Analysis of the Final Tax Reform Bill – Part II: Changes to Deductions and Exclusions for Employee Meals and Other Fringe Benefits, Changes to Private Retirement Plan Benefits, and New Paid Leave Credit

On December 15, the House-Senate Conference Committee released the joint explanatory statement and final legislative text (the “Final Bill”) resolving differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the “House Bill” and “Senate Bill,” respectively).  The provisions of the Final Bill related to health reform, equity and executive compensation, deductions and exclusions for employee meals and other fringe benefits, private retirement plan benefit, paid leave, and various reporting, withholding, and income sourcing rules, largely track the bill passed by the Senate.  Many of the changes included in the House Bill but not the Senate Bill were dropped from the Final Bill. (Our earlier coverage of the House and Senate bills can be seen in a series of posts here.)

This post is the second in a series of three posts analyzing provisions of the Senate Bill. (Part I analyzes the elimination of the penalty for failing to maintain minimum essential coverage under the ACA and changes to equity and executive compensation.  Part III analyzes new reporting and withholding requirements and source rules.)  This post analyzes the following changes:

  • Fringe Benefits– The Final Bill will eliminate the deduction for entertainment expenses; eliminate the deduction (after 2025) for meals provided for the employer’s convenience (that are not occasional overtime meals) and meals provided at employer-operated eating facilities; impose a 50-percent limitation on deductions for occasional overtime meals and other de minimis meals; eliminate the deduction for amounts excluded from an employee’s income as qualified transportation fringes; eliminate the deduction for commuting expenses (except for the employee’s safety); suspend the exclusion for qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement; suspend the exclusion for qualified moving expense reimbursement; and prohibit the use of cash or gift cards and other non-tangible personal property as employee achievement awards.  The Final Bill does not include the following provisions that were included in the House Bill: the disallowance of deductions for de minimis fringe benefits that are primarily personal in nature and not related to the employer’s trade or business; the disallowance of deductions for expenses related to on-site athletic facilities; the application to all employees of the deduction disallowance for specified individuals for the deduction of entertainment expenses treated as compensation in excess of the amount included in income; the elimination of the exclusion for employer-provided tuition assistance and qualified tuition reductions; the elimination of the exclusion for adoption assistance programs; the elimination of the exclusion for dependent care assistance; and the elimination of the exclusion for employee achievement awards.
  • Private Retirement Benefits– The Final Bill will extend the rollover time period of certain outstanding plan loan offsets treated as a distribution from a qualified retirement plan, a section 403(b) plan, or a section 457(b) plan solely on account of the termination of the plan or the failure to meet the repayment terms of the loan due to severance from employment.  The Final Bill will also waive the 10‑percent early withdrawal tax on distributions of up to $100,000 to an individual whose principal place of abode at any time during 2016 was located in a “2016 disaster area” as declared by the President, and who suffered economic loss due to the storm, flooding, or other disaster that occurred in the area during 2016; allows for the ratable inclusion in income of such distributions over a three-year period; and permits the repayment of such distributions into an eligible retirement plan during 2018.
  • Employer Tax Credits– The Final Bill includes the Senate Bill provision that would provide employer tax credits in 2018 and 2019 for paid family and medical leave.  The Final Bill does not adopt the changes included in the House Bill to the credits under Code section 42F for employer provided child care and Code section 45B for the employer share of Social Security taxes on certain employee tip income.  The Final Bill also does not change the Work Opportunity Tax Credit under Code section 51.

These changes generally would be effective after 2017, except as otherwise noted below.

Fringe Benefits

Elimination of Deduction for Entertainment Expenses.  The Final Bill tracks the language of the Senate Bill and will completely disallow employer deductions for (1) entertainment, amusement, or recreation (“entertainment expenses”); (2) membership dues for clubs organized for business, pleasure, recreation or other social purposes; and (3) facilities used in connection with any of these items.  This full disallowance would replace the existing 50‑percent limit for entertainment expenses directly related to the active conduct of the employer’s trade or business.  The Final Bill does not include a provision from the House Bill that would have limited the exception for entertainment expenses treated as compensation to (or included in the gross income of) the recipient to the amount actually treated as compensation (or included in gross income of) the recipient as it is with employees that are “specified individuals” under current law.  (See earlier coverage.)

The Final Bill also does not impose a separate deduction limitation on “amenities,” which the House Bill defined as de minimis fringe benefits that are primarily personal in nature and that involve property or services not directly related to the taxpayer’s business.  (See earlier coverage.)

50-Percent Limitation on Deductions for Occasional Overtime Meals and Other De Minimis Meals. Currently, employers may generally deduct and employees may exclude from income meals that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Code section 132(e).  De minimis meals may include occasional overtime meals, cocktail parties, group meals, and picnics for employees and their guests, and year-end holiday parties, in addition to meals provided at employer‑operated eating facilities.  Section 13304(b) of the Final Bill will generally impose a 50‑percent limitation on deductions for de minimis meals starting in 2018.  However, as described below, starting in 2026, employers would not be permitted to deduct any expenses for operating and providing meals through employer‑operated eating facilities (except to the extent the employees pay for the meals).  But, other types of de minimis meals would continue to be deductible, subject to the 50‑percent limitation.

