In December 2014, Congress changed pension law by attaching the Pension Reform Act (PRA) to the must-pass 2015 omnibus spending bill as a rider. Doing so allowed the PRA to not be debated on the floor and spared House and Senate members from having to vote on an unpopular measure.
Currently, the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means is pursuing the reform of Social Security, using much the same rationale that was employed to cut benefits of private pension-plan participants — that if changes are not made, retirees face drastic cuts. The committee states: “Without action to address the fiscal and structural challenges facing Social Security, seniors will see a 23 percent cut to their benefits beginning in 2033. Action must be taken now to preserve the promise of Social Security for today’s beneficiaries and future generations.”
Social Security and pension reform are issues crucial to all but the wealthiest Americans. In both, contributions have been made to provide for the financial well-being of workers as they age. Taxpaying citizens, workers and retirees deserve a process that takes place in the light of day, that allows sufficient time for debate and that concludes with a recorded vote on a stand-alone act. The PRA is a seriously flawed last-minute bill — cobbled together, added in the final days and passed under the threat of shutting down the government.
The PRA took effect immediately. Cuts could take place this year. Two good sources for retirees trying to find information are the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and the Pension Rights Center. The Center for Retirement Research studied the Central States Teamster plan and concluded that the plan could remain solvent if benefits were cut an average of 30 percent. The PRA requires a far different allocation of cuts.
First, as the Pension Rights Center notes, the pensions of retirees over 80 or disabled are not cut. Those for people 75 to 79 are not cut as severely. This is within reason.
Second, the Pension Rights Center states: “Plan trustees are required to reduce the benefits of participants whose employers went out of business (or withdrew from the plan for other reasons without paying all of their obligations) first, before they reduce the benefits of other plan participants. This will mean that those retirees whose companies went bankrupt will have greater reductions than other retirees.”
While the amount of pension contributions paid for retirees could be equal, cuts will vary drastically. Some of the retirees of companies that filed bankruptcy participated in a voluntary program to donate 15 percent of their gross wages to their companies to help them survive following deregulation of the trucking industry, in hopes of preserving jobs and pensions.
Third, as the center states, certain “retirees in the Central States Teamster plan are given special protection; their benefits are last in line to be cut.”
Retirees who will bear the most severe cuts could see their pensions cut more than 60 percent because of these provisions and because of the low level of benefit protection provided to participants in multiemployer plans by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). The 2014 rate set by Congress was $56 per participant in the single-employer fund, compared with $12 in the multiemployer fund. The rate for the multiemployer fund was raised to $26 for 2015. At its inception, it was reasoned that plans with multiemployers would be more secure because of companies remaining.
Beware the promises of politicians to save Social Security. Follow their actions. Those over 65 won’t see cuts? They did in the PRA. Karen Friedman, executive vice president and policy director of the Pension Rights Center, which opposed this legislation, was interviewed on CSPAN, drawing overwhelming support from callers. Friedman will be at the Weyerhaeuser Chapel on the Macalester College campus at 10 a.m. Saturday. In this age of increasing retirement insecurity, it is important to stay informed of the changes Congress is legislating in both the private and public sectors.
Harold and Donna Carlson live in Lino Lakes. Harold Carlson is a 71-year-old participant in a multiemployer pension plan.