Legislation to help struggling multiemployer pension funds is to remain in the COVID-19 relief measure headed for a Senate vote this week.
The package also calls for some funding relief for single-employer plans, through extended amortization periods and pension interest rate smoothing changes.
The pandemic relief package was approved by the House along party lines Feb. 27. Its pension provisions were at risk of being stripped until the Senate parliamentarian ruled late Monday that they fit the rules for a budget reconciliation process that allows Democrats to prevail under a simple majority.
On Saturday, a measure to give troubled multiemployer pension plans assistance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) passed the House of Representatives, as part of a larger $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package from President Joe Biden.
The federal stimulus package, which includes $1,400 checks for many Americans and increased funding for vaccines, also holds the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021 (EPPRA), an update to the Butch Lewis Act. It’s a bill that lawmakers expect will help stabilize the multiemployer pension plans that are in danger of insolvency.
Of the more than 10 million multiemployer plan participants, about 1.3 million are in plans that will soon run out of money.
Contrary to the Feb. 18 editorial “Congress needs to focus its covid relief bill — on covid relief,” multiemployer pension plans have faced significant additional challenges caused by the ongoing global pandemic. It has jeopardized these plans’ ability to deliver hard-earned benefits to more than 1 million enrolled retirees and workers and must be addressed by lawmakers now. The shutdown of the U.S. economy has greatly amplified the financial struggle of these plans. Hundreds of employers are facing bankruptcy and cannot contribute to multiemployer pension funds; employees have lost their jobs; and the sharp drop in interest rates hit plans hard. Senior citizens and essential workers are disproportionately impacted by both the effects of the coronavirus and the multiemployer pension crisis.
As the United States looks to reopen and rebuild, maintaining the solvency of the multiemployer pension system will be key to economic recovery. The National Institute on Retirement Security concluded that the $44.2 billion in private pension benefit payments paid to retirees of multiemployer plans in 2018 supported $96.6 billion in overall economic output in the national economy and an estimated $14.7 billion in total tax revenue. The country can ill-afford a reduction in these revenue streams during the recovery period.
The House Budget Committee approved on Monday a $1.92 trillion bill to carry out President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan, the first step toward likely House passage by the end of the week.
The vote was 19-16. Texas Democrat Rep. Lloyd Doggett voted with Republicans in opposition to the bill but a spokeswoman for him later said he had cast his vote in error and supported the legislation.
Aid to state, local and tribal governments: This would provide money for states and local governments, as well as tribal governments, to offset tax-collection losses and increased spending resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Price tag: $350 billion.
Multiemployer pension plan aid: The Pension Benefit Guaranty Program would be able to give grants to underfunded pension plans guaranteed by the PBGC. The PBGC revolving fund to help pay full benefits when pensions fall short is set to be exhausted in 2027 under current law. Price tag: $81.5 billion.
Congress is working on a lengthy bill for further COVID relief. One small portion of it is modeled on the union-backed Butch Lewis Act, which passed the U.S. House in 2019 but not the U.S. Senate. Butch Lewis would provide loanscash grants to union-sponsored multiemployer pension plans that are otherwise headed toward insolvency.
About one in 10 multi-employer pension plans are in that situation thanks to stock market losses and declining numbers of active employees in the plans, and the wellbeing of up to 1.3 million union members and spouses is at stake. Butch Lewis would shore up declining pensions and restore benefits that were cut by some pensions in an effort to forestall insolvency.
If Congress does nothing, the Central States Teamster Pension is expected to run out of money in 2025. That would lead the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) itself to become insolvent. PBGC is a government insurance agency that guarantees pension benefits.
Without congressional intervention, about 100 multiemployer pension plans are expected to become insolvent in the next 20 years, and some much sooner. In other words, for these pension plans, their liabilities to retired employees and current employees with vested benefits far outweigh their assets and incoming contributions. Although the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is intended to provide a backstop to any insolvencies, the sheer number of plans facing insolvency and the total size of unfunded vested liabilities will bankrupt the PBGC’s multiemployer program as well. It is against that backdrop that Congress has added the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021 to the COVID-19 relief bill.
Fourth, the bill would create a special financial assistance program for those plans that are expected to become insolvent in the near future. Under the bill, the Treasury would grant money to the PBGC, which would then disburse it to eligible plans. Eligible plans include (a) those in critical and declining status, (b) those that have approved benefit suspensions, (c) those that are in critical status with a funding percentage of less than 40% with more inactive than active participants, and (d) those plans that are already insolvent. The bill would instruct the PBGC to develop regulations within 120 days for applications and to prioritize applications from plans that are (a) insolvent, (b) likely to become insolvent within five years, (c) have a present value of over $1 billion in unfunded vested benefits, or (d) have already implemented benefit suspensions. The money would be paid in a single, lump-sum payment in the amount sufficient to guarantee benefits, without reductions, through 2051. If a multiemployer plan were to receive financial assistance, it would be required to reinstate any suspended benefits, and repay the amount of benefits previously suspended. Finally, an employer’s withdrawal liability would be calculated without taking into account this assistance for 15 calendar years after it was received.
The legislation states that its objective is “to pay all benefits due” up until 2051. However, experts with whom I spoke explained that this is not intended as a complete funding of all benefits due during the period, but only meant to fill in the gaps so that, added together with their current assets and future contributions, there will be enough funds to pay benefits for the next 30 years.
The bad news:
The text of the legislation, as written at the moment, does not spell out any of these mechanics. Is the plan to require contributions at the same level as these troubled plans are currently paying in, or more, or less? To what extent would those contributions be used to build assets for future accruals, vs. being “spent” on already-accrued benefits by being included in the calculations of federal bailout funds, as offsetting money? My expert friends did not know, and, to be honest, this is the sort of detail that, in any prior pension funding legislation, is spelled out in the law itself rather than left for the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) to sort out as regulation. This is concerning, because it risks the whole program going south very quickly.
Multiemployer pension plans eligible for the program would include plans in critical and declining status, and plans with significant underfunding that have more retirees than active workers in any plan year beginning in 2020 through 2022. Additionally, plans that have suspended benefits and certain plans that have already become insolvent would also be eligible.
The plans would have to apply for the special financial assistance, and, if approved, the payment made by PBGC would be in the form of a single, lump sum. The amount of financial assistance would be equal to the amount required for the plan to pay all benefits due during the period beginning on the date of enactment and ending on the last day of the plan year ending in 2051. Plans would also be required to invest the amounts in investment-grade bonds or other investments as permitted by PBGC.
There’s an improved chance Congress will pass legislation over the next year or two to prevent multiemployer pension plans and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)’s multiemployer insurance program from becoming insolvent, according to law firm Morgan Lewis.
In a blog post on the firm’s website, Morgan Lewis Senior Director Timothy Lynch and Partner Daniel Salemi wrote that the biggest factor that could lead to a legislative solution is the fact that the Democratic Party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. They also say the Biden administration may see greater urgency in moving for a solution due to the major economic fallout that would occur if PBGC’s multiemployer program were to become insolvent in 2026, as is currently projected.
Legislation to help struggling multiemployer pension funds is to be considered this week by a key House panel as part of a COVID-19 relief measure.
The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to start marking up a package of pandemic relief measures Wednesday, including one aimed at stabilizing pensions for more than 1 million participants in multiemployer plans approaching insolvency.
The pension section of the proposed Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021 is cited as the “Butch Lewis 4 Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021.”
It is based on a previously proposed multiemployer pension relief bill named for retiree Butch Lewis that called for a federal loan program for struggling plans and more resources for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to help troubled plans through partitions.