Elimination of Deduction for Meals Provided for Employer’s Convenience (that are not Occasional Overtime Meals) and Employer-Operated Eating Facilities After 2025. Under existing law, employers may generally deduct (1) 50 percent of expenses for meals provided for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119; and (2) all expenses for the operation of and meals provided through an employer-operated eating facility that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Treasury Regulation § 1.132-7 (but as described below, a 50-percent limitation would apply starting in 2018).  The Final Bill repeals these deductions effective in 2026.  After the repeal, if an employer chooses to provide meals to employees under section 119 or through an employer-operated eating facility, these meals would remain excludable from employees’ income and wages to the extent currently excludable under section 132, but the cost of providing them would not be deductible by the employer (except to the extent employees pay for the meals). The Senate Bill would not change the existing 50-percent deduction for other meal expenses associated with operating the employer’s trade or business (e.g., meals consumed by employees on work-related travel).

Elimination of Deduction for Qualified Transportation Fringes Excluded From Income.   Section 13304(c) of the Final Bill would disallow the deduction for providing any qualified transportation fringe benefits.  Under Code section 132(f), qualified transportation fringe benefits permit employers to either pay for an employee’s public transportation, van pool, bicycle, or parking expenses related to commuting on a pre-tax basis or allow employees to elect to receive a portion of their compensation in the form of non-taxable commuting benefits.  The Final Bill also clarifies that the deduction for qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement would be preserved from 2018 through 2025 (since the corresponding exclusion would be suspended during this period, as discussed below).

Elimination of Deduction for other Commuting Expenses (Except for Employee’s Safety).  Section 13304(c) of the Final Bill includes the Senate proposal that will disallow deductions for providing transportation (or any payment or reimbursement for related expenses) for commuting between an employee’s residence and the place of employment, except as necessary to ensure the employee’s safety.  Although it is unclear how the IRS would interpret the provision, the Final Bill could be read to disallow a deduction for transportation between an employee’s home and a temporary place of employment, which are currently fully deductible and excludable by the employee.  Ultimately, the effect of this change will depend upon how broadly the IRS interprets “place of employment,” which could be interpreted to include even temporary work locations away from an employee’s tax home.

Suspension of Exclusion for Qualified Bicycle Commuting Reimbursement.  As in the Senate Bill, section 11048 of the Final Bill would repeal the exclusion under Code section 132(f) for bicycle commuting expenses, making such benefits taxable to employees from 2018 through 2025.

Suspension of Exclusion for Qualified Moving Expense Reimbursement.  As expected, section 11048 of the Final Bill would largely suspend the exclusion from income and wages for a qualified moving expense reimbursement, which is employer-paid relocation assistance equal to the moving expenses that would have been deductible by the employee if he or she directly paid or incurred the cost.  As a result, employers who provide relocation assistance will either have to gross-up the amounts that would have been previously deductible or leave employees to pay more of the cost out-of-pocket.  The Final Bill would retain a narrow exclusion for members of U.S. Armed Forces on active duty who move pursuant to military orders.  In contrast to the permanent elimination in the House Bill, these changes would be effective from 2018 through 2025, as in the Senate Bill.

Prohibition on Use of Cash or Gift Cards and Other Non-Tangible Personal Property as Employee Achievement Awards.  The Final Bill retains the exclusion and deduction limitation for employee achievement awards but codifies proposed regulations defining “tangible personal property” for purposes of employee achievement awards.  Under Code sections 74(c)(1) and 274(j), employee achievement awards are excludable from income and deductible by the employer.  The House Bill would have eliminated the exclusion for employee achievement awards.

An “employee achievement award” is as an item of “tangible personal property” that meets certain other requirements without defining this term.  Treasury Regulations specify that tangible personal property does not include cash or any gift certificate other than a nonnegotiable gift certificate conferring only the right to receive tangible personal property.  In proposed regulations, the IRS provided a more comprehensive list of items that do not constitute tangible personal property, but these regulations were never issued in final form.  Section 13310 of the Final Bill would generally codify the list in the proposed regulations, to make clear that the following items do not constitute tangible personal property: (a) cash, cash equivalents, gift cards, gift coupons, or gift certificates (other than certificates conferring only the right to select and receive tangible personal property from a limited array of pre-selected items); (b) vacations, meals, lodging, tickets to theater or sporting events; and (c) stocks, bonds, other securities, and other similar items.

The restriction on gift certificates appears more restrictive than the current language of Treasury Regulation § 1.274-3(b) and the proposed regulations, which would permit employee achievement awards that are nonnegotiable gift certificates that provide only the right to receive tangible personal property.  The requirement that the employee be permitted to choose from a limited array of pre-selected items would appear to bless many common employee achievement programs, but is still more restrictive than existing law and the proposed regulations.  The Conference Summary stated, however, that “[n]o inference is intended that this is a change from present law and guidance.”

