Emilio works in HR at a shoe manufacturer. He's relatively new to the job, but he likes his department, which is growing.
One day, a sales manager stopped by HR and asked Emilio if she could get a copy of the document his team passed out during open enrollment — the one that broke down the company's 401(k) offering.
Emilio said he'd be sure to drop it off at her desk by the end of the day. But he got pulled into a meeting after lunch, and then he needed to pick up his daughter from school. He forgot about the request the next day, and he didn't remember it for several weeks.
The worker's request came rushing back to him when he got an email from the worker's accountant, who said Emilio could get his company in trouble if he failed to produce the document in question. Emilio started to worry. Was the accountant right? He simply forgot the worker had asked — could it really be that big of a deal?
As he pondered these questions, he thought back to his onboarding. His manager had mentioned something about these kinds of documents and the importance of delivering them to employees promptly. But why were they so important?
What is ERISA?
I wanted to help out Emilio, figment of my imagination or not. So I called up Cassandra Labbees, a member at Epstein Becker Green who worked as an investigator at the U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration for eight years.
According to Labbees, Emilio found himself in a hypothetical pickle because his actions — or lack thereof — violated the requirements spelled out in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.
ERISA is a statute that sets the minimum standards for most voluntarily established retirement and health plans in the private sector. "It's designed to protect participants and beneficiaries, the employees who are eligible to participate in the plans or who are participating in those plans," Labbees said. …
HR's ERISA role is heavy on day-to-day tasks
Many of ERISA's basic requirements fall to HR. "Despite not making fiduciary decisions as an HR professional, some of the day-to-day tasks that ERISA requires may fall on you," Labbees said.
For instance: If someone asks for information about a retirement plan, employers have 30 days to comply. "Usually, you're going to HR for that information," Labbees remarked. A forgotten document may seem like a small problem, but small problems can lead to big fines under ERISA, Labbees warned. And document provision is the most frequent problem she sees.
"Someone may ask for a copy of their summary plan description. If it's been six months and they haven't heard, they may get an attorney involved," Labbees said. "Those are basic, fundamental obligations in the eyes of the DOL. They should be very easy to comply with because you should have copies ready to provide. But it's something I see happen all the time."