Category Archives: Benefit Plan Design

2019 COLA Adjustments: Let’s Do the Numbers

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On November 1, 2019, the IRS announced 2019 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.   Salary deferral limits to 401(k) and 403(b) plans increased $500 to $19,000, and a number of other dollar limits increased.  Citations below are to the Internal Revenue Code.

In a separate announcement, the Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2019 increased to $132,900, from $128,400 in 2018.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, COLA Increases, ERISA, Nondiscrimination Testing for Qualified Retirement Plans, Profit Sharing Plan, Section 457(b) Plans

IRS Weighs In on 401(k) “Match” to Student Loan Repayments

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The IRS has approved an arrangement under which an employer “matches” employee student loan repayments by making non-elective contributions to its 401(k) plan on behalf of the employees paying the loans. The guidance is in the form of a Private Letter Ruling (PLR 201833012) that is only citable authority for the taxpayer who requested the ruling, but it is a promising development on the retirement plan front given the heavy student loan debt carried by current millennial employees and the generations following them. The program described in the ruling solves the problem of low 401(k) plan participation by employees who are carrying student loan debt, allowing them to obtain the “free” employer matching funds that they would otherwise forego.

The employer who obtained the ruling maintained a 401(k) plan that included a generous matching formula – 5% of eligible compensation for the pay period, provided that the employee made an elective deferral of at least 2% of compensation for the pay period. The employer proposed establishing a “student loan repayment (SLR) nonelective contribution” program with the following features:

Program Features
• It would be completely voluntary; employees must elect to enroll;
• Once enrolled, employees could opt out of enrollment on a prospective basis;
• Enrollees would still be eligible to make pre-tax or Roth elective deferrals, but would not be eligible to receive regular matching contributions while enrolled;
• Employees would be eligible to receive “SLR nonelective contributions” and true-up matching contributions, as described below; and
• If an employee initially enrolls in the program but later opts out of enrollment, the employee will resume eligibility for regular matching contributions.

SLR Nonelective Contributions
• If an employee makes a student loan repayment during a pay period that equals at least 2% of compensation for the pay period, the employer will make an SLR nonelective contribution equal to 5% of compensation for the pay period.
• Although based on each pay period’s compensation, the collective SLR nonelective contribution will be made as soon as practicable after the end of the plan year. (Because employees may stop and restart student loan repayments or regular elective deferrals, presumably it would not be possible for an employer to know, before the end of the plan year, precisely how much SLR nonelective contributions, and catch-up contributions, each program participant is due.)
• The SLR nonelective contribution is made regardless of whether or not the employee makes any regular salary deferrals throughout the year.
• The employee must be employed on the last day of the plan year (other than when employment terminates due to death or disability) in order to receive the SLR nonelective contribution.
• The SLR nonelective contributions are subject to the same vesting schedule as regular matching contributions.
• The SLR nonelective contributions are subject to all applicable plan qualification requirements: eligibility, vesting, distribution rules, contribution limits, and coverage and nondiscrimination testing.
• The SLR nonelective contributions will not be treated as a regular matching contribution for purposes of 401(m) testing.

True-Up Contributions
• In the event an employee does not make a student loan repayment for a pay period equal to at least 2% of the employee’s eligible compensation, but does make a regular elective deferral equal to at least 2% of compensation, the employer will make a “true-up matching contribution” equal to 5% of the employee’s eligible compensation the pay period.
• Although based on pay period compensation, the collective true-up matching contribution will be made as soon as practicable after the end of the plan year.
• The employee must be employed on the last day of the plan year (other than when employment terminates due to death or disability) in order to receive the true-up matching contribution.
• The true-up matching contributions are subject to the same vesting schedule as regular matching contributions.
• The true-up matching contributions are treated as regular matching contributions for purposes of 401(m) testing.

The specific ruling that the IRS made was that the SLR nonelective contribution program would not violate the prohibition on “contingent benefits” under applicable Income Tax Regulations. Under this rule, an employer may not make other benefits, such as health insurance, stock options, or similar entitlements, contingent on a participant’s making elective deferrals under a 401(k) plan. There are a few exceptions, most notably employer matching contributions, which are expressly contingent on elective deferrals. Because the SLR nonelective contributions are triggered by employees’ student loan repayments, and not by elective deferrals, and because employees who receive them are still eligible to make regular elective deferrals, the IRS concluded that they did not violate the contingent benefit rule. The IRS stated that, in reaching this conclusion, it presumed that the taxpayer had not extended any student loans to employees who were eligible for the program and had no intentions to do so.

