The press release headlines are sobering: “U.S. Labor Department files suit to remove trustees,” “Department of Labor files suit to recover unpaid contributions to 401(k) plan,” and “Judge orders trustees to restore losses.”
The Department of Labor website is overflowing with cases of regulators taking action against employers accused of mishandling employee benefit plans.
Among the most common cases: errors in administering 401(k) plans. Although Labor Department officials and experts in the ERISA field say the majority of cases are errors in reporting and do not result in civil lawsuits, the numbers of benefit plan cases investigated (of all kinds) are still impressive: the DOL closed 3,677 investigations in 2013, with nearly 73 percent of those resulting in monetary fines or other corrective action. Lawsuits were filed in 111 of those cases.
The department says it is working to educate employers about how to avoid errors, including conducting seminars and providing information on the DOL website.
In a March 21 blog post, Phyllis Borzi, assistant secretary of Labor for employee benefits security, noted that employers can find it challenging to administer benefits such as 401(K) plans.
“Most fiduciaries — people who have key responsibilities and obligations to an employee benefit plan — and employers want to do the right thing,” she said in the piece. “However, inadvertent mistakes can create significant problems for fiduciaries and participants.”
The problems can lead to substantial monetary fines and settlements.
In January, for example, the DOL announced that a Chicago-area manufacturing firm, Hico Flex Brass, would pay $79,000 to settle a case in which the company failed to properly distribute 401(k) earnings to employees.
A Jan. 10 complaint by the DOL asked the courts to rule that a machine shop in Santa Maria, Calif., should restore $58,000 in 401(k) contributions that the company improperly mixed with other business accounts.
For large companies, the costs are even higher.
A lawsuit brought by employees of International Paper resulted in a $30 million settlement in January, although that case was litigated by a law firm and not the DOL.
Even when the dollar figures aren’t as high, cases involving 401(k) administrative errors can hit small and medium-sized employers hard.
Lawyers who work on employee benefits cases say many employers don’t pay close enough attention to the complexities of administering retirement plans.
“It’s just difficult at times for employers to keep up and attend to all the details,” said John Nichols, an employment benefits lawyer with Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty. “The rules are complex, and the administration of the plans is correspondingly complex.”
Plenty of room for error
“The reality is that running a benefit plan such as a 401(k) plan has a lot of room for error built into it,” said Stephen Rosenberg, an ERISA attorney with The McCormack Firm, based in Boston. “Many of these small and medium-sized companies are focused on running their business. They need to provide a 401(k) as an employee benefit but they don’t really have the internal resources to do this.”
Rosenberg said even large businesses often stumble with retirement plan administration. “Retirement plans, including 401(k) plans, are probably more regulated than anything in American economic life short of nuclear power plants,” he said. “It’s very difficult for any company not large enough to have a dedicated legal staff to hit every hurdle correctly.”
Nichols said that the DOL tends to investigate certain areas of plan administration pretty consistently. “You see a lot of similarity” of the cases, he noted. “One exercise (employers can consider) is to go down the list of typical cases and say, ‘How are we doing in each of these areas?’”
So what are the areas the DOL tends to investigate? The experts interviewed for this story agreed that there are several areas where problems may trigger a DOL investigation of employers.
One is failing to make a timely remittance to the 401(k) plan. Under federal rules, funds from an employee’s paycheck have to be submitted to their retirement account no more than 15 days after the money is withheld from the paycheck.
A second common issue is making sure employees get their statements in a timely manner. Proper disclosure of fees owed to the plan’s fiduciaries (the company in charge of administering the funds for the plan) is another area that DOL looks at closely. And some companies have been found noncompliant for failing to maintain fidelity bonds for their plans, a safeguard against misuse of funds.
“I do see companies who are loose about when they make deposits; they just treat it like the rest of the cash flow in the company,” said Rosenberg.
Avoiding costly mistakes
Rosenberg and Nichols said there are several steps employers can take to avoid trouble with DOL regulators.
They both said companies need to take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously, and not expect that a retirement plan will run itself. An important first step is keeping good records.
“If you have a committee that is responsible for the administration of the plan or its investments, make sure that they meet regularly and that you keep a good record of committee actions, what’s discussed, and how decisions are made,” Nichols said.
Rosenberg said companies need to be realistic about whether they have the time, resources, and knowledge to administer and monitor retirement plans themselves.
“The key in many ways for smaller and midsized companies is really to find a very good outside consultant — and I don’t mean your vendor,” he said. “If you have a huge company you have a department to do this. If you’re not, bring in a consultant and outsource that role.”
Nichols agreed that the vendor — the financial services company that provides the investment plan — has a limited role. “Vendors are pretty good at allocating accounts and providing access to account information,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the whole job is done. You didn’t get a totally turnkey product. There are things you need to do as well.”
Failing to watch, of course, could mean triggering a DOL action.
“There’s always a monitoring responsibility,” a DOL spokesperson said. “The criteria we use is, ‘You should have known. You might not have known, but you should have known.’”