Private Employer Retirement Benefits

Extension of Time Period for Rollover of Certain Outstanding Plan Loans.  Under Code section 402(c)(3), a participant whose plan or employment terminates while he or she has an outstanding plan loan balance generally must contribute the loan balance to an individual retirement account (IRA) within 60 days of receiving an offset distribution.  Otherwise, the loan is treated as an impermissible early withdrawal and is subject to the 10‑percent early withdrawal penalty.  Like the Senate Bill and similar to the House Bill, section 13613 of the Final Bill would relax these rules by adding a new section 402(c)(3)(C) to give these employees until the due date for their individual tax return to contribute the outstanding loan balance to an IRA.  This new rule would only apply to loan offset amounts treated as distributed solely by reason of the termination of the plan or the failure to repay the loan because of the employee’s severance from employment.  The 10‑percent penalty would only apply after that date.

Qualified 2016 Disaster Distribution (for 2016 and 2017).  Like the Senate Bill, the Final Bill would provide disaster relief.  Section 11028 of the Final Bill, would waive the 10‑percent early withdrawal tax on distributions of up to $100,000 to an individual whose principal place of abode at any time during 2016 or 2017 was located in a “2016 disaster area” as declared by the President, and who suffered economic loss due to the storm, flooding, or other disaster that occurred in the area during 2016.  This relief is broader than that contained in the Senate Finance Committee language, which provided relief only to flooding and storm victims in the “Mississippi River Delta flood disaster area” during March 2016 (earlier coverage).  The distribution must be made during 2016 or 2017 to be exempt from the early withdrawal tax.  Additionally, any distribution required to be included in income as a result of this special distribution rule is included in income ratably over a three-year period, beginning with the year of distribution.  During this three-year period, amounts received may be re‑contributed to the plan and treated as a rollover, thus allowing the individual to file an amended return.  (For more information regarding special tax relief for victims of natural disasters, see our discussions of: (1) leave-based donation programs, leave-sharing programs, and relaxed plan loans and hardship withdrawal rules for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma; and (2) qualified disaster relief payments under Code section 139.)

Employer Tax Credits

Employer Tax Credit for Paid FMLA Leave for 2018 and 2019.  Section 13403 of the Final Bill includes a new section of the Code that will allow eligible employers to claim a general business credit equal to 12.5 percent of wages paid to a qualifying employee while on FMLA leave, plus 0.25 percent of wages (capped at 25 percent) for each percentage point by which the FMLA pay exceeds 50 percent of the employee’s normal pay.  An “eligible employer” is one that institutes a FMLA‑leave policy that: (a) allows all qualifying full-time employees not less than two weeks of annual paid family and medical leave (not counting leave paid by State or local government); (b) allows less-than-full-time employees a commensurate amount of leave on a pro rata basis; and (c) provide leave pay at a rate that is at least 50 percent of the employee’s normal pay.  A “qualifying employee” is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act who has been employed by the employer for at least one year, and whose preceding‑year compensation did not exceed 60 percent of the compensation threshold for highly compensated employees ($120,000 for 2017).  The Final Bill specified that the policy must be put in writing.

For each employee, the credit that the employer may claim is limited to 12 weeks of paid FMLA leave (including paid family and medical leave provided to qualifying employees that are not covered by Title I of the FMLA, provided the employer does not interfere with rights provided under the policy and does not discharge or discriminate against any individual for opposing practices prohibited by the policy).  Moreover, the employer may not deduct any portion of wages for which the employer claims the credit, but the employer can elect not to have the credit apply and deduct the paid leave instead.  Finally, as the credit is part of a pilot program, the credit would only be available in 2018 and 2019.

Analysis of the Senate Tax Reform Bill – Part II: Changes to Deductions and Exclusions for Employee Meals and Other Fringe Benefits, Changes to Private Retirement Plan Benefits, and New Paid Leave Credit

Early Saturday morning, the Senate voted 51-49 to approve a modified version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the “Senate Bill”). The Senate Bill differs from the House bill (discussed in an earlier series of posts here) passed last month in several respects, and a final negotiated bill will need to pass both chambers before the President can sign it into law. Given the difficulty of moving legislation through the Senate, it seems likely that any enacted legislation would likely be similar to the version passed by the Senate.

This post is the second in a series of three posts analyzing provisions of the Senate Bill. (Part I analyzes the elimination of the penalty for failing to maintain minimum essential coverage under the ACA and changes to equity and executive compensation. Part III analyzes new reporting and withholding requirements and source rules.)  This post analyzes the following changes:

  • Fringe Benefits – (a) eliminate the deduction for entertainment expenses; (b) eliminate the deduction (after 2025) for meals provided for the employer’s convenience (that are not occasional overtime meals) and meals provided at employer-operated eating facilities; (c) impose a 50-percent limitation on deductions for occasional overtime meals and other de minimis meals; (d) eliminate the deduction for qualified transportation fringes; (e) eliminate the deduction for commuting expenses (except for the employee’s safety); (f) suspend the exclusion for qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement; (g) suspend the exclusion for qualified moving expense reimbursement; and (h) prohibit the use of cash or gift cards and other non-tangible personal property as employee achievement awards.
  • Private Retirement Benefits – (a) extend the rollover time period of certain outstanding plan loans; and (b) allow qualified distributions for victims of major disasters in 2016.
  • Employer Tax Credits – provide employer tax credits in 2018 and 2019 for paid family and medical leave.

