Document Type

Article

Publication Date

12-30-2021

Abstract

Workers in the United States depend on their employers for a host of benefits beyond wages and salary. From retirement benefits to health insurance, from student loan repayment to dependent-care spending plans, from disability benefits to family and medical leave, U.S. employers play a uniquely central role in the financial lives of their employees. Yet not all employers are equally willing or capable of serving as such financial intermediaries. Larger employers commonly offer more and better benefits than smaller employers. In recent years, so-called Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs) have pitched themselves as a private-sector solution to the challenges traditionally faced by smaller employers. PEOs have pioneered and marketed a “co-employment” model pursuant to which a business and the PEO agree to share certain employer rights and responsibilities, with the PEO taking on all of the human resources matters and the client-employer otherwise retaining control over the business.

While PEOs respond to long-standing challenges faced by smaller employers and have the potential to increase access to workplace benefits, this Article argues that they also introduce new and significant governance concerns that are not adequately addressed by the existing regulatory framework. Empirical evidence suggests that as currently structured, PEOs may not, in fact, provide “Fortune 500” benefits to employees at smaller companies and may instead lock participating employers into costly benefit bundles and expose them to the risk of unpaid employment taxes and health insurance claims. To protect participants in arrangements where PEOs provide key workplace benefits, this Article recommends strengthening and uniformly applying registration, disclosure and oversight requirements for all non-employer intermediaries, including PEOs. In the longer term, comprehensive retirement reform is needed to account for the transformation of workplace benefits in the United States.

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