Top lawmakers are considering a taxpayer-funded bailout for retirees who are members of certain failing pension plans, scrambling to solve a retirement crisis that threatens more than 1 million Americans.
A draft of the plan, obtained by The Washington Post, would direct the Treasury Department to spend up to $3 billion annually to subsidize payments for retirees from certain underfunded pensions.
It would also require benefit cuts, higher premiums and new fees levied against companies and union members in an attempt to make the pensions as financially solvent as possible. The proposal aims to require all parties involved to make significant concessions and caps taxpayer contributions.
The retirement programs are called “multiemployer” pensions, as workers from multiple companies pay into the same retirement benefit program. But many of these pensions lack the financial assets to cover the benefits they have promised retired workers, leading to a panic from retirees who were counting on the funds. These pensions often have been plagued by mismanagement, inaccurate economic projections and in some cases corporate bankruptcies.
In many cases, the companies these pensioners used to work for no longer exist or no longer participate in the retirement plan.
The plan using taxpayer money is one of multiple proposals being considered by a special congressional committee tasked with addressing the pension crisis. The committee has a Nov. 30 deadline to submit a proposed solution, and aides cautioned that negotiations were extremely fluid and that there is a risk talks will unravel.
The aide said the plan reviewed by The Post was one option under consideration and did not represent a final deal.
The committee, led by Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), was created this year and charged with producing a plan by the end of this month that could be presented to the full House and Senate for passage.
“The hard-working men and women who are counting on this committee deserve a solution, and Chairman Hatch and I continue to negotiate with other members of the committee to reach a bipartisan agreement,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday.
Nicole Hager, spokeswoman for Hatch, said: “Joint Select Committee members are continuing to work in good faith to reach a bipartisan agreement before their Nov. 30 deadline. Members understand that the longer the problems facing the multiemployer system are allowed to continue, the more challenging and expensive they are to solve.”
White House officials have been briefed on the status of talks, but they have not expressed whether they would support the deal if it is finalized. A Treasury Department spokesman didn’t have an immediate comment on the plan.
Lawmakers for years have resisted using taxpayer money to backstop failing pension plans, saying that doing so would lead to a backlash from voters and create an expectation that the government will intervene whenever help is needed.
But the dire financial condition of many of these multiemployer plans has forced lawmakers to consider such a move as part of a broader package of changes. A growing number of multiemployer plans are now severely underfunded, and the issue gets worse every year as more people retire and seek benefits they believe they were promised.
Lawmakers from both parties, under pressure from many retired constituents and business groups, have expressed alarm that hundreds of thousands of older Americans could soon see their retirement savings plans vanish or become severely depleted because the pensions were mismanaged or underfunded.
Many people in these pension plans, such as retired truck drivers, grocery store clerks and delivery workers, were employed by companies that went out of business. And many of these multiemployer pensions were underfunded, meaning they anticipated higher returns and lower payouts than what occurred. As problems worsened, taxpayer assistance was seen by many experts as inevitable.
“We bailed out Wall Street in 2008 and 2009,” said Kenneth Feinberg, who was appointed to a top role at the Treasury Department in 2015 working on problems with multiemployer pension plans. “Bailouts have occurred before.”
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. was created by Congress to provide a financial backstop for pension plans, but the PBGC’s program to insure multiemployer plans is severely underfunded. It had $67.3 billion in liabilities as of last year and just $2.3 billion in assets. The entire fund is projected to run out of money by 2025, although the agency said “there is considerable risk that it could run out before then.”
Last year, the PBGC provided $141 million in assistance to 72 insolvent multiemployer plans, and there are several others listed as “critical” and likely to soon become insolvent.
Lawmakers have been particularly alarmed about one faltering plan called Central States Teamsters, which has 400,000 participants and whose members include retired truck drivers, among others.
Once the PBGC’s fund to pay multiemployer plans runs out of any money, the agency would be able to pay only a “small fraction” of the pension benefits that retirees were expecting, the agency said last year. Because PBGC was created by Congress for the purpose of protecting pensions, some experts believe that emergency government assistance was always anticipated.
“When . . . people’s livelihoods will be lost, government has always stepped up to back its own creations,” said Joshua Gotbaum, who served as director of the PBGC from 2010 until 2014.
The proposal under consideration would protect payments for beneficiaries in Central States and other failing plans by drawing on taxpayer funds and also by significantly boosting fees on workers and retirees in healthy pension plans. That approach could emerge as a roadblock for certain Democrats and for some outside groups representing pension plans that don’t want to pay additional fees.
The proposal could shift up to $90 billion in additional liabilities to the PBGC, creating major new responsibilities for the agency, according to an analysis by some outside stakeholders.
The special congressional pensions committee was proposed by Brown this year after he was unsuccessful in getting Congress to act on the solution embraced by Democrats, which would create a Treasury Department loan program for pension plans to borrow from.
There are basically two types of private-employer pensions, those that are run by individual companies and those that multiple companies participate in as a way to spread the membership and risk. Several multiemployer plans are in extreme financial turmoil because they are underfunded and a shrinking number of members is responsible for paying the benefits of a rising number of retirees.
The PBGC was created in 1974 as a backstop for pension plans, but Congress has resisted extending taxpayer money to subsidize benefits up to this point.
There are more than 1 million Americans who participate in severely distressed multiemployer pensions and another 9 million who are in healthier programs that could be affected by changes.
Fights over the fate of multiemployer pension plans can be very divisive, pitting workers and companies against each other even when neither group did anything to cause the financial problems.
This year, The Post chronicled a messy fight between Just Born Quality Confections and its union workforce. Just Born is a Pennsylvania company that makes Peeps candy, and it was trying to change its union contract in a way that allowed it to direct new workers toward a 401(k) plan and not allow them to participate in the faltering multiemployer pension.
That multiemployer pension faced severe financial constraints because of the bankruptcy of Hostess Brands several years earlier.
Because of that bankruptcy, Just Born was required to make additional payments to the pension, even though it had nothing to do with the other company’s mistakes. A federal judge ultimately intervened, ruling that Just Born could not unilaterally block new workers from being members of the pension.