Thousands fight to restore pensions: ‘It’s like we’re invisible’

Budget bill creates panel to address pension crisis.

Butch Lewis was one year into retirement when he got a letter that may have marked the beginning of the end of his life.

The multi-employer plan that held his pension, Central States, had run into trouble, and was desperately short of money. It presented a plan to the U.S. Treasury that would slash benefits. Lewis’ were to be cut from $3,348.82 a month to $1,998.65.

Lewis, a retired truck driver from West Chester and the retired head of Teamsters Local 100, lost sleep and fretted constantly about the cuts he and his fellow Teamsters faced. The stress took a toll: On New Year’s Eve 2015, he died of a massive stroke. He was 64.

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Now, after years of fighting, countless trips to Washington, and even more hours of stress, Lewis’ wife Rita and the other Teamsters have put their hope in 12 yet-to-be-named members of Congress who may hold the key to rescuing the 1.5 million workers and retirees at risk of losing the money they had put aside for their retirement.

“It’s not over,” said Mike Walden, a retired truck driver from Cuyahoga Falls who is president of the Teamsters’ National United Committee to Protect Pensions.

Central States’ pension program is a multi-employer pension — one that allows employers to pool resources and provide workers with retirement security. For Walden and many other Teamsters, such plans were really the only game in town when they got into the trucking business.

The plans, negotiated by unions, were administered by trustees selected by the union and employers. They were a key part of collective bargaining: Many of those in the Central States plan, offered the choice of higher salaries or better retirement, chose the latter.

And for years, the plans worked, running at a surplus. But a culmination of factors in the 2000s — two market crashes, trucking deregulation which led to the bankruptcy of many of the companies participating in Central States, and the retirement of the Baby Boom generation — changed the pension plan’s fate quickly. By 2014, it was in serious trouble. In 2015, they offered a plan that would slash retirees’ benefits, sending out letters like the one that sent Butch Lewis into a miasma of stress. The Treasury Department ultimately rejected that plan, but the pensioners are in limbo nonetheless, wondering if the money they’d planned on will disappear.

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Central States is no anomaly: While some 10 million workers are now served by 1,400 multi-employer plans, some 150 to 200 plans, covering 1.5 million workers and retirees, could run out of money within the next 20 years, according to the Pension Rights Center.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the longer the government waits to act, the more desperate the situation will become. He pushed a bill named after Lewis that would have provided a low-interest, 30-year-loan to troubled pensions with no cuts to benefits. But after twice trying to attach the bill to larger spending bills, he was met with fierce resistance from conservatives who called the loan program a “bailout.”

As the Senate worked toward a budget deal last week without the pension bill, Brown tried a different angle: having a select committee created that would deal with pensions. “I said if we can’t do Butch Lewis, here’s what we need. We have to have something serious and substantive to show pensioners that Congress takes this seriously.”

The committee was created as part of the massive budget bill that was signed by President Donald Trump Friday morning. Brown now hopes to become the Democratic chair of the committee.

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The committee will include three Republicans and three Democrats from both the House and Senate — 12 members total — and will hold at least five public meetings, including one field hearing outside of Washington, D.C. aimed at making it easier for retirees to tell their stories.

The committee will have until late November to craft a plan that would be put before the House and Senate for an up-or-down vote. Neither chamber will be permitted to amend the agreement.

Walden said he would have preferred that Congress take up the Butch Lewis Act, but he’s happy to see at least some movement.

“It’s somewhat of a ‘kicking the can down the road’ again, but at least we see some resolve,” he said. “I like that they’re doing something that says they have to do something.”

Walden said he’s hopeful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will choose Republicans from union states — such as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio — for the panel.

For his part, Portman is hopeful the committee will “find a workable solution.”

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Rita Lewis, meanwhile, wants Congress to act. She was in Washington last month for the State of the Union – a guest of Brown, invited to shine a light on the pension issue.

In the final months of her husband’s life, she’d see him sitting in his leather chair in the middle of the night, stewing over what to do about the situation he and his fellow Teamsters were in. The stress consumed him. Their last conversation on the day he died was about the pensions.

“It was always on his mind,” she said.

Rita said Congress continually puts pensioners on the back burner.

“We did everything the government asked us to do,” she said. “and here we are at this stage of our life. And it’s like we’re invisible.”

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