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The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF): Guidelines

04.28.20

Editor's note: Read this if you are a leader in higher education.

The Department of Education has released guidance to colleges and universities on how the CARES Act grants to institutions, under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), may be used. The guidance comes in the form of answers to frequently asked questions, which we recommend institutions read before accepting the funds. Some key answers included in the document:

  1. A school has to participate in the HEERF funding to be used for grants to students to get the institutional share.
  2. Schools can use these funds to cover the costs of refunds for room and board provided as a result of campus closure.
  3. These funds can be used to make additional emergency financial aid grants to students impacted by campus closure.

We urge schools to retain supporting documentation of the proper use of these funds to allow for a compliance audit, should that be required. 

Questions?
Please contact Renee Bishop, Sarah Belliveau, or Mark LaPrade. We’re here to help.

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Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the ninth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here

Employee benefit plan loan basics 

If your plan’s adoption agreement is set up to allow loans, participants can borrow against their account balance. Some participants may find this an attractive option as the interest they pay on the loan is returned to their retirement account as opposed to other loans where the interest is paid to the lender. 

Additionally, while interest is charged at the market rate, it may be lower than other options available to the participant, such as a credit card or other unsecured debt. Unlike hardship distributions, there are no restrictions on the circumstances under which a participant may take a loan. A potential downside is that if the borrower defaults on the loan or ends their employment and cannot repay the loan in full, it converts from a loan to a deemed distribution, potentially incurring taxes and penalties.

If a participant decides that an employee benefit plan loan is their best option, they will apply for the loan through your plan administrator. Loans are limited in both size and quantity. Participants may take loans up to 50% of their vested account balance with a maximum loan of $50,000. The provisions of a plan determine how many loans an employee may have at once; however, the combined loan balances cannot exceed 50% of the employee’s vested balance or $50,000. Furthermore, the $50,000 loan maximum must also consider payments made on loans within the previous 12 months.

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans may be done through after tax payroll contributions, making it a relatively easy process for the participant. If a plan sponsor elects to provide this repayment option, they must ensure that repayments are remitted to the plan in a timely manner, just as they must with other employee funded contributions. The term of the loan is typically limited to five years and must be repaid in at least quarterly installments. However, a loan can be extended to as long as thirty years if specified within the plan’s loan policy. If the loan term is for longer than five years, the loan proceeds must be used to purchase a primary residence.

Like any source of debt, there are pros and cons to taking out an employee benefit plan loan, and it remains an important option for participants to understand. The benefits include the ease of applying for such a loan and loan interest that is then added to the participant’s retirement account balance. Potential pitfalls include lost earnings during the loan period and the risk of the loan becoming a deemed distribution if the participant is unable to repay within the allotted time. 

If you would like more information, or have specific questions about your specific situation, please contact our Employee Benefits Audit team.

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Retirement plan loans: A brief review

This article is the first in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with ERISA requirements.

On Labor Day, 1974, President Gerald Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, commonly known as ERISA, into law. Prior to ERISA, employee pensions had scant protections under the law, a problem made clear when the Studebaker automobile company closed its South Bend, Indiana production plant in 1963. Upon the plant’s closing, some 4,000 employees—whose average age was 52 and average length of service with the company was 23 years—received approximately 15 cents for each dollar of benefit they were owed. Nearly 3,000 additional employees, all of whom had less than 10 years of service with the company, received nothing.

A decade later, ERISA established statutory requirements to preserve and protect the rights of employees to their pensions upon retirement. Among other things, ERISA defines what a plan fiduciary is and sets standards for their conduct.

Who is—and who isn’t—a plan fiduciary?
ERISA defines a fiduciary as a person who:

  1. Exercises discretionary authority or control over the management of an employee benefit plan or the disposition of its assets,
  2. Gives investment advice about plan funds or property for a fee or compensation or has the authority to do so,
  3. Has discretionary authority or responsibility in plan administration, or
  4. Is designated by a named fiduciary to carry out fiduciary responsibility. (ERISA requires the naming of one or more fiduciaries to be responsible for managing the plan's administration, usually a plan administrator or administrative committee, though the plan administrator may engage others to perform some administrative duties).

