Benefits

Passive Enrollment in 401(k)s

Passive enrollment may be automatic in many ways, but it still requires action.

by Maria J. Petrino, Larry Heller

The concept of passive enrollment appeals to many 401(k) plan sponsors. Surveys show an increasing number of sponsors adopting this approach also referred to as automatic or negative enrollment. Passive enrollment is essentially the opposite of conventional enrollment, where employees do not make any contributions to their company’s 401(k) plan until they submit specific instructions. Passive enrollment allows the employer to automatically enroll employees into its 401(k) at specified contribution and investment percentages immediately upon hire or upon meeting eligibility requirements. These specified (default) percentages remain in effect until the employee instructs otherwise. Passive enrollment has the potential to benefit both the employer and the employee. But there are communications requirements and pitfalls worth avoiding that plan sponsors should note before implementing.

With all employees contributing (at least upon their initial eligibility), the plan will likely produce more favorable nondiscrimination test results. Meanwhile, employees may come to appreciate that salary deferrals are an easy way to save for retirement, without having a significant effect on take-home pay.

However, there are potential downsides. Its automatic nature may confuse some employees as to their options for changing the default contribution and investment percentages. Others will question whether the plans default investment options take the proper amount of investment risk (perhaps too little for younger employees or too much for older ones). Furthermore, IRS Revenue Ruling 2000-8 requires that, upon hire, the plan administrator must advise all employees affected by passive enrollment of the following:

  • the default salary deferral percentage automatically applicable to their pay (typically 3% or 4%);
  • their ability to change the initial default contribution, and specifically how and when to do so; and
  • their right and the timeframe to opt out of making contributions altogether (meaning a change to 0%).

The plan administrator must provide similar notifications annually to all employees who remain in a passive enrollment status i.e., those who never revised the defaults initially applied to their contributions.

The Revenue Ruling sets these requirements only for the contribution percentage aspect of these automatic contributions, not for their investment. But these notification requirements present an excellent opportunity for the plan sponsor to highlight the plans investment options. This is especially true since plans with a passive enrollment provision must provide at least one default investment fund usually either fixed income or low-risk equities until the employee specifies otherwise.

When exercising passive enrollment, the employer loses some of ERISA Section 404(c)s protection against participants legal action, because the Department of Labor views default investment elections as the employee not having exercised control over their account. Therefore, while reinforcing the long-term benefit of plan participation, salary deferrals, and (where applicable) the company match, the plan sponsor may want to include additional advice to employees about their passive enrollment process, such as:

  • the default investment fund(s) that will apply to their contributions;
  • the funds available in the plan and how to transfer from the default investment fund;
  • procedures and timeframes for changing investments;
  • the value of assessing their personal financial situation and risk tolerance, and how to do so; and
  • how and where to obtain more information on the plans investment options.

In short, initial and ongoing employee communications about passive enrollment is far from a passive exercise for the plan sponsor and the plan administrator. However, passive enrollment can consistently yield higher participation levels if plan sponsors think carefully and innovatively about how to weave it into the plans overall design and administration.


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From Sea to Shining Sea

Case Study: Creating a national health portal for employees.

by Maria T. Norman

An outsourcing partnership delivers e-health portal to Northrop Grumman employees in all 50 states.

Following 16 major acquisitions since 1994, Northrop Grumman, the second-largest defense contractor in the United States, had grown from roughly 40,000 employees to 120,000. Along the way, we also inherited nearly 350 different health and welfare plans and 16 different pension plans. And, although we have been outsourcing a significant portion of our administration for the past 10 years, we did not bring all of our acquisitions together onto one common administrative and design platform until recently.

The catalyst for this consolidation was our 2001 acquisition of Litton Industries. We used this acquisition as an opportunity to redesign all of our benefit programs for several reasons. First, we hadnt redesigned most of our programs for several years and were facing pension issues. And, as we realigned newly acquired employees into different areas within Northrop Grumman, the benefit programs needed to make more sense across the entire company.

Integrating our acquisitions gave us the opportunity to redefine health care at Northrop Grumman. This was a huge undertaking that required a threepronged approach: plan redesign, health care resources, and engaging our leadership and employees from the beginning. Because of the magnitude of the task, we couldnt do it alone. We needed the help of our main outsourcing vendor, Towers Perrin, an HR consulting and administration services firm, to actually make it all happen.

Integral to the changes we were making, and a key piece that we outsourced to Towers Perrin, was the creation of a Web portal to promote health care consumerism (which has the potential to help stem rising health care costs.) We looked at consumerdirected health plans but realized they would only touch those employees who selected them. We wanted to provide health care tools and resources for all of our employees. One of our key messages was that health care was changing dramatically. For employees, the message was that, whether or not we took all of these 350 different health and welfare programs and merged them into one, we were still going to have to address health care cost increases.

