Three Questions with Molly Barker Gilligan about Employee Benefits & ERISA
Bernstein Shur’s Molly Barker Gilligan gives her perspective on employee benefits and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) for employers.
How would you describe your practice?
Employee benefits and ERISA specifically sit at the intersection of tax, public health, and labor law. My work is helping clients navigate these laws and regulations to accomplish their business goals. I find this practice fascinating because, despite all the applicable laws, there is still room for creativity. I enjoy working with employers to find solutions that benefit their employees while also achieving compliance with the law. The information and analysis I can provide helps clients balance risk with their business interests.
What is ERISA and how does it impact businesses?
At a very high level, ERISA is a set of rules designed to ensure that employees understand the health and retirement benefits offered by their employers, employers honor their commitments to provide benefits to their employees, and provide a consistent process for resolving disputes about these benefits.
If a business does not pay attention to its ERISA obligations, it may result in fines, penalties, or even employee or class action lawsuits. Fortunately, there are often steps businesses can take to correct errors and move towards full compliance. While legal counsel with ERISA and employee benefits expertise is needed when a problem arises, there is even more value in consulting with counsel proactively to avoid errors.
Being proactive about benefits compliance can save clients time and money. I’ve consulted with startups that are considering how to structure benefit offerings in the future to attract talent and with businesses that are considering mergers or sales and are concerned about the impact on their employees’ retirement plans. Of course, if there is a situation where there has been an error, benefits counsel can help navigate making corrections to bring plans into compliance.
What are some best practices when it comes to employee benefits?
First, it’s important to know your own plan(s). You don’t have to be an expert on every plan that you could offer, but you must understand the plan(s) you do offer. Make sure your plan says what you think it says so that it can be administered correctly. This will avoid fines and fees.
Second, I recommend you document decisions that impact benefit plans. Do not rely on memory alone to preserve the record of how a decision was made and what was considered. Memories fade, employees leave, and what was once obvious can become confusing. In addition, from a plan fiduciary perspective, demonstrating that there was a thoughtful process is often as important as the ultimate decision.
Lastly, create systems to identify and correct errors as soon as possible. This may mean having employees renew elections annually or performing limited self-audits to catch data entry errors. Although this sounds tedious, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don’t let benefits compliance be an afterthought at the expense of your business.
Feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how ERISA and employee benefits impact your business.