These changes generally would be effective after 2017, except as otherwise noted below.

Fringe Benefits

Elimination of Deduction for Entertainment Expenses. Similar to the House bill, section 13304(a) of the Senate Bill would completely disallow employer deductions for (1) entertainment, amusement, or recreation (“entertainment expenses”); (2) membership dues for clubs organized for business, pleasure, recreation or other social purposes; and (3) facilities used in connection with any of these items.  This full disallowance would replace the existing 50‑percent limit for entertainment expenses directly related to the active conduct of the employer’s trade or business.

Unlike the House bill, however, the Senate Bill would not impose a separate deduction limitation on “amenities,” which the House bill defined as de minimis fringe benefits that are primarily personal in nature and that involve property or services not directly related to the taxpayer’s business. (See earlier coverage.) The Senate Bill would continue to permit deductions for such expenses to the extent currently permitted by law (as modified by the provisions relating to employer meals discussed below).

Elimination of Deduction for Meals Provided for Employer’s Convenience (that are not Occasional Overtime Meals) and Employer-Operated Eating Facilities After 2025. Under existing law, employers may generally deduct (1) 50 percent of expenses for meals provided for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119; and (2) all expenses for the operation of and meals provided through an employer-operated eating facility that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Treasury Regulation § 1.132-7 (but as described below, a 50‑percent limitation would apply starting in 2018). These deductions would be repealed under section 13304(d) of the Senate Bill, effective after 2025. After the repeal, if an employer chooses to provide meals to employees under section 119 or through an employer‑operated eating facility, these meals would remain excludable from employees’ income and wages to the extent currently excludable under section 132, but the cost of providing them would not be deductible by the employer (except to the extent employees pay for the meals). The Senate Bill would not change the existing 50‑percent deduction for other meal expenses associated with operating the employer’s trade or business (e.g., meals consumed by employees on work-related travel).

The Senate Bill’s restrictive approach to meal deductions differs from the House bill’s approach of allowing full deductions for meals provide at employer‑operated eating facilities, meals provided for the employer’s convenience under section 119, and meals that otherwise qualify as de minimis fringe benefits, such as occasional overtime meals. Moreover, the Senate Bill’s deferred repeal at the end of the 10‑year budget window suggests that the repeal may have been part of an effort to ensure compliance with Senate reconciliation rules requiring that the Bill not increase the deficit outside of the budget window.

50-Percent Limitation on Deductions for Occasional Overtime Meals and Other De Minimis Meals. Currently, employers may generally deduct and employees may exclude from income meals that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Code section 132(e). De minimis meals may include occasional overtime meals, cocktail parties, group meals, and picnics for employees and their guests, and year-end holiday parties, in addition to meals provided at employer‑operated eating facilities. Section 13304(b) of the Senate Bill would generally impose a 50‑percent limitation on deductions for de minimis meals starting in 2018. As described above, starting in 2026, employers would not be permitted to deduct any expenses for operating and providing meals through employer‑operated eating facilities (except to the extent the employees pay for the meals). But the other types of de minimis meals would continue to be deductible subject to the 50‑percent limitation.

Elimination of Deduction for Qualified Transportation Fringes. Like the House bill, section 13304(c) of the Senate Bill would disallow the deduction for providing any qualified transportation fringe benefits.  Under Code section 132(f), these fringe benefits permit employers to either pay for an employee’s public transportation, van pool, bicycle, or parking expenses related to commuting on a pre-tax basis or allow employees to elect to receive a portion of their compensation in the form of non-taxable commuting benefits. Although the Senate Bill does not change the existing income exclusion for commuting expenses (other than bicycle commuting expenses, discussed below) that constitutes de minimis fringe benefits, it would likely discourage employers from providing qualified transportation benefits to employees.

Elimination of Deduction for other Commuting Expenses (Except for Employee’s Safety). Unlike the House bill, section 13304(c) of the Senate Bill would further disallow deductions for providing transportation (or any payment or reimbursement for related expense) for commuting between an employee’s residence and the place of employment, except as necessary to ensure the employee’s safety. This deduction disallowance would appear to apply even to commuting benefits that are treated as taxable compensation to the employee. Although it is unclear how the IRS would interpret the provision, the Senate Bill could be read to disallow a deduction for transportation between an employee’s home and a temporary place of employment, which are currently fully deductible and excludable by the employee. Ultimately, the effect of this change will depend upon how broadly the IRS interprets “place of employment,” which could be interpreted to include even temporary work locations away from an employee’s tax home.

Suspension of Exclusion for Qualified Bicycle Commuting Reimbursement. Unlike the House bill, section 11048 of the Senate Bill would repeal the exclusion under Code section 132(f) for bicycle commuting expenses, making such benefits taxable to employees from 2018 through 2025.

