Pension Insurance System for Union Plans Still Faces Train Wreck

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By David B. Brandolph

The PBGC’s pension insurance program for union-negotiated plans is continuing to race toward insolvency.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s multiemployer insurance program is likely to run out of money in about eight years—by the end of fiscal year 2025 or earlier—the agency said Aug. 3 in its annual projections report. Multiemployer plans result from collective bargaining and include at least two contributing employers.

The latest report, for fiscal year 2016, echoes previous warnings the agency has issued about its multiemployer program, which covers about 10 million workers.

More than 100 plans insured by the agency have told their members that their plans will be insolvent within 20 years, the report says. The PBGC’s own insolvency could leave the benefits of some 1.2 million participants in those plans without any safety net.

“The report is a call to arms for Congress to give the PBGC the resources and flexible authority to do its job and for the Treasury Department to rethink its interpretation” of the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 “to allow those plans that could save themselves from being denied the chance to do so,” former PBGC Director Joshua Gotbaum told Bloomberg BNA.

As the agency gets closer to the projected date of insolvency, now expected to be most likely between 2024 and 2026, the exact date of that happening is coming more into focus, a PBGC official told Bloomberg BNA. To prevent the agency’s insolvency, legislative solutions are needed to save plans and to provide more funding to the agency, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“While there are no easy solutions, the cost of dealing with this crisis will only increase as action is delayed,” Joshua Shapiro, chairperson of the American Academy of Actuaries’ multiemployer plans subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA. Shapiro is also a senior actuarial adviser at Groom Law Group in Washington.

Proposed Solutions Circulating

The MPRA, also known as the Kline-Miller Act, was viewed when enacted as a means to rescue many financially troubled plans and as a way to help the overall multiemployer program. Under that law, plans can ask Treasury for approval to cut members’ vested and accrued benefits upon a showing that the cuts will hold off the plan’s insolvency for at least 30 years. Only two small plans have received approval thus far. The 400,000-member Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund, which is projecting insolvency in 2024, was the primary focus of the law. Treasury rejected the fund’s rescue proposal in May 2016.

Gotbaum, currently a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said there are several thoughtful proposals for legislation that would help resolve the crisis. He said he hoped they will get real consideration.

Several bills pending in Congress that would alter the MPRA or provide more resources for the PBGC haven’t yet received much traction. New proposals to rescue the multiemployer system from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Parcel Service have been circulating in Congress.

Under the Teamsters’ proposal, Congress would create a nonprofit, private-sector corporation tasked primarily with making loans to poorly funded plans or to employers that participate in such plans. Money for the loans would come from bond purchases by investors, and bond payments would be guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury.

The UPS proposal would provide low-interest, long-term federal government loans to troubled pension plans to cover their cash flow shortage. Plan participants would see benefit cuts of 20 percent across the board.

Better News for Single-Employer System

The report had better news for the PBGC’s program for single-employer pensions, which covers about 28 million employees. The agency projects that the program’s current $21 billion deficit will likely turn into a surplus by 2022, even without premium increases.

The single-employer system seems to be on track to a budget surplus several years sooner than previously thought, the PBGC official said. That’s due to the fact that the agency had almost no claims for benefits in 2016 while taking in a large infusion of plan premiums, the official said. However, the march to a budget surplus isn’t guaranteed, as a recession with a high rate of plan sponsor bankruptcies could reverse the current projections.

The projections report is the agency’s annual actuarial evaluation of its future operations and financial status. The report provides a range of estimates of the future status of insured pension plans and their effect on PBGC’s financial condition, based on hundreds of different economic scenarios.

To contact the reporter on this story: David B. Brandolph in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at

For More Information

The PBGC's projections report is at

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