A couple of recent developments feed the belief that the old compact between employers and employees is going the way of the hard-wired telephone and the Pontiac nameplate.
A couple of weeks ago, Augsburg Fortress, the publishing ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told its 150 employees and a few hundred retirees that it's abolishing the traditional pension plan, which has only about $1 in assets for every $3 in liabilities.
Chief Executive Beth Lewis said the defined-benefits plan of Augsburg Fortress, which publishes hymnals and other literature for Lutherans and congregations, has been insolvent for nine years. There's no hope of reviving it because sales are trending downward and the ELCA has no legal obligation to support the pension plan of what technically is an independent operation.
Employees were quoting scripture on Facebook pages and otherwise grousing about how Augsburg Fortress has broken faith.
Jim Lipscomb, a 33-year employee until he was laid off a year ago, is not sure he can afford to retire.
"I've been telling inquirers that I'm either job hunting or retiring," Lipscomb quipped on Monday. "As it turns out, retiring seems to be getting a little harder to achieve."
Augsburg Fortress will make a lump-sum distribution of the funds' assets to employees. It also offers an employee-funded 403(b) retirement plan, with employer matches to certain limits. Augsburg Fortress is a "church-affiliated" plan, and not covered by the federal agency that insures pensions.
"Many people are depending on those pensions as their only income in retirement besides the meager amount offered by Social Security," Beth Wright, a former employee, said on Monday. "Often, they worked very low-paid jobs for decades ... so there was no extra in their paychecks. ... They assumed the publishing house of the ELCA would take care of them after they put in years of service and dedicated themselves to the mission of the church's publishing ministry."
Wright, who left Augsburg Fortress in 2004 with several other employees to start a publishing-related small business, is helping retirees and employees form an advocacy group to petition the ELCA to salvage the pension plan. The ELCA is not exactly flush itself and has had to rejigger its own pension plan.
Meanwhile, Qwest, the regional telecommunications company, is eliminating pension death benefits for thousands of retirees in a move that could cut the Denver-based company's liabilities by about $220 million.
As many as 27,000 retirees are eligible for the death benefit, which pays a spouse or dependent child beneficiary an amount equivalent to the retiree's last annual salary with the company. Qwest is quitting the payments, in part, to keep its pension fund in the black. The Qwest decision, which was the target of an employee lawsuit in 2005, was upheld on appeal last year.
Qwest rank-and-filers are still smarting over (Say It Ain't So) Joe Nacchio, the egomaniacal CEO during the tech-boom days who mismanaged the business and who is now in prison for illegal insider trading.
He was followed by Richard Notebaert, who made millions in cash and stock turning around the company, in part by cutting people, costs and reducing benefits at the telephone company, which has lost a lot of "land line" business to new wireless and Internet-based competitors.
The Augsburg Fortress and Qwest examples are somewhat different. But they both speak to the increased sense that employees are on their own. Executive compensation swells while employees are lucky to hang onto a job, even if there's no pension or pay raises.
Jim Mitchell, former CEO of IDS Life, told me a few months ago: "Workers are angry because they see executives walking off with millions and destroying their companies. They screwed up the system. The public has lost trust in business. That's not good."
By the way, Mitchell was referring to a 2009 Fortune magazine article that damned the executive class.
We've heard for years that our retirement is up to us. Believe it.
In 1975, more than two thirds of American workers were covered by a defined-benefit pension plan. Now, less than a third are. And more than two-thirds are covered by defined-contribution plans, funded largely by themselves, according to the Employee Benefit Retirement Institute.
That's great. But it's tough to fund your retirement when you're out of work or taking pay cuts. Or when the company decides to change the deal.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • firstname.lastname@example.org