If you’re still unsure about exactly who is and isn’t a plan fiduciary, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Disagreements over whether or not a person acting in a certain capacity and in a specific situation is a fiduciary have sometimes required legal proceedings to resolve them. Here are some real-world examples.

Employers who maintain employee benefit plans are typically considered fiduciaries by virtue of being named fiduciaries or by acting as a functional fiduciary. Accordingly, employer decisions on how to execute the intent of the plan are subject to ERISA’s fiduciary standards.

Similarly, based on case law, lawyers and consultants who effectually manage an employee benefit plan are also generally considered fiduciaries.

A person or company that performs purely administrative duties within the framework, rules, and procedures established by others is not a fiduciary. Examples of such duties include collecting contributions, maintaining participants' service and employment records, calculating benefits, processing claims, and preparing government reports and employee communications.

What are a fiduciary’s responsibilities?
ERISA requires fiduciaries to discharge their duties solely in the interest of plan participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits for them and defraying reasonable plan administrative expenses. Specifically, fiduciaries must perform their duties as follows:

  1. With the care, skill, prudence, and diligence of a prudent person under the circumstances;
  2. In accordance with plan documents and instruments, insofar as they are consistent with the provisions of ERISA; and
  3. By diversifying plan investments so as to minimize risk of loss under the circumstances, unless it is clearly prudent not to do so.

A fiduciary is personally liable to the plan for losses resulting from a breach of their fiduciary responsibility, and must restore to the plan any profits realized on misuse of plan assets. Not only is a fiduciary liable for their own breaches, but also if they have knowledge of another fiduciary's breach and either conceals it or does not make reasonable efforts to remedy it.

ERISA provides for a mandatory civil penalty against a fiduciary who breaches a fiduciary responsibility under ERISA or commits a violation, or against any other person who knowingly participates in such breach or violation. That penalty is equal to 20 percent of the "applicable recovery amount" paid pursuant to any settlement agreement with ERISA or ordered by a court to be paid in a judicial proceeding instituted by ERISA.

ERISA also permits a civil action to be brought by a participant, beneficiary, or other fiduciary against a fiduciary for a breach of duty. ERISA allows participants to bring suit to recover losses from fiduciary breaches that impair the value of the plan assets held in their individual accounts, even if the financial solvency of the entire plan is not threatened by the alleged fiduciary breach. Courts may require other appropriate relief, including removal of the fiduciary.

Over the coming months, we’ll share a series of blogs for employee benefit plan fiduciaries, covering everything from common terminology to best practices for plan documentation, suggestions for navigating fiduciary risks, and more.

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What's in a name? A lot, if you manage a benefit plan.

BerryDunn’s Healthcare/Not-for-Profit Practice Group members have been working closely with our clients as they navigate the effect the COVID-19 pandemic will have on their ability to sustain and advance their missions.

We have collected several of the questions we received, and the answers provided, so that you may also benefit from this information. We will be updating our COVID-19 Resources page regularly. If you have a question you would like to have answered, please contact Sarah Belliveau, Not-for-Profit Practice Area leader, at sbelliveau@berrydunn.com.

The following questions and answers have been compiled into categories: stabilization, cash flow, financial reporting, endowments and investments, employee benefits, and additional considerations.

STABILIZATION
Q: Is all relief focused on small to mid-size organizations? What can larger nonprofit organizations participate in for relief?
A:

We have learned that there is an as-yet-to-be-defined loan program for mid-sized employers between 500-10,000 employees. You can find information in the Loans Available for Nonprofits section (link below) of  the CARES Act as well as on the Independent Sector CARES Act web page, which will be updated regularly.

