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Reduction in Workforce and Partial Plan Terminations

“My client had a 35 percent reduction in workforce in January 2020. Does that automatically mean the business suffered a partial plan termination?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare.  We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with an advisor in Massachusetts is representative of a common inquiry related to reductions in workforce.

Highlights of Discussion

Not necessarily; it all depends on the facts and circumstances, and whether those terminated employees are rehired by the end of 2020.

The IRS presumes there is a partial plan termination when an employer reduces its workforce (and plan participation) by at least 20 percent during the plan year. This presumption is rebuttable, however. The IRS makes it clear that an actual determination of a partial plan termination is based on all the facts and circumstances of a particular scenario [Treasury Regulation § 1.411(d)-2(b)]. The IRS’s Revenue Ruling 2007-43 provides further guidelines to help determine if a partial plan termination has occurred. For additional coverage, please see RLC’s related Case of the Week.

The most recent guidance on this issue comes from the IRS’s Coronavirus-related relief for retirement plans and IRAs questions and answers, Q&A 15 (added July 2020). As a result, for purposes of determining whether a partial termination of a retirement plan occurred during the 2020 plan year, the IRS will not treat plan participants who were furloughed as having an employer-initiated severance from employment during the year if the business rehires them by the end of 2020. If that is the case, then immediate vesting of employer contributions would not apply.

Determining whether a plan is partially terminated is important because the IRS requires that all participants covered under the portion of a plan that is deemed terminated become 100 percent vested in matching and other employer contributions if the contributions were subject to a vesting schedule [IRC §411(d)(3) and Treasury Regulation 1.411(d)-2]. That could be very expensive, and something to think about if rehiring is a viable option.

Conclusion

The determination of whether or not a partial plan termination has happened depends on the facts and circumstances that occur over (at least) a full plan year. Although not binding legal authority, the IRS’s FAQ on rehires during 2020 provides plan sponsors insight into how the IRS will view such activities this year.

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Reducing or Suspending 401(k) Safe Harbor Contributions Mid-Year under Notice 2020-52

An advisor calling RLC’s Resource Desk recently asked the following questions:  “My client is a business owner and has a standard 401(k) safe harbor plan.  Under what circumstances, if any, may he reduce or eliminate the company’s mandatory safe harbor contribution during the plan year? Is there any relief granted because of the impact of Covid-19?”   

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare.  We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business. A recent call with a financial advisor from Washington is representative of a common inquiry related to 401(k) safe harbor plans.

Highlights of the Discussion

The following outlines the circumstances under which sponsors of 401(k) [and 403(b)] safe harbor plans may reduce or eliminate employer safe harbor contributions mid-year under normal circumstances, and under the special circumstances outlined in IRS Notice 2020-52 granted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, and according to final Treasury Regulations, a sponsor of a 401(k) safe harbor plan may amend the plan during the current year to reduce or suspend the company’s safe harbor contribution—either the matching or nonelective contribution—under the following limited circumstances.

A removal or reduction of a safe harbor contribution mid-year is permitted if the employer either

  1. Is operating under an economic loss for the year (See Internal Revenue Code Section (IRC 412(c)(2)(A);[1]

or

  1. Included a statement in the safe harbor notice given to participants before the start of the plan year that the employer
  • May reduce or suspend contributions mid-year;
  • Will give participants a supplemental notice (described below) regarding the reduction or suspension; and
  • Will not reduce or suspend employer contributions until at least 30 days after receipt of the supplemental notice.

COVID-19 Relief Any Plan Amended Between March 13, 2020, and August 31, 2020

Any sponsor of a safe harbor plan may amend its plan between March 13, 2020, and August 31, 2020, to reduce or suspend safe harbor contributions (either match or nonelective) without condition. However, special rules related to the supplemental notice apply as explained next.

Supplemental Notice

Typically, if a reduction or suspension of safe harbor contributions will occur, a 30-day advance notice rule applies. This supplemental notice must explain 1) the consequences of the suspension or reduction of contributions; 2) how participants may change their deferral elections as a result; and 3) when the amendment takes effect.

COVID-19 Relief for Supplement Notice for Nonelective Contributions

Sponsors who reduce or suspend 401(k) safe harbor nonelective contributions will satisfy the 30-day supplemental notice requirement, provided the sponsor

  • Gives the notice to employees no later than August 31, 2020, and
  • Adopts the required plan amendment no later than the effective date of the reduction or suspension of safe harbor nonelective contributions.

There is no relief on the timing of the supplemental notice under Notice 2020-52 for sponsors who reduce or suspend safe harbor matching contributions. Sponsors must give 30 days notice via a supplemental notice to participants before the reductions can take place.

Other Procedural Requirements

Typically, an employer that suspends or reduces safe harbor contributions must also

  1. Give participants a reasonable opportunity after they receive the supplemental notice and before the reduction or suspension of employer contributions to change their contribution elections;
  2. Amend the plan to apply the actual deferral percentage (ADP) and/or actual contribution percentage (ACP) Tests for the entire plan year; and
  3. Allocate to the plan any contributions that were promised before the amendment took effect.

Additional Notice 2020-52 Relief: Mid-Year Safe Harbor Contribution Reductions for Highly Compensated Employees

Pursuant to Notice 2020-52, a plan sponsor may choose to reduce or suspend 401(k) safe harbor contributions for highly compensated employees (HCEs) alone. In such cases, the plan sponsor must provide an

  • Updated safe harbor notice and
  • Opportunity for participants to update their elections, determined as of the date of issuance of the updated safe harbor notice.

Conclusion

In the past, the ability of sponsors to amend their 401(k) [or 403(b)] safe harbor plans to reduce or suspend employer matching or nonelective safe harbor contributions mid-year was limited. The IRS expanded those opportunities under IRS Notice 2020-52 in order to provide relief in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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