Are J-1 Visa Interns and Trainees "Employees" for Retirement Plan purposes?

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Are student trainees (18mos visas) and interns (12 mos visas) working in the US under a J-1 Visa (who are subject to Fed and State taxes but generally exempt from Medicare, Social Security and FUTA taxes; limited as to the work they can perform) considered "employees" for purposes of service credits and eligibility in a retirement plan?  As I understand it, the J-1 Visa opportunities are temporary and are permitted with the understanding the training will then be taken back and applied in their home nation, intended to be a cultural experience.

Client hired a J-1 Visa Student Intern/Trainee in May 2015. While "interning/training" with the Client, she applied for political asylum and was given a Employment Authorization Card late 2015/early 2016. She was then hired by the Client effective 2/6/2016. Each year she renews the Employment Authorization Card, continues working for the Client.

QUESTION, is her Date of Hire for Eligibility determination (and service crediting purposes for Vesting) May 2015 (date started interning/training under J-1 Visa) or Feb 2016 (bc now has Employment Authorization Card the Client was able to offer and she accepted Position as an employee)?

For what it is worth, 2016 and 2017 tax returns were filed as Resident Alien; 2015 was filed by her scholarship program and she does not know the basis of the filing.

Thank you!

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I've excluded "Aliens holding a visa permitting them to work in the US" under the "Excluded employees" provisions of the document, while including them in the coverage test. 


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