Closing Thoughts
Existing vendors who help employers contribute towards student loan repayments will probably move to establish and market versions of the SLR nonelective contribution program described in the private letter ruling, in which case additional, and more broadly applicable, IRS guidance would be welcome. In the meantime, employers wishing to put such a program in place should not assume that reproducing the facts in the ruling is a safe harbor from adverse tax consequences, and should consult legal counsel to assess potential liability.

Note:  The employer who obtained the Private Letter Ruling was later identified as Abbott Labs.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, ERISA, Payroll Issues, Student Loans

It’s (Summer) Time for Wellness Plan Re-Design

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Now that summer is here, there are only a few more months until benefit plan open enrollment for 2019 gets underway. Employers who maintain a wellness program that includes biometric testing, health risk assessments (HRAs), or medical questionnaires need to think now about how they will design their plan in the new year, as changes to the rules governing these wellness features go into effect.  This post outlines the changes and discusses the new design landscape for 2019.

What are the Changes?

During 2017 and 2018, final regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) limit the financial incentive employers may offer in exchange for participating in biometric testing, HRAs or medical questionnaires, to an amount equal to 30% of the cost of individual coverage (both the employee and employer portions.) The same limit applies to surcharges or penalties for not taking part.  Companion regulations under Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) apply the same cap to completion of an HRA or medical questionnaire by an employee’s spouse, because manifestation of a disease or disorder in a family member comprises genetic information on the employee.  The ADA regulations also disallow the 20% additional incentive tied to tobacco use, if the wellness program includes a blood test for nicotine or cotinine.  The ADA and Title II of GINA apply to employers with 15 or more employees.   We discussed the ADA and GINA rules in a prior post.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) challenged the 30% incentive limit in court on the grounds that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) failed to prove that this cap was necessary in order for participation in the biometric testing or health risk assessment (HRA) to be “voluntary” and not coercive, which is an ADA requirement.

A federal court agreed with the AARP, and vacated the 30% incentive cap effective January 1, 2019.  (Other provisions of the ADA regulations, including notification and confidentiality rules, remain in effect.)  The court also lifted a requirement that the EEOC publish new proposed regulations on the voluntary standard by August 31, 2018.   The EEOC may issue regulations in the future (and could appeal the court decision), but wellness program design for 2019 must get underway in the absence of clear guidance on the voluntariness standard.

2019 Design Landscape

The chart below illustrates the wellness rule landscape effective January 1, 2019 for employers that are subject to the ADA. Wellness regulations under HIPAA and the ACA will continue to apply, but they do not impose any limit on incentives (or penalties) for biometric testing or HRAs that are “participation only” i.e., that do not require physical activity, or specific health outcomes.

Despite the vacated EEOC standard, employers should exercise caution in setting financial incentives for biometric testing, HRAs or medical questionnaires.  Even prior to issuing regulations, the EEOC had challenged wellness programs in several court actions, ranging from a program that conditioned biometric testing and completion of an HRA on a $20 per paycheck surcharge, to one that conditioned 100% of the premium cost on taking part in an HRA. Although the cases generally were resolved in favor of the employer, they make clear that EEOC may view even modest incentives as failing the voluntary standard.

Employers should also make sure that their wellness program follows up after gathering health data through biometric testing, HRAs or medical questionnaires, with information, advice, or programs targeted at health risks.  A wellness program that fails to do so would not qualify as an employee health program under the ADA and the voluntary wellness program exceptions would not be available.

So what are some options for 2019? There are several design “safe harbors” that do not trigger the ADA voluntariness standard:

1) Eliminating biometric testing/HRAs/medical questionnaires altogether.

2) Keeping biometric testing/HRAs/medical questionnaires, but removing any financial incentive or penalty that applied to them.

3) Offering smoking cessation programs that request self-disclosure as a tobacco user (no blood test for nicotine, cotinine).

