IRS Certified PEO Program Leaves Unresolved Qualified Plan and ACA Issues

The IRS recently implemented the voluntary certification program for professional employer organizations (PEOs) (discussed in a separate blog post).  Earlier this summer, the IRS released temporary and proposed Treasury regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33 pursuant to Code Sections 3511 and 7705, which created a new statutory employer for payroll-tax purposes: an IRS-certified PEO (CPEO).  Last week, the IRS released Notice 2016-49, which relaxed some of the certification requirements set forth in the regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33.

Although a significant change in the payroll tax world, the new CPEO program does not clarify the issue of whether a PEO or its customer, the worksite employer, is the common law employer for other purposes.  Thus, even when properly assisted by CPEOs, customers may still be common law employers and must plan for potential liability accordingly.  Two key areas of potential liability are PEO sponsorship of qualified employee benefit plans and the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate.

PEO Sponsorship of Qualified Plans

Before the new CPEO program became available, the PEO industry was already expanding, with customers pushing for PEOs to act as the common law employers for all purposes, not just payroll tax administration.  Customers particularly sought PEOs to sponsor qualified benefit plans for the customers’ workers.  This arrangement, however, clashed with a fundamental rule of qualified plans under ERISA and the Code:  Under the exclusive benefit rule, employers can sponsor qualified plans only for their common law employees and not independent contractors.  Many PEOs set up single employer plans, even though customers – not PEOs – usually had the core characteristics of a common law employer:  Exercising control over the worker’s schedule and manner and means of performing services.

In Revenue Procedures 2002-21 and 2003-86, the IRS reiterated its hardline stance on enforcing the exclusive benefit rule against PEO plans, stating that after 2003, PEOs can no longer rely on any determination letter issued to their single employer plans, even if the letter was issued after 2003.  The guidance provided two forms of transition relief available until 2003: (1) a PEO could terminate the plan, or (2) convert the plan into a multiple employer plan (MEP), which is an employee benefit plan maintained and administered as a single plan in which two or more unrelated employers can participate.  This MEP option, however, still treated customers as the common law employers, who are subject to nondiscrimination, funding, and other qualified-plan rules under ERISA and the Code.

The new CPEO program does not affect the exclusive benefit rule or the determination of common law employer status for qualified plan purposes.  Certified or not, a PEO can sponsor MEPs, but properly sponsoring any single-employer plan rests on the argument that the PEO is the common law employer.  Thus, the law still significantly limits a customer from outsourcing its qualified plan to a PEO.

ACA Employer Mandate & PEO-Sponsored Health Plan

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes on employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent (FTE) employees the “employer mandate,” which, in turn, applies a tax penalty if the employer chooses not to provide health care insurance for its workers.  In general, the common law employer is required to offer coverage to its employees.  Under some circumstances, however, the common law employer can take credit for coverage offered by another entity—such as another company within the same controlled group.

The problem for PEO customers stems from a provision in the final regulations on Section 4980H.  The provision allows the PEO’s customer to take credit for the PEO’s offer of coverage to the customer’s workers only if the customer pays an extra fee:

[I]n cases in which the staffing firm is not the common law employer of the individual and the staffing firm makes an offer of coverage to the employee on behalf of the client employer under a plan established or maintained by the staffing firm, the offer is treated as made by the client employer for purposes of section 4980H only if the fee the client employer would pay to the staffing firm for an employee enrolled in health coverage under the plan is higher than the fee the client employer would pay the staffing firm for the same employee if that employee did not enroll in health coverage under the plan.

The preamble to the regulations doubles down by describing a situation in which the staffing firm is not the common law employer as the “usual case.”

This extra-fee rule puts the PEO’s customer in a difficult position.  If it does not pay the extra fee, then the PEO’s offer of health coverage cannot be credited to the customer.  Thus, the customer risks being subject to the tax penalty, if upon audit the customer is determined to be the common law employer (assuming the PEO’s customer is an applicable large employer).  Alternatively, if the customer pays the extra fee to hedge against the risk of the tax penalty, the payment could be taken as an admission that the customer—not the PEO—is the common law employer.  Being the common law employer could expose the PEO’s customer to a host of legal liabilities, including, for example, rules pertaining to qualified plans (e.g., funding, nondiscrimination), workers compensation, and respondeat superior.  This result is unacceptable for many customers, who take the position that they are not the common law employers for any purpose.  Unfortunately, the new CPEO program only allows the customer to shift its payroll tax liabilities, and does not affect whether the customer or the CPEO is the common law employer for other purposes.

Finally, there is also a reporting wrinkle for customers outsourcing their health coverage obligations to PEOs.  The ACA requires the common law employer to report the offer of coverage on Form 1095-C.  If the PEO’s customer is the common law employer, there is no rule allowing it to shift this reporting obligation to the PEO.  Thus, if the PEO, rather than the customer, files the Form 1095-C, the customer may be subject to reporting penalties for failure to file a return.