QUESTION: I am reviewing our company’s employee benefit programs and confirming that they are treated appropriately for ERISA compliance purposes. Our disability program provides income-replacement benefits to employees who are unable to work because of illness or injury; payments commence once an employee is out of work for more than two weeks. Benefits are paid from the company’s general assets, not from a trust or separate account. Am I right that for this reason, our program is not an ERISA plan, or do additional conditions apply?

ANSWER: You are correct that a DOL regulation exempts certain “payroll practices,” including disability payments, from ERISA-plan status. You are also correct that the main condition of this regulatory exemption (often referred to as a safe harbor) is that the payments come from the employer’s general assets. It sounds like your program meets this requirement—but several other elements also must be considered to determine whether your program falls within the exemption. If a disability program has any of the following features, the payroll practice safe harbor is not available, and the program is most likely subject to ERISA:

  • Trust or Separate Account. As noted above, making payments from the employer’s general assets is a key component of the exemption, so funding the program through a trust or separate account will take it outside the safe harbor. It is, however, generally permissible to earmark funds for the program within the employer’s general assets, so long as the funds remain available for other purposes, such as to pay the employer’s creditors.
  • Insurance. Payment of benefits through insurance is not payment from the employer’s general assets, so using insurance will take the program outside the safe harbor.
  • Paying More Than Normal Compensation. To fall within the safe harbor, the program may pay eligible employees only their normal compensation, or less (for example, 60% of normal compensation).
  • Paying Benefits to Former Employees. The safe harbor covers only payments to employees while absent from work, not to former employees—the exemption does not apply if payments continue after an individual terminates employment. You will need to consider the duration of benefits available under the program and ensure that it does not extend beyond when the company considers termination of employment to occur. For example, if an employee who does not return to work is treated as having terminated employment before exhaustion of the disability benefits available under the program, the program does not fall within the safe harbor. As a practical matter, long-term disability programs are more likely to provide benefits beyond termination of employment and thus not meet the requirements, even if paid from the employer’s general assets.

Although it is possible that an arrangement that does not fall within the regulatory exemption may still avoid ERISA’s application under the general standard (a plan, fund, or program established or maintained by an employer to provide ERISA-listed benefits to employees), such a result is unlikely. Thus, any variations from the safe harbor requirements should be discussed with legal counsel. As a final caution, if your company wishes to treat this program as not subject to ERISA, make sure that any program documents, descriptions, and employee communications are consistent with this intent. Even though an employer generally cannot make a non-ERISA arrangement subject to ERISA by simply calling it an ERISA plan, the employer’s treatment is a factor—at least one court has found that treating a potentially exempt payroll practice as an ERISA plan was a “strong reason to find ERISA coverage.” If the company uses a single “umbrella” or “wrap” document to bundle multiple benefit programs, the document should specify which programs are—and are not—intended to be subject to ERISA.

Source: Thomson Reuters

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