When pension plans fail, people suffer

Hundreds of workers were left without their retirement safety net. Here’s why you should care about their plight.

Imagine that you’ve worked decades for the same company, often choosing not to take another job for higher pay because your employer offers an increasingly rare benefit — a pension plan.

Juanita Aikens-English, 64, doesn’t have to imagine. She started working as a nurse for St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady, New York, in 1985. She spent part of her career helping to deliver babies.

Aikens-English said she stayed on at the hospital, which largely served the indigent, because she loved the work and the people. She also counted on her loyalty netting her a monthly pension check.

“We would get letters each year saying how much money you would get,” Aikens-English said.

St. Clare’s closed in 2008 with another hospital taking over its facilities and absorbing a lot of its employees. Although the new hospital refused to take on the obligation of the underfunded pension, the former St. Clare’s employees believed that the pension was solvent. Then the letters started to come informing plan participants that their pension was in peril.

Last year, about 1,100 employees — nurses, orderlies, laboratory technicians, clerks and housekeeping staff — were told that they either would not get a pension or it would be greatly reduced. About 440 older workers and retirees who met an age cutoff saw their checks cut by 30%.

Aikens-English, who had planned to retire next year, elected to collect her pension early at 62. But she ended up receiving only two years’ worth of a reduced pension check of $1,000 before they stopped.

“I feel like I’ve been cheated out of some peace of mind,” she said.

If you don’t have a pension, or if yours is solvent, you might wonder why you should care about the folks who worked at St. Clare’s.

Here’s why.

With each federal budget season, we are reminded of the ballooning costs of taking care of people who don’t have the financial resources to take care of themselves. Every pension that is shut down or is in financial trouble becomes our nation’s collective problem.

In the case of St. Clare’s, some people have had to sell their homes, because they just can’t afford them any longer, according to Victoria Esposito, advocacy coordinator for the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. Others are having trouble making ends meet on the reduced pension amount.

“These are not people who are looking for a handout,” Esposito said. “They earned those pensions.”

The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act — otherwise known as ERISA — sets standards for private pension plans. As part of the act, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) was established. PBCG operates two separate insurance programs — one covering pension plans sponsored by a single employer and another covering “multiemployer” pension plans.

However, there is an exemption in the law that excludes religious-affiliated pensions from being covered under ERISA. The exemption includes church-related tax-exempt organizations, which includes some hospitals. Although such entities can choose to be covered by PBCG, there’s no requirement that they pay for the insurance.

St. Clare’s wasn’t covered. And because of the hospital’s former connection to the Roman Catholic Church, the AARP Foundation, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Legal Services of NYC-Brooklyn Legal Services and a private attorney have filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Albany.

The lawsuit, filed under state law, says that the diocese should be held responsible for the insolvency of the pension fund.

“The hospital took advantage of the church plan exemption because of its close relationship to the Diocese of Albany,” said Dara Smith, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation. “So, we believe the diocese is responsible for paying into the pension fund.”

A spokesperson for the diocese says the church doesn’t see it that way.

“The diocese respects the rights of pensioners to do what they feel is necessary to secure recovery of their lost benefits,” said Director of Communications Mary DeTurris Poust. “However, the Diocese of Albany never managed the St. Clare’s pension fund.”

But again, this isn’t just about this one pension plan. There are possibly 1 million people nationwide participating in religious-affiliated pension plans, according to Smith.

“But that’s not to say that all of them are in financial trouble or anything like that,” she said. “But because they don’t have the federal backstop, of course there is always more risk.”

AARP’s advice: Check out your church plan.

“Many people would have no idea that they are not protected by federal laws on pensions,” said William Alvarado Rivera, senior vice president for litigation at AARP Foundation. “It may well be something that people may want to ask if they’re working for a company, a school, a hospital or some other provider — to ask whether or not their pension is being guaranteed under federal law.”

As I reviewed the facts in this case, it’s clear to me that Congress needs to revisit the religious-affiliated pension plan exemption. Or many more people might find out too late that a promised safety net has vanished.

— Washington Post Writers Group

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