work Visas

How to get a work visa

Digital Nomad Visas

Get a digital nomad visa

Best Employer of Record (EOR)

Hire globally with the best EOR companies

Best Contractor Management

Hire and pay contractors and freelancers

Best Global PEO

Discover the best international co-employers

Best PEO Companies

Save on payroll and HR costs

Best Background Check Companies

Screen employees before hire

Best Global Payroll Providers

Outsource international payroll

Best Relocation Services

Relocate employees internationally

International Company Registration

Get help to incorporate overseas

All Reviews

Compare all providers

1. Horizons

Best Global EOR

2. Remote

Best EOR for Compliance

3. Deel

Best EOR Platform

4. Papaya Global

Best EOR for Payments

All EOR Reviews

Compare all providers

Where do you need a service provider?

All Countries

Explore our detailed guides for professional advice on international growth, recruitment, compensations strategies, and a curated list of top service providers.

9 min read

Understanding Retro Pay (Retroactive Pay)

retro pay

Picture yourself as an employee expecting a pay raise, only to discover that you received the incorrect amount. It’s a frustrating scenario that can leave employees and employers scrambling to rectify the situation. This is where retro pay – or retroactive pay – comes into play – a vital mechanism to ensure that employees are fairly compensated for their work. Let’s explore the ins and outs of retroactive pay and how to navigate its complexities.

Key Takeaways

  • Retroactive pay is a form of compensation given to employees for past periods in which they were not adequately paid.

  • The purpose of Retro Pay is to ensure fairness and accuracy when fulfilling financial obligations, and common scenarios requiring retroactive pay include payroll errors, pay rate changes, overtime/shift differentials.

  • Employers must comply with withholding taxes (IRS guidelines) as well as the FLSA and state/local regulations when calculating retroactive payments.

Understanding Retro Pay

Retro pay – or in full, retroactive pay – is all about setting things right when it comes to employee compensation. It’s a way to rectify discrepancies between the rate an employee should have been paid and the rate they were actually paid during a previous pay period. While retro and back pay might seem similar, there is a distinction between the two – back pay refers to wages owed but not yet paid. In contrast, retro pay involves making up for underpayment due to incorrect pay rate application or payroll errors.

Managing retroactive pay is a key responsibility for human resource professionals and accountants, and compliance with local income tax regulations is a priority. Employees should also review their pay stubs to verify they receive the correct amount, including any retro pay they may be owed.

Definition of Retroactive Pay

Retroactive or retroactive pay refers to the payment made for periods of employment before the current one, where the payment has been postponed. It is a form of compensation provided to employees for a prior pay period in which they were not adequately compensated. Employers must calculate retro pay to compensate for this shortfall.

Typically, retroactive pay is distributed when an employer needs to compensate for wages that an employee should have been paid but did not receive. This usually occurs due to a payroll error or a discrepancy between the employee’s pay rate received and the employee’s retro pay owed to them.

Purpose of Retroactive Pay

The primary goal of retroactive pay is to ensure that employees receive the correct remuneration for their work. This is particularly important when multiple pay rates or changes in pay rates are involved, as it sustains employee morale and guarantees equity in compensation.

Retroactive pay can positively impact employee morale and job satisfaction, demonstrating fairness and a commitment to fulfill financial obligations. Transparent pay practices, including retroactive pay, can also enhance employee satisfaction, talent acquisition, and retention. However, it’s worth noting that retroactive pay is generally not employed as a performance incentive – its purpose is to rectify mistakes or discrepancies in pay rather than to incentivize performance.

Common Scenarios Requiring Retroactive Pay

Several scenarios may require retroactive pay, including payroll mistakes, alterations to the pay rate, and overtime or shift differentials. To better understand these scenarios, we’ll examine each one in further detail.

Each scenario can lead to underpayment, necessitating retroactive pay to correct the error and ensure that employees receive the proper compensation for their work. Employers must be vigilant in identifying and rectifying these issues to maintain a harmonious and fair workplace.

Payroll Errors

Payroll errors are a common issue resulting in underpayment, necessitating retroactive pay. These errors can include:

  • Incorrect calculation of overtime pay

  • Missed or inaccurate bonuses or commissions

  • Incorrect tax withholding

  • Incorrect classification or rate of pay

  • Missed or incorrect deductions

According to the IRS, payroll errors occur in a typical organization at a rate of approximately 30%. These errors could result in underpayment, necessitating retroactive pay to correct the mistake and guarantee appropriate employee compensation. Employers must promptly identify and correct these errors to maintain a fair and equitable workplace.

