Women Seek Solutions to Pension-System Bias

When the Fortune 500 company that Gretchen Swan works for part time asked her to take on a few more hours, she agreed. But she asked her Boston employer for something in return: benefits, including a pension.

The 30-something wife and mother, already concerned about funding her retirement, didn't stop there. Ms. Swan is now lobbying to win pension benefits for all her company's part-time employees, most of whom are women.

"It's the younger group that really can be the voice to get things changed in the workplace," she says.

Swan is not alone in her crusade.

Nationwide, advocacy groups are campaigning to educate women about pensions and calling for better benefits. The Labor Department and some politicians are also putting the issue in the spotlight.

"Our pension system was not designed for working women, either those in the work force or in the home," Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) of Illinois told a recent pension forum in Boston sponsored by groups.

The focus on women's pensions comes at a time when baby boomers are heading toward retirement and growing more vocal, and when many older women live in poverty.

Of all Americans over age 65 who live below the poverty line, nearly three-fourths are women, according to 1994 Census Bureau figures. In addition, two-thirds of women over age 65 have no pension other than Social Security, reports the Pension Rights Center in Washington.

Some experts say the current pension system serves all Americans poorly. Millions of workers lack any pension plan. But the numbers suggest that women are particularly hard hit.

The system is biased against women, experts say, for several reasons:

Mobility. Women move in and out of the work force more frequently than men - often to care for families. This means they don't tend to stay in one job long enough to qualify for a pension, or become "vested." (Women average only about four years on a job - a year less than the typical vesting period. For men, the average is now about five years.)

Lack of benefits. Women often hold jobs that don't provide pensions - such as retail, service-sector, or part-time jobs.

Low pay. Women have lower average salaries than men do. Pension benefits are typically based on one's years of service with an employer and one's pay.

Although the pension problem for women remains critical in the eyes of advocates, some gains have been made in recent years. Women's coverage "is much better than it used to be," notes Mary Ellen Signorille, a lawyer at the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington.

Women have also been helped by legislation. For example, the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, an addition to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of a decade earlier, made it mandatory for workers with private pension plans to get the written consent of their spouses in order to waive their survivor benefit. That automatic benefit allows a wife, for example, to continue to get a portion of her husband's pension if he dies. But waiving that right can boost the amount a retiree receives in monthly pension payments.

The 1984 act also aided divorced women, by requiring that private pension plans honor state court orders dividing pensions in divorce settlements.

Today, lawmakers continue to look for ways to improve the pension situation for women, but Senator Moseley-Braun says they still have "a long way to go."

On the list of reforms that she and others would like to see are "portable" pensions: traditional pensions, not just 401(k) plans, that could be moved from job to job. Among other changes that would help women are shorter vesting periods and retirement savings programs for part-time workers.

But legal changes may be a long time coming, observers say.

In the near term, they say, solutions include businesses doing a better job of educating their workers on pension rights, and women themselves being better informed.

"Knowing where you stand," Ms. Signorille says, "is absolutely important."

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