NEW YORK | Wed., Mar. 28, 2012 9:38am EDT (Reuters) - Companies that serve 401(k) plans are asking the Department of Labor to reconsider its stance on mailed notification, so that they can save costs by using email instead of regular mail to send information to plan participants.

If the agency does not change its position, employees in 401(k) plans will have to bear the additional mailing costs that can be substantial for plan participants, according to the March 27 letter from 15 industry trade groups.

"Presently, the increased costs attendant to paper disclosure in 401(k) plans could reduce participants' retirement savings, the very savings we are working to increase with enhanced transparency," the groups wrote in the letter.

Some recordkeepers estimate that the costs of paper-based statements could be $2 to $3 per employee, which would mean tens of thousands of dollars in added expenses for large employers, said Samuel Brandwein, a Morgan Stanley Smith Barney adviser who works with retirement plans.

"The purpose of the fee disclosure rules was to drive down costs for 401(k) plan participants," Brandwein said. "This could have the unintended consequence of driving up those costs."

Under DOL rules, employers who send materials through regular mail are safe from reprimand from the agency. But those who use email do not have such protection and could face potential lawsuits without a paper trail record.

This issue has been a thorn in the side of the retirement plan industry for years. It will become a much bigger issue this summer, when 401(k) plan providers will have to start disclosing the fees they charge to employees in these plans.

"With the new fee disclosure regulations, plan participants are going to get a lot more volume of materials," said Judy Miller, director of retirement policy for the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries, one of the 15 groups that sent the letter to the Labor Department. "This issue has really taken on new importance."

Other groups that joined with ASPPA in the letter include the Investment Company Institute, the American Bankers Association and the Chamber of Commerce.

In September, DOL provided some general guidelines for when companies could use email as the primary means to communicate with plan participants. That guidance "was very disappointing," because it was not simple for companies to follow, Miller said.

For example, the guidelines state that it is not for employers to provide employees with email addresses in order to e-mail them 401(k) plan information. Instead, employees have to volunteer that they want the information electronically and provide an email address.

"It's just not practical," said Brian Graff, chief executive officer of ASPPA.

At a recent industry conference in New Orleans, Michael Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Labor Department's Employee Benefits Security Administration, said the agency is trying to balance the needs of "different constituencies."

For example, he said, older workers tend to not be as computer-savvy as younger workers.

In its letter, the industry expressed concerned that ultimately it will be plan participants who have to pay for the extra costs of mail.

(Reporting By Jessica Toonkel; Editing by Walden Siew, Bernard Orr)

© 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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