Q: Should I perform financial modeling so I can understand the impact this will have on my organization? Things are moving so fast, how do I know what federal programs are available to provide assistance?
A:

The first step in developing a short-term model to navigate the next few months is to gain an understanding of the programs available to provide assistance. These resources summarize some information about available programs:

Loans Available for Nonprofits in the CARES Act
Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA): FAQs for Businesses
CARES Act Tax Provisions for Not-for-Profit Organizations

The next step is to develop scenarios ranging from best case to worst case to analyze the potential impact of revenue and/or cost reductions on the organization. Modeling the various options available to you will help to determine which program is best for your organization. Each program achieves a different objective – for instance:

  • The Paycheck Protection Program can assist in retaining employees in the short term.
  • The Emergency Economic Injury Grants are helpful in covering a small immediate liquidity need.
  • The Small Business Debt Relief Program provides aid to those concerned with making SBA loan payments.

Additionally, consider non-federal options, such as discussing short-term deferrals with your current bank.

Q: How should I create a financial forecast/model for the next year?
A:

If you have the benefit of waiting, this is likely a time period in which it makes sense to delay significant in-depth forecasting efforts, particularly if your business environment is complicated or subject to significantly volatility as a result of recent events. The concern with beginning to model for future periods, outside of the next three-to-six months, is that you’ll be using information that is incomplete and ever-changing. This could lead to snap judgments that are short-term in nature and detrimental to long-term planning and success of your organization. 

With that said, we recognize that delaying this analysis will be unsettling to many CFOs and business managers who need to have a strategy moving forward. In developing this model for next year, consider the following elements of a strong model:

  1. Flexible and dynamic – Allow room for the model to adapt as more information is available and as additional insight is requested by your constituents (board members, department heads, lenders, etc.).
  2. Prioritize – Start with your big-ticket items. These should be the items that drive results for the organization. Determine what your top two to three revenue and expense categories are and focus on wrapping your arms around the future of those. From there, look for other revenue and expense sources that show correlation with one of the big two to three. Using a dynamic model, these should be automatically updated when assumptions on correlated items change. Don’t waste time on items that likely don’t impact decision making. Finally, build consensus on baseline assumptions, whether it be through management or accounting team, the board, or finance committee.
  3. Stress-test – Provide for the reality that your assumptions, and thus model, will be wrong. Develop scenarios that run from best-case to worst-case. Be honest with your assumptions.
  4. Identify levers – As you complete stress-testing, identify your action plan under different circumstances. What are expenditures that can be deferred in a worst-case scenario? What does staffing look like at various levels?
  5. Cash is king – The focus on forecasting and modeling is often on the net income of the organization and the cash flows generated. In a time such as this, the exercise is likely to focus on future liquidity. Remember to consider your non-income and expense items that impact cash flow, such as principal payments on debt service, planned additions to property & equipment, receipts on pledge payments, and others.  
CASH FLOW
Q: How can I alleviate cash flow strain in the near term?
A:

While the House and Senate have reacted quickly to bring needed relief to individuals and businesses across the country, the reality for most is that more will need to be done to stabilize. Operationally, obvious responses in the short term should be to eliminate all nonessential purchasing and maximize the billing and collection functions in accounts receivable. Another option is to utilize or increase an existing line of credit, or establish a new line of credit, to alleviate short term cash flow shortfalls. Organizations with investment portfolios can consider the prudence of increasing the spending draw on those funds. Rather than making a few drastic changes, organizations should take a multi-faceted approach to reduce the strain on cash flow while protecting the long term sustainability of the mission.

Q: How can I increase my organization’s reach to help with disaster relief? If we establish a special purpose fund, what should my organization be thinking about?
A:

Many organizations are looking for ways to increase their direct impact and give funding to individuals or organizations they may not have historically supported. For those who are want to expand their grant or gift making or want to establish a disaster relief fund, there are things to consider when doing so to help protect the organization. The nonprofit experts at Hemenway & Barnes share their thoughts on just how to do that.