Limiting financial incentives/penalties for biometric testing/HRAs/medical questionnaires to an amount that does not exceed 10 – 15% of the individual premium is another option. This range is just high enough to encourage participation, but it is under 20%.  In AARP v. EEOC, the court’s August 2017 ruling on summary judgment cited a RAND study noting that “high powered” incentives of 20% or more may place a disproportionate burden on lower-paid employees.

What about different incentive levels for different groups of employees? First, this may be administratively impractical, and second, it might run afoul of the HIPAA/ACA requirement that the full wellness incentive or reward be made available to all “similarly situated” individuals.  Groupings of employees for this purpose must be based on bona fide, employment-based classifications that are consistent with the employer’s usual business practice, such as between full-time and part-time employees, hourly and salaried, different lengths of employment, or different geographic locations.   For many employers, these criteria may not always neatly overlap with different compensation levels.

In sum, employers who do not wish to eliminate biometric testing and HRAs/medical questionnaires from their wellness programs should anticipate living with some uncertainty about whether their financial incentives meet ADA standards.   Engaging in careful planning in the coming weeks, together with benefit advisors and legal counsel, can help keep the risk to a minimum.

 

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Benefit Plan Design, GINA/Genetic Privacy, HIPAA and HITECH, PPACA, Uncategorized, Wellness Programs

California’s Dynamex Decision: What it Means for ERISA Plans

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The California Supreme Court ruled on April 30, 2018 that, for purposes of coverage under California wage orders, employers must start with the presumption that a worker is a common law employee, and then may properly classify him or her as an independent contractor only if all of the following three criteria are met:

  1. The worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring business in connection with the performance of the work;
  2. The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
  3. The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

Although the Dynamex ruling is limited to classification of workers under the California wage orders, it’s practical effect is likely to be much broader, as employers are unlikely to use one definition of employee for wage and hour purposes, and another definition for, say, reimbursement of business expenses, or benefit plan eligibility.

Speaking of which, what is the likely impact of the Dynamex ruling on employee benefit plans? Will employers have to offer coverage retroactively to the hire date of the now-reclassified independent contractors? Must they offer coverage going forward?

ERISA plans look to the federal definition of common law employee, which in turn looks to federal case law and an IRS multi-factor test.   So the Dynamex decision does not itself create eligibility under an ERISA plan.   What if individuals who were reclassified as employees under the ABC test were to claim retroactive eligibility under an ERISA plan, however?  As a starting point, it is helpful to look at how most plan documents currently define “eligible employee” and how they treat the issue of workers who were engaged as independent contractors, but later are classified as common law employees.

Most prototype 401(k) plan documents – and some health plan documents in use by “self-insured” employers – contain what is commonly referred to as “Microsoft language” — under which plan eligibility will not extend retroactively to individuals who are hired as independent contractors, even if they later are classified as employees. The language came into common use after the Ninth Circuit ruling in Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp., 120 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied.522 U.S. 1098 (1998), which held that long-term, “temporary” workers, hired as independent contractors, were employees for purposes of Microsoft’s 401(k) and stock purchase plan.[1]

For example, a prototype 401(k)/profit sharing plan that is in wide use provides as follows:

“Eligible Employee” means any Employee of the Employer who is in the class of Employees eligible to participate in the Plan. The Employer must specify in Subsection 1.04(d) of the Adoption Agreement any Employee or class of Employees not eligible to participate in the Plan. Regardless of the provisions of Subsection 1.04(d) of the Adoption Agreement, the following Employees are automatically excluded from eligibility to participate in the Plan:

(1) any individual who is a signatory to a contract, letter of agreement, or other document that acknowledges his status as an independent contractor not entitled to benefits under the Plan or any individual (other than a Self-Employed Individual) who is not otherwise classified by the Employer as a common law employee, even if such independent contractor or other individual is later determined to be a common law employee; and  (2) any Employee who is a resident of Puerto Rico.

And a self-insured group health plan document from a well-known provider states as follows:

The term “Employee” shall not include any individual for the period of time such individual was classified by the Employer as an independent contractor, leased employee (whether or not a “Leased Employee” under the Code section § 414(n)) or any other classification other than Employee. In the event an individual who is excluded from Employee status under the preceding sentence is reclassified as an Employee of the Employer pursuant to a final determination by the Internal Revenue Service, another governmental entity with authority to make such a reclassification, or a court of competent jurisdiction, such individual shall not retroactively be an Employee under this Plan. Such reclassified Employee may become a Covered Person in this Plan at such later time as the individual satisfies the conditions of participation set forth in this Plan. (Emphasis added.)