Suspension of Exclusion for Qualified Moving Expense Reimbursement. Similar to the House bill, section 11049 of the Senate Bill would partially suspend the exclusion from income and wages for a qualified moving expense reimbursement, which is an employer-provided benefit capped at the amount deductible by the individual if he or she directly paid or incurred the cost.  The Bill would retain a narrow exclusion for members of U.S. Armed Forces on active duty who move pursuant to military orders. These changes would be effective from 2018 through 2025.

Prohibition on Use of Cash or Gift Cards and Other Non-Tangible Personal Property as Employee Achievement Awards.  Whereas the House bill would eliminate the exclusion and deduction limitation for employee achievement awards, section 13311 of the Senate Bill would retain the exclusion and deduction limitation but codify proposed regulations defining “tangible personal property” for purposes of employee achievement awards.  Under Code sections 74(c)(1) and 274(j), employee achievement awards are excludable from income and deductible by the employer.  Section 274(j)(3)(A) defines an “employee achievement award” as an item of “tangible personal property” that meets certain other requirements without defining this term.  Under Treasury Regulation § 1.274-3(b), tangible personal property does not include cash or any gift certificate other than a nonnegotiable gift certificate conferring only the right to receive tangible personal property.  Under Proposed Regulation § 1.274-8(c)(2), the IRS provided a more comprehensive list of items that do not constitute tangible personal property, but these regulations were never issued in final form.

The Senate Bill would basically codify the list in the proposed regulations, to make clear that the following items do not constitute tangible personal property: (a) cash, cash equivalents, gift cards, gift coupons, or gift certificates (other than certificates conferring only the right to select and receive tangible personal property from a limited array of pre-selected items); (b) vacations, meals, lodging, tickets to theater or sporting events; and (c) stocks, bonds, other securities, and other similar items.  The restriction on gift certificates is more restrictive than the current language of Treasury Regulation § 1.274-3(b) and the proposed regulations, which would permit employee achievement awards that are nonnegotiable gift certificates that provide only the right to receive tangible personal property.  The requirement that the employee be permitted to choose from a limited array of pre-selected items would appear to bless many common employee achievement programs, but is still more restrictive than existing law and the proposed regulations.

Private Employer Retirement Benefits

Extension of Time Period for Rollover of Certain Outstanding Plan Loans.  Under Code section 402(c)(3), a participant whose plan or employment terminates while he or she has an outstanding plan loan balance generally must contribute the loan balance to an individual retirement account (IRA) within 60 days of receiving an offset distribution.  Otherwise, the loan is treated as an impermissible early withdrawal and is subject to the 10‑percent early withdrawal penalty.  Like the House bill, section 13613 of the Senate Bill would relax these rules by adding a new section 402(c)(3)(B) to give these employees until the due date for their individual tax return to contribute the outstanding loan balance to an IRA.  The 10‑percent penalty would only apply after that date.

Qualified 2016 Disaster Distribution (for 2016 and 2017). Unlike the House bill, the Senate Bill would provide additional disaster relief.  Section 11029 of the Senate Bill, would waive the 10‑percent early withdrawal tax on distributions of up to $100,000 to an individual whose principal place of abode at any time during 2016 or 2017 was located in a “2016 disaster area” as declared by the President, and who suffered economic loss due to the storm, flooding, or other disaster that occurred in the area during 2016.  This relief is broader than that contained in the Senate Finance Committee language, which provided relief only to flooding and storm victims in the “Mississippi River Delta flood disaster area” during March 2016 (earlier coverage). The distribution must be made during 2016 or 2017 to be exempt from the early withdrawal tax.  Additionally, any distribution required to be included in income as a result of this special distribution rule is included in income ratably over a three-year period, beginning with the year of distribution.  During this three-year period, amounts received may be re‑contributed to the plan and treated as a rollover, thus allowing the individual to file an amended return.  (For more information regarding special tax relief for victims of natural disasters, see our discussions of: (1) leave-based donation programs, leave-sharing programs, and relaxed plan loans and hardship withdrawal rules for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma; and (2) qualified disaster relief payments under Code section 139.)

Employer Tax Credits

Employer Tax Credit for Paid FMLA Leave for 2018 and 2019.  Section 13403 of the Senate Bill would allow eligible employers to claim a general business credit equal to 12.5 percent of wages paid to a qualifying employee while on FMLA leave, plus 0.25 percent of wages (capped at 25 percent) for each percentage point by which the FMLA pay exceeds 50 percent of the employee’s normal pay.   An “eligible employer” is one that institutes a FMLA‑leave policy that: (a) allows all qualifying full-time employees not less than two weeks of annual paid family and medical leave (not counting leave paid by State or local government); (b) allows less-than-full-time employees a commensurate amount of leave on a pro rata basis; and (c) provide leave pay at a rate that is at least 50 percent of the employee’s normal pay. A “qualifying employee” is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act who has been employed by the employer for at least one year, and whose preceding‑year compensation did not exceed 60 percent of the compensation threshold for highly compensated employees ($120,000 for 2017).

