ATLANTA — Forty years after Congress took steps to guarantee that retirees get the pensions they were promised, another generation of lawmakers has taken a chisel to those legal protections.
Tucked into the must-pass federal spending bill that President Obama signed last week was a provision — backed by key members of both parties and even some labor groups — that allows a certain type of pension plan to drastically cut retirees’ pension checks to avoid running out of money.
Lobbyists for a coalition of unions and companies got Congress to include the potentially landmark changes in a last-minute bill primarily aimed at providing $1.1 trillion to keep government operations going almost a year.
The National Coordinating Committee for Multi-Employer Plans said a “fundamental restructuring of some basic precepts” of the federal pension law was needed to ensure that some large pension plans remained viable.
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But critics say the new rules undermine a central tenet of the 1974 federal pension law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which essentially says that employers cannot cut retirement benefits once they’ve been earned, unless the company has gone into bankruptcy.
“We are incensed by this legislation,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president with the Pension Rights Center in Washington, D.C.
An official with AARP, the retiree advocacy group, called the new law an underhanded attack on vulnerable retirees.
“After a lifetime of hard work to earn their pensions, retirees don’t deserve to receive a bad deal, in which they’ve had no say, cut behind closed doors and excluding the very people who would be impacted most,” said Joyce Rogers, senior vice president with AARP.
Supporters say the move was necessary to shore up another creation of the 1974 pension law — the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. — which, in case of a bankruptcy or shutdown, insures private pension benefits up to certain limits.
“It’s not a moment to rejoice,” said Jean-Pierre Aubry, with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. But financially weakened pensions “need tools to navigate their way out of this,” he said.
The federal agency said its employer-funded insurance pool for the pension plans covered by the new law is now $42.4 billion in the hole, and likely to run out of money within 10 years.
The new rules could affect up to 10 million workers and retirees, but only those in “multiemployer” pension plans run jointly by unions and groups of companies, typically in the same industry, such as trucking, mining or construction. Single-company plans are not affected.
Under the new law, if a multiemployer plan is projected to run out of money in 10 to 20 years and other criteria are met, the plan could cut benefits of current retirees under age 80 by 30 to 60 percent, according to experts.
The Pension Rights Center estimated that a retiree who gets a $24,000 annual pension after working 30 years could see his or her benefit cut to as little as $14,157.
Coming on top of recent benefit cuts for public employees and retirees in Detroit and other cities and states struggling with soaring pension costs, the new law has alarmed some unions and retiree organizations who fear that, eventually, no retirees’ pensions will be safe from cuts years after they retire.
“They are setting a very dangerous precedent,” said Friedman. “Are corporations going to say ‘Why is this only for multiemployer plans?’ Is this going to give fuel to people who want to cut state and local plans? And what about Social Security?”