Access and Participation


About 50 percent of workers have access to a workplace-based retirement savings plan. Employees of larger firms are much more likely than those in smaller firms to be offered a retirement savings plan. On the other hand, people from groups that are discriminated against are much less likely to work for an employer that sponsors a retirement plan. Small business and service employees, the self-employed, contingent workers, and those who work less than full time or less than year-round are among the least likely to be offered a retirement savings plan. The participation rate of workers in those plans also varies by demographic group and sector. Older, better-paid workers are more likely to be plan members than are younger, lower-wage workers. Similarly, members of groups that are discriminated against are also less likely to participate unless the plan offers automatic features. 

A variety of strategies exist for increasing access and participation. Some approaches focus on making it easier for employers to establish and administer plans. Another approach is to require employers to offer a retirement plan. If an employer does offer a plan, some features can greatly increase participation and the amount saved. These include automatically enrolling new workers and gradually increasing the percentage of earnings contributed. 

It can be challenging for small employers to offer retirement savings plans to their workers. With relatively few staff and resources, there is likely no one who has the expertise and capacity to establish, administer, and maintain such plans. A multiple employer plan (MEP) is a 401(k)-type retirement savings plan that can be adopted by two or more employers. They allow small employers to offer this benefit at a lower cost and with fewer administrative and regulatory burdens than a single-employer 401(k) plan. Pooled Employer Plans (PEP) are a newer alternative that help small and mid-sized employers offer retirement savings programs with reduced administrative and overhead costs. Introduced under the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act passed in 2019, PEPs are a 401(k)-type retirement savings plan. These plans allow employers to pool resources in order to reduce costs associated with plan administration and investment fees. Access to retirement savings can then be expanded to all employees of participating employers. Unlike MEP plans that typically allow small employers in the same industry or geographic region to provide a single retirement plan, PEPs allow employers across different industries to participate in the same pooled plan. Both MEPs and PEPs expand access to retirement savings programs for employees of small and mid-sized employers. 

For more information about expanding access to retirement savings plans, see Employer-Facilitated Retirement Savings



Increasing participation

Employers should be required to automatically enroll employees in their retirement plans. This should be done at an adequate minimum contribution rate and an appropriate initial investment choice. 

Retirement plan sponsors should also offer automatic escalation of employee contributions. Nonparticipating employees should be enrolled at appropriate intervals. 

Policymakers should encourage employers to make matching contributions to each employee’s account. 

Employers should educate workers about the importance of saving early, contributing regularly, and investing prudently in any retirement accounts available to them. Such education should be easy to understand and culturally and linguistically appropriate. 


Policymakers should simplify and strengthen retirement plan rules to encourage all employers to offer some type of pension to their employees while retaining employee protections. 

Part-time employees, employees of small firms, the self-employed, contingent workers, and lower-paid workers should have access to retirement plan coverage. New retirement plan vehicles and incentives should be created for this purpose. This could include tax incentives or small subsidies. 

The Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration, the Administration on Aging, and other agencies should develop programs to publicize retirement plan options for small business employers and employees. 


Multiple employer plans

Unrelated small employers should be permitted to jointly offer retirement savings vehicles to their employees through trained fiduciary administrators. These administrators should offer appropriate low-cost, diversified retirement investments. Investments should have adequate consumer protections including understandable information, participant assistance, and reasonable claims and appeals processes.