ACA Safe Harbors – Who Needs ‘em and How do they Work?

Content updated on March 12, 2019

With multiple reporting years behind us, we may be thinking that we’ve got this ACA thing down and there is nothing more to learn (or maybe we just don’t want to!). Yet, making sure that your company is using safe harbors efficiently could lead to improved methods of determining affordability and make 2019 run even smoother.
By now we have all seen the words “Safe Harbor” and we might even think we know all there is to know about them – but let’s re-evaluate what these important tools are and how they benefit us. Here’s a brief rundown of each safe harbor and what they mean.

  • W-2 Safe Harbor: Generally considered the more difficult way to determine safe harbor, affordability is determined solely on the wages paid to the employee (and any other member of the same Applicable Large Employer (ALE) that pays wages to that employee) as reported in Box 1 of the employee’s Form(s) W-2.
  • Rate of Pay Safe Harbor: Coverage is determined as affordable for a calendar month if the employee’s responsibility does not exceed 9.86% (for 2019) of an amount equal to 130 hours, multiplied by the lower of the employee’s hourly rate of pay as of the first day of the calendar month. For non-hourly employees, the employee’s responsibility cannot exceed 9.86% (for 2019) of the employee’s monthly salary, as of the first day of the coverage period. This safe harbor may be applied to hourly as well as salaried employees. Rate of pay may get relatively complicated. You can find more detailed information about this safe harbor on page 8564 of the Federal Register by clicking HERE.
  • Federal Poverty Line Safe Harbor: Generally considered the simplest measure of affordability, this safe harbor bases affordability off of the federal poverty line. For 2018, the employee’s monthly required contribution is based off of 9.86% (for 2019) of the federally mandated $12,490 annual poverty line divided by 12 months. The purpose of this safe harbor is to provide employers a predetermined maximum amount that will always result in the coverage being deemed affordable. To calculate affordability, 9.86% x $12,490 = $1,231.51. Divide $1,231.51 by 12 (months) to get $102.63 as the monthly premium goal.

Okay, okay – so we know what defines the safe harbors, but which one is best for your company?

Remember that these safe harbors are only meant as a test for affordability based on only the income information readily available to the employer. In most cases this means that affordability can be based on only the employee’s income – not their total household income. Safe harbors can be exchanged in and out to best suit a company’s current plans each year. According to the IRS, a company can use one or more safe harbors for all of its employees or for any “reasonable category of employees.” What is a category, you may ask? Examples of categories may include a specific job, category of compensation (hourly or salary), or geographic location. Separate safe harbors may be used for each category, making sure that you are measuring affordability based on the most relevant information. For a deep dive into each safe harbor, take a look at one of Integrity Data’s blogs: 1095-C Reporting – How to Use Affordability Safe Harbors, and you will find useful examples and information of each safe harbor and what they mean.

Knowing which safe harbors are most beneficial to your company can help a lot when it comes to determining affordability. Integrity Data’s website provides many knowledge base (KB) articles and blogs to help you along in your 2018 filing.

Note: The IRS has issued Revenue Procedure 2018-34, which increases the affordability threshold for ACA employer mandate pay or play purposes to 9.86% for plan years beginning in 2019.