Pay Rate Changes

Changes in an employee’s pay rate, such as promotions or agreed-upon pay increases, can also necessitate retroactive pay if not implemented in time. The duration for implementing pay rate adjustments may vary depending on the company and industry; however, as a general principle, employers should assess the entire salary structure, including each employee’s pay rate and pay periods, at least every three to five years.

When pay rate changes are not implemented promptly, employees may be underpaid for the work they have already performed. In such cases, employers must calculate and issue retroactive pay to compensate for the salary deficit.

Overtime and Shift Differentials

Overtime and shift differentials refer to additional pay for working overtime or a shift outside of normal working hours. If not calculated accurately, these additional payments can potentially lead to underpayment. Employers must calculate overtime pay based on the correct rate, as stipulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), to ensure that employees receive appropriate compensation.

Shift differentials are typically determined by adding a flat sum or a percentage of the hourly rate. Accurate calculation and payment of overtime and shift differentials can help prevent underpayment and the need for retroactive pay.

Calculating Retroactive Pay: A Step-by-Step Guide

Calculating retroactive pay involves determining the difference between what an employee was paid and what they should have been paid, whether hourly or salaried employees. This process can be pretty involved, as it requires a thorough understanding of the employee’s pay structure and any discrepancies that may have occurred.

This step-by-step guide will assist in calculating retroactive pay for both hourly and salaried employees, enabling you to rectify any underpayment issues and ensure your employees are adequately compensated for their work.

Hourly Employees

To calculate retroactive pay for hourly employees, the first step is to identify the error or discrepancy that led to underpayment. This might involve examining the employee’s pay stubs or employment contract to determine the correct pay rate and hours worked.

Next, follow these steps to calculate the retroactive pay:

  1. Compute the difference between the old and new hourly rates.

  2. Multiply the difference by the number of hours worked during the retroactive period.

  3. This will provide the additional amount that should be included in the retroactive pay.

  4. Add this amount to the employee’s current pay to correctly compensate them for their work.

Salaried Employees

For salaried employees, calculating retroactive pay involves a slightly different process. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Determine the employee’s annual salary.

  2. Divide the annual salary by 52 to find the weekly salary.

  3. Divide the weekly salary by the number of workdays in a week to calculate the daily rate.

Next, follow these steps to calculate retroactive pay:

  1. Identify the period for which retroactive pay is being calculated.

  2. Calculate the amount the employee should have been paid for that period using the daily rate.

  3. Subtract the amount the employee was actually paid for that period from the calculated amount.

  4. The result is the retroactive pay owed to the employee.

Broader Approaches to Pay Correction

Here’s a table illustrating common errors that lead to retro pay and how to rectify those payments:

Overtime MiscalculationAn employee worked 45 hours in a week but was only paid for 40 hours at their regular rate.
Calculate the overtime hours (5) at 1.5 times the regular hourly rate. Pay the difference as retro pay.
Incorrect Pay RaiseAn employee’s salary increase was not processed correctly on time. They should have received $55,000 annually but were paid $50,000 for two pay periods.
Determine the difference in pay for the affected periods. Issue the difference along with the correct salary going forward as retro pay.
Missed Commission PaymentA sales employee earned a $1,000 commission that was accidentally omitted from their paycheck.
Review records, verify the commission, and issue the $1,000 payment as retro pay.
Shift Differential ConfusionAn employee who worked several night shifts was paid their regular rate instead of the night shift premium.
Calculate the difference between the regular rate and premium rate for the night shifts worked. Issue the difference as retro pay.

Tax Implications of Retroactive Pay

Retroactive pay is subject to tax withholding and reporting requirements. It is considered supplemental wages and is taxed at the same rates as regular wages. Employers are obligated to withhold income taxes and payroll taxes from retroactive pay.

Understanding the tax implications of retroactive pay can help both employers and employees ensure compliance with tax laws and avoid potential penalties. The subsequent sections will discuss the process of withholding taxes from retroactive pay and the requirements for reporting income tax returns.

Withholding Taxes

Employers must withhold federal income tax, state, and local taxes from retroactive pay using either the percentage or aggregate method. Under the percentage method, federal income taxes are calculated at a flat rate of 22%. This rate applies to all individuals and businesses. Additionally, FICA taxes (Social Security and Medicare Taxes) must also be withheld.

Employers should familiarize themselves with the specific withholding rates and tables for their tax jurisdiction and the laws that apply. Consulting the IRS guidelines or a tax professional can help ensure accurate and up-to-date information on tax withholding for retroactive pay.

