Beginning on July 1, 2019, California private employers with 5 or more employees, who do not already sponsor a retirement plan, may voluntarily enroll in the CalSavers Retirement Savings Program (CalSavers). Employers that do not voluntarily enroll must enroll in CalSavers according to the following schedule:
- Over 100 employees – June 30, 2020
- 50-99 employees – June 30, 2021
- 5-49 more employees – June 30, 2022
Below, we describe the key features of the CalSavers program.
- CalSavers is the byproduct of California Senate Bill 1234, which Governor Brown signed into law in 2016. It is codified in Title 21 of the Government Code and in applicable regulations. It creates a state board tasked with developing a workplace retirement savings program for employers with at least 5 employees that do not sponsor their own retirement plans (“Eligible Employers”). This may mean a 401(k) plan, a 403(b) plan, a SEP or SIMPLE plan, or a multiple employer (union) plan.
- CalSavers applies to private for-profit and non-profit employers, but not to federal or state governmental entities.
- CalSavers calls for employees aged at least 18, and receiving a Form W-2 from an eligible employer, to be automatically enrolled in the CalSavers program after a 30 day period, during which they may either opt out, or customize their contribution level and investment choices.
- The default is an employee contribution of 5% of their wages subject to income tax withholding, automatically increasing each year by 1% to a maximum contribution level of 8%. Employer contributions currently are prohibited, but may be allowed at a later date.
- Prior to their mandatory participation date, Eligible Employers will receive a notice from the CalSavers program containing an access code, and a written notice that may be forwarded to employees. Eligible Employers must log on to the CalSavers site to either register online, or certify their exemption from Calsavers by stating that their business already maintains a retirement plan. The link to do so is here. To do either, you will need your federal tax ID number and your California payroll tax number, as well as the access code provided in the CalSavers Notice.
- Eligible Employers who enroll in CalSavers will provide some basic employee roster information to CalSavers. CalSavers will then contact employees directly to notify them of the program and to instruct them about how to enroll or opt-out online. Those who enroll will have an online account which they can access in order to change their contribution levels or investment selections.
- Once an Eligible Employer has enrolled in CalSavers, their subsequent obligations are limited to deducting and remitting each enrolled employee’s contributions each pay period, and to adding new eligible employees within 30 days of hire (or of attaining eligibility by turning age 18, if later).
- Eligible employers may delegate their third party payroll provider to fulfill these functions, if the payroll provider agrees and is equipped to do so.
- Eligible Employers are shielded from fiduciary liability to employees that might otherwise arise regarding investment performance or other aspects of participation in the CalSavers program.
- There are employer penalties for noncompliance. The penalty is $250 per eligible employee for failure to comply after 90 days of receiving the CalSavers notification, and $500 per eligible employee if noncompliance extends to 180 days or more after the notice.
- Eligible Employers must remain neutral about the CalSavers program and may not encourage employees to participate, or discourage them from doing so. They should refer employees with questions about CalSavers to the CalSavers website or to Client Services at 855-650-6918 or email@example.com.
The CalSavers program was challenged in court by a California taxpayer association, on the grounds that it was preempted by ERISA as a consequence of the automatic enrollment feature. On March 29, 2019, a federal court judge concluded that ERISA did not prevent operation of the CalSavers program, because the program only applies to employers who do not have retirement plans governed by ERISA. The taxpayer association is deciding whether to amend their complaint by May 25, 2019, or appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit. Therefore, further litigation may ensue, but after this important early victory the timely rollout of CalSavers seems likely, and employers should act accordingly. (Programs similar to CalSavers are up and running in Oregon and Illinois, and have been proposed in a handful of other states.)
Employers reviewing this information should pause to re-examine their earlier decisions against maintaining a retirement plan for employees. The benefit of sponsoring your own plan is that it will bear the “brand” of your business and will serve to attract and retain quality employees. Further, the administrative functions you must fulfill in order to participate in CalSavers are comparable to those required by a SEP or SIMPLE plan, both of which offer larger contribution limits and an employer deduction to boot. If mandatory participation in CalSavers is bearing down on your business, now is a good time to talk to a retirement plan consultant, or your CPA or attorney, to determine whether you can leverage the time investment CalSavers will require, into a retirement arrangement that offers considerably more to your business and your employees.
In the meantime, here are some online resources for Eligible Employers:
- Employer checklist – a punchlist to help you prepare for enrollment.
- CalSavers Program Disclosure Booklet – this goes into significant detail about the way CalSavers contributions will be invested; notably the cost of these investments (consisting of an underlying fund fee, a state fee, and a program administration fee), will total about $0.88 for every $100 invested, which is approximately twice the cost load for typical 401(k) investments.
- Online FAQ
 A Department of Labor “safe harbor” dating back to 1975 excludes “completely voluntary” programs with limited employer involvement from the definition of an ERISA plan. 29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-2(d). The Obama administration finalized regulations in 2016 that would have expressly permitted state programs like CalSavers as exempt from ERISA coverage. However, Congress passed legislation in 2017 that repealed those regulations.
The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose. © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.