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The US Department of Labor on Monday published a proposal for a new regulation governing multi-employer 401(k) plans. The proposed new rule would make it easier for small businesses to offer retirement plans to their employees by broadening the criteria under which organizations can form multi-employer plans, Employee Benefit News explains:
The arrangements are currently allowed for employers with an affiliation or connection, such as companies with a common owner or members of the same industry trade association. Under the proposed rule, MEPs could be formed by associations of employers in a city, county, state or a multistate metropolitan area, or in a particular industry nationwide, according to the DOL.
Sole proprietors, as well as their families, would be also permitted to join such plans, the DOL said. Professional employer organizations, which are human resources companies that contractually assume certain employment responsibilities for its client employers, could also sponsor plans.
The proposal comes in response to an executive order President Donald Trump signed at the end of the summer, directing his administration to remove barriers to small businesses offering retirement benefits through the multi-employer plans. Employees of smaller organizations are less likely than those at large firms to be offered employer-sponsored retirement plans.
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A private letter ruling released on Friday by the US Internal Revenue Service gave the tax authority’s blessing to a benefit program in which an company offers to make contributions to its employees’ 401(k) retirement savings if they put a certain percentage of their salaries toward paying down their student debt. The letter finds that this scheme does not violate the regulatory prohibition on making other benefits contingent on an employee’s participation or non-participation in a 401(k) plan.
The letter explicitly notes that its ruling applies only to this one employer, and written determinations such as this letter cannot be used as precedent under federal law. Nonetheless, one expert tells Employee Benefit News that this could pave the way for more employers to offer similar matching programs for student loan payments:
Historically, many plan sponsors have questioned whether such an approach would be permissible under IRS rules. But, explains Jeffrey Holdvogt, an employee benefits partner with McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago, the ruling confirmed that— under certain circumstances — “employers may be able to link the amount of employer contributions made on an employee’s behalf under a 401(k) plan to the amount of student loan repayments made by the employee outside the plan.” …
“[The letter] provides helpful guidance for employers looking for new ways to provide such benefits and, in particular, for employers looking for ways to accomplish the dual purpose of helping employees manage student loan repayment obligations while saving for retirement,” Holdvogt says.
The organization in question is not identified in the published letter, but the matching program it describes appears identical to the one the pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories rolled out in late June. In Abbott’s Freedom 2 Save program, if employees contribute at least 2 percent of their salary toward their student loans in a year, the company will contribute the equivalent of 5 percent of their salary to their 401(k) plan at the end of that year.
The pharmaceutical and health care products company Abbott Laboratories rolled out a new benefit last week that is designed to encourage employees to pay down their student debt by helping them save for retirement at the same time. The New York Times’ Ann Carrns noted Abbott’s new benefit in an item discussing the broader trend of student loan assistance benefits:
Under the new Freedom 2 Save program, employees who contribute at least 2 percent of their pay toward their student loans — as verified periodically by an outside contractor — will receive a 5 percent match in their 401(k) retirement savings plan. Abbott offers the same match to employees who contribute at least 2 percent of their pay to their 401(k). So, for instance, if an employee is making $70,000 and uses at least $1,400 to pay down student debt, Abbott will contribute $3,500 to the employee’s 401(k) plan, a spokeswoman said.
That benefit can add up over time. Abbott offered this illustration of the program’s impact: [An employee] who joins Abbott with a salary of $70,000 could accumulate $54,000 in their 401(k) account over 10 years, assuming a 6 percent average annual return and yearly merit increases of 3 percent, without any retirement contribution of their own.
Assistance with student loan repayment remains an uncommon benefit among US employers: Our research at CEB, now Gartner, shows that among organizations that offer education benefits, 90 percent provide tuition assistance, but only 7 percent provide student loan reimbursement. SHRM’s 2018 Employee Benefits Survey found that just 4 percent of all organizations offer student debt benefits, compared to 51 percent who offered assistance with undergraduate education. Eleven percent offer a payroll deduction for contributions to tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans, but fewer than 2 percent offer matching contributions to those plans.
