A Conceptual Guide to Employee Ownership for Very Small Businesses

From the National Center for Employee Ownership:   Many smaller companies want to share ownership with employees but find the legal costs and complexities of various common plans...

From the National Center for Employee Ownership:


Many smaller companies want to share ownership with employees but find the legal costs and complexities of various common plans daunting. For owners wanting to sell to employees, an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) has great tax benefits, but its costs and complexities may be daunting. For other owners who just want to share some kind of equity interest with employees, stock options or restricted stock may be good choices, but other companies want something simpler still, or, if they are limited liability companies, do not have actual stock to share. So what kinds of strategies are available for these companies?


Cooperatives are a type of company in which control is on a one person/one vote basis. Cooperatives can be set up as partnerships or corporations, and in some states, there are worker cooperative statutes. Whatever form a cooperative takes (most are set up as corporations), they qualify for special federal tax benefits. Cooperatives are the oldest form of employee ownership in the United States, dating from the early 1800s. Although they are not common in larger businesses, they make up a large portion of small employee-owned businesses.


Formal voting control must be on a one-person/one-vote basis. Usually most employees must be shareholders, although as many as half can sometimes be excluded. Generally, a cooperative cannot pay dividends, and must pay out any excess earnings not held in the company to employee shareholders based on salary, time worked, or some other work-related basis. However, if non-employee owners have a small percentage equity share and return on investment is limited, these owners can still be rewarded through dividends.


Persons who sell shares to a worker cooperative are exempt from capital gains taxes if the gain is reinvested in U.S. securities. Cooperatives are exempt from double taxation on dividends to employees that are based on time worked or salary rather than equity. Most small businesses will not need to pay out dividends anyway (see discussion in Financial Benefits in a Corporation), but this exemption gives cooperatives more flexible tax planning options than other corporations, letting them treat profits like either an “S” or a “C” corporation without changing their legal structure.


Set-up costs for cooperatives are even cheaper than direct ownership plans for two reasons: worker cooperative laws in many states make it simple to incorporate and qualify as a cooperative; and, there are professionals and organizations offering inexpensive services or financial support for cooperatives.


Typically, a worker cooperative makes employees owners after a probation period. Employees than either buy shares of stock that have real equity value that fluctuates with the company’s value or they purchase a membership share, which has a fixed value that may or may not have interest added on to it as the employee accumulates seniority. When an employee leaves, either the cooperative or another employee buys the share (if it is real equity), or (if it is a membership share), the cooperative pays off the employee and a new employee buys a share at the base price.


Most cooperatives establish an internal account to which profits are allocated, usually to all cooperative members based on hours worked or some other equitable measurement of their contribution. These profits are deductible to the company, but taxable to the employee. When employees leave, they are paid out their account balances, usually with interest. In the interim, cooperatives may also pass some of the profits directly through to members, perhaps to help them pay taxes they owe on the profits allocated to their accounts.


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