Articles Tagged with pension

Pension “de-risking” sounds like a fancy term for protecting participants’ interests in their benefits. In other words, take the risk out of pension benefits. Well, not quite. Not even close. Pension de-risking is a scheme to benefit the employers who sponsor pension plans. It refers to ways in which the employer can reduce its own risk that it may not have enough assets to pay the benefits that have been promised or just reduce the expense associated with such promises. While pension de-risking is not new to the pension world, the amount of de-risking and the type of de-risking in recent years should be concerning.

There are a few ways that pension plans can reduce their risk. Older and more common methods are to amend the plan to freeze benefits, terminate the plan altogether or make a lump sum offer to eligible participants. Another de-risking strategy that has become very popular in recent years is for an employer to purchase annuities from an insurance company which then provides the monthly payments to the pensioners. This is more commonly referred to as a “buy-out.” One need only do a simple google search of the term “pension de-risking” to find a plethora of insurance companies chomping at the bit to buy-out pension liabilities.

That begs the question, “why?” Why do insurance companies want to take on these liabilities and why do employers find them attractive? Employers find annuity buy-outs attractive for a few reasons.

If you are a union employee, you probably have a pension plan that has promised to pay a monthly annuity for your life once you reach retirement age. What happens if the plan cannot pay your benefit when the time comes? Well, there’s insurance for that. Pension plan sponsors are required to pay premiums for insurance through a government run program called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Simply stated, this insurance kicks in if the employer cannot fulfill the promises made to the employees. When that happens, the PBGC pays the pension benefits, up to certain limits. However, the PBGC predicts that its multi-employer program, the program that covers most union-sponsored pension plans, will become insolvent before the end of 2026 and almost certainly by 2027.

To determine its potential obligations, the PBGC looks at the funding status of all multi-employer plans. Each year, pension plan are required to report their funding status to the Department of Labor if the funding levels fall below certain thresholds. For 2020, the Department of Labor website shows there were 55 plans reported to be in engaged status (less than 80% funded), 112 plans reported to be in critical status (less than 65% funded), and 61 plans reported to be in critical and declining status (reported as going insolvent within 20 years). Many of these plans are multi-employer plans and some are very large plans. Continued failure of these multi-employer pension plans is putting an enormous strain on the PBGC’s resources. In 2020, the multi-employer portion of the PBGC had a deficit of -$63.7B. Despite being able to turn around its deficit for the single employer program, the multi-employer program has had a deficit fluctuating between -$42.4B to -$65.2B since 2014.

The PBGC was designed to be self-supporting by requiring pension plans to pay premiums for the plan participants and by taking over the assets of failed pension plans. It does not receive any funding assistance from the Federal government which means that if the PBGC fails there is no other government funding for these failed pension plans and no current mechanism to support the PBGC.

Renaker Hasselman Scott and Kantor & Kantor. LLP represent a former employee of Helena du Pont Wright in litigation concerning a pension trust established in 1947 by Mary Chichester du Pont Clark. The trust provides pensions to employees of Mary Chichester du Pont Clark’s children and grandchildren, including A. Felix du Pont, Allaire Crozier du Pont, Alice du Pont Mills, Mary Mills Abel Smith, Katharine Gahagan, James Mills, Phyllis Wyeth, Christopher T. du Pont, and Michael du Pont. Positions that may be covered include household employees, secretaries, personal assistants, chauffeurs, stable hands, and grooms, among others.

The litigation seeks to ensure that the pension trust is operated in accordance with the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the federal law that establishes standards for pension plans sponsored by private employers. In June 2019, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware ruled that the pension trust is governed by ERISA.

Generally, ERISA requires that a pension plan provide pensions to employees who work in employment covered by the pension plan for at least five years. ERISA also generally requires that a pension plan provide benefits to the surviving spouses of such employees.

An amended complaint filed March 29 in Bafford, et al. v. Northrop Grumman Corp., et al., alleges that Northrop Grumman and its outside administrator, Hewitt Associates LLC (now known as Alight Solutions LLC), violated federal and state law by persistently overstating the pension benefits earned by certain Northrop Grumman employees.

Plaintiffs Stephen Bafford and Evelyn Wilson each worked for Northrop Grumman in the 1980’s and 1990’s, then worked for TRW Corporation, and then returned to Northrop Grumman employment when Northrop Grumman acquired TRW in 2002. For years before each Plaintiff retired from Northrop Grumman, the Defendants provided them with pension benefit statements that showed their pensions being calculated on the basis of their highest three years of pay from their second period of Northrop Grumman employment.

But in early 2017, Defendants notified each Plaintiff that their pensions would be reduced by more than 50 percent because the pensions should have been calculated based on earnings from each Plaintiff’s first period of Northrop Grumman employment. Defendants further demanded repayment of pension amounts already paid to Plaintiffs, including more than $35,000 demanded from Ms. Wilson.

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