The Senate Bill would also allow eligible employers to take this credit for paid family and medical leave provided to qualifying employees that are not covered by Title I of the FMLA, provided the employer will not interfere with rights provided under the policy and will not discharge or discriminate against any individual for opposing practices prohibited by the policy. This is a change from the credit as proposed in the Senate Finance Committee language (earlier coverage).

For each employee, the credit that the employer may claim is limited to 12 weeks of paid FMLA leave. Moreover, the employer may not deduct any portion of wages for which the employer claims the credit, but the employer can elect not to have the credit apply and deduct the paid leave instead. Finally, as the credit is part of a pilot program, the credit would only be available in 2018 and 2019.

Impact of Senate Tax Reform Proposal – Changes to Fringe Benefits, Retirement Plans, NQDC and Executive Compensation, Workers Classification, and 1099-MISC/1099-K Reporting

UPDATE 11/16/2017

On November 14, the Senate Finance Committee released modifications to its tax reform proposal.  The Senate modification contains key changes in the following areas (and we have summarized these changes here):

  • Health Reform – Repeal the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
  • Fringe Benefits – (1) Disallow deductions for meals provided for the employer’s convenience that are not occasional overtime meals, and meals provided at an employer-operated eating facility; and (2) expand the income exclusion for length of service awards for public safety volunteers.
  • Private Retirement Benefits – (1) Strike the proposed elimination of catch-up contributions for high-wage employees; (2) extend the rollover time period of certain outstanding plan loans; (3) allow re-contribution of retirement plan distributions due to incorrect IRS levies; and (4) allow qualified distributions for victims of Mississippi River Delta flooding.
  • NQDC and Executive Compensation – (1) Eliminate the repeal of Code section 409A and the new rules for non-qualified deferred compensation (“NQDC”) included in the original tax reform proposal; (2) allow deferral for up to five years for stocks pursuant to exercise of stock options and settlement of restricted stock units (“RSUs”) issued under broad-based plans of privately-held corporations; and (3) provide transition relief for the expanded application of Code section 162(m).
  • Worker Classification and Information Reporting – (1) Eliminate the proposed worker classification safe harbor that would have applied for all purposes of the Code; and (2) eliminate the proposed changes to the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.
  • Employer Tax Credits – Provide employer tax credits in 2018 and 2019 for wages paid to employees on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

ORIGINAL POST

Last Thursday, the Senate Finance committee released its tax reform proposal, a day before the House Ways and Means Committee approved the House tax reform bill after adopting two amendments (see unified House bill discussed in our five-part series).  Written in “concept language” as opposed to legislative text, the Senate proposal contains various changes affecting employer‑provided fringe benefits, qualified retirement benefits, nonqualified deferred compensation (“NQDC”) and executive compensation, worker classification, and thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041, 6041A, and 6050W.  Some of these changes are similar to those proposed under the House bill, but there are key divergences.

We have summarized these changes, which generally would be effective after 2017, except as otherwise noted below.

Fringe Benefits

With respect to fringe benefits, the Senate proposal is generally more employee-friendly than the House bill, in that the Senate proposal would not repeal or limit the fringe benefit exclusions for employer-provided lodging, dependent care assistance programs, educational assistance programs and qualified tuition reductions, and adoption assistance programs (see discussion of the House bill’s changes to employer-provided fringe benefits in Part I and entertainment expenses and other fringe benefit deductions in Part II of our series).  But the Senate proposal would more aggressively limit deductions for meal expenses provided at an employer-operated eating facility, as well as make the following changes:

