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Fearing For Their Pensions, Union Workers See Hope In Federal Aid

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Bill Whitaker's work as a professional bass trombonist stopped with the pandemic, and so did his pension contribution.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Broadway, Bill Whitaker drove every week from his home in Connecticut to New York City, where he performed in “Phantom of the Opera” as a bass trombonist. This was Whitaker’s main gig for 19 years, but he had many others.

Throughout those years, he was a union member, and while he never expected a lavish retirement, he figured he would get something from his musicians pension. But when the pandemic hit and the music stopped, so did pension contributions from his multiple employers. He worried about an uncertain future.

“Obviously, you work for a very long time and you’d like to be thinking that when you put money away, when you do retire, that you’ve worked long and hard and that you have money that you can retire on,” Whitaker said. “There have been contributions made on my behalf in the pension fund since 1987.”

While the pandemic has brought a lot of economic doubt, there is hope now. Tucked into the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan is special financial assistance to save more than 200 failing pension plans like Whitaker’s.

This will impact millions of workers, including roofers, truck drivers, machinists and musicians -- many of whom would have faced huge losses to their retirement benefits but are now breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Contributions that come from Whitaker’s various employers are placed into a “multiemployer pension plan.” Workers like artists, teamsters, carpenters and roofers who hustle among different employers often have this type of plan. They’re created through an agreement between employers and a union in the industry. In Whitaker’s case, it’s the American Federation of Musicians.

The musicians pension plan was created in 1959 and it thrived for many years, especially during the 1990s. But changing tax laws and the financial crisis of 2008 left the pension fund in deep trouble, said Ray Hair, international president of the federation.

By 2009, the pension fund for working musicians was in critical and declining status. By 2019, it had worsened, with thousands of musicians receiving letters stating their pensions could face dramatic cuts.

“And then, in mid-March of 2020, the COVID pandemic brought the employment of musicians to a standstill overnight,” Hair said. “Practically 90 percent of our members became unemployed.”

And musicians weren’t the only workers whose pension funds faced possible failure. 

Norman Stein, who teaches pension law at Drexel University, said there’s a multitude of reasons behind the different troubled multiemployer pension funds, but he sees common denominators, including changes in certain industries that led to smaller workforces. 

“All of a sudden the plans didn’t have as many active workers as they did retirees,” Stein said. “So you have retirees who are currently drawing down the assets of the fund. And the idea behind multiemployer plans is that they'll always be new employees coming in to replace the ones who retire.”

Retirees, workers, union leaders and employers began asking for government help. And now, buried into President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief package is $86 billion to save failing multiemployer pension plans. It’s called the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act.

“The passage of this bill with a long struggle to get it to the point that we are now is the greatest victory for organized labor in the last 50 years,” said John Murphy, vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Troubled multiemployer pension plans can now apply to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government agency responsible for managing the money to pay out pensions that were promised to workers -- in the form of grants that won’t have to be repaid.

“Upon approval of the application by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation [plans] will receive enough money to pay all benefits due over the next 30 years by each eligible plan, thereby relieving tremendous financial pressure on these plans and allowing them to become healthy,” Murphy said.

Murphy estimates more than a million retirees’ pensions will be saved, and over time that number will increase to 3 million, not only helping individual workers but also their local economies.

“Which creates revenue for the businesses, creates jobs, and the government will not have to fund the PBGC. So it’s a boom across the board for everybody,” he said.

Some Republicans in Congress were not pleased by the inclusion of this pension relief in Biden’s bill. They argued that the bailout of multiemployer pension plans doesn’t include provisions to make sure this never happens again. But supporters say it is a first step, one that can be improved upon going forward.

In the meantime, Whitaker hopes for healthy pension investments for the next 30 years, and he anticipates bright stage lights when the time is right.

“Like I said, [I’m] still cautiously optimistic this will all work out, but it definitely is moving in the right direction. It looks very good, [I’m] very happy,” Whitaker said.

The opening up from the pandemic helps, too. “Phantom of the Opera” has announced it will open its doors on Broadway in October.

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.

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