The chart will include the annual expense ratio of each investment, a figure that's always expressed as a percentage. To make it clear how much workers pay, this information also will be reported in a dollar figure for every $1,000 invested. So workers paying 0.5 percent or 1.5 percent annually will see that comes out to $5 or $15 per $1,000 invested.

Regular mutual funds, collective investment funds from banks and funds from insurance companies calculate expense ratios differently, Labor Department officials say. But for this purpose, all must figure expense ratios the same way so workers can make an apples-to-apples comparison.

The chart also will list any fees or sales charges for getting in or out of an investment. And workers will be given a web address where they can find out more details.

Quarterly statements will report the amount of fees that have been deducted from their account for plan-related costs, such as record keeping or accounting. Statements also will say how much a worker paid for other services, such as taking out a loan.

Fees will vary from plan to plan, and workers likely will be surprised by how much. Some employers, for instance, pick up certain plan expenses, while others shifted those to workers. Big plans tend to have lower fees than smaller plans with fewer workers to spread the costs over.

Mike Alfred, co-founder of BrightScope, which rates 401(k)s, says he's seen plans that charge workers as little as 0.10 percent or 0.15 percent annually.

"These are very well-run plans that use their massive scale to negotiate extremely low costs," he says.

At the other end of the spectrum are plans, often run by insurance companies, that charge 3 percent to 5 percent annually, Alfred says.

He advises workers paying much more than 1 percent a year to see what they can do to lower their costs, such as switching to low-cost index funds.

Some plan experts say all this fee information will only confuse workers, or that employees won't even bother to read it.

Service providers add that workers might use the information to switch to the cheapest investment, even if it isn't appropriate for them. Workers need a diversified portfolio that fits their risk tolerance, they say.

"Fees should not be the only [factor] you consider when making an investment allocation," says Rob Vetere, senior vice president with Diversified, which administers about 4,000 plans. "For example, money market funds will have the lowest fees generally and also have the lowest returns. That probably is not a good strategy for your investment allocation over your lifetime."

But Alfred says giving workers fee information is similar to when nutrition labels were added to food products.

"The only thing that changed was that people were smarter shoppers," he says. And with fee information, he adds, "they will make better decisions about what they are investing in."

Who can argue that's not a good thing? So the sooner workers get this fee information, the better.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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