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DOL Moving Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Factors to the Forefront

EverythingHR Staff | 06/12/2022 | Blog

In case you have missed it, the reach of climate change has long extended into the realm of employee benefits.

Throughout the 21st century, the DOL has been consistent in issuing a wide range of interpretations regarding whether and how ERISA fiduciaries could consider environmental, social, and governance factors (fashionably known as ESG) when making investment decisions impacting ERISA retirement plans. As administrations and congress have changed hands throughout the years, the DOL has stayed the course by affirming that plan fiduciaries must make investment decisions in accordance with ERISA’s fiduciary duties of loyalty and prudence.

For a timely update on how the DOL is intensifying its efforts to ensure the consideration of ESG factors in employee benefits, please continue to our blog.

DOL Signaling an Updated Climate in the World of Employee Benefits

Over the last several months, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has signaled a friendlier stance toward considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors as they relate to employee benefits. Just how far the department will go is yet to be seen, but it’s clear a shift in thinking has the potential to change how employee benefit plan fiduciaries make decisions. Recent developments address barriers to consideration of ESG factors as well as steps toward protecting workers’ retirement accounts from climate-related risks.

Background

ESG refers to organizations’ stands on environmental issues as well as concerns about social justice and corporate leadership. In recent years, investors have begun to include ESG factors in their decisions about where to put their money.

A couple months after President Joe Biden took office, the DOL announced that pending further study, it would not enforce actions taken in the waning days of the Trump administration that were seen as having a chilling effect on benefit plan fiduciaries’ ability to consider ESG factors.

Then in October 2021, the DOL proposed a rule that could allow benefit plan fiduciaries more leeway under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The department followed up that development in February 2022 with a call for public comment on what actions, if any, it should take under ERISA to protect retirement savings and pensions from risks posed by climate change.

Climate Effects

In February, stakeholders were asked whether the DOL should take action to protect retirement savings from climate-related financial risks. In making the request, the department said it was soliciting general input on actions that can be taken under ERISA and other laws. It also posed specific questions related to data collection and fiduciary issues under the law.

In its request for information, the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) asked for input on 22 questions. In addition to the general questions about what actions should be taken to protect employee savings and pensions from climate-related financial risks, the EBSA asks about fiduciary issues under ERISA.

For example, the February request notes ERISA plan fiduciaries now have access to more information on which to make decisions on climate-related financial risk factors when evaluating investment choices, and it asks if the law presents difficulties in obtaining such information.

The request also asks if guaranteed lifetime income products such as annuities help individuals mitigate the effects of climate-related financial risk whether such products offer a safe and efficient strategy to transfer climate-related financial risk from the participant/employee to the insurer/guarantor. If so, the request asks if the EBSA should take steps to facilitate the inclusion of such products in ERISA-covered defined contribution plans.

Another question asks whether the EBSA should sponsor and publish research to improve data and analytics that ERISA plan fiduciaries could use to evaluate climate-related financial risks.

The comment period for the request for information was to end on May 16, 2022.

ESG Investing

The October 2021 proposed rule would allow plan fiduciaries to consider climate change and other ESG factors when making investment decisions and exercising shareholder rights.

A fact sheet on the proposed rule points out the DOL “has consistently recognized in its various interpretive guidance that ERISA does not prohibit fiduciaries from making investment decisions that reflect ESG considerations depending on the facts and circumstances.”

The fact sheet goes on to say that differences in the “tone and tenor” in different administrations’ guidance “have created confusion about these investment issues and have been described by stakeholders as an unhelpful regulatory game of ‘ping pong.’”

The proposed changes aim to clarify the permissibility of considering ESG factors. The proposed rule would add text “that makes it clear that, when considering projected returns, a fiduciary’s duty of prudence may often require an evaluation of the economic effects of climate change and other ESG factors on the particular investment or investment course of action,” the fact sheet reports.

The proposed rule includes three examples that may affect risk-return analysis. The fact sheet says that one set of examples includes factors such as “a corporation’s exposure to the physical and transitional risks of climate change and the positive or negative effect of government regulations and policies to mitigate climate change.”

The fact sheet notes that a second set of examples includes “governance factors, such as those involving board composition, executive compensation, and transparency and accountability in corporate decision-making, as well as a corporation’s avoidance of criminal liability and compliance with labor, employment, environmental, tax, and other applicable laws and regulations.”

The third set of examples includes “workforce practices, including the corporation’s progress on workforce diversity, inclusion, and other drivers of employee hiring, promotion, and retention; its investment in training to develop its workforce’s skill; equal employment opportunity; and labor relations.”

Article courtesy of content partner BLR. Author, Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications.