ACA Tracking Tips in GP: Using Affordability Safe Harbors

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With only 18 weeks left until data collection begins for the IRS reporting that’s mandated of many employers by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it’s important to understand:

  • How the IRS will let you adopt ways of calculating employee contributions to health care coverage – known in ACA lingo as “safe harbors”
  • How you can work with these safe harbors right in your ERP system, if you’re processing payroll with Microsoft Dynamics GP (Great Plains)


ACA affordability text blockThe first thing Microsoft Dynamics GP Payroll users need to do is set up benefit codes to track their employer-sponsored health care coverage for employees. For every plan offered, a unique benefit code should be set up to track which employees are signed up for that plan.


(This step is the second of five setups that we recommended in a recent post for ACA reporting readiness in Microsoft Dynamics GP.) An employer can use a different safe harbor for each plan but must apply the same safe harbor to all enrollees in a plan.


At the center of this discussion is the biggest challenge facing many companies trying to satisfy the directives of federal legislation as complicated and revolutionary as the ACA: What’s “affordable” in the employer realities of the Affordable Care Act?


In some areas, an improving labor market is shrinking the pool of potential employees, forcing companies that had developed strategies to limit employees to less than 30 hours per week to rethink.


For one of our clients, 2012 was about developing their ACA strategy and 2013 was about prototype implementation with minimal hiccups. In 2014, business improves and the supply of talented candidates shrinks at the very time this client needs to add hours in order to satisfy growing customer demand.


So for this employer, it’s now about reconciling “affordable” with the realization that more employees will be eligible for health care coverage than previously forecast.


Starting early next year, many of our users will begin extending health care coverage to a larger pool of employees. Staffing firms, in particular, are faced with a transient workforce where hours vary from one period to the next.


Making sense of ‘affordable’

The ACA defines “affordable” as coverage where the employee’s contribution for self-only coverage does not exceed 9.5% of their household income in 2014 and 9.56% of household income in 2015. Since employers typically don’t have all the information needed to identify total household income, the IRS advises employers to use the gross wages of the employee to test for the 9.5% / 9.56% threshold.


(There are circumstances in which an employee’s household income is less than the employee’s W-2 wages — for example, as a result of adjustments to gross income for alimony paid or losses due to self-employment.)


Often overlooked in the “affordable” calculation is the ACA’s language requiring the IRS to adjust this percentage to reflect any excess in the rate of health insurance premium growth over the rate of income growth. Both measurements use 2013 as the base year. As you can see from the adjustment noted above, in 2015 the threshold will rise to 9.56%. Depending on the rate of growth of health care as a whole, over real wage growth, you can expect to see further adjustments on a year-to-year basis.


Meeting the criteria of “affordable” serves only one purpose – sheltering a company with 50 or more full-time employees or full-time equivalents from a potential Employer Shared Responsibility payment that would be triggered if at least one of its full-time employees receives a premium tax credit for purchasing individual coverage on one of the new exchanges in the health insurance marketplace.


The penalty-assessment period begins Jan. 1, 2015. Companies that employ lower-wage workers are the most vulnerable.


Understanding the 'affordability' safe harbors overall

With all these moving parts – the uncertainty of what constitutes total household wages at the individual employee level, and the uncertainty of how many hours a variable-hour employee will actually work during his or her stability period – how is a company to guard against assessment of an Employer Shared Responsibility payment?


The IRS got this point.


That’s why the “affordability safe harbors” – three of these options – were written into the ACA. To calculate employee contribution to health care coverage, the IRS allows an employer to adopt one of the following per plan offered.

  • W-2 safe harbor
  • Rate-of-Pay safe harbor
  • Federal Poverty Line (FPL) safe harbor

If an employer has multiple plans, they may use different safe harbors for each plan, but only one per plan.


Setting up safe harbors in GP

The Payroll module of Dynamics GP – as is – can calculate two of these safe harbors:

  • W-2 Safe Harbor
  • Federal Poverty Line (FPL) Safe Harbor

To calculate the third safe harbor, Rate-of-Pay, you will need a system enhancement.

