Summertime Blues for Your 401(k) Plan, P.2: Eligibility Failures

This is the second installment of several posts covering the most common 401(k) plan operational issues that arise during Form 5500 prep season for calendar year plans, which happens to be summertime: the season of outdoors fun and enjoyment for folks outside the ERISA bubble. This time around we will focus on a few selected errors related to eligibility under the plan – who gets to participate in the plan, and when. (More information on fixing eligibility errors in a 401(k) plan, courtesy of the IRS, is found here.) Note that the following discussion relates to plans in which participants must affirmatively enroll; a separate post will cover operational errors arising from auto-enrollment features.

Error No. 2: Eligibility Failures

Eligibility speaks to who gets to participate in a 401(k) plan, and entry dates signal when their participation must begin. These related areas can result in a host of plan errors.

The two main criteria of plan eligibility are age and service, and a minimum age of 21 and one Year of Service (defined below) are common eligibility criteria, especially for receiving employer contributions. The minimum service requirements to make salary deferrals are commonly reduced to, say, three months of service or even a shorter period. Also, commonly, plans exclude employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and employees earning no U.S.-source income. These criteria are all fairly straightforward, but complications sometimes arise when plans exclude employees based on schedule or job category, such as part-time employees, temporary employees, and per diem employees. Applicable law requires that employees in these categories be allowed to participate once they have worked 1,000 hours in a 12-consecutive month period (“Year of Service”). This requirement is part of preapproved plan documentation (adoption agreement), but plan sponsors not infrequently fail to adhere to it in actual fact. So, it is not uncommon to find that a plan has been excluding employees classified as per diem, or part-time, even after they have attained 1,000 hours in a given plan year.

The correction for this error is generally to put the improperly excluded participant in the position they would have been in had the error not occurred, by making qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs), plus earnings, to replace the salary deferrals and matching contributions that they failed to receive while improperly excluded from the plan. Generally plan sponsors only need to replace 50% of the missed elective deferrals (lost opportunity cost), but in some cases when the error is caught and corrected quickly and a disclosure is made to affected participants, the lost opportunity cost is reduced to 25% of the missed elective deferral (period of failure exceeds three months, but is less than two years), or even 0% (period of failure is less than three months). 100% of the missed matching contribution or nonelective contribution needs to be replace, plus earnings.

Note that under the SECURE Act, Section 401(k) plans (other than collectively bargained plans) must cover “long-term, part-time employees” who work at least 500 but less than 999 hours in each of the last three consecutive years. Employers must start counting hours of service towards this standard in 2021, such that the first coverage of long-term, part-time employees will occur in 2024. Proposed legislation would reduce the three year measurement period to two years. A plan sponsor can be more generous than the minimum requirement and allow entry into their plan sooner than the SECURE Act deadline.

Entry dates add another area of potential error. Entry dates may be semi-annual (e.g., January 1 and July 1, for a calendar year plan) or more frequent, such as quarterly (January 1, April 1, July 1, October 1), or even monthly. Errors often occur when plans are amended to adopt a more frequent entry date schedule, but plan operation lags behind and continues to follow the old entry date schedule. Errors also arise because of the time period for counting the 1,000 hours (the initial eligibility computation period) is often misunderstood and thus misapplied. In most plans, but not always – check your Adoption Agreement! – the 1,000 hours are counted from the date of hire to the first anniversary of hire, and then the counting period switches to the plan year (in these examples, the calendar year). Sometimes plan sponsors keep using the anniversary date cycle and therefore don’t catch the correct point at which 1,000 hours is attained, and thus miss the correct entry date.

Other eligibility errors arise from permitting employees to participate before they have met eligibility criteria. Sometimes these errors can be corrected with a retroactive amendment permitting early participation by the otherwise eligible employee. However this might not be the correct approach if, for instance, most of the affected participants are highly compensated employees. In that scenario, return of contributions plus earnings may be appropriate.

Correction of eligibility errors is relatively straightforward, as noted. The real goal, however, is to avoid these operational errors in the first place. I’ll come back to my favorite recommendation to avoid unneeded plan interpretation mishaps – design your plan as simply as possible. Of course, “simplicity” will depend upon the sector your business is in and the rate of employee turnover you experience. Immediate eligibility may be simple to administer for a small shop of engineering professionals, but a six-month or longer eligibility period may make sense for a restaurant or other business that experiences high turnover. If immediate eligibility works for your business, keep in mind that there are other ways to incentivize employees to stay with you long term, for instance by way of a vesting schedule imposed on employer contributions.

In addition to a simple plan design, I also recommend the all-hands meeting among human resource and payroll personnel, whether in-house or outsourced, at which every attendee has a copy of the plan adoption agreement, and a description of employment categories such as full-time, part-time, temporary, per diem, etc. It may also be helpful to have a representative of the plan recordkeeper at the meeting. At this meeting, the key sections of the plan document are those on eligibility, hours of service, and entry dates. The attendees should review the age and service criteria for eligibility, the method of crediting hours of service (whether actual hours or elapsed time.), any exclusion categories, whether any exclusion categories are subject to the 1,000 hour exception, and how the eligibility computation period works. Walking through hypothetical new hires and whether and when they enter the plan is one way to make sure everyone is on the same page and to reduce the chances for misinterpretation of the plan documents. After the meeting, drinks with umbrellas in them may be in order!

Photo credit: A.J. Garcia, Unsplash

The above information is a brief summary of legal developments that is provided for general guidance only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers are encouraged to seek individualized legal advice in regard to any particular factual situation. © 2021 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.