FINANCIAL REPORTING
Q: What accounting standards have been delayed or are in the process of being delayed?
A:

FASB:
The $2.2 trillion stimulus package includes a provision that would allow banks the temporary option to delay compliance with the current expected credit losses (CECL) accounting standard. This would be delayed until the earlier end of the fiscal year or the end of the coronavirus national emergency.

GASB:
On March 26, 2020, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) announced it has added a project to its current technical agenda to consider postponing all Statement and Implementation Guide provisions with an effective date that begins on or after reporting periods beginning after June 15, 2018. The GASB has received numerous requests from state and local government officials and public accounting firms regarding postponing the upcoming effective dates of pronouncements as these state and local government offices are closed and officials do not have access to the information needed to implement the Statements. Most notably this would include Statement No. 84, Fiduciary Activities, and Statement No. 87, Leases.

The Board plans to consider an Exposure Draft for issuance in April and finalize the guidance in May 2020.

ENDOWMENTS AND INVESTMENTS 
Q: What should I consider with regard to endowments?
A:

Many nonprofits with endowments are considering ways to balance an increased reliance on their investment portfolios with the responsibility to protect and preserve the spending power of donor-restricted gifts. Some things to think about include the existence (or absence) of true restrictions, spending variations under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA) applicable in your state, borrowing from an endowment, or requesting from the donor the release of restrictions. All need to be balanced with the intended duration and preservation of the endowment fund. Hemenway & Barnes shares their thoughts relative to the utilization of endowments during this time of need.

EMPLOYEE BENEFITS
Q: We are going to suspend our retirement plan match through June 30, 2020 and I picked a start date of April 1st. What we need help with is our bi-weekly payroll (which is for HOURLY employees). Their next pay date is April 3rd, for time worked through March 28th. Time worked March 29-31 would be paid on April 17th. How should we handle the match during this period for the hourly employees?
A:

The key for determining what to include for the matching calculation is when it is paid, not when it was earned. If the amendment is effective April 1st, then any amounts paid after April 1st would not have matching contributions calculated. This means that the amounts paid on April 3rd would not have any matching contributions calculated.

Q: Can you please provide guidance on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and how it may impact my organization?
A:

On March 30th, BerryDunn published a blog post to help answer your questions around the FFCRA.

If you have additional questions, please contact one of our Employee Benefit Plan professionals

ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS
Q: I heard there was going to be an incentive for charitable giving in the new act. What's that all about?
A:

According to Sections 2204 and 2205 of the CARES Act:

  • Up to $300 of charitable contributions can be taken as a deduction in calculating adjusted gross income (AGI) for the 2020 tax year. This will provide a tax benefit even to those who do not itemize.
  • For the 2020 tax year, the tax cap has been lifted for:
    • Individuals-from 60% of AGI to 100%
    • Corporations-annual limit is raised from 10% to 25% (for food donations this is raised from 15% to 25%)
Q: Have you heard if the May 15th tax deadline will be extended?
A:

Unfortunately, we have not heard. As of April 6th, the deadline has not been extended.

Q: Could you please summarize for me the tax provisions in the CARES Act that you think are most applicable to not-for-profits?
A: Absolutely! Our not-for-profit tax professionals have compiled this document, which provides a high-level outline of tax provisions in the CARES Act that we believe would be of interest to our clients.

We are here to help
Please contact the BerryDunn not-for-profit team if you have any questions, or would like to discuss your specific situation.

Article
COVID-19 FAQs—Not-for-Profit Edition

Benchmarking doesn’t need to be time and resource consuming. Read on for four simple steps you can take to improve efficiency and maximize resources.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before (from your Board of Trustees or Finance Committee): “I wish there was a way we could benchmark ourselves against our competitors.”

