As retirement plan researchers can tell you, unclaimed employer match money is not a new phenomenon. But what's interesting is that one of the very mechanisms for encouraging participation in retirement savings plans may have inadvertently exacerbated the problem.
By the end of 2013, about 65 percent of companies reported having auto-enrollment programs, in which employees are automatically defaulted into a plan with an option to opt out, a feature that became increasingly widespread after passage of the Pension Protection Act in 2006, which provided safeguards for employers that adopted it. (Before the law passed, an estimated 20 percent of employers had retirement plans with auto enrollment; the number has more than tripled since.)
But the default contribution rate for most of those plans remains at 3 percent, the amount many companies adopted when they first added the feature—well below the 10 to 15 percent of annual income that advisors often recommend savers set aside for retirement.
"That's what was written into the code as the example, and suddenly everyone else was doing it. It was the herd mentality," said Rob Austin, director of retirement research at Aon Hewitt. Its latest report found more than 6 in 10 companies had a default contribution rate of 3 percent or less in 2013.
Meanwhile, most employers with matches offer 50 to 100 percent of as much as 6 percent of an employee's salary. "The problem that we have is often people are defaulted into rates that don't take full advantage of the match," said Robyn Credico, senior consultant at Towers Watson, a global professional services firm. "And we know most people don't do much once they default. So automatically they're missing out."
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In the last few years, employers have begun taking steps to combat the inertia effect.
Fifty-seven percent of plans that automatically enroll participants also default employees into automatic escalation programs that increase employee contributions annually. That's up from 45 percent of plans in 2011, according to Aon Hewitt.
The plans typically increase contributions by 1 percentage point a year until they reach a cap—and Austin said the cut-off level has been climbing in recent years in an effort to boost employee savings rates. About one-third of companies that offer auto-escalation programs now increase contributions up to 10 percent of employees' salaries, and some have caps that are even higher.
"The theory is that if you turn people off when they hit 6 percent, it sends the message that that's enough to save, and it probably isn't for most people," said Austin, adding that some auto-increase programs now continue until employees hit the maximum they can contribute per year. That's $18,000 this year for a 401(k).
Some companies have also begun raising the default contribution rates in their auto-enrollment programs—sometimes to 10 or even 15 percent, said Austin, "though that's more the exception than the norm."
There's one simple reason for that. "Cost is a big barrier for companies," he said.
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