The Microsoft language, if present, may resolve the issue of retroactive coverage. What about coverage going forward? If a worker has provided services as an independent contractor but cannot retain that status under the ABC test, and is hired as a common-law, W-2 employee, does the first hour of service counted under the plan begin the day they become a W-2 employee, or the date they signed on as an independent contractor? The Microsoft provisions quoted above would suggest that service would start only when the common-law relationship starts, however employers are cautioned to read their specific plan documents carefully and to consult qualified employment and benefits law counsel for clarification. If the desire is to credit past service worked as an independent contractor, it may be advisable to seek IRS guidance before doing so, as fiduciary duties require that plan sponsors act in strict accordance with the written terms of their plan documents.

Finally, what about insured group health and welfare documents, such as fully insured medical, dental, vision, disability or life insurance? The policies and benefit summaries that govern these benefits probably won’t contain Microsoft language and may define eligible status as simply as “you are a regular full-time employee, as defined by your [Employer].”

Employers that are “applicable large employers” under the Affordable Care Act must count individuals who have been re-classified as common-law employees under the ABC test toward the group of employees to whom they offer minimum essential coverage; this group must comprise all but 5% (or, if greater, all but 5) of its full-time employees.  Unfortunately, there is potential ACA liability for failing the 95% offer on a retroactive basis. Public comments on the final employer shared responsibility regulations requested relief from retroactive coverage when independent contractors were reclassified as common-law employees, but the Treasury Department specifically failed to grant such relief, noting in the preamble to the final regulations that doing so could encourage worker misclassification.  Whether the customary 3-year tax statute of limitations would apply in such situations is not entirely clear; also unclear is whether employers could successfully argue that workers that fail the ABC test still somehow could classify as non-employees for federal common-law purposes.

Bottom line? Every California employer paying workers other than as W-2 employees should be re-examining those relationships under the ABC test and should be consulting qualified employment law counsel, and benefits law counsel, about the consequences of any misclassification, both on a retroactive basis (particularly with regard to the ACA), and going forward (all benefit plans).

[1] Another Ninth Circuit case, Burrey v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., 159 F.3d 388 (9th Cir. 1998), essentially followed the Microsoft ruling, but with specific regard to “leased employees” as defined under Internal Revenue Code § 414(n). A discussion of leased employees is beyond the scope of this post.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, Employer Shared Responsibility, Gig Economy, Independent Contractor, PPACA, Worker Misclassification

Top 10 Questions re: Management Carve Outs in Group Health Plans

            Employers value flexibility in designing their group health benefits so as best to attract and retain qualified personnel. One issue that remains perpetually murky, in this regard, is the legality of management carve-outs, whereby an employer offers certain group health insurance options or classes of coverage only to management or other highly paid groups.   The following true or false discusses some of the rules that come into play.

  1. The ACA contains a rule that restricts employers’ ability to offer different insured group health benefits to highly compensated employees, than to other employees.

             TRUE:  Under Section 2716 of the Public Health Service Act, which was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act (ACA), non-grandfathered, insured group health plans generally must satisfy nondiscrimination rules similar to those that apply to self-insured group health plans under Section 105(h) of the Internal Revenue Code (“Code”). These rules generally require some measure of parity between higher-paid employees, and non-highly paid employees.  Limited scope dental or vision plans provided under policies separate from group medical coverage are excepted.

  1. However, the IRS is not currently enforcing the ACA nondiscrimination rules for insured group health plans.

             TRUE:  In 2011 the IRS postponed enforcement of these rules, pending publication of regulations that will guide employers as to how to comply. As we approach the ACA’s eighth anniversary in March 2018, regulations have yet to issue.  When regulations do issue they will apply on a prospective (going forward) basis.

  1. Therefore employers have free reign to offer different benefits to management employees or other highly-compensated groups of employees.