Have you ever wrestled with how to benchmark? Or struggled to identify what the Board wants to measure? Organizations can fall short on implementing effective methods to benchmark accurately. The good news? With a planned approach, you can overcome traditional obstacles and create tools to increase efficiency, improve operations and reporting, and maintain and monitor a comfortable risk level. All of this creates competitive advantage — and isn’t as hard as you might think.

Even with a structured process, remember that benchmarking data has pitfalls, including:

  • Peer data can be difficult to find. Some industries are better than others at tracking this information. Some collect too much data that isn’t relevant, making it hard to find the data that is.
     
  • The data can be dated. By the time you close your books for the year and data is available, you’re at least six months into the next fiscal year. Knowing this, you can still build year-over-year models you can measure consistently.
     
  • The underlying data may be tainted. As much as we’d like to rely on financial data from other organization and industry surveys, there’s no guarantee that all participants have applied accounting principles consistently, or calculated inputs (full-time equivalents), in the same way, making comparisons inaccurate.

Despite these pitfalls, it is a useful tool for your organization. It lets you take stock of your current financial condition and risk profile, identify areas for improvement and find a realistic and measurable plan to strengthen your organization.

Here are four steps to take to start a successful benchmarking program and overcome these pitfalls:

  1. Benchmark against yourself. Use year-over-year and month-to-month data to identify trends, inconsistencies and unexplained changes. Once you have the information, you can see where you want to direct improvement efforts.
  2. Look to industry/peer data. We’d love to tell you that all financial statements and survey inputs are created equally, but we can’t. By understanding the source of your information, and the potential strengths and weaknesses in the data (e.g., too few peers, different size organizations and markets, etc.), you will better know how to use it. Understanding the data source allows you to weigh metrics that are more susceptible to inconsistencies.
  1. Identify what is important to your organization and focus on it. Remove data points that have little relevance for your organization. Trying to address too many measures is one of the primary reasons benchmarking fails. Identify key metrics you will target, and watch them over time. Remember, keeping it simple allows you to put resources where you need them most.
  1. Use the data as a tool to guide decisions. Identify aspects of the organization that lie beyond your risk tolerance and then define specific steps for improvement.

Once you take these steps, you can add other measurement strategies, including stress testing, monthly reporting, use in budgeting, and forecasting. By taking the time to create and use an effective methodology, competitive advantage can be yours. Want to learn more? Check out our resources for not-for-profit organizations here.

Article
Benchmarking: Satisfy your board and gain a competitive advantage

Read this if you are responsible for meeting your broker-dealer’s annual report filing requirement under Securities Exchange Act (SEA) Section 15.

In February, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved a 30-day extension for eligible broker-dealers to file their annual reports, effective immediately. Firms that meet the criteria should consider taking advantage of the filing extension. Here are a few details and tips to help broker-dealers understand more about the 30‑day extension.

SEA Section 15 filing extension background

Normally, each broker-dealer registered under Securities Exchange Act (SEA) Section 15 must file annual reports—including financial and compliance or exemption reports, along with those prepared by an independent accountant—no more than 60 days after the broker-dealer’s fiscal year ends. But in light of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requested that the SEC allow broker-dealers an extra 30 days to file their annual reports. The extension, FINRA argued, would allow broker-dealers more time to obtain audit services.

Criteria for broker-dealers eligible for the extension

To qualify for a filing extension of 30 calendar days, a broker-dealer must meet the following criteria:

  1. Was in compliance with 15c3-1 (Net Capital) as of its most recent fiscal year end and had total capital and allowable subordinated liabilities of less than $50 million,
  2. Is permitted to file an exemption report as part of its most recent fiscal year-end annual reports,
  3. Submits written notification to FINRA and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) of its intent to rely on this order on an ongoing basis for as long as it meets the conditions of the order, and
  4. Files the annual report electronically with the SEC using an appropriate process.