Let’s first identify what every safe harbor does and then cover how to set up each in GP.


W-2 safe harbor

The W-2 affordability safe harbor determines affordability based on whether an employee’s premium contribution for the lowest-cost, self-only coverage that provides minimum value exceeds 9.5% (in 2014) and 9.56% (in 2015) of the wages reported on that employee’s Form W-2 Box 1 for the calendar year.


This safe harbor isolates the employee’s contribution amount to their wages alone without referencing total household income. It does not, incidentally, cap the employee contribution to the actual employer expense for providing that coverage.


The major drawback to using this safe harbor is that it isn’t pegged to any minimum hours of work – meaning that if an employee, during their stability period, works fewer hours, the company would have to absorb a greater cost. Another drawback is that Box 1 doesn’t include pre-tax figures such as employees’ 401(k) contributions; these can be added back in to the gross wages to determine the 9.5% / 9.56% maximum deduction.


W2 Safe Harbor setup in GP
The W-2 safe harbor is one of two ACA safe harbors for which the setup is straightforward in Microsoft Dynamics GP Payroll.

An employer who uses the W-2 safe harbor may wish to set each employee’s cost for self-only coverage at 9.5% / 9.56% of the employee’s W-2 wages for the month, but also set a maximum monthly amount. This will ensure the employee contribution meets “affordability” for lower-paid employees and that higher-paid employees are not charged excessive monthly amounts. Applying a ceiling, or maximum contribution for a month, is acceptable as long as it’s universally applied. The employer also must use a consistent dollar amount or percentage throughout the calendar or plan year.


In Microsoft Dynamics GP payroll users, using the W-2 safe harbor is straightforward in deduction setup. Since it is based on a percentage of gross earnings, you just need to put in the percent to deduct.


One important note to consider:


Under the ACA, there is no maximum amount an employer can deduct from an employee as long as they stay below the “affordable” threshold – in 2014, that is 9.5% of gross wages. In setting up your deductions, you may consider setting a maximum to shield higher paid workers from paying a high amount for coverage.


A downside of this maximum is that if an employee’s wages fluctuate from pay period to pay period, you may have a situation where the employee hits a maximum one pay period but does not earn enough during another pay period to cover their portion of the cost. Setting this deduction up at a Percentage of Earnings Wages may be the best approach, as it allows you to designate which pay codes to use and also will not be affected by TSA deductions.


Rate-of-Pay safe harbor

This safe harbor has gone through multiple revisions and the final regulations (unlike the proposed regulations) permit an employer to use the Rate-of-Pay safe harbor even if an hourly employee’s hourly rate of pay is reduced during the year.


Under the final regulations for the Rate of Pay safe harbor, coverage to an hourly employee is treated as affordable for a calendar month if the employee’s required contribution for the calendar month for the lowest cost self-only coverage does not exceed 9.5% (in 2014, adjusted to 9.56% in 2015) 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 coverage period (generally the first day of the plan year) or the employee’s lowest hourly rate of pay during the calendar month.


This change was good news for many of our clients who have employees whose hourly rates often change.


If an hourly employee treated as a full-time employee earns $10 per hour in a calendar month (and earned at least $10 per hour as of the first day of the coverage period) but has one or more calendar months in which the employee has a significant amount of unpaid leave or otherwise reduced hours, the employer may still require an employee contribution of up to 9.5% of $10 multiplied by 130 hours ($123.50) in 2014 [in 2015: 9.56% of $10 x 130 hours, or $124.28].


Salaried employees’ wages can be broken down to their hourly rate equivalent for this testing.


The Rate of Pay safe harbor cannot be used, as a practical matter, for tipped employees or for employees who are compensated solely on the basis of commissions. The other two safe harbors can be used in these situations.


For companies with employees whose hours fluctuate, this approach may be the best. It overcomes the real possibility in the W-2 safe harbor where the employee’s hours will be reduced to a point that the cost of coverage falls mostly on the employer while the federal poverty line safe harbor is tied to the Federal Poverty Level – hovering around $7.25 per hour (it is slightly different, but very minimal).


