Pensions remain elusive for the majority of working women

What will you live on when you retire? If you are planning to rely primarily on a company pension, there may be a few things standing in your way. Like gender.

Take a look at the bottom line: Fewer than half (40 percent) of all full-time female employees are covered by pensions (says the Social Security Administration), and only 10.5 percent of women 65 and over received private pensions and annuities in 1981 (says the Census Bureau).

Being a woman often means being left off the track that leads to receiving a pension - a track initially designed to reward those, especially in upper echelons, who have spent long years at the same firm.

Women don't work as many years as men (particularly not in the same place); they don't tend to be in the upper levels of management; they often don't work for employers who tend to give benefits; they don't join unions as often as men; and they're more likely to work part time - all factors that spell zero in the pension-gathering game.

But things may be changing for the nearly 90 percent of older women left off the payroll as two major shifts take place: Women are staying longer in the marketplace, which qualifies more of them for company pensions; and recent and proposed legislation is pushing the door open for pension participation by both genders.

''That just means women get to play the game,'' says Anne Moss of the Pension Rights Center, pointing to several clauses in the recently passed Retirement Equity Act (REA) that make it easier for women to participate in pension plans.''It doesn't mean they win the prize.''

Most plans, for example, require those who receive benefits to be ''vested,'' and they vest only those who have worked under the plan for 10 years after the age of 22, counting earnings after the age of 25. Since many women drop out of the work force around age 25 to raise children, they are excluded from receiving benefits from firms they may have worked for since graduating from high school.

The new Retirement Equity Act changes some of this, lowering the age limit to 18 and counting earnings from age 21. And a bill being drafted by Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D) of New York and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts would shorten the vesting time from 10 to 5 years, to put it more in line with today's job-hopping reality.

Over half the women in this country neither subsidize nor receive pensions in any form. For one thing, nearly half of all employed women work in the service sector, a sector far less likely to have pensions; and fewer women than men join unions, though 66 percent of those who do are covered by a pension plan, says the Social Security Administration.

Employers are also legally allowed to exclude employees who work less than 1, 000 hours a year (roughly 20 hours a week) from their pension plan, a group filled with over 14 million women.

Yet women are finding more jobs than men in the government sector, which usually includes some kind of pension plan.

Also, a married woman frequently becomes the beneficiary of her husband's pensions both during and after his lifetime. The new Retirement Equity Act plugged up some loopholes in these provisions, allowing those widowed before their spouses reached the age of early retirement to collect benefits. It also mandated that the spouse be informed before employees signed away survivors' benefits.

Even with the new REA and the tendency of women to stay longer in the work force, the pension collection rate among women is not expected to grow by leaps and bounds any time soon, says a spokeswoman from Representative Ferraro's office. But shortening the vesting period will go a long way toward making pensions available to all employees, she says, as will the other two parts of their proposed bill: integration and portability (''We call it the VIP bill - vesting, integration, portability'').

Integration refers to the practice among employers of weighing in the amount they must pay toward an employee's social security with the amount they pay toward the pension. Since social security benefits are weighted in favor of the lower paid, the effect is to reduce or wipe out pension benefits for employees whose earnings do not exceed the social security taxable wage base (now set at over $37,000). Some employees are winding up with nothing from their pension plans.

Representative Ferarro's office is currently looking at some ''integration ceilings'' to prevent this from happening, says the spokeswoman. They're also looking at ways employees can switch jobs and leave their firms with whatever pensions they've accumulated. ''We see a lot of people with little pensions here and there that could add up to a good retirement income, if there was a way to make it portable - possibly into IRAs.''

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