The extension does not apply to just this year alone. It is understood to be in effect on an ongoing basis.

How to notify FINRA of your intent to take advantage of the extension

Broker-dealers that meet the aforementioned conditions are required to notify FINRA of their intent to take advantage of the extension. FINRA advises eligible broker-dealers to send an email to their Risk Monitoring Analyst with a message structured according to the following template:

“My firm wishes to have an additional 30 calendar days for filing its annual report on an ongoing basis for as long as my firm meets the conditions set forth in the SEC Order of February 12, 2021, regarding additional time for filing annual reports under SEA Rule 17a-5.”

How to file electronically

In addition to notifying FINRA, those looking to benefit from the extension are required to file electronically. There are multiple ways to do so, but the most user-friendly and efficient avenue to electronic filing is through the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) system.

Using the EDGAR system, broker-dealers must upload only two attachments maximum. The EDGAR system offers two options for electronic filing:

  1. The broker-dealer could attach one document containing all the annual reports as a public document; or
  2. The broker-dealer could attach two documents to its submission: (1) a public document containing the statement of financial condition, the notes to the statement of financial condition and the accountant’s report which covers the statement of financial condition, and (2) a non-public document containing all the components of the annual reports.

Implications for annual filings

An upcoming filing deadline is a stressful event, especially for broker-dealers contending with the upheaval of the past 18 months. Fortunately, FINRA has advocated on their behalf, and the SEC has complied by offering a 30-day filing extension.

The extension provides broker-dealers excess time to review documents and schedule a session with their auditor. Auditors will likely appreciate the extension as well, as it allows them to serve their various clients over a longer period of time, alleviating some of the pressure traditionally associated with filing season.

For these reasons and more, broker-dealers who qualify are encouraged to take the steps required to benefit from this grace period. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact our broker-dealer consulting team. We're here to help.

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Eligible broker-dealers: Take advantage of SEC's 30-day filing extension

Read this if you have a blended workforce with both in-office employees and remote workers.

It is hard to believe it has been nearly a year and a half since we started our remote work journey. At the time, many thought the move to working remotely would be short term. Then, a couple of weeks turned into a month, a month into another month, another month into a year and, some employers are now finally considering re-opening their offices.

Back in April 2020, we provided some internal control challenges, and potential solutions, faced by working in a remote environment. These challenges included exercising appropriate tone at the top, maintaining appropriate segregation of duties, and ensuring timely review, amongst others. Although these challenges still exist, there are new considerations to address as we transition into (hopefully) a post-pandemic world.

Blended workforces

As we mentioned in that article, since people have now been forced to work in a remote environment, they will be more apt to continue to do so. For some employees, the perks of ditching that long commute outweighs the free coffee they receive in the office. Employers have a decision to make—do we allow our employees the option to continue to work from home or, do we require employees to work from the office, as was standard pre-pandemic? Now that employees have exhibited the ability to work from home efficiently and effectively, it may be difficult to move all employees back into the office. Requiring all employees to return to the office could result in employees seeking employment elsewhere, and the option to work remotely is a selling point for many recruiters. Furthermore, disallowing remote work could cause employees to feel distrusted or undervalued, possibly leading to less efficient and effective work.

However, remote work comes with many challenges. Although video chat has been instrumental in navigating the remote work environment, it still has limitations. Nothing can beat in-person conversations and the relationships they help build. Nearly every video chat has a purpose, and unfortunately, you can’t just “run” into somebody in a video chat as you can in the office. Building camaraderie and instilling your company’s culture is difficult in a remote environment. And, if your workforce is blended, with some working in the office while others work remotely, building culture may be even more difficult than if your entire workforce was remote. Employees in the office may be less apt to communicate with remote colleagues. If you have a task you wish to delegate, you may think of giving the assignment to someone in the office prior to thinking of your remote co-workers that may be just as able and willing to complete the assignment. It will be important to ensure all employees are provided with equal opportunities, no matter of where they work.