             FALSE:   Although there are some circumstances in which employers may offer different and/or better group health insurance to management or other highly-paid employee groupings, the Section 125 cafeteria plan rules do impose some design restrictions.  These rules will apply to employers that have any type of Section 125 cafeteria plan arrangement, including premium-only plans (e.g., employees’ share of premiums are paid on a pre-tax basis, with no other cafeteria plan features) and to employers with other cafeteria plan features such as a health flexible spending account or dependent care flexible spending account.  The rules are explained in the questions that follow.

  1. All management employees are “highly-compensated employees” for cafeteria plan testing purposes.

             FALSE: First, the technical term is “highly-compensated individuals,” and it includes the following groups, which will not necessarily overlap 100% with an employer’s management group population:

  • Officers during the prior plan year
  • Greater than 5% shareholders (in either the preceding or current plan year)
  • Highly compensated employees (those earning more than $120,000 in 2017 are highly compensated employees in 2018)
  • Spouses or dependents of any of the above.
  1. If I maintain just a premium-only plan and all employees can participate and elect the same salary reductions for the same benefits, the premium only plan is nondiscriminatory.

             TRUE.  Proposed cafeteria plan regulations that issued in 2007 provide this safe harbor rule. Employers may rely on the proposed rules.

  1. If I maintain just a premium-only plan and don’t meet the requirements of the safe harbor, the POP is automatically discriminatory.

            FALSE.  Under these circumstances your premium-only plan will not satisfy the safe harbor mentioned above, but it could still pass other applicable nondiscrimination tests.  There is some uncertainty, under the 2007 proposed regulations, as to whether the only applicable test applies to eligibility, or whether there is a benefits component of the test.  It may be best to consult a seasoned third party administrator, or benefits attorney, if you have questions.

  1. If my cafeteria plan fails all types of nondiscrimination testing, all is lost.

             FALSE. The 2007 proposed regulations permit “disaggregation” – breaking up one plan into separate component plans – one benefitting participants who have completed up to three years of employment, and another benefitting those with three or more years of employment.  Each component plan must separately pass cafeteria nondiscrimination rules applicable to eligibility, and contributions and benefits.  Plans that fail nondiscrimination testing as a whole may pass testing after permissive disaggregation.  The proposed regulations did not discuss whether plans may be disaggregated based on factors other than length of employment, and further guidance on this point would be welcome.

  1. The IRS does not audit cafeteria plans so it doesn’t matter anyway.

FALSE. Although audits specific to a cafeteria plan are seldom seen, the IRS could expand a payroll audit or other business or benefit plan audit to encompass operation of a cafeteria plan, even a premium-only plan.  Therefore it is important to comply with the cafeteria plan nondiscrimination rules.

  1. Our company pays 100% of health premiums for highly compensated individuals directly to the carrier (or the employees pay themselves on an after-tax basis), so there is no cafeteria plan nondiscrimination issue.

             TRUE.  However, any insured group health plan design that provides better treatment for higher paid employees may fall afoul of the ACA nondiscrimination regulations mentioned in questions 1 and 2, when they issue; although the regulations will apply prospectively, neither employers nor their highly compensation staff should assume that preferential health plan designs are more than temporary.

  1. A “Simple” Cafeteria Plan is exempt from Section 125 nondiscrimination rules.

             TRUE.  A nondiscrimination safe harbor applies to “simple” cafeteria plans under Code Section 125(j), however those plans are subject to other design restrictions that may prove unworkable for many employers, including mandated employer matching or non-elective contributions. They are also limited to employers with 100 or fewer employees on business days during either of the two preceding years.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, Cafeteria Plans, Health Care Reform, Nondiscrimination Rules for Insured Health Plans, PPACA, Premium Only Plans

You Just Formed a New Business Entity. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

What if a somewhat arcane area of tax law had potentially serious ramifications for attorneys and other tax advisors across a broad range of practices, but was not consistently identified and planned for in actual practice? That is an accurate description of the rules surrounding “controlled group” status between two or more businesses, which I have seen arise in business formation/transactions, estate planning, employment and family law settings.  The purpose of this overview is to briefly survey controlled group rules for non-ERISA practitioners, so that they can become aware of the potential complications that controlled group rules can create.

