401(K) Plans:

Effects of Eligibility and Vesting Policies on Workers' Retirement Savings

GAO-17-69: Published: Oct 21, 2016. Publicly Released: Nov 21, 2016.

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What GAO Found

GAO's nongeneralizable survey of 80 401(k) plans ranging in size from fewer than 100 participants to more than 5,000 and its review of industry data found that many plans have policies that affect workers' ability to (1) save in plans (eligibility policies), (2) receive employer contributions, and (3) keep those employer contributions if they leave their job (vesting policies). Thirty-three of 80 plans surveyed had policies that did not allow workers younger than age 21 to participate in the plan. In addition, 19 plans required participants to be employed on the last day of the year to receive any employer contribution for that year. Fifty-seven plans had vesting policies requiring employees to work for a certain period of time before employer contributions to their accounts are vested. Plan sponsors and plan professionals GAO surveyed identified lowering costs and reducing employee turnover as the primary reasons that plans use these policies.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) allows plan sponsors to set eligibility and vesting policies. Specifically, federal law permits 401(k) plan sponsors to require that workers be at least age 21 to be eligible to join the plan. The law also permits plans to use rules affecting 401(k) plan participants' receipt of employer contributions and the vesting of contributions already received. However, over time workers have come to rely less on traditional pensions and more on their 401(k) plan savings for retirement security. Further, while the rules were designed, in part, to help sponsors provide profit sharing contributions, today 401(k) plan sponsors are more likely to provide matching contributions and today's workers may be likely to change jobs frequently. GAO's projections for hypothetical scenarios suggest that these policies could potentially reduce workers' retirement savings. For example, assuming a minimum age policy of 21, GAO projections estimate that a medium-level earner who does not save in a plan or receive a 3 percent employer matching contribution from age 18 to 20 could have $134,456 less savings by their retirement at age 67 ($36,422 in 2016 dollars). Saving early for retirement is consistent with Department of Labor guidance as well as previous legislation and allows workers to benefit from compound interest, which can grow their savings over decades. In addition, the law permits plans to require that participants be employed on the last day of the year to receive employer contributions each year, which could reduce savings for today's mobile workforce. For example, GAO's projections suggest that if a medium-level earner did not meet a last day policy when leaving a job at age 30, the employer's 3 percent matching contribution not received for that year could have been worth $29,297 by the worker's retirement at age 67 ($8,150 in 2016 dollars). GAO's projections also suggest that vesting policies may also potentially reduce retirement savings. For example, if a worker leaves two jobs after 2 years, at ages 20 and 40, where the plan requires 3 years for full vesting, the employer contributions forfeited could be worth $81,743 at retirement ($22,143 in 2016 dollars).The Department of Treasury (Treasury) is responsible for evaluating and developing proposals for legislative changes for 401(k) plan policies, but has not recently done so for vesting policies. Vesting caps for employer matching contributions in 401(k) plans are 15 years old. A re-evaluation of these caps would help to assess whether they unduly reduce the retirement savings of today's mobile workers.

Why GAO Did This Study

ERISA allows sponsors to opt to set up 401(k) plans—which are the predominant type of plan offered by many employers to promote workers' retirement savings—and to set eligibility and vesting policies for the plans. GAO was asked to examine 401(k) plans' use of these policies. Among other objectives, this report examines 1) what is known about the prevalence of these policies and why plans use them, and 2) the potential effects of these policies on workers' retirement savings.

GAO conducted a nongeneralizable survey of 80 plan sponsors and plan professionals regarding plans' use of eligibility and vesting policies and the reasons for using them; reviewed industry data on plans' use of eligibility and vesting policies; and projected potential effects on retirement savings based on hypothetical scenarios. GAO also interviewed federal officials and 21 retirement professionals and academic researchers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO suggests Congress consider a number of changes to ERISA, including changes to the minimum age for plan eligibility and plans' use of a last-day policy. GAO is also making two recommendations, including that Treasury reevaluate existing vesting policies to assess if current policies are appropriate for today's mobile workforce. Treasury had no comment on the recommendation. GAO believes that such an evaluation would be beneficial, given the potential for vesting policies to reduce retirement savings.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2017, the representative - who requested this report - proposed legislation (H.R.4524) called "The Retirement Plan Simplification and Enhancement Act of 2017" that would eliminate a disincentive for 401(k) plans to open plan eligibility to workers younger than age 21. Specifically, the bill would permit a plan to exclude workers under age 21 from consideration and calculation of the "top heavy" rules. The change could increase plan participation and individuals' retirement savings.