Remote work policy

Regardless of your company’s decision to allow employees to work remotely or not, we recommend developing a remote work policy addressing expected behaviors. When developing such a policy, consider:

  •  Will the policy’s provisions apply to the entire company or will there be different provisions by department? If the latter, consider what the implications may be on employee morale.
  • Will there be a minimum amount of days per week that must be spent in the office?
  • If employees are allowed to work remotely, do they need to work a set schedule or can the frequency, and which days they work remotely, change from week to week?
  • Who should the employee communicate their decision to? How will this information then be shared company-wide?
  • How do remote employees address document destruction? If they are handling sensitive and confidential documents, how should they dispose of these documents?
  • Similarly, what are the expectations for protecting sensitive and confidential information at home?
  • Are employees allowed to hook up company-provided equipment to personal devices, such as personal printers?
  • If an employee is customer/client facing, what are the expectations for dress code and backgrounds for video chat meetings?
  • What will staff development look like for individuals working remotely? Alternatively, what will their involvement look like in onboarding/developing new employees?
  • What are the expectations for meetings? Will all meetings be set up in a manner that accommodates in-person and remote attendees? Are there meetings where in-person attendance is mandatory?

The importance of these considerations will likely differ from company to company. Some of these considerations may be addressed in other, already existing policies.

Are your internal controls “blended workforce” ready?

If your company plans to allow employees to work remotely, you will need to assess if your internal controls make sense for both in-office and remote employees. Typically, internal controls are written in a manner irrespective of where the employee resides. However, there may be situations that require an internal control be re-worked to accommodate in-office and remote employees. For instance, do you have an internal control that references a specific report that can only be run in-office? If the control owner plans to transition to a hybrid work schedule, does the frequency of the internal control need to change to reflect the employee’s new schedule? Alternatively, does it make sense to transition this internal control to someone else that will be in the office more frequently?

Internal control accommodations

The transition to a remote environment was expeditious and many thought the remote environment would be over quickly. As a result, there may have been modifications to internal controls that were made out of necessity, although they were not ideal from an internal control standpoint. The rationale for these accommodations may have been the expectation that the remote environment would be short-lived. Although these accommodations may have made sense for a short amount of time, and posed little to no additional risk to your company, the longer these accommodations remained in effect, the greater the chance for unintended consequences. 

We recommend reviewing your internal controls and creating a log of any internal control accommodations that were made due to the pandemic. Some of these modifications may continue to make sense and, after operating under the new internal control for an extended period of time, may even be preferable to the previous internal control. However, for those modifications that do appear to have increased control risk, control owners should assess if the length of the pandemic could have resulted in inadequately designed internal controls. And, if so, what could the consequences of these poorly designed internal controls have been to the company?

Internal control vs. process

While reviewing your company’s internal controls, it will also be a good time to ensure your internal control descriptions actually describe an internal control rather than simply a process. Although having well-documented processes for your company’s various transaction cycles is important, a good internal control description should already incorporate the process within it. Think of your internal control descriptions as writing a story—the “process” provides background information on the characters and setting, while the “internal control” is the story’s plot.

For example: The Accounting Manager downloads the market values from the investment portfolio accounting system and enters the market values into the general ledger on a monthly basis. Once the journal entry is entered, the Accounting Manager provides the market value report and a copy of the journal entry to the Controller.

Although a savvy reader may be able to identify where the internal control points are within this process, it could easily be modified to explicitly include discussion of the actual internal controls. The text in bold below represents modifications to the original:

The Accounting Manager downloads the market values from the investment portfolio accounting system and enters the market values into the general ledger on a monthly basis. Once the journal entry is entered, the Accounting Manager provides the market value report and a copy of the journal entry to the Controller via email. This email serves as documentation of preparation of the journal entry by the Accounting Manager. The Controller then reviews the market value report against the journal entry for accuracy. Once approved, the Controller posts the journal entry and replies to the email to indicate their review and approval. The Accounting Manager saves the email chain as auditable evidence.

