Wall Street banks, automakers and insurance giants got bailouts during the economic meltdown that started in 2008. But when it comes to the pensions of retired truck drivers, construction workers and mine workers, it seems that enough is enough.
The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill moving through Congress this week adopts "Solutions Not Bailouts," a plan to shore up struggling multiemployer pension funds—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers in industries like construction, trucking, mining and food retailing.
A bailout, it is not. The centerpiece is a provision that would open the door to cutting current beneficiaries' benefits, a retirement policy taboo and a potential disaster for retirees on fixed incomes.
Developed by the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP), a coalition of multiemployer pension plan sponsors and some major unions, the plan addresses a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans. Ten million workers are covered by these plans, with 1.5 million of them in roughly 200 plans that are in danger of failing over the next two decades. Two large plans are believed to be much closer to failure—the Teamsters' Central States fund and the United Mine Workers of America fund.
The central premise is that Congress won't—and shouldn't—prop up the multiemployer system.
"The bottom line is, we've been told since the start of this process that there isn't going to be a bailout—Congress is tired of bailouts," says Randy DeFrehn, executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP).
The problem is partly structural. Multiemployer pension plans were thought to be safer than single employer plans, owing to the pooling of risk. As a result, the level of Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) insurance protection behind the multiemployer plans is lower. But many industries in the system have seen declining employment and have a growing proportion of retirees to workers paying into the pension funds. And many of the pension funds still have not fully recovered from the hits they took in the 2008-2009 market meltdown.
These problems pose a major threat to the PBGC. The agency reported recently that the deficit in its multiemployer program rose to $42.2 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from $8.3 billion the previous year. If big plans fail, the entire multiemployer system would be at risk of collapse.
The fix moving through Congress would revise the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to grant plan trustees broad powers to cut retired workers' benefits if they can show that would prolong the life of the plan. That would mark a major change from current law, which calls for retirees to be paid full benefits unless plan assets are exhausted; then, the PBGC steps in to pay benefits, albeit at a much lower level. The bill also would increase PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year.
The legislation does prohibit benefit cuts for vested retirees over 80, and limited protections for retirees over 75—but that leaves plenty of younger retirees vulnerable to cuts. And although workers and retirees would get to vote on the changes, pension advocates worry that the interests of workers would overwhelm those of retirees. (Active workers rightly worry about the future of their plans, and many already are sacrificing through higher contributions and benefit cuts.)
The big problem here is that the plan fails to put retirees at the head of the line for protection. When changes of this type must be made, they should be phased in over a long period of time, giving workers time to adjust their plans before retirement. For example, the Social Security benefit cuts eneacted in 1983 were phased in over 20 years and didn't start kicking in until 1990.
"It's a cruel irony that in the year we're celebrating the 40th anniversary year of ERISA, Congress is trying to reverse its most significant protections," said Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center (PRC), an advocacy group that has been battling with NCCMP on some of the proposed changes to retired workers' benefits.
Friedman's organization, AARP and other advocates reject the idea that solvency problems 10 to 15 years away require such severe measures. They have pushed alternative approaches to the problem; one that is included in the deal, DeFrehn says, is an increase in PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year. Advocates also have called for other new revenue sources, such as low-interest loans to PBGC by the once-bailed-out big banks and investment firms.
There are no easy answers here. But cutting the benefits of today's retirees should be the last solution we try—not the first.