Human Capital & Careers

More Firms Quit the 401(k) Match Game

Under cost pressure, Vail Resorts, Station Casinos, and Intermountain Healthcare join a growing list of companies suspending payments equal to empl...
Stephen TaubDecember 8, 2008

More companies are looking beyond layoffs and pay cuts to achieve cost savings — for example, by freezing their company matches on 401(k) plans and leaving participants with less than they expected in their defined contribution plans.

An employer, which is not obligated to contribute at any particular level when employees make 401(k) contributions, can change its mind at will. And that was the case with Vail Resorts, which said that it plans to suspend matching employee 401(k) retirement fund contributions in 2009, according to the Associated Press. The wire service cited an E-mail to the company’s 3,300 full-time employees sent Thursday from CEO Rob Katz.

The decision was part of a wider array of cutbacks, with Vail Resorts also deferring merit raises from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1, and not giving any raises to executives during fiscal year 2009, according to Katz. In addition, Vail is laying off 50 workers and eliminating nearly 100 vacant positions due to a significant drop in advance bookings.

A separate AP story noted that Station Casinos also is suspending its matching contributions to employees’ 401(k) retirement plans because of the economic downturn.

So is Intermountain Healthcare, a major non-profit healthcare provider in Utah and southeastern Idaho. It announced in a Nov. 24 newsletter that it will stop matching employees’ contributions beginning in 2009, according to the Deseret News. “The decision has been made only for 2009 at this point,” Intermountain spokesman Daron Cowley told the paper.

General Motors said in October that it was suspending matching payments to employee 401(K) plans as of Nov. 1, as part of a wider reduction in employee costs through to cuts its salaried and contract workforce.

Other companies that have recently suspended the matches include, Ford Motor, real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, and Frontier Airlines, according to the website of Business Insurance. magazine.

BI, in fact, points to an October survey of 248 employers that Watson Wyatt Worldwide conducted, finding that 2 percent said they had reduced or suspended either their 401(k) and 403(b) matching contributions, while 4 percent said they planned to make similar moves in the next 12 months.

These developments are not unique to the current economic downturn. When the 1990s boom wound down, the average employer match fell from 3.3 percent of earnings in 1999 to 2.5 percent in 2001, according to the insurance publication, citing the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. It noted that today the average employer match is 3 percent of earnings, citing David Wray, president of the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America.

What’s more, 80 percent of employers with a 401(k) match employee contributions, while 75 percent of the other 20 percent make some other contribution, such as company stock, according to the report.

There are risks to eliminating the match, however. If younger, lower-earning employees, who have already suffered huge paper losses on their accounts, stop participating in the plans, the higher-earning employees who remain in the plan could be hurt. This is because the plan could fail Internal Revenue Service nondiscrimination tests. BI notes that the tests are required to assure that contributions by highly compensated employees don’t exceed contributions by lower earning employees by a certain amount set by law. Highly compensated employees are defined as those who earn at least $105,000 per year.