Government Grants Amnesty to Pension-Poaching Employers

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: Labor Secretary Robert Reich announced that employers who have abused their access to workers' 401(k) plans have until September 6th to return the funds or face prosecution. "As cops on the beat, our goal is not to collect fines," Reich said. "Our goal is to get workers the money that's owed them as quickly as possible." Reich's pragmatic approach, said TIME's Bernard Baumohl, is most likely due to the prohibitive legal costs of pursuing errant employers. "Companies have now been given due warning and a grace period to replenish the 401(k)," said Baumohl. "If they don't, they are aware of the consequences -- that the government will go after them much more aggressively and they will get a reputation among American workers for being irresponsible with retirement savings." The 401(k) is vulnerable to fraud because rules regulating the pension plan allow employers up to 90 days to deposit employees' money into program. Already, the government has investigated 602 cases and closed 188, netting $5 million in payments. Many of these cases occurred at small- and medium-size firms, companies that are often tempted to raid 401(k) accounts to meet financial crises or to fund frivolous events like hunting trips or lavish lifestyles for executives. Since the 401(k)'s inception in 1979, 22 million workers have invested a total of $880 billion in the government-sponsored program. The government's amnesty announcement will reassure workers that money they set aside for retirement is safe, said Baumohl. The offer is not open, however, to companies that have held onto their employees' money for more than a year or to those currently being investigated for criminal offenses.