The gap between the federal minimum wage and what is paid to the employee may make this a better option, especially as local legislation on living wages may expose employers to higher cost.


Of the three safe harbors, the Rate of Pay safe harbor is the most complex to set up in Microsoft Dynamics GP. Because the rate of pay can fluctuate from month to month depending on movement in employee hourly rates, this deduction might need to be calculated each month. Our software, Sypnio ACA Reporting, provides the ability to adjust this rate automatically by changing the actual deduction amount on the employee deduction record or by creating a variable deduction transaction within a payroll batch.


Federal Poverty Line (FPL) safe harbor

FPL Safe Harbor setup in GP
The Federal Poverty Line safe harbor is the simplest ACA safe harbor to set up in Microsoft Dynamics GP Payroll.

For coverage to be affordable, the employee’s required contribution for the lowest-cost, self-only coverage that provides minimum value cannot exceed 9.5% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) for the applicable calendar year, divided by 12. Employers can use the most recently published FPL as of the first day of the plan year and must use the FPL applicable to the state in which the employee is employed.


This method establishes one universal cost for all employees within that plan’s category. It’s the simplest harbor to use. Assume that the Federal Poverty Line for 2015 for an individual is $11,170. The employer sets the annual employee contribution for employee single-only coverage for each month in 2015 as an amount equal to 9.5% multiplied by $11,170, which is $1,061.15, and then divides by 12 for a monthly premium of $88.43.


The drawback to this approach is that it’s based on the federal government establishing the poverty line, a designation based on the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. As political posturing makes for a lack of movement on the minimum wage debate in the Congress, individual states and municipalities are taking it upon themselves to raise the minimum wage at the local level.


For Microsoft Dynamics GP payroll users, the FPL safe harbor is the simplest to set up. This is a standard deduction amount each pay period and the only thing to remember is to check the Allow Arrears deduction option to “catch-up” if an employee does not satisfy their contribution in a previous pay period.


Which ACA safe harbor is optimal?

Of the three safe harbors, the Rate-of-Pay option offers employers the best shield from the uncertainties surrounding household income and number of hours worked during the stability period while providing the safest avenue to having employees contribute their share of coverage under the ACA.


Safe harbor text blockThe assumption is that if an employee is offered employer-provided health coverage, they are reasonably expected to work at least 30 hours during this period as they had during the measurement period that granted them eligibility to health care coverage.


This option also shields employers from local minimum wage changes as they gain momentum.


Setting up Rate-of-Pay safe harbor in GP

One feature of Microsoft Dynamics GP Payroll allows variable deductions that are entered as payroll transactions in which the amounts can change from pay period to pay period.


In September, we will be releasing an add-on to our GP-integrated ACA compliance and business intelligence software that will enhance this feature by offering the option of adjusting the deduction amount in the employee deduction master file or generating the deduction transaction in a payroll batch.


Our core application is called Sypnio ACA Reporting. This add-on to our core application will be called Sypnio ACA Variable Deduction Management System.


“Sypnio” comes from the Greek for “smart” and “responsive.”


  • Visit for details on our suite of ACA reporting software that works within Microsoft Dynamics GP, including our enhancement for companies with multiple GP Payroll databases, Sypnio ACA Database Combiner.
  • If you’d like to be added to a notify list for the release of Sypnio ACA Variable Deduction Management System, email 


By Helen Karakoudas and Ernie Redfern | Sypnio Software


7 thoughts on “ACA Tracking Tips in GP: Using Affordability Safe Harbors”

  1. Joyce,
    If an employee was eligible for health coverage but was covered under the spouse’s plan, you would put in the safe harbor you use for determining affordability in line 16.
    Remember, if an employer offered self-insured health coverage, Part III of the 1095-C would list all the individuals covered under that plan, including the spouse being covered. If the health plan offered is fully insured, then all the individuals covered under that plan would get a 1095-B from the insurance carrier.
    We hope this helps.
    Please note that in June 2015, Sypnio Software was acquired by Integrity Data, the company that we (the authors of this post from August 2014) now work for. To learn more about Integrity Data’s ACA Compliance Solution, please visit
    Ernie Redfern | ACA Compliance Director, Integrity Data
    Helen Karakoudas | ACA Education Director, Integrity Data

  2. Billy Pinsonneault

    In a previous reply, there was mention of the W-2 safe harbor and that you could adjust the box 1 dollar amount for employees that were not employed for an entire calendar year. I have not been able to find any guidance on the rules in place for adjusting the W-2 wages based on days/weeks/months employed. Do you know if anything has been established for this or are we just supposed to "wing it"?
    Thank you so much!