In making the decision to outsource the e-health portal, we recognized both the complexity of the task as well as the fact that we were still in the process of implementing our redesigned flexible benefit, recordkeeping, and defined benefit programs. We chose Towers Perrin, in partnership with WebMD, a leading provider of Web-based consumer-focused health care information, because we believed that they would be able to provide us with a solution that would meet our needs.

With our input, Towers Perrin developed an entire health online strategy for Northrop Grumman. They delivered an e-health portal that contains all of the critical health care information needed to help our employees become better health care consumers. Those resources include Health Online, a medical plan comparison tool, online open enrollment, and care management.

In early 2003, we introduced our new Web site NG Benefits Online to our employees, following an intensive communication effort. Through NG Benefits Online, employees can now access a wealth of information and enroll in their benefits with just one click of a mouse. A customized consumerism guide highlights all of the new resources now available.

At Health Online, employees can take a health risk assessment, visit a condition center, maintain their family health records, and use tools to compare drug costs or determine the quality of different hospitals. Care management provides a nurse advice line, a disease and case management option, and a list of centers of excellence. We also use the information employees provide in their health risk assessment to match them with appropriate disease management programs.

We have had very good results to date and view our new e-health portal as an ongoing endeavor to get employees to pay attention to health care costs and their part in managing them. Towers Perrin has provided user statistics that underscore the success of our portal, including the fact that 90 percent of our employees enrolled in their 2004 health care benefits online, 40 percent used the medical plan evaluation tool, and 17 percent registered at Health Online. Based on these encouraging results, we will continue to work with Towers Perrin and WebMD to provide our employees with the best tools to help them become even better health care consumers and managers of their health program costs.

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Does Your DC Plan Need a Check-Up?

An occasional review of its moving parts is usually a good idea.

by Larry Heller


Recent scandals — ranging from questionable timing of stock trades to questionable communications to employees about the stability of their 401(k) plan investments — have brought to light a truism that benefits consultants have been gently sharing with plan sponsors for a very long time. Once in a while, just like you and your car, even the most uncontroversial of DC plans needs a check-up.

In technical terms, this check-up would ask, “Are you adhering to your fiduciary responsibilities to plan participants?” In plain English, it asks “Have you or anyone else looked lately to see how your plan’s administrators — i.e., your payroll system, recordkeeper, trustee, and anyone else with their hands on your plan’s data and/or its assets — are doing their jobs?”

Although plan sponsors typically think first of reviewing investment products, the operational review these questions suggest, sometimes called an “audit” (though not at all an accounting function), warrants attention and explanation. Such a review is often inspired by one of three general circumstances:

  1. preparation for an impending merger or acquisition, where the acquiring or controlling entity wants to confirm the operational stability of what it’s taking on;
  2. response to one or more major, visible breakdowns in, for example, recordkeeping accuracy, communications, payment timing, etc.; or
  3. responsibility of management (recognized, documented, and legally required) to monitor the benefits and related services provided to employees, even if nothing in particular has apparently gone wrong.

In other words: this exercise can be defensive, reactive or proactive, any of which is better than it being nonexistent.

There are many behind-the-scenes administrative aspects to DC plans. Some are very technical and some, rather mundane. The failure of any one of them can escalate into costly customer service problems, potentially with legal implications. The fundamental objectives of any operational review are almost always to confirm that:

  • the day-to-day operation of the plan is in keeping with its rules (i.e., what is written in the plan document, any formal administrative documentation, SPDs, and any other formal employee communications); and
  • no aspect of the plan’s operation is out of compliance with federal law (e.g., IRS contribution and pay limits, permissible hardship withdrawal circumstances, etc.).

While collecting and assessing an adequate variety of tell-tale participant test cases and plan-wide data and documentation to meet those two primary objectives, you might also want to confirm, for example, that:

  • participants’ accounts are accurately updated with appropriate investment results;
  • deposits into plan assets are correctly timed in relation to corresponding payroll deductions or participants’ instructions;
  • the timing and amount of payments to plan participants properly relate to their submitted requests;
  • generic and personalized communications regarding any particular transaction — whether on paper, a Web site, or an automated telephone voice response system — are accessible (and helpful) to current and former employees and beneficiaries as soon as they are first eligible to make the transaction or state an interest in doing so; and
  • statistical reports provided to benefits management on plan utilization and customer service activity are accurate and informative.

Even if you didn’t have contracts or service level agreements with your administrative service providers, wouldn’t you want an objective appraisal of at least how these aspects of your plan’s operations are working, if not a more in-depth review of data management and customer service? It’s true that technological advancements and growing industry-wide expertise have rightfully led the DC plan administrative function to be taken for granted by many (think “commodity”). However, imperfections in any of the functions listed above can and still do spawn from payroll data problems, complex plan design, and customer service overload.

If identified, these imperfections would not necessarily lead to plan qualification or compliance issues (although they could). But any of them could be signs of potential or actual administrative breakdown and, possibly, someone’s failure to meet their fiduciary obligations to plan participants. If that is happening, or if significant required documentation (or charters or policy statements) turns out not to exist, wouldn’t you prefer to know that sooner rather than later?

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