  1. Why Do Controlled Groups Matter?

The main reason they matter is because the IRS treats separate businesses within a controlled group as a single employer for almost all retirement and health benefit plan purposes. In fact, annual reporting for retirement plans (and for health and welfare plans with 100 or more participants) requires a statement under penalty of perjury as to whether the employer is part of a controlled group.  Therefore controlled groups are most frequently a concern where business entities have employees and particularly when they sponsor benefit plans, whether retirement/401(k), or health and welfare plans.  Note, however, that creation of a business entity that has no employees can still create a controlled group issue when it acts as a conduit to link ownership of two or more other entities that do have employees.

Being part of a controlled group does not always mean that all employees of the member companies have to participate in the same benefit plan (although it can sometimes mean that). However it generally means that separately maintained retirement plans have to perform nondiscrimination testing as if they were combined, which not infrequently means that one or more of the plans will fail nondiscrimination testing.  This is an event that usually requires the employer sponsoring the plan to add more money to the plan on behalf of some of the additional counted employees, or to pay penalty taxes in relation to same.  Similar complications can arise in Section 125 cafeteria or “flexible benefit plans,” and for self-insured group health plans, which are subject to nondiscrimination requirements under Code § 105(h).  Nondiscrimination rules are meant to apply to insured group health plans under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), so additional complications could arise in that context when and if the rules are enforced by the IRS, following publication of regulatory guidance.

Controlled group status can also mean that several small employers together comprise an “applicable large employer” subject to the ACA “pay or play rules,” and related annual IRS reporting duties. Small employer exceptions under other laws, including COBRA and the Medicare Secondary Payer Act, reference controlled group status when determining eligibility for the exception.

  1. How Do I Identify a Controlled Group?

 Determining controlled group status requires synthesizing regulations and other guidance across multiple Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) provisions and therefore is a task for a specialized ERISA or tax practitioner.  What follows are very simplified definitions aimed at helping advisors outside that specialized area flag potential controlled group issues for further analysis.

Strictly speaking, the term “controlled group” refers to shared ownership of two or more corporations, but this article uses the term generically as it is the more familiar term.  “Ownership” in this context means possession of the voting power or value of corporate stock (or a combination thereof).  Shared ownership among other types of business entities is described as “a group of trades or businesses under ‘common control.’”  Ownership in this context refers to ownership of a capital or profits interest in a partnership or LLC taxed as a partnership.   Controlled groups can also arise in relation to tax-exempt entities, for instance if they own 80% or more of a for-profit entity, or even between two tax-exempt entities where there is substantial overlap of board membership or board control.

Complex interest exclusion rules mean that not all ownership interests are counted towards common control; exclusion may turn on the nature of the interest held (e.g., treasury or non-voting preferred stock) or on the party holding the ownership interest (e.g, the trust of a tax-qualified retirement plan).

The two main sub-types of controlled group are: parent-subsidiary, and “brother-sister,” although a combination of the two may also exist.  A parent-subsidiary controlled group exists when one business owns 80% or more of another business, or where there is a chain of such ownership relationships. As that is a fairly straightforward test, I will focus on the lesser known, but more prevalent, brother-sister type of controlled group.

A brother-sister controlled group exists when the same five or fewer individuals, trusts, or estates (the “brother-sister” group) have a “controlling interest” in, and “effective control” of, two or more businesses.

  • A controlling interest exists when the brother-sister group members own, or are deemed to own under rules of attribution, at least 80% of each of the businesses in question.
  • Effective control exists when the brother-sister group owns or is deemed to own greater than 50% of the businesses in question, looking only at each member’s “lowest common denominator” ownership interest. (So, a group member that owed 20% of one business and 40% of another business would be credited only with 20% in the effective control test.)
  • In order to pass the 80% test, you must use the interests of the same five or fewer persons (or trusts or estates) used for purposes of the greater than 50% test.  See US v. Vogel Fertilizer, 455 US 16 (1982). Put otherwise, the two tests consider only owners with a greater-than-zero interest in each of the businesses under consideration. If, under this rule, you disregard shares adding up to more than 20% of a business, the 80% test won’t be met and that business generally won’t form part of the controlled group. (Although the remaining businesses may do so.)

