Millions at risk for cuts

Millions at risk for cuts

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One in five Americans over 65 are waiting to retire, the highest in more than half a century. Elizabeth Keatinge explains.
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A multibillion dollar pension shortfall is ready to shake up enough lives to pack a string of stadiums hosting the Super Bowl. 

But most people on the street aren’t talking about the looming crisis, unless they’re worried about seeing their own pension check slashed. Those living in fear include workers and retirees connected to the Central States Pension Plan

The word pension used to connote a sense of security. In the wake of the Great Recession and major shifts in many industries, though, many pensions are in jeopardy. 

What’s worse: The crisis is so far-reaching that it could bring down one of the very safety nets put in place to protect unionized workers covered by troubled multiemployer pension plans. 

W. Thomas Reeder, director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., said the federal agency created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to protect pension benefits currently is looking at $56.2 billion in liabilities connected to multiemployer pension plans but only $2.3 billion in assets.

It’s nearly a $54-billion shortfall, as of Sept. 30. 

“We will be out of business without a change in the law by 2025,” Reeder told journalists attending a National Press Foundation fellowship that focused on pensions in Washington, D.C., in early December.

“This is an untenable situation.”

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Dozens of pension plans that cover unionized truck drivers, painters, bricklayers, construction workers, bakery workers, retail workers, newspaper workers, mine workers and others are headed for collapse. 

A Nov. 30 deadline for putting a bipartisan package on the table has come and gone. The Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans failed to reach a consensus on how to solve the highly-complex, costly crisis. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, is part of the bipartisan, 16-member joint select committee. 

Work toward a solution continues. As many as 121 multiemployer pension plans, covering about 1.3 million participants, remain severely underfunded and are expected to fail within 20 years, according to a recent Cheiron analysis. Those plans are viewed as being in “critical and declining” status. 

If the PBGC back stop collapses, experts warn that retirees in the troubled plans one day might only get 10 cents on the dollar. So what was promised as a $25,000 annual pension might turn into just $2,500 in a year. 

The three largest underfunded multiemployer pension plans are: the Central States Southeast & Southwest Areas Pension Fund, the New England Teamsters and Trucking Industry Pension Fund and the Bakery and Confectionery Union and Industry International Pension Fund, according to the latest data from Cheiron, an actuarial consulting firm. 

The Teamsters’ Central States fund alone has $22.9 billion in unfunded liability, according to Cheiron. The New England Teamsters follows at $5.1 billion and the Bakery and Confectionery plan has $3.9 billion in unfunded liabilities. 

The United Mine Workers of America 1974 pension plan dropped to fourth place this year, with $3 billion in unfunded liabilities. 

The rest have $14 billion in unfunded liabilities. 

Multiemployer pensions developed in unionized industries where there are lots of employers. The idea of a multiemployer plan is to provide pensions to cover workers in a common industry who may move from one company to another, like truck drivers or even athletes on professional sports teams, according to Reeder.

If one company went out of business, others in that industry would keep contributing to the pooled trust fund that would pay the retirees. 

Unfortunately, far more companies in some industries, such as trucking, ended up closing shop. 

The PBGC’s multiemployer program offers protection to 10.6 million workers and retirees covered by 1,400 pension plans. Most of the plans do not face collapse. 

It’s important to note that the PBGC arm that covers single-employer plans is not in dire straits. So not all pension plans are in peril. The PBGC is self-financed with premiums and does not receive taxpayer dollars. 

The single-employer PBGC program has taken over pension plans when big name employers have fallen into financial trouble, such as Delphi, Bethlehem Steel, United Airlines, TWA, Eastern Air Lines, Circuit City and Jacobson Stores. 

The multiemployer pension plans ended up in financial distress for several reasons. The stock market fallout in the early 2000s – followed by the financial crisis in 2008 – hurt investment returns. Some investments were mismanaged. Many plans recovered but a significant number did not. Some companies went out of business, leaving behind unfunded benefits. Pressures of deregulation in the trucking industry continued. 

“When companies went belly up, they were no longer paying into the pension fund,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, co-chairman of the joint select committee.

Demographics – and declining union membership – come into play, as there are far more retirees now than workers in such plans. 

As money was paid out to retirees, the pension plans weren’t able to invest that money and take full advantage of the bull market for stocks.

In the past year alone, 15 more plans have informed regulators that they are failing, according to Joshua Davis, a principal actuary at Cheiron who analyzed the filings.

“While some plans are trying to meet their financial challenges by seeking permission to cut benefits, it appears that most plans are waiting to see if Congress can find a legislative solution,” Davis said in a statement. 

How to fix the shortfall isn’t obvious or simple. Healthy companies, retirees, workers and possibly taxpayers all might be on the hook for paying some part of the bill. Wrangling over a solution has been going on for years. 

Discussions have included boosting premiums on healthy employers, reducing benefits, increasing contributions from underfunded plans, as well as a type of loan program that would include more oversight and limits. Brown and others have called for a long-term, low-interest federal loan program to fix the national multiemployer pension crisis. 

Employers have a huge stake in the game, as well. 

Aliya Robinson, executive director of retirement policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said healthy businesses are at risk, too, if they’re part of a multiemployer system and end up facing even higher costs for premiums as part of a fix. 

There’s a risk that some scenarios could drive a healthy employer into bankruptcy, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report on the multiemployer pension crisis. Some banks and lenders are taking the pension risks into account when reviewing credit. 

“When these employers shut down because of multiemployer pension plan costs, all employees’ jobs are threatened – not just those employees who participate in multiemployer pension plans,” according to the Chamber report. 

And there’s concern about a “contagion effect.”

Experts fret that the pending collapse of Central States could trigger other multiemployer plans to become insolvent. The fear is that other employers would face too great of a burden and then be unable to meet their financial obligations to other plans. 

Under current rules, employers cannot leave these multiemployer plans without paying large sums or claiming bankruptcy, according the the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Too often, a crisis isn’t really a crisis until it hits your neighborhood. Until then, it’s just somebody else’s problem.

Sadly, these pension woes could show up somehow in your town a lot sooner than you’d think. 

Contact Susan Tompor: stompor@freepress.com or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor. 

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