  • Total Disallowance of Deductions for Entertainment Expenses.  Similar to the House bill, the Senate proposal would disallow employer deductions for (1) entertainment, amusement, or recreation (“entertainment expenses”); (2) membership dues for clubs organized for business, pleasure, recreation or other social purposes; and (3) facilities used in connection with any of these items. Thus, the Senate proposal would replace the existing 50-percent limitation for entertainment expenses directly related to the active conduct of the employer’s trade or business with a full disallowance.  Unlike the House bill, however, the Senate bill would not impose a separate deduction limitation on “amenities,” which the House bill defined as a de minimis fringe benefit that is primarily personal in nature and involving property or services that are not directly related to the taxpayer’s business.  The House bill’s amenities provision would seemingly deny deductions for most de minimis fringe benefits unless the expense qualified for one of the exceptions under Code section 274(e)—e.g., expenses for food and beverages (and facilities used in connection therewith) furnished on the business premises of an employer primarily for its employees; reimbursed expenses; expenses treated as compensation to (or included in the gross income of) the recipient; recreational, social, and similar activities primarily for the benefit of employees other than highly compensated employees; items available to the public; entertainment sold to customers.  The Senate proposal would continue to permit deductions for such expenses to the extent currently permitted by law.
  • 50-Percent Deduction Limitation Applied to Eating Facilities. While taxpayers may still generally deduct 50 percent of food and beverage expenses associated with operating their trade or business (g., meals consumed by employees on work-related travel), the Senate proposal would expand this 50-percent limitation to expenses of employer-operated eating facilities as defined under Code section 132(e)(6), expenses which currently are fully deductible provided they satisfy the requirements for de minimis fringe benefits.  This approach differs from the House bill, which would not only maintain the full deduction for meals that are treated as being provided at an employer-operated eating facility that is a de minimis fringe benefit, but also remove the 50-percent deduction limitation on meals provided to employees for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119.
  • Disallowance of Deductions for Qualified Transportation Fringes. Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would disallow the deduction for providing any qualified transportation fringe benefits.  Under Code section 132(f), these fringe benefits permit employees to either pay for an employee’s public transportation, van pool, bicycle, or parking expenses related to commuting on a pre-tax basis or allow employees to elect to receive a portion of their compensation in the form of non-taxable commuting benefits.  The Senate bill would also repeal the exclusion under Code section 132(f) for bicycle commuting expenses, making such benefits taxable to employees.
  • Disallowance of Deductions for Commuting Expenses. Unlike the House bill, the Senate proposal would further disallow deductions for providing transportation (or any payment or reimbursement for related expense) for commuting between an employee’s residence and place of employment, except as necessary to ensure the employee’s safety.  This deduction disallowance would appear to apply even to commuting benefits that are treated as taxable compensation to the employee, but it is difficult to tell for certain given the Committee’s use of conceptual language.  Although the proposal does not change the existing exclusion for occasional overtime taxi fare that constitutes de minimis fringe benefits, it would discourage employers from providing commuting benefits.
  • Elimination of Exclusion for Employer-Paid Moving Expenses. The Senate proposal would repeal the exclusion from income and wages for a qualified moving expense reimbursement, which is an employer-provided benefit capped at the amount deductible by the individual if he or she directly paid or incurred the cost.  The House bill, by contrast, would retain a narrow exclusion for members of U.S. Armed Forces on active duty who move pursuant to military orders (discussed here).

Private Employer Retirement Benefits

In the area of retirement plans sponsored by private employers, the House bill loosened the hardship withdrawal rules, reduced the minimum age for in-service distributions, extended the time period for rollover of certain plan loans, and provided additional nondiscrimination testing options for closed defined benefit plans (see Part III).  By contrast, the Senate proposal does not contain any of these changes, but would make the following change:

  • Elimination of Catch-up Contributions for High-Wage Employees. Under existing law, contributions to account-based qualified retirement plans—including defined contribution plans, 403(b) plans, and 457(b) plans—are subject to an annual limit of the lesser of a specific dollar amount and the employee’s compensation.  For employees age 50 or older, the specific dollar amount is increased (generally $6,000 for 2017), allowing the employee to make “catch-up” contributions for the year.  The Senate proposal would eliminate catch-up contributions for employees who receive wages of $500,000 or more for the preceding year.

NQDC and Executive Compensation

Regarding NQDC and executive compensation, the Senate proposal is similar to the House bill insofar as it would expand the deduction limitation on excessive employee remuneration pursuant to Code section 162(m), and create an excise tax on excess tax-exempt organization executive compensation (see Part IV).  But the Senate proposal would adopt a new regime that subjects NQDC to taxation upon vesting, a regime that was included in the originally introduced House bill but was removed by the second amendment adopted by the Ways and Means Committee in favor of retaining the existing regime under Code section 409A (discussed here).

  • Non-qualified Deferred Compensation. Currently, NQDC that complies with Code section 409A is not included in an employee’s income until the year received, and the employer’s deduction is postponed until that date. Like the initial House bill (prior to the second amendment), the Senate proposal would impose a new regime with respect to NQDC for services performed after 2017.  Under the new regime, NQDC would become taxable upon becoming no longer subject to a “substantial risk of forfeiture,” a term narrowly defined as including only the future performance of substantial services.  For these purposes, NQDC would include stock options and stock appreciation rights, even if not yet exercised.  Amounts deferred for services performed before 2018 would remain subject to the current regime and section 409A until the later of 2025 or the taxable year in which the substantial risk of forfeiture lapses, at which point all pre-2018 deferrals would be includible in income.  The Senate proposal would direct the IRS to establish transition rules allowing early payment without violating section 409A.  Finally, the Senate proposal would also eliminate Code sections 457A and 457(f), since all post-2017 deferrals would be governed by section 409B.
  • Modification of Limitation on Excessive Employee Remuneration.  Code section 162(m) currently limits a publicly-traded company’s deduction for compensation paid to a “covered employee” to $1 million with exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions.  Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would eliminate the exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions paid after 2017, as well as modify the definition of a “covered employee.” Under the proposal, a covered employee would include any individual who is the principal executive officer or principal financial officer at any time during the tax year and the three highest paid officers for the tax year (as disclosed to shareholders).  Further, if an individual is a covered employee after 2016, the individual would retain the covered‑employee status for all future years.  Finally, the Senate proposal would also expand section 162(m) to apply to corporations beyond those with publicly traded securities.  The House bill would extend section 162(m) to any corporation that is required to file reports under section 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  In contrast, the Senate proposal would extend section 162(m) to all domestic publicly‑traded corporations and all foreign companies publicly traded through American Depository Receipts, and contemplates covering “certain additional corporations that are not publicly traded, such as large private C or S corporations.”
  • Excise Tax on Excess Tax-Exempt Organization Executive Compensation. Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would impose a 20‑percent excise tax on the employer with respect to compensation paid post‑2017 by a tax-exempt organization (or a related entity) to a covered employee: (1) to the extent the compensation exceeds $1 million for the tax year; or (2) if the compensation constitutes an “excess parachute payment” (based on a measure of separation pay).  For these purposes, a “covered employee” means an employee who is among the tax-exempt organization’s five highest paid employees, or who was a covered employee for a preceding tax year beginning after 2016.