2017 was a good year for the stock market in the US, with the S&P 500 index rising 22 percent and the Dow Jones industrial average up 25 percent. This bull market has led to a spike in the value of Americans’ retirement savings accounts, which sounds like good news for the retirement readiness of the US workforce. However, Todd C. Frankel and Thomas Heath point out at the Washington Post, these huge gains are inspiring many working Americans to dip into their 401(k)s and IRAs at a hefty penalty to fund big-ticket purchases:
“I’ve seen more money requests for extraneous items in the last six weeks than I have in the last five years,” said Jamie Cox of Richmond-based Harris Financial Group, which manages $500 million in savings for about 800 middle-class families. … Cox said he is seeing more people take larger withdrawals, $20,000 to $40,000, to fund dream vacations or home improvement. …
The average annual return for 401(k)s hit 15.7 percent by the third quarter of 2017, according to Fidelity. And for most Americans, it’s these retirement accounts — 401(k), 403(b), SEP and IRA — that provide the closest evidence of a revving stock market. Retirement assets — including annuity reserves, pensions, and defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs — exploded in the United States from $11.6 trillion in 2000 to $27.2 trillion as of Sept. 30, 2017, according to the Investment Company Institute, which represents the mutual fund industry.
In some cases, the early withdrawals financial planners are seeing reflect an irrational belief that the good times will roll on long enough for their retirement accounts to make back the money they are taking out. For others, however—especially workers approaching retirement age—the impulse to cash out comes from a fear that the stock market is overvalued and a crash is on the horizon that will wipe out their savings if they don’t get out in time.
Previous surveys have predicted that most US employees will receive a small increase in their base pay this year, averaging about 3 percent, though high performers can expect a bit more as organizations shift their compensation strategies toward greater differentiation. That 3 percent raise appears to have become standard in recent years for the average employee, as a 4 or 5 percent annual raise once was.
A new survey of CEOs and CFOs from PwC, however, suggests that raises might be a bit higher than expected this year: The consultancy’s Q4 2017 Trendsetter Barometer report, based on interviews with 300 CEOs and CFOs during the last quarter of 2017, found that these leaders expect to raise wages by an average of 4.27 percent in the coming year, compared to the 3.39 percent figure PwC found in Q3 and just 2 percent a year ago. The last time panelists projected average wages would rise above 4 percent was during the second quarter of 2007, the report notes.
Plans for growth are also on the upswing, with 56 percent of the leaders surveyed saying they intended to hire new employees in the coming year, compared to 49 percent who said so in Q3. PwC attributes these bullish plans for 2018 to higher levels of business confidence and optimism about the future of the US economy, with 79 percent of leaders expressing optimism, a notable increase from 59 percent at the end of 2016.
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Late last week, Republicans in the US Senate and House of Representatives both passed versions of a comprehensive tax reform bill whose signature feature is a hefty cut in the corporate tax rate, from 35 to 20 percent. The bill, which received no Democratic votes in either house of Congress, now goes to conference, where lawmakers from both chambers will attempt to reconcile the two bills. Significant differences still exist between the two versions, however, and the Senate bill underwent a number of hasty revisions at the last minute before being passed in the middle of Friday night. It is therefore still uncertain whether Republican lawmakers will be able to agree on an identical bill that can pass both the Senate and the House.
Both versions of the bill have major implications for employers, beyond the tax breaks for businesses. Together, the bills touch on health insurance, retirement plans, and other employee benefits, but do so in different ways. SHRM’s Government Affairs team prepared a handy chart comparing the bills’ employer implications side-by-side, while Stephen Miller gives a comprehensive rundown of the differences:
Tuition Benefits: The House bill would eliminate the employer-provided education assistance deduction under Internal Revenue Code Section 127, which allows employers to provide up to $5,250 of tax-free tuition aid to an employee per year at the undergraduate, graduate or certificate level. The Senate version does not eliminate the education assistance deduction. …
Individual Health Coverage: The Senate’s bill would effectively repeal the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) individual mandate, which requires most Americans to have health insurance, by reducing to zero the tax penalty for going without coverage. The House bill leaves the individual mandate in place.…
On September 7, the credit reporting agency Equifax revealed it had experienced a cybersecurity breach in late July that potentially exposed the sensitive personal data of 143 million Americans to unidentified hackers, and the agency said this week that it had suffered another breach in March.
The data exposed in the breach included millions of consumers’ names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers, and in some cases driver’s license numbers. The hackers also obtained 209,000 credit card numbers and documents with personal information used in disputes for 182,000 people. “On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of risk to consumers, this is a 10,” Avivah Litan, a fraud analyst at Gartner, told the New York Times when the July breach was disclosed earlier this month
With so many people affected, most US organizations likely have victims of the breach among their employees, whose data could be used to steal their identities and commit fraud. Employers that offer 401(k) plans should contact their third-party administrators to ensure that employees are notified of any vulnerabilities in their accounts, Edward McAndrew, an attorney with Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia and former cybercrime prosecutor for the Department of Justice, tells Allen Smith at SHRM:
The TPAs should notify employees to monitor their account statements for fraudulent activity and start using multifactor authentication to access their accounts, McAndrew said. HR shouldn’t provide the notice itself or it will get inundated with questions from employees about Equifax’s breach, he said.