Reporting Retroactive Pay

Retroactive pay must be reported on employee pay stubs and included in year-end tax reporting. Employers should use Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement, or electronic filing to report retroactive pay on income tax returns.

Additionally, employers are required to withhold and remit payroll and income taxes on retroactive pay and pay the employer portion of payroll taxes. By understanding and adhering to these reporting requirements, employers can ensure compliance with tax laws and avoid potential penalties.

Preventing Retroactive Pay Issues

To prevent retroactive pay issues, employers should consider implementing payroll software and conducting regular payroll audits. By automating the payroll process and continually monitoring for errors, employers can reduce the likelihood of underpayment and the need for retroactive pay.

The subsequent sections will address the advantages of using payroll software and conducting regular payroll audits to maintain a fair and equitable workplace.

Implementing Payroll Software

Payroll software can help reduce errors and streamline the payroll process by automating calculations and ensuring accurate payments. With payroll software, employers can avoid potential pitfalls and systemic issues in their payroll system, resulting in more accurate and timely payments.

Some of the most effective payroll software for avoiding retroactive pay issues include:

  • Rippling

  • Paycor

  • Gusto


  • QuickBooks Time

  • Paychex Flex

  • Sage

  • SurePayroll

By choosing the right payroll software for your organization, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of encountering retroactive pay issues.

Regular Payroll Audits

Regular payroll audits are essential for identifying and correcting errors before they become retroactive pay issues. Payroll audits should be conducted at least annually to ensure that employees are accurately paid and that any discrepancies are promptly addressed.

During a payroll audit, employers should examine:

  • Employee classifications

  • Pay rates

  • Hours worked

  • Any other factors that could impact an employee’s paycheck

By conducting regular payroll audits, employers can maintain a fair and equitable workplace while minimizing the need for retroactive pay adjustments.

Legal Considerations for Retroactive Pay

When dealing with retroactive pay, complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state and local regulations is imperative. Employers must be aware of these legal considerations to ensure that they are accurately compensating their employees and avoiding potential penalties.

The subsequent sections will discuss the impact of the FLSA on retroactive pay and the significance of understanding state and local regulations for maintaining compliance with applicable laws.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The FLSA sets federal standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, and recordkeeping, which can impact retroactive pay calculations. Employers must ensure that they are adhering to these standards and accurately calculating overtime pay based on the regular rate of pay.

In addition to federal standards, the FLSA requires employers to maintain records on which wage computations are based for a minimum of two years. These records are essential for calculating retroactive pay, as they provide the necessary information to determine the wages owed to employees for past periods.

State and Local Regulations

In addition to federal regulations, state and local regulations may have additional requirements for retroactive pay. Employers should be aware of any applicable laws in their jurisdiction and ensure they are adhering to these regulations in addition to the FLSA.

To remain informed about changes in state and local retroactive pay regulations, employers can subscribe to emails or newsletters from HR organizations or legal resources that provide updates on employment law changes. Regularly reviewing resources and websites focusing on state and local updates on labor and employment laws, such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) or the Department of Labor (DOL) websites, can also help employers stay informed and compliant.


In conclusion, understanding and managing retroactive pay is crucial for both employers and employees. By accurately calculating retroactive pay, adhering to federal and local regulations, implementing payroll software, and conducting regular payroll audits, employers can maintain a fair and equitable workplace. By taking these steps, you can ensure that your employees are properly compensated for their work and avoid potential penalties associated with retroactive pay issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

Retroactive pay and back pay are similar in that they both refer to money an employer owes an employee for work already performed. However, back pay is for unpaid work, while retroactive pay is for underpayment of wages for the same period of time.

An example of a retroactive payment is when an employee receives a pay increase but the increase wasn't reflected in their paycheck, or when they weren't paid for overtime hours that should have been calculated correctly. Retroactive payments can also include backpay when an employee was due a raise on a certain date but the amount wasn't determined until later.

Retroactive pay typically has a two-year statute of limitations, and employers must make payments within 12 days. If the 12 day deadline cannot be met, a one-off payment should be issued.

Yes, retroactive pay can be negative when employers have overpaid to employees and decide to take the money back.

Retroactive pay is a form of compensation that is added to an employee's paycheck to make up for any shortfall in wages from a previous pay period. This differs from back pay, which compensates employees who received no wages at all during a previous pay period.

At RemotePad, Lech draws on his professional experience to write about employment taxes and payroll (both remote, and in-office). Lech holds a Bachelors’ degree from the University of Kent, a Master of Arts (MA) from Kings College London, and professional payroll and tax qualifications. He has 20 years experience advising on all manner of tax and business planning matters.