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As described in our client advisories of May 6, 2020 and February 11, 2021, the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) temporarily suspended the deadlines for employee benefit plan participants to exercise HIPAA special enrollment rights, elect and pay premiums for COBRA continuation coverage, file claims for benefits and appeal benefit claim denials (each, a “Qualifying Event”).

Under this relief, plan administrators were directed to disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the end of the federally declared national emergency for COVID-19 (the “Outbreak Period”) in determining such deadlines.  Because the statutes authorizing this relief impose a one-year limit on the period that may be disregarded in determining these deadlines, as described in our client advisory of February 11, 2021, the Outbreak Period was generally expected to end on February 28, 2021, absent further action from the DOL.

In a last-minute change of course, the DOL is now requiring the relief period instead to be the one-year period beginning on the normally applicable deadline, or 60 days after the end of the federally declared national emergency for COVID-19, if sooner.  As of this writing, the federally declared national emergency is still in place and the government has given no sign of when that declaration might end.  In other words, the relief period is to be measured on an event-by-event basis with respect to each participant and beneficiary instead of an overall deadline that applies to the plan as a whole.

This means that a participant who became eligible for COBRA on January 30, 2021, and who normally would have had until March 31, 2021 to elect COBRA, will have until March 31, 2022 to do so (assuming the national emergency does not end before January 30, 2022).  More significantly, a participant who experiences a Qualifying Event on or after March 1, 2021 (i.e., more than a year after the start of the Outbreak Period) will also be eligible for the relief.

In apparent recognition of its strained interpretation of its own original guidance regarding extension of certain plan deadlines, the DOL observed that plan disclosures issued during the pandemic may need to be reissued or amended if such disclosures did not accurately inform participants and beneficiaries of when actions are required.

Finally, the DOL observed that plan fiduciaries should make reasonable accommodations to prevent the loss or undue delay in payment of benefits and minimize the possibility of individuals losing benefits because of a failure to comply with pre-established time frames.  Specific examples of accommodations in the DOL guidance include affirmatively sending the affected participant or beneficiary a notice regarding the end of the relief period and, in the case of a group health plan, informing the affected participant or beneficiary of other coverage options, including through the Health Insurance Marketplace in the participant’s state.  It is unclear from this guidance whether the DOL expects plan fiduciaries to make other types of accommodations, such as extending deadlines beyond the statutory limits as facts and circumstances may warrant.

Based on the DOL’s latest guidance, plan administrators should be prepared to continue contending with the uncertainty and administrative difficulties created by the Outbreak Period relief until the President declares an end to the national emergency for COVID-19.

If you have any questions about the DOL’s latest interpretation of the Outbreak Period relief, or if you would like assistance in reviewing, preparing or revising communications to plan participants about the relief, please contact a member of our Employee Benefits Group.


Continue Reading DOL Issues New Guidance on the Duration of its COVID-19 Outbreak Period Relief

As described in our client advisory of May 6, 2020, the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) temporarily suspended the deadlines for employee benefit plan participants to exercise HIPAA special enrollment rights, elect and pay premiums for COBRA continuation coverage, file claims for benefits and appeal benefit claim denials.  This relief began on March 1, 2020 and, unless further extended by the DOL, will end on February 28, 2021 (the “Outbreak Period”).

If the Outbreak Period is not extended, then, effective March 1, 2021, the clock will begin ticking on deadlines that were suspended during the Outbreak Period.  For example, if a participant became eligible for COBRA continuation coverage on February 1, 2020, the 60-day period for electing such coverage, which in any other year would have ended on March 31, 2020, will now end on March 31, 2021 (i.e., the last day of the 60-day period which began on February 1, 2020 and includes (i) 29 days before the start of the Outbreak Period and (ii) 31 days after the end of the Outbreak Period).
Continue Reading DOL Outbreak Period Relief for Employee Benefit Plan Participants Scheduled to End Soon

On December 27, 2020, the President signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (the “Act”), the latest major piece of legislation passed by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This advisory describes certain provisions of the Act affecting retirement plans and other employee benefits.  In a separate advisory, we described the Act’s impact on health and welfare plans, including health and dependent care flexible spending arrangements.

