Web Article
December 2021

Employee Ownership by the Numbers

This page presents counts and characteristics of ESOPs and other employee stock ownership plans in the U.S., using data made available by the U.S. Department of Labor, the General Social Survey, and other sources.

Page Contents

How Many ESOPs Are There?

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 239 new ESOPs were created, covering 46,537 participants.

In total, there are approximately 6,482 ESOPs in the United States, holding total assets of over $1.6 trillion. The number of unique companies with an ESOP is approximately 6,257 (a company may sponsor multiple plans).

A note on the timing of the data: The DOL’s data is sourced from Form 5500 retirement plan filings, which are due seven months after the end of each plan year, or nine and a half months if an extension is requested. The DOL takes up to a year to process and clean the data once received, and the NCEO does additional supplementation and analysis of the data after the public release. As a result, there is typically a time lag of up to two years. The benefit of the DOL's long process is that the data is comprehensive and reflects close to perfect coverage of every ESOP (and every other retirement plan) in the U.S.

How Many Workers Are in ESOPs?

ESOPs cover 13.9 million participants, of whom 10.2 million are active participants—those currently employed and covered by an ESOP.

Table 1: Table of Plans, Participants, and Assets

  Plans Total participants Active participants Employer securities (millions) Total plan assets (millions)
Privately held companies 5,880 2,038,859 1,502,263 $151,399 $202,827
Small plans (under 100 participants) 3,404 149,064 113,046 $14,913 $17,749
Large plans (100+ participants) 2,476 1,889,795 1,389,217 $136,485 $185,078
Publicly traded companies 602 11,868,388 8,715,862 $149,438 $1,468,981
Total 6,482 13,907,247 10,218,125 $300,837 $1,671,809

Contributions and Distributions

ESOPs paid out over $137 billion dollars to participants in 2019.

Table 2: ESOP contributions and distributions, 2019

  ESOP contributions (millions) ESOP benefits paid (millions)
Privately held companies $7,965 $16,186
Publicly traded companies $81,313 $121,464
Total in 2019 $89,279 $137,651

These numbers are sourced from the NCEO's analysis of the Private Pension Plan (PPP) Research Files made available by the Department of Labor from data reported on the Form 5500. The PPP file is created each year by the Employee Benefits Security Administration's (EBSA) Office of Policy and Research (OPR) at the DOL and is used to generate and analyze aggregate statistics on the characteristics of the private pension plan universe. Direct Filing Entities (DFEs), welfare plans, one-participant plans, public retirement plans, and duplicate filings of other retirement plans are excluded from the Research File. NCEO methodology follows DOL standard practices with any exceptions noted.

Definitions of ESOPs are based on the plan characteristic codes filled in by the sponsor on line 8 of the form, or these codes were added as a result of the DOL's cleaning and editing of the data: 2O ("ESOP other than a leveraged ESOP") or 2P ("Leveraged ESOP—An ESOP that acquires employer securities with borrowed money or other debt-financing techniques"). Unlike the DOL, however, our count also includes plans without the 2O or 2P codes but with the code 2Q ("The employer maintaining this ESOP is an S corporation").

Large plans are defined as plans with 100 or more total participants and small plans as plans with fewer than 100 participants.

Publicly traded companies are identified by the NCEO using data from Compustat and web searches. Companies are classified as public if their stock is traded on the NYSE, NASDAQ, or AMEX exchanges.

Active participants include any workers currently in employment covered by a plan and who are earning or retaining credited service under a plan.

Total asset amounts shown do not include the value of allocated insurance contracts of the type described in 29 CFR 2520, 104-44.

What Kinds of Companies Have ESOPs?

ESOPs are represented across a wide variety of industries, with a plurality of plans in services or manufacturing companies:

Figure 1: Industries of Privately Held ESOP Companies


S vs. C Corporations

A majority (57%) of privately held ESOPs are in S corporations:

Table 3: S Corporation vs. C Corporation ESOPs, privately held companies

  Plans Total participants Active participants Employer securities (millions) Total plan assets (millions)
S Corporations 3,655 1,023,275 732,751 $113,171 $132,649
C Corporations 2,225 1,015,584 769,512 $38,228 $70,017
Note: We classify an ESOP as an S Corporation if the plan's Form 5500 filing uses the pension benefit code 2Q, "The employer maintaining this ESOP is an S Corporation."

Leveraged and Non-leveraged ESOPs

The sale of company stock to an ESOP is commonly financed with one or more loans. ESOPs financed this way are termed leveraged ESOPs. Approximately half (53%) of privately held ESOPs are currently leveraged, as described in table 3 below. Note that some plans that are currently non-leveraged may have been leveraged initially. In recent years, approximately two-thirds of newly created ESOPs have been leveraged.

Table 4: Leveraged vs. Non-leveraged ESOPs, privately held companies

  Plans Total participants Active participants Employer securities (millions) Total plan assets (millions)
Leveraged ESOPs 3,048 857,283 635,175 $71,931 $89,067
Non-leveraged ESOPs 2,731 1,141,622 838,929 $76,208 $10,837
Note: We classify an ESOP as leveraged if the plan's Form 5500 filing uses the pension benefit code 2P, "An ESOP that acquires employer securities with borrowed money or other debt-financing techniques."