The controlled group attribution rules are quite complex and can only be touched on here. Very generally speaking, an ownership interest may be attributed from a business entity to the entity’s owner, from trusts to trust beneficiaries (and to grantors of “grantor” trusts as defined under Code § 671-678), and among family members. Stock options can also create attributed ownership under some circumstances.  The attribution rules can have surprising consequences. For instance, a couple, each with his or her wholly-owned corporation, will be a controlled group if they have a child under age 21 together, regardless of their marital status, because the minor child is attributed with 100% of each parent’s interests under Code §1563(e)(6)(A).  Community property rights may also give rise to controlled group status. Careful pre-marital planning may be necessary to prevent unintended controlled group status among businesses owned separately by the partners to the marriage.

This is the first part of a two-part discussion that was first published as an article in the Santa Barbara Lawyer Magazine for October 2017.  The second half will address a variation of these rules that are specific to businesses formed by doctors, dentists, accountants, and other service providers.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, ADP and ACP Testing, Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, Cafeteria Plans, COBRA, Common Control Issues, Employer Shared Responsibility, ERISA, Health Care Reform, Nondiscrimination Rules for Insured Health Plans, Nondiscrimination Testing for Qualified Retirement Plans, Plan Reporting and Disclosure Duties

Offer Opt-Out Payments? Don’t Get Snared in Overtime Liability

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If you are an employer within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and offer cash payments to employees who opt out of group health coverage (“opt-out payments”), what you don’t know about the court’s 2016 opinion in Flores v. City of San Gabriel may hurt you.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit court held that opt-out payments had to be included in the regular rate of pay used to calculate overtime payments under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In May 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the opinion, making it controlling law within the Ninth Circuit, and hence in the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington.

The Flores case arose when a group of active and former police officers in the City of San Gabriel sought overtime compensation based on opt-out payments they received between 2009 and 2012 under a flexible benefits plan maintained by the City.  The plan required eligible employees to purchase dental and vision benefits with pre-tax dollars; they could also use the plan to purchase group health insurance.  Employees could elect to forgo medical benefits upon proof of alternative coverage; in exchange they received the unused portion of their benefits allotment as a cash payment added to their regular paycheck.  The opt-out payments were not insubstantial, ranging from $12,441 annually in 2009 to $15,659.40 in 2012.  The City’s total expenditure on opt-out payments exceeded $1.1 million dollars in 2009 and averaged about 45% of total contributions to the flexible benefits plan over the three years at issue.

The court held that the City had not properly excluded the opt-out payments from the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes under the FLSA, as they were items of compensation even though not tied directly to specific hours of work, and further that the “bona fide” benefit plan exception did not apply, because, inter alia, the cash opt-out payments received under the flex plan comprised far more than an “incidental” portion of the benefits received.

Despite the significant potential impact of getting this classification wrong, the City appears not to have sought a legal opinion on whether it could permissibly exclude the opt-out payments under the FLSA. Instead, a City employee testified that it followed its normal process of classifying the item of pay through joint decision by the payroll and human resources departments, without any further review of the classification or other due-diligence.  For this oversight, the court awarded liquidated damages against the City for failure to demonstrate that it acted in good faith and on the basis of “reasonable grounds” to believe it had correctly classified the opt-out payments under the FLSA.  Further, the court approved a three-year statute of limitations for a “willful” violation of the FLSA, rather than the normal two year period, on the grounds that the City was on notice of its FLSA requirements, yet took “’no affirmative action to ensure compliance with them.’”

Although Flores involved a benefit plan maintained by a public entity, there is nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion that limits its scope to public entity employers.

Therefore employers within the Ninth Circuit who offer opt-out payments should review their payroll treatment of these amounts and seek legal counsel in the event there if potential overtime liability under the FLSA. They should also confirm that cash opt-out payments remain an “incidental” percentage of total flex benefits, which the Department of Labor has defined in a 2003 opinion letter as no more than 20% of total plan benefits.  In Flores the Ninth Circuit found the 20% threshold to be arbitrary, but suggested that it was likely lower than 40% of total benefits.  Finally, employers offering opt-out payments should also revisit the other legal compliance hurdles that these payments present under the ACA, which after its recent reprieve from repeal/replace legislation, remains, for now, the law of the land.

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Filed under Benefit Plan Design, Cafeteria Plans, FLSA, Fringe Benefits, Health Care Reform, Overtime, Post-Election ACA, PPACA, Uncategorized