Untangling pensions

Retirees caught in pension disputes find advocates who can help them collect.

Midway through World War II, Frances DiGirolamo followed in her mother's footsteps and began working at the Lish Brothers Hat Co. Just 16 years old at that time, she operated a sewing machine there for 31 years until she was laid off. The company closed soon after. That shouldn't have affected her pension. But by the time she reached retirement age, the paper trail had grown cold.

When a company changes hands, dissolves, or mislays paperwork, it's the employees who have to track down their pensions. In Ms. DiGirolamo's case, the only records she had were copies of her income-tax returns showing that she had paid union dues. But they did not show the name of the union. She recalls contacting people in Washington (she's not sure exactly whom). "They said my place kept terrible records," she says.

Finally, her sister-in-law sent her information about the Massachusetts Pension Action Center. With the group's assistance and some digging on her part - she found one of her mother's old pay stubs - she was finally able to collect her pension: a lump sum of $5,000 and ongoing payments of $52 a month.

"I just got it this year. At least it can help with my burial expenses," says DiGirolamo, who lives in Ashland, Mass., with her daughter.

While traditional pensions are going to a declining share of the population as businesses replace them with 401(k)s and other retirement plans, they still cover 44 million workers and retirees, according to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal corporation that insures those plans. Sometimes, buyouts and other ownership changes make it extremely difficult to track down the benefits, much less collect them.

That's why the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts in Boston - and seven other pension-advocacy centers across the United States - have stepped in. Affiliated with the Pension Rights Center in Washington D.C., these pro bono centers help retirees follow often labyrinthine corporate trails and recover the benefits that they've earned.

"Most general practice lawyers wouldn't have the expertise, and most that do, represent employers," says Jeanne Medeiros, legal assistant at the Massachusetts center.

One of the challenges is deadlines.

"Most people don't think about [their pension] until they are up against the wall," says Mary Browning, director of the Minnesota office of the Upper Midwest Pension Rights Project.

Robert Hakala, for example, worked nearly 20 years as a machine specialist in Superior, Wis., before he was laid off in 1998. Facing health problems after an earlier work-related injury, "I decided to hang it up," he says. It took him four months to get disability benefits from Social Security. It took four years to get his pension.

His union's fund administrator, based in Washington, denied his request to collect on grounds that he didn't meet filing deadlines. He appealed to the union's board of trustees, but still couldn't collect.

"If it wasn't for [the Minnesota pension group] I would still be fighting because I had no one [to stand up for me]," Mr. Hakala says. "People kept asking why I was pushing this, but I knew I wasn't wrong. I was fighting for my own money." Eventually, he recovered some $96,000.

It is this expectation - of receiving money already earned - that keeps some people fighting. Rita Griebel worked nearly a decade for Halls Motor, a freight line in Faribault, Minn., before she was laid off.

"I worked for them when they first came to town," she says. "We had 10 drivers and I handled the office." When she retired, Ms. Griebel wrote Flying Tigers, the company handling the pension fund. By then, however, Flying Tigers seemed to have disappeared, and her letter was returned. She tried several times over the next three years, even contacting her state representative, but to no avail.

Finally, she found the Minnesota pension project. In this case, sheer ingenuity saved the day. One of the law students found a former Halls trucker on the Internet. He suggested they contact the Teamsters union, which tracked down a local lawyer who had been on the company's board of directors. He was able to tell them that FedEx, which bought Flying Tigers in 1989, had also taken over its pension fund. Griebel recovered $21,000.

Spurred by their own pension battle, some individuals become advocates for others. In 1996, a year after he started receiving his pension from New York Telephone, C. William Jones learned that the cost-of-living increase was being discontinued. So he and fellow retirees started the Association of BellTel Retirees, which grew to include some 100,000 members.

"I retired in 1990 and have lost 35 to 40 percent of the buying power of my pension," says Mr. Jones, who has been unable to change his personal benefits. But the association has been able to make a difference for others, getting an increase for workers with lower-end pensions and also changes in the lump-sum payouts.

Pension problems? These resources may help.

The pension benefit many workers casually scan over early in their careers becomes increasingly important as they near retirement. Whatever career stage you are in, the following resources may help you to maximize this benefit or resolve problems collecting it:

• Personal documents: Preserve notification that you are vested in a plan, an exit letter describing plan benefits, and a summary plan description. Also save W-2s. Documentation of income earned and dates worked can prove your pension eligibility. Also save your company's official name and tax ID number, which can be used to track down successor companies.

• The US Department of Labor - Employee Benefits Security Administration (www.dol.gov/ebsa 866-444-3272) offers a free booklet, "What you should know about your pension plan." It provides explanations of various types of retirement plans and your rights under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. It also covers survivor benefits and addresses what happens if your plan terminates or your company merges.

• Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., the trustee of 3,500 pension plans, takes over plans for certain companies if they dissolve. It also takes over the administration of benefits for plan administrators who lose contact with retirees. If you lose touch with a former employer, a quick visit to www.pbgc.gov/search may lead you to missing benefits.

• Pension Counseling Projects can help you track down a missing pension or resolve a pension dispute. For a list of pension counseling centers across the country, visit www.pensionaction.org/publications/ lostpension/appendixc.htm. These pension experts work for free.

• The National Retiree Legislative Network (www.nrln.org 866-360-7197) is a nationwide activist group that provides a network to lobby legislators on pension and other retiree-related issues.

• The Association of BellTel Retirees (www.belltelretirees.org, 800-261-9222) helps employees or retirees of any descendant company of Bell Telephone. This nonprofit group fights for pension and other related benefits through proxy motions and regular communication with corporate executives.

• Kirstein Library (617-523-0860) in Boston is one of the nation's first business libraries. Mention "pension" to its librarians and they will direct you to several useful publications and directories to help you track down lost companies or plan administrators.

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