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How COVID-19 is Changing Retirement Plan Savings
By Mark Johnson, Ph.D., J.D.

 

Retirement plan participants are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in several ways. Last month we wrote about how ERISA retirement plan sponsors are working to maintain compliance and fiduciary obligations while protecting the future security of plan assets. This month we look at how COVID is affecting pension plan participants.

 

Borrowing Money from Retirement Funds

 

One third of active pension plan participants have borrowed money from their retirement plans as a result of COVID, according to a 2020 report by Edelman Financial Engines. Up to 60 percent of these borrowers may dip into retirement funds again if needed, and an additional 10 percent are evaluating whether to take a loan or hardship withdrawal. Despite these actions, 55 percent of borrowers later regretted their decision to borrow. Many borrowers said they did not understand the tax and penalty implications.

 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued COVID Tax Tip 2020-85 on July 14, 2020. In the release, the IRS advises that qualified individuals affected by COVID-19 may be able to withdraw up to $100,000 from their eligible retirement plans, including IRAs, between January 1 and December 30, 2020. These coronavirus-related distributions are subject to regular tax but not the 10 percent additional tax on distributions. Funds must be repaid in three years. Certain qualifications must be met. Plan participants will want to speak with their tax advisor and plan sponsor for further details.

 

While making it easier to borrow against retirement savings, the U.S. Government is also taking steps to foster longer-term savings. The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act was signed into law on December 20, 2019, just prior to the emergence of COVID. For those pension plan participants who have some financial flexibility, the SECURE Act provides that required minimum distributions (RMDs) from 401(k) and defined contribution plans can be deferred to age 72, rather than 70 ½.

 

Early Retirements Due to COVID-19

 

A September 2020 survey by pension consulting firm Simply Wise reports that 10% of Americans in their 50s and 60s now plan to retire earlier than expected. In many cases this is triggered by a COVID-related job loss. They also report that more than a quarter of 401(k) plan participants are considering accessing their pension savings early to meet financial obligations.

 

A national survey of educators conducted by the National Education Association in August also reports that many teachers plan to retire early or seek new employment as a result of COVID. The majority of teachers surveyed with 30 or more years of teaching experience (55 percent) plan to leave the profession. This compares to 20 percent of teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience and 40 percent of educators who have been teaching for two or three decades.

 

The COVID pandemic is pushing an expected four million older workers out of the workforce and into an unplanned early retirement, according to an August 2020 report by Forbes Magazine. This translates into a 7 percent job loss for workers aged 55 to 70, compared to a 4.8 percent reduction for workers under age 55. These early retirements shorten the time that workers would otherwise have to continue saving for their future.

 

Pension Contributions Post-COVID

 

According to research reports from Fidelity Investments and T. Rowe Price, most 401(k) plan participants are maintaining their pension investments despite the market turmoil that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Fidelity reported in August 2020 that 9 percent of 401(k) investors increased their contribution rate, while only 1 percent stopped their contributions. T. Rowe Price reported in October 2020 that fewer than 10 percent of participants in their pension plans either stopped or cut back on pension contributions.

 

On a related note, Fidelity also reported that only 11 percent of pension plan sponsors cut back on their 401(k) contribution program that matches employee funds typically for the first 2-3 percent of participant investments.

 

Lost Jobs Disrupt Pension Savings

 

There is not much data available on the number of workers who have lost corporate-sponsored pension benefits as a result of COVID. Nevertheless, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) acknowledges that millions of laid off workers may no longer have access to automatic deductions and employer matches offered by corporate pension plans.

 

As a result, many workers will need to work longer to save for retirement. For some, they will also need to borrow against retirement funds while they try to rebuild financial security.

 

About Pension and ERISA Expert Mark Johnson Mark Johnson, Ph.D., J.D., is an experienced pension and ERISA expert. As a former ERISA Plan Managing Director and plan fiduciary for a Fortune 500 company, Dr. Johnson has practical knowledge of plan documents as well as an in-depth understanding of ERISA obligations. He works as an expert consultant and witness on 401(k), ESOP and pension fiduciary liability; retiree medical benefit coverage; third party administrator disputes; individual benefit claims; pension benefits in bankruptcy; long term disability benefits; and cash conversion balances. He can be reached at 817-909-0778 or www.erisa-benefits.com.

 

ERISA Benefits Consulting, Inc. by Mark Johnson provides benefit consulting and advisory services and does not engage in the practice of law.

 

October, 2020

 

 

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"How COVID-19 is Changing Retirement Plan Savings"

 

"COVID-19 Issues for ERISA Retirement Plan Sponsors"

 

"Investment Advice Fiduciary Redefined by U.S. Dept. of Labor"

 

"Excessive Fee ERISA Litigation Update"

 

"U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Defined Benefit Plan Litigation"

 

 

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