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Multiemployer pensions teeter and may fall

  • Article by: MARY WILLIAMS WALSH New York Times
  • April 12, 2014 - 6:06 PM

The pensions of millions of Americans are being threatened because of trouble in a part of the retirement world long considered so safe that no one gave it a second thought.

The pensions belong to people in multiemployer plans — big pooled investment funds with many sponsoring companies and a union. Multiemployer pensions are not only backed by federal insurance, but they also were thought to be even more secure than single-company pensions because when one company in a multi­employer pool failed, the others were required to pick up its “orphaned” retirees.

Today, however, the aging of the workforce, the decline of unions, deregulation and two big stock crashes have taken a grievous toll on multi­employer pensions, which cover 10 million Americans. Dozens of multiemployer plans have failed, and some giant ones are teetering — including, notably, the Teamsters’ Central States pension plan, with more than 400,000 members.

Out of money in 7 years

In February, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal multiemployer insurer would run out of money in seven years, which would leave retirees in failed plans with nothing. “Unless Congress acts — and acts very soon — many plans will fail, more than 1 million people will lose their pensions and thousands of small businesses will be handed bills they can’t pay,” said Joshua Gotbaum, executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, the federal insurer that pays benefits to people whose company pension plans fail.

“If Congress allows the PBGC to get the money and the authority it needs to do its job, then these plans can be preserved,” he added. “If not, the PBGC will run out of money, too, and multi­employer pensioners will get virtually nothing. This is not something that can wait a few years. If people kick the can down the road, they’ll find it went off a cliff.”

So far, efforts to keep multi­employer plans from toppling, and taking the federal insurance program down with them, are giving rise to something that was supposed to have been outlawed 40 years ago: cuts in benefits that workers already have earned.

No payment, just a letter

For example, after Carol Cascio’s husband died of a heart attack at 52, the pension office of his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, told her his 33 years as a supermarket meat manager had earned her a widow’s pension of $402.31 a month for life. It would start in three years, on what would have been his 55th birthday.

She waited, but just before her first payment should have come, she received a letter instead saying that the pension plan had been “terminated by mass withdrawal” and that she would receive nothing.

“Now I’m in a real pickle,” said Cascio, 62, a stay-at-home mother in Brooklyn who had borrowed against the promised pension to pay for her daughter’s education. “I have no one. I have a mortgage on my house. I have my daughter. How do you do this to someone?”

“Only a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that anyone would have their benefits reduced,” said Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, a watchdog group in Washington. “The law hasn’t caught up with what’s happening here.”

The law she was referring to is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, the landmark federal employee-benefits law enacted in 1974. It contains a well-established provision known as the anti-cutback rule, which holds that companies can freeze their pension plans at will, stopping their workers from building up any additional benefits, but they cannot renege on benefits their workers have earned through work already performed.

In the multiemployer world, the anti-cutback rule was amended in 2006, permitting the weakest plans to stop paying certain benefits to people who had not yet retired, including disability stipends, lump-sum distributions, recent pension increases, death benefits and early retirement benefits.

The goal was to help those plans conserve their money while they tried to rehabilitate themselves. The measures have helped, but some multiemployer plans may still fail if they cannot cut payments to retirees as well.

Widows’ pensions

Cascio’s pension turned out to be in a category subject to cutting: pensions for widows whose husbands died before retirement. They must be cut if their plans have fallen to “critical status,” defined as having less than 65 cents for every dollar of benefits they owe.

That is supposed to save money so the plan can keep on paying other retirees their “nonforfeitable benefits” while it negotiates bigger contributions from participating companies, or tries to attract new companies into the pool.

That could not happen in Cascio’s case. A few months before her husband died, all the supermarkets in his plan decided to disband the pool. He told her not to worry. Each company was making a final contribution to what is known as a “wasting trust,” which would have enough money to pay everyone’s pensions for the rest of their lives.

Then the stock market crashed in 2008. Much of the money in the pool melted away, and there was no one left to turn to for more.

© 2014 Star Tribune