Relief from Partial Terminations for Retirement Plans

When a retirement plan experiences a partial termination, affected participants must become fully vested in their accrued benefits. Ordinarily, the Internal Revenue Service uses a rebuttable presumption that a partial termination occurs in a plan year in which there is a 20% or greater reduction in the number of participants. Under the Act, a plan will not be treated as having a partial termination during any plan year which includes the period beginning on March 13, 2020, and ending on March 31, 2021, if the number of active participants covered by the plan on March 31, 2021 is at least 80% of the number of active participants covered by the plan on March 13, 2020.

Special Disaster Relief for Retirement Plans


Continue Reading New Stimulus Legislation Affects Retirement Plans and Other Employee Benefits

On December 27, 2020, the President signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (the “Act”), the latest major piece of legislation passedby Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This advisory describes certain provisions of the Act affecting health and welfare plans, including health and dependent care flexible spending arrangements (“FSAs”).  In a separate advisory, we will describe the Act’s impact on retirement plans and other employee benefits.
Continue Reading New Stimulus Legislation Affects Health and Welfare Plans, including Flexible Spending Arrangements

On June 3, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) issued Notice 2020-24 providing temporary relief from the physical presence requirement for participant elections that are required to be witnessed by a plan representative or a notary public, including spousal consents.  The relief covers the period from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020 (the “Relief Period”).  While specifically intended to facilitate the payment of coronavirus-related distributions and plan loans under the CARES Act, as described in our Advisory of April 3, 2020, Notice 2020-24 applies to any participant election that requires the signature of an individual to be witnessed in the physical presence of a plan representative or notary.

Continue Reading IRS Issues Temporary Relief from Physical Presence Requirement for Spousal Consents Under Retirement Plans

On May 27, 2020, the Department of Labor published final regulations establishing a new electronic disclosure safe harbor for ERISA-covered retirement plan (but not health and welfare plan) documents. This new safe harbor does not replace the DOL electronic disclosure safe harbor issued in 2002 (the “2002 safe harbor”), but instead offers employers additional methods for electronic disclosure of plan documentation. Compared to the 2002 safe harbor, the new safe harbor is broader in scope with respect to how electronic disclosures may be made and to whom, but is subject to several administrative requirements and limitations.

We have summarized the new safe harbor rules below to help employers decide which electronic disclosure safe harbor may work best for them.

Continue Reading DOL Establishes New Electronic Disclosure Safe Harbor for ERISA-Covered Retirement Plans

The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) recently issued guidance relaxing several cafeteria plan rules to help employees deal with unanticipated COVID-19 expenses. Employers that sponsor cafeteria plans will need to decide whether to amend their plans to adopt these optional rule changes. We have summarized the rule changes below, including some important employer considerations.

Note that the IRS also issued recent guidance clarifying the retroactive application of CARES Act relief for high deductible health plans and extending the period in which premium expenses may be reimbursed. These changes will be addressed in a separate post.


Continue Reading IRS Issues Cafeteria Plan Relief, Providing Employers Significant Discretion

The uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult for employers to predict the long-term impact of the pandemic on their businesses. In response, many employers are looking for ways to preserve cash reserves by reducing or deferring benefit and compensation costs, without taking the more drastic step of permanently reducing their workforces. We have summarized below some of the near term cash preservation measures that employers might consider with respect to their benefit and compensation arrangements.

Continue Reading COVID-19: Employee Benefit Measures for Preserving Cash and Saving Jobs

On March 27, 2020, the President signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”), the third phase of emergency relief passed by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The CARES Act includes relief measures for workers and employers that impact employee benefit and compensation arrangements, and which may require employers to take certain administrative actions. Below is an overview of the CARES Act provisions affecting various types of employee benefit and compensation arrangements.

Note that this Advisory does not address the CARES Act provisions specific to air carriers and charitable employers.


Continue Reading CARES Act Impact on Employee Benefits and Compensation