The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Karen Ferguson, founder of pension watchdog group, dies at 80

Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, in 1997. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)

Karen Ferguson, the founder of the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect the interests of workers and retired people and helps promote legislation on their behalf, died Dec. 23 at her home in Washington. She was 80.

The cause was colon cancer, said her son, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson.

Ms. Ferguson, a lawyer who once worked for consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group, founded the Washington-based Pension Rights Center (PRC) in 1976 after Nader gave her a check for $10,000 and said, “Go make pensions an issue.” The organization was not formally affiliated with Nader or his Public Citizen group.

Ms. Ferguson, who served as PRC’s director until 2021, was widely considered one of the country’s leading authorities on workers’ pensions and retirement plans.

“Karen not only made pensions an issue, she also jump-started the national pension rights movement and advocated for better retirement and savings plans for everybody,” Karen Friedman, PRC’s executive director, said in an interview.

Ms. Ferguson led a staff that seldom numbered more than six to help guide people through the challenges of preparing for a financially secure retirement. According to a 2021 study by the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median savings of American households approaching retirement is only $51,700.

“It’s one of the great secret scandals of our country that people don’t realize they can work a lifetime and still not have enough money for retirement,” Ms. Ferguson told the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2002. “We have essentially two classes of retirees: those who do really well and those who live almost entirely on Social Security, which pays less on average than the minimum wage. Those people aren’t making it.”

In recent decades, companies have increasingly abandoned traditional pension plans, which paid retirees a fixed amount each month. Ms. Ferguson often fielded calls from exasperated pensioners or their surviving spouses attempting to negotiate a maze of tangled rules after their benefits were either denied or considerably reduced. One woman found that after being at a job for eight years, her retirement benefit would total only 47 cents a month.

Retired women in the United States were “poorer than their counterparts in our major industrial competitors,” Ms. Ferguson told The Washington Post in 1995.

“A large segment of women who contact our office,” she added, “are recently divorced women who didn’t know they could ask for a share of their husband’s pension in the divorce settlement and get survivors benefits as well. Sometimes their lawyers didn’t know to ask. They are left without the second-largest asset of a marriage after the house.”

In 1995, Ms. Ferguson published “Pensions in Crisis: Why the System Is Failing America and How You Can Protect Your Future” (written with Kate Blackwell), which described the struggles of many retirees and outlined possible remedies. Her organization did not litigate cases on behalf of citizens, but it could refer them to lawyers.

“There’s been a dramatic shift in the last 20 years from insured, company-funded pensions to a do-it-yourself culture built around 401(k) plans,” Ms. Ferguson said in 2002. “Now people are really questioning what kind of retirement system we have in the United States.”

In addition to counseling individual retirees and union members about their benefits, Ms. Ferguson often testified before Congress and advised legislators. She and her organization were instrumental in advocating for and drafting new regulations and laws, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act, which was signed into law by President Biden in March.

The Butch Lewis Act — named for an Ohio truck driver and activist who died in 2015 — restored the pensions of about 1 million people whose retirement benefits had been drastically cut because of underfunded multi-employer pension plans.

“Karen Ferguson was the great, tireless champion leading the fight to protect endangered worker pensions,” Nader said in a statement. “Unassuming and unsung, she was both the brains and the national networker of efforts behind pension law. Her quiet, authoritative influence was felt on Capitol Hill, in executive suites, on the shop floors, and among specific pensioners needing immediate help.”

Karen Ruth Willner was born Feb. 17, 1941, in New York City. Her father was a lawyer for Hilton International and, earlier in his career, helped reorganize the German coal and steel industries after World War II. Her mother had a doctorate in sociology and worked for a United Nations organization that established international consumer protection policies.

During her childhood, Ms. Ferguson lived in Europe and Washington and graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. She was a 1962 graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and was among the few women in her class at Harvard Law School, from which she graduated in 1965.

She worked at a law firm in Chicago before moving in 1969 to Washington. She had staff positions with the National Labor Relations Board, Nader’s Public Interest Research Group and the United Mine Workers of America’s retirement and pension unit before launching the Pension Rights Center.

Her husband of 51 years, lawyer John Ferguson, died in 2017. Survivors include a son, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University; a sister; and two grandchildren.

Ms. Ferguson wrote many articles on issues related to pensions and was often quoted in media reports, but she also joked that she was the lowest-paid member of her Harvard Law School class.

“In a city full of egos, where everybody tries to take credit, Karen didn’t care about getting personal attention,” Friedman said. “She cared about getting things done.”

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