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Guide to Employee Stock Ownership Plans

By Rebecca Lake · March 29, 2022 · 3 minute read

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Guide to Employee Stock Ownership Plans

An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) is a type of defined contribution plan that allows workers to own shares of their company’s stock. While these plans are covered by many of the same rules and regulations that apply to 401(k) plans, an ESOP uses a different approach to help employees fund their retirement.

The National Center for Employee Ownership estimates that there are 6,500 ESOPs covering nearly 14 million workers in the U.S. But what is an ESOP plan exactly and how does it work?

If you have access to this type of retirement plan through your company, it’s important to understand the ESOP meaning and where it might fit into your retirement strategy.

What Is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)?

An ESOP as defined by the IRS is “an IRS section 401(a) qualified defined contribution plan that is a stock bonus plan or a stock bonus/money purchase plan.” So what is ESOP in simpler terms? It’s a retirement plan that allows you to own shares of your company’s stock.

Though both ESOPs and 401ks are retirement plans, the two are different in terms of how they are funded and what you’re investing in. For example, while employee contributions to an ESOP are allowed, they’re not required. Plus, you can have an ESOP and have a 401k if your employer offers one. According to the ESOP Association, 93.6% of employers who offer an ESOP also offer a 401k plan for workers who are interested in investing for retirement.

How Employee Stock Ownership Plans Work

In creating an ESOP, the company establishes a trust fund for the purpose of holding new shares of stock or cash to buy existing shares of stock in the company. The company may also borrow money with which to purchase shares. Unlike employee stock options, with an ESOP employees don’t purchase shares themselves.

Shares held in the trust are divided among employee accounts. The percentage of shares held by each employee may be based on their pay or another formula, as decided by the employer. Employees assume ownership of these shares according to a vesting schedule. Once an employee is fully vested, which must happen within three to six years, they own 100% of the shares in their account.

When an employee changes jobs, retires, or leaves the company for any other reason, the company has to buy back the shares in their account at fair market value (if a private company) or at the current sales price (if a publicly-traded company). Depending on how the ESOP is structured, the payout may take the form of a lump sum or be spread over several years.

Employee Stock Ownership Plan Examples

A number of companies use employee stock ownership plans alongside or in place of 401k plans to help employees save for retirement. Some of the top companies that are at least 50% employee-owned through an ESOP include:

•   Publix Super Markets

•   Penmac

•   Winco Foods

•   Amsted Industries

•   Brookshire Brothers

•   Houchens Industries

•   Parsons

•   Davey Tree Expert

•   W.L. Gore & Associates

•   HDR Inc.

Eight of the companies on this list are 100% employee-owned, meaning they offer no other retirement plan option. Publix offers stock purchase plans while Davey Tree Expert has a 401k option. Employee stock ownership plans are popular among supermarkets but they’re also used in other industries, including engineering, manufacturing, and construction.

Pros & Cons of ESOP Plans

ESOPs are attractive to employees as part of a benefits package, and can also yield some tax benefits for employers. Whether this type of retirement savings plan is right for you, however, can depend on your investment goals and your long-term career plans. Here are some of the main benefits and drawbacks of employee stock ownership plans.

Pros of ESOP Plans

With an ESOP, employees get the benefit of:

•   Shares of company stock purchased on their behalf, with no out-of-pocket investment

•   Fair market value for those shares when they leave the company

•   No taxes owed on contributions

•   Dividend reinvestment, if that’s offered by the company

An ESOP can be an attractive savings option for employees who may not be able to make a regular payroll deduction to a 401k or similar plan. You can still grow wealth for retirement as you’re employed by the company, without having to pay anything from your own pocket.

Cons of ESOP Plans

In terms of downsides, there are a few things that might make employees think twice about using an ESOP for retirement savings. Here are some of the potential drawbacks to consider:

•   Distributions can be complicated and may take time to process

•   You’ll owe income tax on distributions

•   If you change jobs means you’ll only be able to keep the portion of your ESOP that you’re vested in

•   ESOPs only hold shares of company stocks so there’s no room for diversification

Pros and Cons of ESOP Plan Side-by-Side Comparison

ProsCons

•   Shares of company stock purchased on their behalf, with no out-of-pocket investment

•   Fair market value for those shares when they leave the company

•   No taxes owed on contributions

•   Dividend reinvestment, if that’s offered by the company

•   Distributions can be complicated and may take time to process

•   You’ll owe income tax on those distributions

•   Changing jobs means you’ll only be able to keep the portion of your ESOP that you’re vested in

•   ESOPs only hold shares of company stocks so there’s no room for diversification

By comparison, a 401k could offer more flexibility in terms of what you invest in and how you access those funds when changing jobs or retiring. But it’s important to remember that the amount you’re able to walk away with in a 401k largely hinges on what you contribute during your working years, whereas an ESOP can be funded without you contributing a single penny.

ESOP Contribution Limits

The IRS sets contribution limits on other retirement plans, and ESPOs are no different. In particular, there are two limits to pay attention to:

•   Limit for determining the lengthening of the five-year distribution period

•   Limit for determining the maximum account balance subject to the five-year distribution period

Like other retirement plan limits, the IRS raises ESOP limits regularly through cost of living adjustments. Here’s how the ESOP compares for 2021 and 2022.

ESOP Limits

2021

2022

Limit for determining the lengthening of the five-year distribution period$230,000$245,000
Limit for determining the maximum account balance subject to the five-year distribution period$1,165,000$1,230,000

Investing for Retirement With SoFi

There are different things to consider when starting a retirement fund but it’s important to remember that time is on your side. The sooner you begin setting money aside for retirement, the more room it has to grow through the power of compound interest. If you’re not saving for retirement yet, opening an IRA is one good place to start. Explore your retirement savings options with SoFi today.

FAQ

Can employees contribute to an ESOP?

In most cases, the employer makes contributions to an ESOP on behalf of employees. Rarely, employers may allow for employee contributions to employee stock ownership plans.

What is the maximum contribution to an ESOP?

The maximum account balance allowed in an employee stock ownership plan is determined by the IRS. For 2022, this limit is $1,230,000 though amounts are increased periodically through cost of living adjustments.

What does ESOP stand for?

ESOP stands for employee stock ownership plan. This is a type of qualified defined contribution plan which allows employees to own shares of their company’s stock.


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