Where Are ESOPs Located?

The map below shows the number of privately held ESOPs and participants in each state. Hover over a state for details.

For a full nationwide list of all ESOPs containing detailed information on each plan, see our ESOP database.

How is the ESOP Universe Changing Over Time?

The below table shows the change in total ESOPs and total participants over time from 2014 to 2019.

Table 5: Count of ESOPs, Participants, and Plan Assets, 2014-2019

Filing Year Number of ESOPs Total participants, millions Active participants, millions
2014 6,717 14.05 10.56
2015 6,669 14.43 10.82
2016 6,624 14.21 10.61
2017 6,527 14.26 10.58
2018 6,501 14.05 10.37
2019 6,482 13.90 10.21

The number of ESOPs has been on a slight decline in recent years, driven in particular by a drop in prevalence of ESOPs at publicly traded companies.

Table 6: Changes in Public vs. Privately Held ESOPs, 2014-2019

Filing Year Privately held ESOPs Publicly traded ESOPs Total participants, privately held ESOPs, millions Total participants, publicly traded ESOPs, millions
2014 5,949 768 1.92 12.13
2015 5,953 716 2.16 12.28
2016 5,952 672 2.04 12.24
2017 5,928 633 2.19 12.04
2018 5,863 638 2.02 12.04
2019 5,880 602 2.04 11.87

New ESOP Creation

Since 2014, an average of 254 new ESOPs have been created each year. The below chart shows new ESOP creation since 2014.

Figure 2: New ESOP Creation, 2014-2019


Other Forms of Employee Stock Ownership in the U.S.

There are over 4,000 profit-sharing, stock bonus, or other defined contribution plans that are not ESOPs but are substantially (at least 20%) invested in employer stock. The number of these plans has been steadily rising, as shown in Table 7:

Table 7: Change in other equity-sharing retirement plans since 2010

Filing year Number of ESOP-like plans
2010 1,676
2011 1,985
2012 2,231
2013 2,528
2014 2,898
2015 3,241
2016 3,773
2017 4,075
2018 4,468
2019 4,680

Other form of stock programs are not required to report as systematically as ESOPs and other qualified retirement plans are. To estimate how many employees own stock in their company we turn to the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey of adults in the United States. According to the most recent data from 2018, among applicable respondents, those who report working for a for-profit company (excludes non-profit and government workers), 22% say they “own any shares of stock in the company where you now work, either directly or through some type of retirement or stock plan”.  Excluding those who report being in an ESOP, this leaves 14.5% of private sector employees presumably participating in some form of stock ownership plan at work.  We can’t know from this survey if these plans are broadly shared or not.

Note that some companies offer multiple employee ownership plans, and many employees participate in more than one plan. For example, many ESPP participants also own stock in a 401(k) plan, get stock options, or have other equity compensation plans. Hence, the total number of participants in all employee ownership plans cannot just be added up to get the total number of employee owners.

Broad-Based Equity Grants

"Broad-based equity grants" are those that grant stock options to 50% or more of full-time employees. Unlike the case with ESOPs, it is not realistic to chart the growth of stock options year-by-year because there are no hard data compiled on a comparable basis year-by-year. We can look back at 1990 and estimate roughly 1 million option holders and look at the present day and estimate roughly 9 million option holders, but it is impossible to accurately say how many employees held options or similar equity awards in any particular year. Why? ESOPs are highly regulated retirement plans, and companies with ESOPs must tell the government every year how many employees are in the plan. The government regularly publishes summaries of these data. Although it is imperfect, it gives us something to go on. For stock options, on the other hand, nothing of the sort is available.

Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs)

Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs) include both tax-qualified "423 plans," which about 2,500 companies offer, and nonqualified plans, which about 1,500 companies offer. Data are based primarily on the National Association for Stock Plan Professionals' Stock Plan Design and Administration Survey (1998 and every two years thereafter), especially the more recent surveys, and a 2012 paper "Do non-executive employees have information? Evidence from employee stock purchase plans," by Ilona Babenko and Rik Sen. To estimate the number of employees covered under the plans, they took the total number of companies offering plans, multiplied those numbers by the average number of employees in the companies, and multiplied that number by the average percentage of participation in the plans. Almost all companies with ESPPs are public. Babenko and Sen found that in companies with ESPPs between 1998 and 2007, the mean annual contribution of participating employees was $1,630 per year.

Worker Cooperatives

Worker cooperatives are businesses owned and governed by their employees. Member employees govern the business, share its profits, and make decisions democratically on a one-member, one-vote basis. Worker cooperatives are less common than other forms of employee ownership. According to the Democracy Collaborative, there are at least 465 worker cooperatives in the U.S. with 6,454 workers.

Research on Employee Ownership and the Economy

An extensive research literature explores how employee ownership affects the economic fortunes of workers, companies, and communities. Read our summary here.

For questions about this or any of our research, contact the NCEO's Research Director Nancy Wiefek at [email protected] / 510-208-1312, or Research and Data Analyst Nathan Nicholson at [email protected] / 510-208-1313.

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