"Pensions are not a very sexy topic," admits Rep. Patricia Schroeder. "In the rush of growing up, choosing a career, raising children and making money, pensions seem about as relevant as a raincoat in the Sahara."

But for millions of Americans, she notes, this attitude results in a retirement nightmare. Lulled by the assumption that Social Security, a pension and savings will be there when they need it, people who have worked long and hard all their lives wake up to face poverty in retirement.

"In fact, Social Security does not provide enough to live on," says Karen Ferguson, director of the nonprofit Pension Rights Center. "More than two-thirds of all workers will not get a pension, and very few people have enough savings to support them in retirement."

These problems were the focus of "Confronting the Retirement Income Crisis," a three-day conference last weekend co-sponsored by 30 national retiree, labor, consumer and women's organizations.

Inequities in the American pension system resulting in reduced or no benefits -- particularly to women, minorities and those who frequently change jobs -- were a particular target of the Citizens' Commission on Pension Policy, organizers of the conference.

Among some of the statistics:

Only 50 percent of workers in private industry are covered by pension plans, and not all actually will receive benefits.

More whites are covered than minorities, more men are covered than women, higher-paid employes are covered more often than the lower-paid and employes of large companies are covered more often than employes of small.

Part of the problem, according to the commissioners, stems from "the thousands of pension plans, each with its own often obscure rules for deciding which workers will get pensions, and how much they will get."

To illustrate "the myriad of strings attached to the pension promise," commission vice chair Paul Edwards introduced several people who "fell through the cracks in the pension system.

"These people were picked to testify," he said, "because their problems are representative of those experienced by the hundreds of people who have written us letters."

The witnesses included:

Mary Maholic, the widow of a Pennsylvania coal miner, who discovered that when her husband died at age 51 after 34 years in the mines, his pension died with him. At 53, she is too young to receive Social Security.

Lee Miller, who retired from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. after 32 years and found that his employers are entitled to a Social Security offset that reduced his monthly pension from $464.86 to $375.11.

Nellie Cuellar, an 81-year-old Detroit woman who did not receive a pension after 20 years as a janitorial worker for a small manufacturing firm because blacks were ineligible for the company's pension fund. She did not receive a pension for 17 years as a cook at a different firm because her salary was too low to qualify. (Her major source of income is a $207-a-month Social Security check.)

Howard Kaufman, 75, of Ohio, retired in 1965 after 35 years' service and now finds inflation makes his $74.83-a-month pension "get smaller every year." (A worker from the same company who retires now after 35 years gets $385 a month.)

Cynthia Elie, the "about-to-be-divorced" wife of a Foreign Service officer and mother of three, who, after 24 years of marriage, will be ineligible for any of his pension.

Thomas MacLean, a Rhode Island steelworker who lost all the pension benefits he would have accrued because the plant where he was employed shut down seven years after he started working there.

Harry Kingery, who signed away 20 years of his pension benefits when the Illinois grocery store at which he worked became unionized. Union organizers, he claims, promised they would pay pension benefits from all of his past years' employment. Later he discovered this wasn't true.

The conference also addressed major pension problems such as lengthy vesting periods, lack of "portability" (transferring pension benefits from one job to another) and some plans' discrimination against women.

Long vesting periods often cheat mobile workers out of accrued pension benefits, noted Lisle Carter, president of the University of the District of Columbia and a member of the President's Commission on Pension Policy.

"The average American worker moves from job to job about every four years," he said. "Even though a person may be a participant in a pension plan, the worker may not be actually entitled to receive a benefit upon retirement.

"Pension plans may require workers to meet age, years of covered service and other eligibility requirements before they are considered 'vested' -- that is have any rights -- in the plan. Among those workers approaching retirement, aged 55 to 64, only 41 percent are actually eligible to draw a pension."

Women often don't meet the 10-year vesting requirements because they take breaks in service to care for family members.

"Half of the American women workers are employed in the private sector," said Rep. Schroeder. "Of them only 21 percent are covered by pension programs and only 10 percent will ever collect. They do not receive any credit for their work contribution at the ages of 20 to 24, which is the peak time of female participation in the work force."

These concerns "point up the need to figure ways ordinary citizens can get their fair share of what is fast becoming a trillion-dollar, tax-supported system," said commission chair Ewa Bielski.

She urged people to write their opinions, suggestions and concerns about pension plans to the President's Commission on Pension Policy (736 Jackson Pl. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006).

Established in 1978 to develop a comprehensive and coordinated retirement-income policy, the commission currently is holding public hearings prior to submitting their final report in February 1981. Their May interim report, contends the Citizens' Commission (formed to monitor the President's Commission), "reflects a confusion of priorities, an excessive emphasis on management concerns and an undue preoccupation with the effect of pension programs on business costs, the creation of capital and the economy."

Citizens' Commission chair Bielski said she was not surprised, "since almost all of the President's Commissioners represent management."

Chaired by Xerox Corp. chairman of the board C. Peter McColough, the President's Commission includes five pension fund trustees, she notes. All the commissioners are receiving, or are entitled to receive, pension or profit-sharing benefits.

In contrast, the Citizens' Commission is comprised mainly of persons who feel cheated by the pension system. Members include a machinist, a retired social worker, a professor, a homemaker, a public-interest labor lawyer and a merchandise manager.

"We've got to make sure," stressed Bielski, "that they hear the voices of the 'little people'."

"And even if pensions don't make fascinating conversation," adds Rep. Schroeder, "we've all got a vested interest in the subject. We're all going to get older."