Many employers facing economic challenges because of COVID-19 have considered several possibilities for reducing their contributions to employees' 401(k) plans. Whether freezing safe harbor matching or nonelective contributions or deciding against making discretionary matching and/or profit-sharing contributions, the goal has been the same: reduce their employee benefits costs.
What many employers have not focused on doing, however, is ensuring that employee contributions (elective deferrals and loan repayments) to their 401(k) plans continue to be deposited into the plans in a timely manner.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) requires that an employer remit employee contributions to a 401(k) plan "on the earliest date on which such amounts can reasonably be segregated from the employer's general assets, but in no event later than the 15th business day of the month following the month in which the amounts were paid to or withheld by the employer."
- In the case of a "small" plan with fewer than 100 participants, the DOL has established a safe harbor under which the remittance of employee contributions is deemed timely if made within seven business days following the pay date.
- In the case of a "large" plan with at least 100 participants, the 15th-business-day-of the-following-month rule isn't a safe harbor for depositing deferrals but sets the maximum deadline. The DOL will look at all deposits made for the plan year and, absent unusual circumstances, will generally take the position that the quickest remittance is what is required for all remittances. The 15th-business-day outer limit is reserved for circumstances truly beyond the control of the employer.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Administering Defined Contribution Retirement Plans]
In light of COVID-19, on April 29 the DOL's Employee Benefits Security Administration, in EBSA Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01, issued guidance intended to relax the timely remittance requirement for employers unable to satisfy the general rules described above:
"The Department [DOL] recognizes that some employers and service providers may not be able to forward participant payments and withholdings to employee pension benefit plans within prescribed timeframes during the period beginning on March 1, 2020, and ending on the 60th day following the announced end of the National Emergency. In such instances, the Department will not—solely on the basis of a failure attributable to the COVID-19 outbreak—take enforcement action regarding a temporary delay in forwarding such payments or contributions to the plan. Employers and service providers must act reasonably, prudently, and in the interest of employees to comply as soon as administratively practicable under the circumstances." (Emphasis added.)
The Notice requires that failing to remit employee contributions to the plan in a timely manner be "solely on the basis of a failure attributable to the COVID-19 outbreak." Given this language, we recommend that an employer that cannot deposit or have its payroll provider deposit elective deferrals into the plan in a timely manner solely due to a COVID-19 issue to document the existence thereof and how the employee contributions were deposited into the plan as soon as possible after the COVID-19 issue was resolved.
Potential examples of COVID-19 failures that, in and of themselves, might cause untimely deposits under the general rules include:
- Furloughing the employer's payroll staff.
- Staffing shortages at the payroll provider.
Any employer sponsoring a 401(k) plan should care deeply about ensuring the timely remittance of employee contributions:
- First, an untimely remittance must be reported on the plan's annual IRS Form 5500 filing. Depending on the amount reported, a DOL or Internal Revenue Service audit of the plan could be triggered, as late remittances are higher audit risk items on the Form 5500.
- Second, an untimely remittance of employee contributions is deemed to be an interest-free loan from plan participants to the employer sponsoring the plan. Such a deemed loan constitutes a prohibited transaction under both the Internal Revenue Code and the federal pension law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Penalties under the Code amount to 15 percent of the earnings that the late employee contributions would have generated each year, compounded annually; this penalty increases to 100 percent of the foregone earnings if the IRS discovers the untimely remittance before the employer remits the employee contributions and required earnings to the plan. The ERISA penalty would be 20 percent of the foregone interest.
- Third, employees participating in the 401(k) plan tend not to look kindly upon untimely remittances of employee contributions (it's their money!), especially if the employer is a "repeat offender." Not only does this outlook increase audit risk, it creates employee relations issues that can be difficult to navigate.
Adam B. Cantor is a principal in the White Plains, N.Y., office of law firm Jackson Lewis, where his practice includes employee benefits, ERISA fiduciary compliance, and executive and equity compensation. © 2020 Jackson Lewis P.C. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission.
Related SHRM Articles:
Agencies Extend Various Employee Benefit Plan Deadlines, SHRM Online, May 2020.
IRS FAQs Clarify Coronavirus-Related Retirement Plan Relief, SHRM Online, May 2020
Correct Retirement Plan Mistakes Before They Soar out of Control, SHRM Online, November 2019
Related IRS Resource:
401(k) Plan Fix-It Guide - You haven't timely deposited employee elective deferrals