FAQ on New 401(k) Coverage Rules for Long-Term, Part-Time Workers

With a stated goal of encouraging retirement savings, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act expands eligibility to make salary deferrals under a 401(k) plan to “long-term, part-time workers.” The new rules under the SECURE Act, which became law on December 20, 2019, ramp up between 2021 and 2024. However, some employer action is already required, as explained below. The following Frequently Asked Questions walks you through the new rules, including those contained in IRS Notice 2020-68, published on September 3, 2020.

Q.1: What are the current rules for excluding part-time, seasonal, and temporary employees under 401(k) and other retirement plans?

A.1: Even of you exclude these categories by name, you must still track their hours of service and include them in the plan on the entry date coinciding with or following their completion of 1,000 or more hours of service within a 12-month period (or, if later, upon also attaining a minimum age not exceeding 21). This is required under Section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. Different rules applicable under Section 403(b) plans are outside the scope of this FAQ.

Q.2: Over what period do you count the 1,000 hours of service?

A.2: You count them over an “eligibility computation period.” The first eligibility computation generally starts upon the date of hire and ends on the first anniversary of that date. The plan may then continue to use the anniversary of hire, or switch to a plan year cycle.

Example – Switch to Plan Year Cycle: Kyle is hired on June 15, 2021 under a plan that follows a calendar year cycle and uses quarterly entry dates. Kyle works 700 hours between June 15, 2021 and June 14, 2022, the first anniversary of hire. Kyle does not enter the plan on July 1, 2022. Kyle completes 1,000 hours between January 1, 2022 and August 15, 2022 and enters the plan on October 1, 2022.

Q.3: What is a “long-term, part-time worker”?

A.3: Section 112 of the SECURE Act defines a long-term, part-time worker as an employee who has worked 500 or more hours in each of 3 consecutive 12-month periods, and who has attained a minimum age, not to exceed 21, as of the end of that 36-month period. The 12-month eligibility computation periods may be based on the anniversary of hire or may switch to the plan year cycle as described above.

Q.4: What eligibility rules apply to long-term, part-time workers?

A.4: An employee who qualifies as a long-term, part-time worker must be allowed to make employee salary deferrals under a Section 401(k) plan as of the first applicable entry date following completion of the 36-month period. A plan is allowed to use 6-month entry dates for long-term, part-time workers (e.g., January 1 and July for a calendar year plan) or may use regular quarterly, monthly, or other entry dates for this group.

Q.5: When do you begin tracking hours of service for long-term, part-time workers?

A.5: You begin tracking on January 1, 2021. That means the first point at which an employee will qualify for participation in a 401(k) plan as a long-term, part-time worker is January 1, 2024.

Q.6: Must long-term, part-time workers receive matching contributions or other employer contributions?

A.6: No, only eligibility to make salary deferral contributions is required. However, an employer may voluntarily make long-term, part-time workers eligible for matching and other employer contributions.

Q.7: If we choose not to, does that mean we don’t have to track hours of service towards vesting, for long-term, part-time workers?

A.7: No, you must track hours of service towards vesting, even if you don’t make employer contributions for this group. That is because, if a long-term, part-time worker later meets the plan’s conventional eligibility requirements, the worker joins the plan as a “regular” participant as of the first subsequent plan year, and may become eligible for matching and other employer contributions at that point. All of the worker’s hours of service must be counted towards vesting at that point. If these are hourly workers, you may be tracking their hours of service automatically, as it is.

Q.8: Do special rules apply to tracking vesting service for long-term, part-time workers?

A.8: Yes. Notice 2020-68 provides that you count each year in which an employee has at worked least 500 hours of service as a year of service counted towards vesting. Further, you count all years of service with the company in which they reach that threshold, not just years of service worked from January 1, 2021 and onward (as you do for eligibility purposes). If the plan language allows, you may disregard only years worked before attaining age 18, years worked before the plan was adopted, or years that may be disregarded under specially modified break in service rules.

Q.9: Are the break in service rules modified for long-term, part-time employees?

A.9: Yes. Normally, a break in service is defined as a year in which an employee has not completed more than 500 hours of service. For long-term, part-time workers, it is defined as a year in which the employee did not complete at least 500 hours of service.

Q.10: Can a plan still exclude employees based on job function or job location, such as “employees at Location B,” without violating the long-term, part-time worker coverage rules?

A.10: Presumably, reasonable, job-based exclusion criteria that pass minimum coverage testing are still permissible and are not preempted by the long-term, part-time worker coverage rules, but more guidance from the IRS would be appreciated. Employers with specific questions should consult benefit counsel for individualized guidance.

Q.11: Are long-term, part-time workers counted towards nondiscrimination testing, including ADP/ACP, and minimum coverage testing?

A.11: No, you are not required to count them under these tests.

Q.12: Are you required to make minimum top-heavy contributions on behalf of long-term, part-time workers?

A.12: No, you are not required to do so.

Q.13: Do the long-term, part-time worker coverage rules apply to employees subject to a collective bargaining agreement?

A.13: No, they do not apply to collectively bargained employees.

Q.14: Instead of tracking new hires over 3 years, should I just allow all employees who complete 500 hours of service to participate in the salary deferral portion of my 401(k) plan as of the next entry date?

A.14: That is certainly a simplified alternative to the minimum requirements, and presumably the exceptions from nondiscrimination testing and top-heavy contributions would continue to apply to employees meeting these reduced eligibility criteria. However this route could bring its own complications, by increasing your plan participant headcount over the 100 participant threshold sooner than is required. See Q&A 17.

Q.15: How will the long-term, part-time worker rules apply to plans with automatic enrollment?

A.15: The SECURE Act currently only refers to the minimum semi-annual entry dates for long-term, part-time workers, so it would appear that the automatic enrollment provisions would not apply to them. More guidance would on this topic would be appreciated, however.

Q.16: What if my plan doesn’t use actual hours to track service, but instead uses the equivalency method (e.g., 45 hours credited per week, if any service is performed in the week)?

A.16: It would appear that you can continue to use this method of tracking service for employees who meet conventional eligibility criteria, and use actual hours to track eligibility of long-term, part-time workers. Nothing in the SECURE Act prohibits use of the equivalency method for tracking service of long-term, part-time workers.

Q.17: Should we just create a new, separate 401(k) plan for long-term, part-time workers?

A.17: That depends. As it stands, it appears that employees who meet the criteria of long-term, part-time workers – whether or not they actively defer under the plan – will be included in the plan participant headcount on the first day of a plan year. This headcount is used to determine whether or not the plan has 100 or more participants and must include an independent qualified auditor’s report with its 5500 for a given year. If inclusion of your long-term, part-time workers will push your existing plan over the 100 participant threshold, you might give thought to separating them out in a separate plan, such that both of your plans will be under the audit threshold. Both plans would still have to file a Form 5500-SF each year, of course.

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. (c) 2020 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Clare Marino, Unsplash

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, ADP and ACP Testing, Benefit Plan Design, Nondiscrimination Testing for Qualified Retirement Plans, SECURE Act

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