The text additions in bold font help provide a complete story. A new employee could easily read this description and understand what they need to do, and how to appropriately document it. Most importantly, the internal control is both in-office and remote environment friendly.

Transitioning back to the office has resulted in a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Routine office norms, such as shaking hands and having a spontaneous meeting over a cup of coffee need to be relearned. Likewise, policies and internal controls need to be revisited to address the changing landscape. The more proactive your company can be, the better positioned it will be to accommodate its employees’ demands, while also maximizing the effectiveness of its internal controls. Please contact David Stone or Dan Vogt if any questions arise.

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May the "blended workforce be with you": Policy and internal control considerations for a new era

Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the eighth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here

The Department of Labor regulations regarding service provider fee disclosures clarify that plan fiduciaries are responsible for assessing the reasonableness of fees charged to plans in relation to services performed. 

Before a plan fiduciary is able to assess the reasonableness of plan fees, the fiduciary has to receive required fee disclosures from their covered service provider. A covered service provider is considered a party that enters into an agreement with a covered plan to provide certain services. The range of services provided generally include recordkeeping services, investment adviser services, accounting services, auditing services, actuarial services, appraisals, banking, consulting, legal services, third party administration services, or valuation services provided to the plan.

In general, the covered service providers are required to provide the plan fiduciary a disclosure of the following information:

  • All expected services and fees, and
  • All direct and indirect compensation
    • Direct compensation are fees paid to the service providers from the plan
    • Indirect compensation are fees paid to the service providers from sources other than the plan, the plan sponsor, the covered service provider, or an affiliate 

Once the service provider fee disclosures are received, the responsible plan fiduciary must assess the reasonableness of the fees in relation to the services provided. There are numerous ways a plan fiduciary can determine if the fees are reasonable. The following are some of the most common ways to determine if the plan expenses are reasonable:

  • Complete a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Information (RFI) process that compares at least two vendors.
  • Complete a plan “benchmarking” project. The responsible plan fiduciary can have an independent organization compare the fees charged to the plan to plans of similar size and characteristics. Failure to determine the reasonableness of the fees charged can result in a prohibited transaction. The responsible plan fiduciary should determine and document whether the fees are reasonable. Documentation should also include the steps taken to make this determination.

It is important to remember that failure to assess the reasonableness of the service provider fees can result in a prohibited transaction. Documentation of the assessment process, including steps taken to make a determination on fee reasonableness, is the best way to avoid having a prohibited transaction.

If you have any questions while assessing your service providers’ fees, please contact our Employee Benefits Audit team.
 

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Service provider fee disclosures: Understanding the process

Read this if you are an organization that received federal funding subject to the Uniform Guidance. 

We are excited to announce the OMB released the 2021 Compliance Supplement late last week. This long-awaited release is effective for audits of fiscal years beginning after June 30, 2020 and supersedes the 2020 supplement and subsequent addendum. We are continuing to evaluate the changes to the supplement, but a few things to note from our early look:

  • There will be an addendum to this supplement, to address certain COVID-related relief funding with changing regulations that were not in place in time for this supplement. 
  • Good news for higher education: Part 4 of the supplement related to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (within assistance listing 84.425, section 2) is not expected to be amended by the addendum.
  • The supplement is making the formal shift away from the “Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance” (or CFDA) language to the term “Assistance Listing” in describing the number used for each program.
  • To evaluate the changes in the supplement from the prior year, consider checking out the Matrix of Compliance Requirements in Part 2 and Appendix V.

The timing for the release of the anticipated addendum has not yet been confirmed, but your audit teams are excited to get started with the new supplement. If you have any questions or need help making sense of it all, contact our Single Audit team. We’re here to help.

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OMB 2021 compliance supplement released