The Department of Labor has released proposed regulations aimed at providing workers with a simplified comparison of investment options for 401(k) and other employee retirement plans.

The proposed rules would establish a model disclosure form that would outline the costs for a participant to take part in a benefits plan, as well as the fees and performance history of various investment options.

“Our proposal is consistent with public consensus that workers need clear and concise information, not dozens of pages of ‘legalese,’ about the investment options available under their plans, and that they would benefit greatly from having that information in a comparative format,” said Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. “One of the department’s top priorities is improved disclosure to workers that will give them the information they need to make informed investment decisions.”

Speaking with reporters, Assistant Secretary for the Employee Benefits Security Administration Bradford Campbell said the department began its effort to improve disclosure in retirement plans in recent years after seeing the issue become “more and more important” with rising plan participation levels.

At their heart, he said, the proposals were designed to answer the question “what is it that your 401(k) plan needs to tell you, the worker, so that you can make informed decisions?”

The model disclosure would provide what Campbell called “the concise, useful information” that would allow a plan participant to see the fees and investment return histories of any number of products, including mutual funds, bank and insurance products, on an “apples to apples” basis.

The number representing the fees associated with a plan, he said, would represent the total fees a plan participant would expect to pay. The department, Campbell noted, has proposed regulations that would provide plan administrators with a more thorough breakdown of plan and investment option fees. He added that plan participants could also request further information.

American Benefits Council James Klein called the proposal “reasonable, straightforward regulation” that upon the council’s initial review “appears to provide simple yet meaningful disclosure to plan participants.”

Klein said the Council would submit comments on the proposed regulation during the comment period, which ends September 8. Campbell said the EBSA would work to get the proposed regulations through the rulemaking process swiftly, with a goal of having them in place on Jan. 1, 2009.

The American Council of Life Insurers also voiced support for the concept of simplified disclosure, although the group said it was still studying the specifics of the department’s proposal.

In a statement, ACLI said that “to be meaningful, fee disclosure should enhance a participant’s knowledge and understanding of this vital employee benefit without overwhelming participants with so much data and complexity that 401(k) plans become too confusing.”