60K Ohioans sad­dled with trou­bled plans

Sen­a­tors vow to press on, ad­dress trou­bled mul­ti­em­ployer pen­sions.

Dayton Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jes­sica Wehrman

— Last year, a joint WASHINGTON com­mit­tee of U.S. House mem­bers and sen­a­tors vowed to solve the prob­lem of what to do with trou­bled mul­ti­em­ployer pen­sions.

They had un­til Nov. 30 to come up with a so­lu­tion. They missed the dead­line, but Ohio Sens. Sher­rod Brown and Rob Port­man, who have more than 60,000 con­stituents sad­dled with these trou­bled plans in the state, vowed to press on.

There still is not a so­lu­tion.

Rita Lewis ac­cepted Sen. Brown’s in­vi­ta­tion to the State of the Union last week with a sin­gu­lar thought in mind: Per­haps she could once again draw at­ten­tion to the plight of the nearly 1.3 mil­lion re­tirees at risk of los­ing their en­dan­gered pen­sions.

The West Ch­ester Twp. woman’s hus­band, re­tired truck driver Butch Lewis, died on New Year’s Eve 2015 wor­ry­ing about the pen­sion cri­sis and its im­pact both on him and his fel­low re­tirees. When he died, OhioRita Lewis took up the fight.

It’s been three years since then, and the prob­lem still looms.

Now, two months into the 2019, a so­lu­tion that both sides can

agree to re­mains out of reach. For Rita and other af­fected re­tirees, it’s a unique brand of pur­ga­tory, tem­pered by high hopes and deep dis­ap­point­ments.

“We al­ways get so close to some­thing, then there’s a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment, whether it’s a hur­ri­cane or a dis­as­ter and the peck­ing or­der changes,” she said.

“I’m told it’s a pri­or­ity,” said Mike Walden, head of the Team­sters’ Na­tional United Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Pen­sions. “It’s just the shut­down has taken away some things and read­justed the pri­or­i­ties.”

Walden, a re­tired truck driver from Cuya­hoga Falls, was a mem­ber of the Cen­tral States’ pen­sion pro­gram — a mul­ti­em­ployer pen­sion that al­lowed em­ploy­ers to pool re­sources and pro­vide work- ers with re­tire­ment se­cu­rity.

The plans, ne­go­ti­ated by unions, were ad­min­is­tered by trustees se­lected by the union and em­ploy­ers and 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. But by the mid-2000s, that choice sud­denly went bad: the re­tire­ment of the baby boomers and a va­ri­ety of other fac- tors put the many pen­sions at risk.

In 2015, Cen­tral States of­fered a plan that would slash re­tirees’ ben­e­fits. The Trea­sury Depart­ment ul­ti­mately re­jected that plan, but the pen­sion­ers have re­mained in limbo ever since.

Brown, an Ohio Demo- crat who co-chaired the joint com­mit­tee tasked with solv- ing the prob­lem, has vowed to fight on. Even as he weighs a bid for the White House, he in­sists his com­mit­ment to solv­ing the prob­lem hasn’t changed. Last year he in­tro- duced a bill named af­ter Butch Lewis that aimed to solve the cri­sis by cre­at­ing a loan pro­gram for plans in crit­i­cal, de­clin­ing and in­sol- vent sta­tus.

“Ex­cept for keep­ing the govern­ment open, there is no greater leg­isla­tive pri­or­ity in my mind,” he said.

Port­man, an Ohio Re­pub- li­can who also served on the com­mit­tee, was named this year to chair the Sen­ate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee’s Sub­com­mit­tee on So­cial Secu- rity, Pen­sions and Fam­ily Pol­icy, and said the en­dan­gered pen­sions are very much on his mind.

Let­ting the pen­sions fail, he said, “would hurt the en­tire econ­omy.”

“I hope we’ll be able to use this fo­rum, this sub­com­mit­tee to be able to get back to where we were at the end of last year, when we were very close to an agree­ment,” he said, say­ing that so­lu­tion would likely in­clude “shared re­spon­si­bil­ity” with pen­sion­ers, com­pa­nies, re­tirees and the govern­ment weigh­ing in to fix the prob­lem.

Else­where, the en­v­i­ron- ment has shifted. With Demo- crats now hold­ing the House ma­jor­ity, and Rep. Richard Neal, the chair of the pow­er­ful House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee serv­ing as the main House backer of the Butch Lewis bill, it seems plau­si­ble, if not likely, that the House will pass that bill. But its chances in the Sen­ate re­main grim

The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that the longer Congress waits to act, the worse it will get. Among the key wor­ries is the “con­ta­gion af­fect” — the idea that if those pen- sions fail, oth­ers will fol­low, cas­cad­ing to cre­ate a fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

David Bren­ner, se­nior vice pres­i­dent and Na­tional Direc- tor of Mul­ti­em­ployer Con­sult­ing for Se­gal Con­sult­ing, said the govern­ment has an obli­ga­tion to help be­cause it con­trib­uted to the prob- lem in the first place.

The dereg­u­la­tion of the truck­ing in­dus­try in the 1970s — a govern­ment ac­tion — as well as mar­ket crashes be­cause of a dereg­u­la­tion of Wall Street con­trib­uted to the af­fected pen­sions’ trou­bles. “When you look at the roots of the prob­lem, the gov­ern- ment has a very heavy hand in it, which is some­thing not a lot of peo­ple pay at­ten­tion to it,” he said.

De­spite the com­mit­tee’s fail­ure, he’s op­ti­mistic.

He said if the plans de­fault, the govern­ment may ul­ti­mately be on the hook.

“If these plans go un­der, where are peo­ple go­ing to go? They’ll start re­ly­ing more on the so­cial safety net and govern­ment pro­grams. One way or the other, some­one’s go­ing to pay for this.”

Walden pre­dicts that there will be lit­tle ac­tion on the is­sue un­til March or April, as Congress deals with the af­ter­math of the shut­down and ba­sic or­ga­ni­za­tional work.

He said there’s been some- thing of a sea change among Repub­li­cans, an ur­gency that may trans­late to ac­tion. “Peo­ple are con­cerned on both sides of the aisle,” he said, but added “we’re all just kind of wait­ing around to see what they come up with be­fore we make our next move.”

Both he and Rita Lewis are trou­bled that so lit­tle at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to the is­sue. When the govern­ment shut­down, 800,000 peo­ple lost their pay­checks. While it was ap­pro­pri­ate that so many wor­ried about them, they ar­gue that the pen­sion cri­sis mer­its at­ten­tion, too.

“We just went and spent $11 bil­lion on the shut­down,” said Rita Lewis, re­fer­ring to the costs of closing the govern­ment for 35 days. “We could’ve used that money to se­cure our pen­sions.”

CON­TRIB­UTED

Rita Lewis, seen here at a Capi­tol Hill rally in De­cem­ber, took up the cause of her late hus­band, a re­tired truck driver.

econ­omy.” DREW AN­GERER / GETTY IM­AGES

Sen. Sher­rod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, vow to press on re­gard­ing the en­dan­gered pen­sions. Let­ting the pen­sions fail, Port­man said, “would hurt the en­tire

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