Retirees and Investors Watch for Congressional Coronavirus Action

Recordkeepers expect the volume of loans, hardships and withdrawals will increase in coming weeks and months.

At the end of last year, retirement plan industry lobbyists enjoyed a major victory with the passage of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, and, up until the beginning of March or so, they had fully turned their attention to several pieces of follow-up legislation, such as the so-called “Portman-Cardin bill.”

However, the events of recent days relating to the novel coronavirus pandemic’s spread in the United States and around the world have very quickly changed the focus to securing emergency relief for retirement plan investors and employers. At this stage, Congress continues to debate what will likely prove to be an unprecedented economic stimulus package aimed at supporting a variety of economic groups and interests—from individuals and families to small businesses and Fortune 500 corporations.

A version of the proposed legislation published late last week—which is already being subject to debate and amendment—includes a number of retirement plan-focused provisions. Of note, under the bill as first proposed, Section 72(t) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 “shall not apply to any coronavirus-related distribution,” so long as the aggregate amount of distributions received by an individual does not exceed $100,000.

The bill further proposes a doubling, from $50,000 to $100,000, on the limit placed on retirement plan loans before they are considered by regulators to be a distributable (and therefore potentially taxable) event. Additionally, the bill proposes extensions to loan repayment periods and greater flexibility for retirement plan sponsors to make amendments to their plan documents.

So far the congressional debate around coronavirus relief has not been totally straightforward, meaning the legislation may be changed significantly prior to passage. However, it does not seem that any of the retirement-focused provisions specifically are delaying consensus.

Separately, retirement industry advocates are calling on the executive branch of the federal government to take further action to help workers and retirees. Empower Retirement, for example, tells PLANADVISER it is asking the U.S. Department of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for regulatory guidance and relief packages for Americans saving for retirement.

Echoing other providers, Empower wants to see retirement plan participants be allowed to withdraw retirement savings early without the normal 10% penalty tax; the establishment of “qualified disaster distributions” in income over three years; and the allowance of withdrawals up to $100,000 from qualified retirement plans with the income tax for the withdrawal spread out over three years.

“During this extraordinary time, the ability for Americans to have access to cash is essential,” says Edmund Murphy III, president and CEO of Empower. “Empower stands ready to join industry leaders, lawmakers and government regulators to work out a solution that provides relief to American retirement savers.”

Among a number of other retirement-focused advocacy organizations, the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC)—an organization that focuses on supporting entities subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)—says it is also working with Congress to see that future legislation, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or “CARES Act,” includes “much-needed provisions that support retirement plans and participants.”

“ERIC is pleased to see that the CARES Act has included preliminary relief for retirement plan participants,” says Aliya Robinson, senior vice president of retirement and compensation policy at ERIC. “We look forward to working with Congress to include additional provisions that address further worker and retiree needs and also assist employers in continuing to provide important retirement benefits.”

To this end, on Friday, ERIC joined more than 25 other organizations calling for immediate congressional action to provide relief to employers that offer retirement plans, plan participants and retirees in response to the current crisis created by the outbreak of COVID-19. Robinson says these recommendations would provide much needed financial assistance to workers who may be unable to work and to preserve current cash flow to employers to ensure that they can pay workers and continue their businesses.

Other specific policy actions being called for include streamlining loan procedures and liberalizing rules regarding hardship distribution; temporarily waiving the required minimum distribution rules; providing flexibility for dependent care expenses; providing interest rate projection relief for defined benefit (DB) plans; allowing flexibility in the suspension of safe harbor contributions; and liberalizing rules related to an accelerated vesting incident to a partial termination.

“During this uncertain time, ERIC will continue to work with lawmakers on relief packages as well as work on paid leave laws that will allow employers who already provide benefits to continue providing these benefits, which is more important now than ever,” Robinson concludes.