Counting Employees Not as Easy as 1…2…3

Most children can count to 10 in preschool. The average child can count to 200 at age six. But, employee benefit professionals know that counting – when counting employees — is anything but easy.

The reason that counting employees isn’t easy is that it depends why they’re being counted. Different laws at the federal and state level count employees in different ways. This is particularly true for laws that impact employee benefits.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires that employers count employees to determine whether an employer is an “applicable large employer” or ALE.  An ALE is subject to the employer shared responsibility requirements of the law. First an employer needs to consider if the firm is part of a controlled group. Then, an employer must determine the number of full-time and full-time equivalent employees. Employers must make this determination of ALE status each year. The IRS guidance on determining ALE status can be found here.

COBRA, the federal employee continuation law requires a different method of counting employees. COBRA requires that employers count full-time and part-time employees. A part-time employee is counted as a fraction equal to the number of hours worked divided by the hours an employee must work to be considered full-time. A more detailed explanation of counting employees for COBRA purposes can be found in An Employer’s Guide to Group Health Continuation Coverage Under COBRA.

State continuation laws may count employees differently than COBRA.

Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) provisions require yet another counting method. The MSP provision applies to group health plans of employers with 20 or more employees. Generally speaking, MSP looks to employees on the payroll. But, the technical aspects of counting employees are more involved as Section 10.3 of the Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) Manual Chapter 2 reveals.

Form 5500 filing requirements for welfare plans add yet another counting complication. A welfare benefit plan that covered fewer than 100 participants as of the beginning of the plan year may be exempt from the filing requirements. The instructions for Form 5500 provide the details.

Other laws or regulations that may require different counting methods include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)
  • Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA)
  • PCORI fee
  • Form W-2 cost of health benefits requirement
  • Numerous other federal and state laws.