With the House of Representatives poised to vote on the next COVID-19 relief package, known as the HEROES Act, the Pension Rights Center applauds the congressional leaders who have included within the massive bill the important provisions of the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act (EPPRA) which will strengthen the nation’s multiemployer pension system. PRC, however, urges Congress to strip from the package the misguided Giving Retirement Options to Workers Act (GROW Act), which would undermine this all-important system. By including EPPRA in the HEROES Act, Congress will not only help save workers’ and retirees’ pensions, but also stabilize for decades to come the federal agency that insures our nation’s private pension plans, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). “More than 1 million workers and retirees have been closely watching Congress and waiting for policymakers to finally pass legislation that ensures full payment of their promised pensions, which they earned through years of toil,” said Karen Friedman, the PRC’s executive vice president. “First, their hopes were buoyed in 2019 when the House passed a bill designed to protect their benefits, known as the Butch Lewis Act. But that legislation failed to advance in the Senate. Now, both the retirees and the PRC are excited that Congress has included the well-crafted EPPRA within the latest COVID-19 bill. By doing so, Congress recognizes that those workers and retirees who helped build this country and who will benefit from the legislation should be permitted to receive the retirement income they earned through hard work and playing by the rules. We urge all members of the House and Senate to make these pension rescue provisions a reality for these workers and retirees and for their families.” PRC strongly supports EPPRA because it shores up underfunded plans by providing the PBGC with the funding to take on certain liabilities of ailing plans. This “partitioning” process will ensure that the plans survive for the long-term and are able to pay in full the earned benefits owed to workers and retirees. The bill also increases the guarantees paid by the PBGC when plans fail and would restore benefits to retirees who have already had their benefits cut because of the unfair provisions of the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014. EPPRA shares a structure like a proposal advanced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN). “We believe that it’s appropriate for EPPRA to be part of the HEROES Act since those most at risk of losing benefits in these multiemployer plans are the very same workers who are risking their lives to protect us in this time of crisis. They are the truck drivers who are transporting food and supplies, the nurses and health care workers at the front lines, the grocery store workers who are keeping us fed, the laborers who are building our hospitals, and the musicians who, despite social distancing, keep on playing for us online to soothe our anxiety” Friedman said. “These are America’s unsung heroes who do – and did – the essential jobs that we all are depending on in this time of lockdown.” Unlike EPPRA, which will strengthen failing multiemployer plans and protect workers and retirees and the PBGC, passage of the GROW Act would undermine the multiemployer plan system by weakening currently well-funded plans and creating new inferior plans that do not provide guaranteed benefits. It would also lead to the underfunding of the PBGC. PRC urges the leaders of the House of Representatives to drop the GROW Act from the HEROES Act. The GROW Act is also vigorously opposed by AARP, the Western Conference of Teamsters, the SEIU, IBEW, Steelworkers, Machinists, Boilermakers and other unions and organizations. The Center also cheers inclusion in the HEROES Act of a provision that would provide grants to community-based organizations to help low-income divorced women and survivors of domestic abuse receive their court-awarded retirement benefits. This provision was originally introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Members Jan Schakowksy (D-IL) and Lauren Underwood (D-Il) as part of the Women’s Retirement Protection Act (S.975, H.R. 2005).
The GROW Act been around for a few years and a representative from the US House of Representatives periodically try to slip it in with a pending legislation or an Act but so far it hasn’t gotten approval of either the House of Representatives or Senate due to political considerations.
Last year at the start of the 116th Congress, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Patrick Roberts (R-KS) introduced S.2458 America Grows Act of 2019 at the Senate Budget committee. A companion bill H.R. 4714 America Grows Act of 2019 was introduced by Representative Cheri Bustos (D-IL-17) and Representative William Flores (R-TX-17) at a House Agriculture and Budget Committee. Neither passed out of committee.
The Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act contains important provisions which will strengthen the nations multi-employer pension system and is the preferred legislation through the HEROES Act.
It doesn’t appear now legislation would pass the US Congress this year and it seems far less likely President Trump would sign into law.
The HEROES Act, it turns out, is more than another round of “stimulus” checks, or the extension of supplemental unemployment benefits, or COBRA subsidies, or any of the other components which have garnered so much attention thus far. Tucked away in the bill is Division D, Title I, the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2020, which provides benefits for single- and multi-employer pension plans.
The provisions for single-employer plans are fairly standard, including the same sort of “funding relief” which Congress customarily provides in recessions, and which were omitted from the final version of the CARES Act back in March. But the multi-employer provisions? That’s a whole another story.
When Democrats in the House proposed their alternative to the Senate’s CARES Act, it included the Butch Lewis Act. I’ve criticized this repeatedly as a bailout which merely pretends not to be, with low-interest loans which wouldn’t necessarily save these plans, and, in any case, are forgivable after 30 years. But the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act is far more expansive. I’ve said repeatedly that a rescue package for multiemployer pension plans will need to be a compromise, with give-and-take on all sides. This proposal is all “give” and no “take” (or all “take” and no “give” depending on your perspective).
What’s in the bill?
It’s a special “partition program” for plans in “critical and declining” as well as merely “critical” status, including those that fall into those classification now, and at any time up through 2024. “Partitioning” means that the PBGC takes over the liabilities for enough of the participants of a plan that the plan, considering the liabilities for the remainder of the participants, becomes financially healthy.
Ordinarily, under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA) of 2014, the partition would be paired with benefit cuts. (See my prior description of the program here.) But the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act promises that there will be no benefit cuts for any participants. In addition, benefit cuts which had already been implemented for plans using MPRA to avoid insolvency would be restored for plans applying for a “special partition” (including retroactive payments) and no new benefit cuts would be permitted in any case.
What’s more, current law restricts benefits covered when PBGC takes over insolvent plans to a low maximum. This bill would nearly double that limit (section 40106). Specifically, the current maximum is 100% of the first $11 of the monthly benefit rate, plus 75% of the next $33 of the monthly benefit rate, times the years of credited service. For a worker with 30 years of service, that works out to a maximum of $12,870 annually; for 40 years of service, that’s $17,160 annually. The new limits move to $24,300 and $32,400, respectively. But this increase in benefits is not paired with any increase in the required contributions/premiums plans make to the PBGC.
How much would this cost? There is literally no limit to the money to be expended: “there is appropriated from the general fund such amounts as necessary.”
Now, regular readers will recall that including a multi-employer pension rescue package in a bigger “stimulus” package may indeed have the “Jane the Actuary” seal of approval, but that’s only if it’s a bill that has bipartisan consensus and has been tacked-on to such a bill merely to ease the procedural difficulties in the way of passage.
This bill is far from that bipartisan bill and, in fact, I fear it makes that consensus all the harder to reach. When Illinois Senate President Don Harmon sought $41.6 billion in federal bailout money for Illinois, and made a specific $10 billion request for pension funding, he did more harm than good for his cause by angering those who might have supported a more reasonable set of provisions. I fear the House Democrats may have likewise imperiled this cause, rescue and reform which is sorely needed, by pursuing unrealistic giveaways that have nothing to do with pandemic relief.