EBRI Issue Brief

The 1999 Small Employer Retirement Survey: Building a Better Mousetrap Is Not Enough

Aug 1, 1999 20  pages


  • As of 1995, there were 5.3 million small-employer firms (100 or fewer employees) in the United States. These small firms employed 38.0 million individuals, representing 38 percent of all employment. Therefore, low retirement plan coverage among small employers directly affects a sizeable fraction of the national work force.
  • There are a number of reasons why more small employers do not offer retirement plans. Cost and administration-related issues do matter, but for many small employers these take a back seat to other issues. For some, the main driver is the financial reality of running a small business: Their revenue is too uncertain to commit to a plan. For others, the most important reasons for not sponsoring a plan are employee-related, e.g., the workers do not consider retirement savings to be a priority, or the employer's work force has such high turnover that it does not make sense to sponsor a plan.
  • Many nonsponsors are unfamiliar with the different retirement plan types available to them as potential plan sponsors, especially the options created specifically for small employers. For example, most nonsponsors said they have never heard of (36 percent) or are not too familiar with (20 percent) SIMPLE plans for small businesses.
  • Fifteen percent of small employers report that they are very likely to start a plan in the next two years, while 24 percent say this is somewhat likely.
  • Nonsponsors report that the two items most likely to lead to serious consideration of sponsoring a plan are an increase in profits (69 percent) and business tax credits for starting a retirement plan
    (67 percent).
  • Major drivers of low retirement plan sponsorship among small employers are who they employ and the uncertainty of revenue flows. While issues of administrative cost and burden matter, they are only part of the puzzle. Therefore, the solution is not simply “build it and they will come,” by creating simpler and simpler retirement plans geared to small businesses. Rather, it is build it and they will come once the business reaches a certain level of profitability and stability, and once retirement planning and saving are more of a priority for the small employer's workers.