American workers are facing a savings crisis made more acute by soaring interest rates, persistent inflation, and other economic stressors. In its 2023 Workplace Wellness Survey, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found that 30% of workers could not pay for an unexpected $500 expense, while half of EBRI’s respondents considered their retirement savings to be their only “significant emergency savings.”
This dependence on retirement savings is also rising according to Vanguard research that reveals hardship withdrawals from workplace retirement plans increased from 2021 to 2022. About 80% of those withdrawals were taken by lower-income participants (defined as the participants with an annual income of between $30,000 and $75,000) to avoid losing their home or to pay for unexpected medical bills. Further, one-third of the participants who took a hardship withdrawal in 2022 had previously taken a withdrawal in 2021.
This data underscores an important challenge facing employees and employers alike: near-term financial needs may sabotage the long-term financial security and retirement outcomes of many Americans. And while today only 20% of workers have access to an emergency savings account at work, EBRI’s survey found that more than 80% of those without such a benefit want one and would prioritize it above other benefits, such as health savings accounts and additional paid time off.
How Employers Can Help: The In-Plan Option
To help address this issue, the Secure 2.0 Act of 2022 offers plan sponsors a way to include an emergency-savings benefit, also known as pension-linked emergency savings accounts or PLESAs, as an add-on to an existing retirement plan program. The Act permits PLESAs to be added as of January 1, 2024.
Here are a few things to know about PLESAs:
- PLESAs are intended for non-highly-compensated employees (as defined by the IRS).
- Employees can contribute up to $2,500 (or a lesser amount determined by the plan sponsor) on an after-tax (Roth) basis.
- Employees may take withdrawals as frequently as monthly.
- Employers have the option of auto-enrolling employees in a PLESA up to a rate of 3% of compensation.
- Employers may match contributions to a PLESA, but must:
- Match at the same rate that applies to any retirement plan match.
- Make matching contributions to the participant’s retirement account, not the PLESA.
- Employees are not required to document a hardship or immediate financial need to take a withdrawal.
- PLESA contributions must be held as cash in interest-bearing deposit accounts or in regulated principal preservation investment products.
While the intended goal of PLESAs is positive — to promote healthy saving habits while helping to preserve the retirement savings of employees — there remain many open questions about key aspects of the legislation including eligibility, employee and employer contributions, and distributions. The DOL and IRS have been directed to study emergency savings in defined-contribution plans and to report their findings to Congress, but the deadline for doing so isn’t until December 29, 2029. For plan sponsors concerned about the complexity and lack of regulatory clarity around setting up and administering PLESAs, a standalone emergency savings product is an alternative.
A growing number of retirement plan recordkeepers are partnering with plan sponsors to add out-of-plan (sometimes referred to as à la carte) emergency savings products to their menu of benefits. Financial wellness nonprofit Commonwealth interviewed plan recordkeepers and noted that eight out of nine recordkeepers offered or are planning to offer an emergency savings product.
One such program recently initiated by some plan sponsors allows employees to contribute a portion of their net pay to an account maintained by the company’s 401(k) recordkeeper. Financial education modules and one-on-one financial coaching sessions are also being offered in conjunction with the program.
BDO Insight: Weigh the Pros and Cons
When considering either approach, plan sponsors need to think through what they are trying to achieve. If it is a behavioral shift they are seeking, the in-plan option may make sense because once participants reach the $2,500 contribution limit, any overflow of funds automatically goes into the participant’s Roth retirement savings along with any employer matching contributions. In this way, plan sponsors are encouraging better short- and long-term saving habits, while also helping to reduce hardship withdrawals and loans from retirement plans along with the associated penalties and fees.
For other employers, particularly smaller companies, the out-of-plan option may be a more easily implemented choice because employers are not required to already have a retirement plan in place. Also, because standalone savings plans are not subject to ERISA, there are no regulatory hurdles, auto-enrollment, auto-escalation, or fiduciary obligations for sponsors. The relative simplicity of implementing these out-of-plan savings vehicles could offer an attractive option for smaller employers.
However, while out-of-plan products are attractive for their ease of use, they do not include an employer matching contribution feature. From a behavioral perspective, the out-of-plan product lacks the employee behavioral trigger that some employers want to achieve. Employers who are looking to modify employee savings habits could consider other options.
We recommend sponsors clarify the goals for your employees and your benefits program and consider whether adding some type of emergency savings option (in or out-of-plan) may complement your overall objectives. BDO’s ERISA team is available to help as you consider the best steps forward for your plan and its participants.