Many employers give their employees the option to receive cash if they opt out of the employer’s health insurance coverage. It is permissible to do so, but the option must comply with IRS rules.
Cash in lieu of benefits falls under the cafeteria plan rules of Section 125 of the IRC. The employer must have a written cafeteria plan in place and the plan must have cash in lieu of the benefit coverage as one of its options. An employer cannot have cash in lieu of policy which is outside a cafeteria plan.
If the employer does not have a written cafeteria plan in place or if the employer’s cafeteria plan does not include the pay in lieu of coverage as one of its options, but the employer offers pay in lieu of coverage outside the plan, the IRS takes the position that all employees have the option to take cash or the benefit and that the employees who chose the benefit coverage and forego the cash will nevertheless be deemed to have received taxable wage income equal to the amount of the cash alternative. See, Prop. Treas. Reg. § 1.125-1, Q & A – 9; Private Letter Ruling 9406002.
In addition, the amount considered to be wages is subject to income tax withholding and FICA and FUTA payroll taxes. Further, the amount considered to be wages should be included in the employee’s “regular rate” for purposes of computation of overtime pay unless the criteria set out in the DOL Opinion Letter FLSA 2003-4 (June 2, 2003) are satisfied. Among the criteria are that the employee must show there is alternative coverage for the coverage being waived and no more than 20% of the employer’s contribution to the cafeteria plan can be paid out in cash. See, Madison v. Resources for Human Development, Inc. 39 F.Supp.2d 542 (E.D. Pa. 1999), vacated and remanded, 233 F.3d 175 (3d Cir. 2000); Prop. Regs at 72 Fed. Reg. 43939 (August 6, 2007).
Posted by Carl H. Hellerstedt, Jr. Mr. Hellerstedt is Counsel with Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC. His primary areas of practice are labor and employment and ERISA law.
Federal courts continue to adopt the use of criteria much more expansive than the traditional common law criteria to determine if a purchaser of assets is responsible for the seller’s ERISA liabilities’ despite language in the Asset Purchase Agreement (“APA”) excluding the liability. The courts are saying that there are certain types of ERISA liabilities which will follow the assets no matter what the parties may say contractually to exclude or limit the seller succeeding to the ERISA liability.
The criteria used by the federal courts which have adopted this expanded view of when an obligation of the seller becomes the obligation of the buyer despite provisions in the APA to the contrary has but two elements: (1) notice of the liability (actual or constructive) and (2) continuity of the operations (how closely are the assets purchased used by the buyer in the same way they were used by the seller). Common ownership is not part of the criteria.
Under this expanded definition of when successor liability attaches, the buyer cannot escape the liability by disclaimers or exclusionary provisions in the APA. The courts say that once the buyer is on notice of the liability, the most the buyer can do is negotiate a lower purchase price and/or require the seller to provide an indemnity. Needless to say, neither of these options to mitigate or offset the ERISA liability are necessarily available or practical in a given transaction. Courts generally refuse to enforce contractual indemnity provisions for violations of employment protective statutes, such as Title VII and the FLSA, on public policy grounds. Equal Rights Center v. Arch Stone, Smith Trust v. Niles Bolten Associates, Inc., 602 F.3d 597 (4th Cir. 2010); Gibbs-Alfano v. Burton, 281 F.3d 12, 21-23 (2nd Cir. 2002). The Third and Sixth Circuits have enforced ERISA withdrawal liability indemnification contractual provisions. See, Pittsburgh Mack Sales & Services v. Int’l. Union of Operating Engineers Local Union No. 66, 580 F.3d 185 (3rd Cir. 2009); Shelter Distribution, Inc. v. General Drivers, Warehousemen & Helpers Local Union No. 89, 2012 WL 880601 (6th Cir., March 16, 2012).