State to roll out Small Business Retirement Marketplace in January

Washington is set to roll out an online portal to match small companies with affordable retirement plans.

By Troy Brynelson

The Columbian

Dan Wyatt didn’t know what to expect taking over the Kiggins Theatre.

The Washington native loved movies, but he was new to running a small business — especially a theater where the costs of landing first-run movies can shoot through the roof.

Since taking over five years ago, Wyatt sees the overhead costs are steeper than he expected. He estimates spending at least $22,000 per month on food, drinks, movie licenses, utilities and payroll for seven employees.

So when the idea is brought up whether his theatre should offer health or retirement plans, it feels out of reach.

“It’s something I’ve stayed up at night kind of pondering,” Wyatt said. “As a kid myself, I kind of bypassed working retail and hourly jobs before working a full-time position. But my mother is a retired investment rep, so perhaps I understood from an early age how important (retirement planning) is.”

Maybe if money weren’t tight, he said.

“It’s almost like having a utility. Everyone should have power, everyone should have clean water,” he said. “Why can’t health care or retirement, as it were, be the same way?”

Wyatt and his theater are like 90,000 other small businesses statewide that don’t offer retirement benefits to their workers. Those businesses are the reason why Washington is set to roll out an online portal, the Small Business Retirement Marketplace, to match small companies with affordable retirement plans.

The marketplace launches in January. Washington will be the first state in the nation with a program, and it will be overseen by the state Department of Commerce. The goal will be to help millions of Washingtonians get closer to retirement.

The problem with retirement savings, said Carolyn McKinnon of the state Department of Commerce, is that individuals simply have a lot on their plate. They are combating bills and responsibilities such as kids, mortgages and student loans.

Workers are reportedly far more inclined to save for retirement if their employer offers a pension, a 401(k) or any other kind of savings programs.

According to a 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office, nearly half of all Americans don’t have access to these programs through their company. In Washington, the state Department of Commerce says 1.5 million workers are in the same boat.

“We have 90,000 (businesses) that have nothing,” McKinnon said. “That’s our first target market.”

The online marketplace will allow small businesses, self-employed people and independent contractors to shop and compare retirement plans. Workers who want to shop around despite a company plan can use it as well.

There is no mandate in Washington for employers or workers to participate in retirement plans.

“We don’t have a carrot or a stick,” McKinnon said. “This is kind of an experiment to see how do we compel people to save for retirement.”

A recent study from the American Association of Retired Persons found that people everywhere are struggling to wrap their heads around retirement.

The organization polled 1,000 people statewide, ages 18 to 64, and found that half of respondents felt anxious about retiring on time, but 71 percent believed they could.

Yet two-thirds of respondents hadn’t calculated what they actually need to save.

“So it’s a mixed message,” said Cathy MacCaul, an advocacy director with AARP. “We have a positive message that people feel confident, but the challenge is they have not done the work to really calculate what it means to save for retirement.”

When asked what exactly their retirement plans were, if they weren’t saving, respondents said they might start a business, or sell a business, or inherit money. Nine percent of respondents said they believed they could win the lottery.

“There’s people that actually said that. I wonder how many people are actually thinking that,” MacCaul said.

The survey, “Ready or Not — 2016 Survey of Retirement Readiness Among Washington State Adults,” shows 45 percent of respondents had less than $25,000 in savings. More than a quarter had less than $5,000 in savings.

But the study said that people were 15 times more likely to enroll in a plan offered through their employer. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said a business with a retirement plan was a more desirable place to work.

Wyatt said he expects to retire as he and his wife both have socked away money for when the time comes. But his staff is made up mostly of 20-somethings. Millennials now make up the largest portion of the workforce, but, according to the AARP study, one-third of them have no access to retirement plans through their work.

“I would love to offer it to anybody,” he said.