Approximately 2.1 million workers have tapped into their workplace retirement plans during the pandemic, thanks to more flexible withdrawal rules created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But those numbers only account for 5% of eligible 401(k) and 403(b) clients, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the five largest 401(k) plan administrators: Fidelity, Empower Retirement, Vanguard, Alight Solutions and Principal.
The analysis found that a large majority of workers who have preemptively tapped their savings come from industries hard-hit by the pandemic, including healthcare, transportation and manufacturing.
Typically, pulling out money from a tax-deferred account before age 59 1/2 leads to a 10% penalty on top of any income taxes, but temporary rules established as part of the CARES Act has allows individuals with pandemic-related financial troubles to withdraw up to $100,000 from any combination of their tax-deferred plans, including 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and traditional individual retirement accounts, without penalty. The rules apply to plans only if the person’s employer opts in, and they expire Dec. 30.
In addition, although virus-related hardship withdrawals still are treated as taxable income, the liability automatically is split over three years unless the account holder chooses otherwise. Further, the tax can be avoided if the money is put back into a tax-deferred account within three years.
Although the various federal relief programs put into place have helped curb some financial damage from the pandemic, many have expired or are expiring some. Even as additional relief is expected to pass this week, experts worry that it may not be enough and that more withdrawals are likely.
“As these start to expire, there may be an uptick in withdrawals for households that have been financially impacted,” David Fairburn, associate partner at Aon, a professional services firm that provides retirement consulting, told The New York Times.