  3. Jennifer,

    The affordability calculation is based on what was withheld during the plan year – not the previous year. What an employee made in a previous year has no bearing on the current year’s affordability calculation. This is a huge challenge for the W-2 safe harbor, as the employer must apply the percentage on a month-by-month basis. For non-calendar year plans, the affordability percentage for coverage during the plan year will go from one year to another.

    The actual determination of affordability for the year is made after the close of the calendar year. To qualify for this safe harbor, the employee’s contribution must remain a consistent dollar amount or percentage of all W‐2 wages during the plan year. For employees not offered coverage for the entire plan year, the safe harbor is applied by adjusting the W‐2 wages to reflect the period for which coverage was offered.

    The biggest drawback for this safe harbor is that it can shift the burden of having to provide affordable health care coverage to the employer if the employee’s compensation is not enough. There can be a big disconnect between the number of hours an employee must be credited for service and what that effort results in compensation when the employee is compensated 100% by commission.

    We hope this perspective helps.

    Please note that in June 2015, Sypnio Software was acquired by Integrity Data, the company that we (the authors of this post from August 2014) now work for. To learn more about Integrity Data's ACA Compliance Solution, please visit

    Ernie Redfern | ACA Compliance Director, Integrity Data
    Helen Karakoudas | ACA Education Director, Integrity Data

  4. For ACA reporting, how do you calculate compensation for an individual that is 100% commission. I assume we can use previous year W2 (2014)but what if the employee started in 2015?

    Thank you

  5. Rodney,

    Rate of pay safe harbor cannot be used, as a practical matter, for tipped employees or for employees who are compensated solely on the basis of commissions. Safe harbors are all optional. An employer may choose to use one or more of these safe harbors for all of the company's employees or for any reasonable category of employees, provided this is done on a uniform and consistent basis for all employees in a category. However, once you establish a safe harbor for the year, you cannot change it until the renewal of the plan year.

    What people may not know is that the rate of pay safe harbor can also applied to salaried employees. In this regard, you use the employee’s compensation at the start of the plan year as the basis of this harbor. However, in your case, this would not be available as the final regulation states, “Under the same safe harbor, an applicable large employer member's offer of coverage to a non-hourly employee is treated as affordable for a calendar month if the employee's required contribution for the calendar month for the lowest cost self-only coverage that provides MV does not exceed 9.5* percent of the employee's monthly salary, as of the first day of the coverage period (instead of 130 multiplied by the hourly rate of pay); provided that if the monthly salary is reduced, including due to a reduction in work hours, the safe harbor is not available.”

    The variability of commissioned employee’s earning takes away this option.

    (The asterisk is our addition. It's to note that, for 2015, there's a change in this percentage, which is now 9.56%.)

    You really are stuck with the W-2 safe harbor or the federal poverty line, which can be used for affordability testing. Problem with W-2 safe harbor is that it is tied to actual earnings, thereby potentially passing the financial burden of providing coverage more to the employer if an employee’s earnings fall drastically.
    Remember, safe harbors are about maximum allowable and are tied to the least-cost coverage option offered – not necessarily what the individual selected for coverage.

    We hope this helps,

    Helen Karakoudas
    Sypnio Software

  6. If a car salesman gets a salary plus commission he would be eligible for rate of pay safe harbor since it is not considered compensation solely on commissions. For this class of workers have you been using the W-2 or rate of pay safe harbor method (fed poverty method is out as that is not employer friendly). Struggling with what wages to use under either scenario as the IRS does not allow you to look back from any previous time period. It seems they would have to guess at what commissions are and then would they get to change this after the fact.
    Any help would be appreciated.

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