    Matter: To help increase plan participation and individuals' retirement savings, Congress should consider updating ERISA's 401(k) plan eligibility provisions to extend plan eligibility to otherwise eligible workers at an age earlier than 21.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2017, the representative - who requested this report - proposed legislation (H.R.4524)called "The Retirement Plan Simplification and Enhancement Act of 2017" that would ensure that any minimum service requirements for 401(k) plan eligibility allow for long-term part-time workers to eventually become eligible to join their employer's plan. Specifically, after working 500 or more hours for 3 consecutive years a worker's service must meet a plan's service requirement for eligibility.

    Matter: To help increase plan participation and individuals' retirement savings, Congress should consider updating ERISA's 401(k) plan eligibility provisions to amend the definition of "year of service," given the prevalence of part-time workers in today's workforce.

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2017, Congress did not take action on this matter.

    Matter: Congress should consider whether ERISA's provisions related to the timing of employer matching contributions need to be adjusted to reflect today's mobile workforce and workplace plans, which are predominantly 401(k) plans offering matching employer contributions.

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of August 2019, Congress did not take action on this matter.

    Matter: Congress should consider whether ERISA's provisions related to last day policies need to be adjusted to reflect today's mobile workforce and workplace plans, which are predominantly 401(k) plans offering matching employer contributions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In August, 2019 Treasury commented that it is not recommending any legislative change to Congress. However, our recommendation is also for the agency to first evaluate the appropriateness of existing vesting policies for account-based plans. Treasury did not comment on whether it has evaluated vesting schedules or has plans to do so, instead noting recent clarifications it has issued on other topics related to account-based plans. Treasury noted that the agency is working with IRS on guidance to update the regulations under Code section 411, which concern vesting schedules, as currently in effect. But those updates cannot modify permitted vesting schedules because, as Treasury notes in its comments, the vesting rules were determined by Congress. Given that more than 82 million people hold 401(k) plan accounts and that average current tenure in the private-sector has decreased to 3.8 years since our report was issued, the potential for these policies to significantly impact Americans' retirement security remains. We will close this recommendation when Treasury evaluates the appropriateness of current maximum vesting policies to help determine whether they unduly reduce the retirement savings of workers.

    Recommendation: To ensure that current vesting policies appropriately balance plans' needs and interests with the needs of workers to have employment mobility while also saving for retirement, Treasury should evaluate the appropriateness of existing maximum vesting policies for account-based plans, considering today's mobile labor force, and seek legislative action to revise vesting schedules, if deemed necessary. The Department of Labor could provide assistance with such an evaluation.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Labor (DOL) initially disagreed with this recommendation, stating that it would not be appropriate at that time to reallocate resources from its existing priorities to a new project. However, the Department also noted that it would review its existing outreach material on plan administration and compliance for opportunities to highlight the issues and recommendations in our report and would consider this recommendation in its ongoing development and prioritization of EBSA's agenda for regulations and sub-regulatory guidance. Although DOL reported in 2017 and 2018 that it had reviewed its existing outreach materials but found no opportunities to highlight issues raised in our report related to better communicating eligibility and vesting policies, the agency reports that it has recently been working to respond to an Executive Order (13847) that requires the agency to review actions that could be taken to make retirement plan disclosures more understandable and useful for participants and beneficiaries, among other things. Such actions may include revising standards for the summary plan description, which plans are obliged to provide to participants but which our report found can contain obsolete and confusing information. In June 2019, DOL reported that it aims to issue proposed regulations in December 2019 related to this review of plan disclosures and potential actions to improve disclosures. We encourage the Department to consider including clarifications about eligibility and vesting policies in these proposed regulations and to consider using sub-regulatory guidance to help plan sponsors and participants to better communicate and understand these critical policies.

    Recommendation: To help participants better understand eligibility and vesting policies, the Department of Labor (DOL) should develop guidance for plan sponsors that identifies best practices for communicating information about eligibility and vesting policies in a clear manner in summary plan descriptions. For example, DOL could discourage plans from including in documents information about employer contributions or other provisions that are not actually being used by the plan sponsor.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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