One in six (16%) businesses missed their workplace pension application deadline in Q1 2017, up from 1% in the same quarter last year, according to research from Aviva.
The provider found the number of ‘late-stagers' - those who applied to Aviva for a workplace pension after their staging date had passed - was on a steady rise, having already increased from a mere 1% in Q1 of 2016 to 14% in Q4.
The additional increase in the first quarter of this year meant the number of late-stagers was sixteen times higher at the beginning of this year than last.
As Aviva pointed out, 2017 is set to be the biggest year for auto-enrolment since the roll out began in 2012, with about half a million mainly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) due to go through the process this year.
Figures from The Pensions Regulator (TPR) out this week showed almost 500,000 firms are already signed up to auto-enrolment.
TPR executive director Charles Counsell, who is set to become the new Money Advice Service chief executive, said: "It is vital that employers act early and do not leave themselves open to being fined."
Aviva reminded companies that not only were they putting themselves at risk of a fine, they were also limiting themselves when it comes to choosing a pension scheme, as not all providers would take on late-stagers.
Aviva also found the proportion of firms preparing for auto-enrolment well in advance had continued to fall. While back in Q2 last year 40% had applied to Aviva more than two months in advance of their staging date, this figure had shrunk to a quarter this year.
However, the proportion of companies applying within two months of their deadline had remained stable.
'Disappointing but not unexpected'
Aviva said an increase in smaller first-time workplace pension applicants offered some explanation for the continued rise of late-stagers.
Business Solutions managing director Andy Beswick said: "While some of these numbers are disappointing, it's not unexpected.
"SMEs tend to be less well-resourced and aren't blessed with large HR departments or budgets to help them through their auto-enrolment journey."
Despite this, Beswick said there was still work to be done in making business owners aware of their obligations.
He said: "As an industry, we've been talking about auto-enrolment since the early 2000s and implementing it for over four years now.
"But to thousands of employers and employees, it is still a brand new concept and we need to make sure people aren't getting left behind."
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