Worker Classification Safe Harbor

In a significant departure from the House bill and existing law, the Senate proposal wades bravely into worker classification disputes by creating a worker classification safe harbor.  This proposed change reflects legislation introduced in July by Senator John Thune (R‑SD) to provide more certainty to independent contractors and “gig economy” workers regarding their worker classification.  If the safe harbor requirements are met, a service provider would be treated as an independent contractor and the service recipient as a non-employer customer for all purposes under the Code.  If the safe harbor requirements are not met, workers classification would still be governed by the applicable existing common law or statutory rules.   The proposal instructs Treasury to issue regulations necessary for implementing the new safe harbor.

Safe Harbor Requirements.  The safe harbor imposes three groups of objective criteria to ensure the independence of the service provider from the service recipient:

  1. Parties’ Relationship – The service provider generally must incur his or her own business expenses, agree to specific tasks or projects, and not be tied to a single service recipient. The service provider may not own any interest—other than publicly traded stock—in the service recipient. In addition, the service provider cannot have provided substantially the same services to the service recipient as an employee during the one-year period ending on the date of the commencement of services under the contract.  (Accordingly, the safe harbor may be unavailable for former executives who transition to consultant status as part of a phased retirement plan.)  The service provider also may not be compensated primarily on the basis of hours worked (and in the case of an independent sales agent, must be compensated primarily on a commission basis).
  2. Location and Means – The service provider must provide his own tools and supplies, have his or her own place of business and not work primarily at the service provider’s location, or the service provider must provide a fair market rent for the use of the service recipient’s place of business.
  3. Written Contract – The parties must have a signed written contract stating the independent-contractor relationship, acknowledging that the service provider is responsible for the payment of his or her own taxes (including self-employment taxes) and that the service recipient (or the payor) has certain reporting and withholding obligations (discussed below). Additionally, the term of the contract must not exceed two years, though it may be renewed for successive two-year periods by a signed written agreement.

Reporting and Withholding.  As under current law, amounts paid by a service recipient to the service provider under the safe harbor would be reported to the IRS under Code sections 6041(a) or 6041A(a) (or section 6050W, if paid via a payment card or third-party network transaction), subject to the increased reporting thresholds described below.  However, under current law, amounts paid to independent contractors are not typically subject to federal income tax withholding unless backup withholding is required (for example, because the contractor did not provide a TIN before payment).  The Senate proposal would create a new withholding obligation that requires the service recipient or payor to withhold 5 percent of the first $20,000 in compensation paid pursuant to contract.   It is unclear whether the withholding requirement would apply over the life of the contract or to the first $20,000 paid annually under the contract.

Reasonable Cause Relief.  The Senate proposal also addresses cases where service providers and service recipients (or payors) mistakenly believe that they have satisfied the safe harbor requirements.  In these cases, as long as the mistake was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect, the IRS would be permitted to reclassify the relationship as an employee-employer relationship—but only prospectively.

Effective Date.  The safe harbor would be available for services performed—and compensation for these services paid—after 2017.  Service recipients, payors, and required written contracts would not be treated as failing to meet the safe harbor requirements with respect to compensation paid to a service provider within 180 days after the Senate proposal’s enactment.

Information Reporting Thresholds Under Section 6041, 6041A, and 6050W 

The Senate proposal would change the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.  The reporting threshold for Forms 1099-MISC would be increased from $600 to $1,000 with respect to payments reportable under sections 6041(a) and 6041A(a).  These changes would affect, for instances, reporting of non-employee compensation on Forms 1099-MISC.

In contrast, the threshold under section 6050W for reporting third-party network transactions by third-party settlement organizations (“TPSOs”) would be decreased to $1,000 from the current “de minimis” threshold of $20,000 in aggregate transactions and more than 200 transactions.  Certain TPSOs that qualify as “marketplace platforms” may instead elect to report once the transactions with a participating payee either exceed $5,000 or 50 transactions provided that substantially all of the participating payees for whom it settles transactions are engaged in the sale of goods.  TPSOs that do not qualify as “marketplace platforms” may apply the new de minimis threshold with respect to participating payees that are primarily engaged in the sale of goods.  These changes would be effective for payments made after December 31, 2018.