About 10.8 million U.S. workers and retirees participate in one of nearly 1,400 multiemployer or private-sector union pension plans. The majority of those plans are in serious trouble.
Retirees’ pensions, as well as federal taxpayers’ dollars, are on the line. Yet Congress has once again kicked the can on delivering much-needed reforms.
It’s not just a few smaller plans that are underfunded. Three out of every four participating workers and retirees are in plans that are less than 50% funded. Some major plans will fail within two years.
Collectively, multiemployer pension beneficiaries stand to lose $673 billion in promised pension benefits.
It gets worse.
The backstop that Congress established to prevent total pension losses—the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC)—is on track to become insolvent in 2026, at which point it can provide only 10% to 5% of insured benefits.
Absent reform, a worker who is counting on a $25,000 pension may receive just $2,500 instead.
That is, unless Congress decides to force federal taxpayers to bail out multiemployer pensions, as it did last year for one select pension plan (the United Mine Workers of America).
No one wants to see workers and retirees lose their promised pensions, nor do most people think taxpayers should pay for broken private-sector pension promises.
So what’s the solution?
First, policymakers need to make the PBGC’s multiemployer program solvent.
The PBGC is supposed to function like an insurance company, but it operates devoid of conventional insurance practices.
Unlike private insurers or the PBGC’s single-employer program—which boasts an $15.5 billion surplus vs. the multiemployer program’s $63.7 billion deficit—the PBGC charges the same excessively low $30 per-person premium to all plans, regardless of their financial status. That’s like charging teenage boys the same car insurance rate as middle-aged moms.
Policymakers should immediately increase the multiemployer premium at least threefold and gradually add a variable rate premium. A small, temporary stakeholder fee on employers, unions, and plan participants could also help cover existing PBGC shortfalls.
Second, lawmakers need to fix the rules so that private unions and employers can’t make pension promises they can’t keep.
Currently, multiemployer plans assume unrealistically high discount rates that make it look like over 60% of plans are “well-funded,” but if they were to use the same assumptions required of single-employers, only 2% of multiemployer plans would be considered well-funded.
That’s not fair. Workers in union pensions deserve the same protections as those in non-union plans.
Policymakers should gradually require multiemployer plans to use appropriate discount rates.
Moreover, multiemployer plans should have to pay the same excise tax as single employers if they don’t make their required contributions, and dangerously insolvent pension plans shouldn’t be allowed to make new pension promises until they can make good on their existing promises.
Lastly, while there’s no avoiding some pension losses, policymakers can help minimize losses.
Congress should expand existing provisions so that more plans can proactively apply smaller benefit reductions than would occur if a plan becomes insolvent.
Moreover, policymakers should help open more doors to non-pension retirement options that provide ownership and greater future financial certainty.
Policymakers also need to protect taxpayers who had no role in broken private sector pension promises and who need to save for their own retirement instead of paying for others’.
Using taxpayer dollars to bail out the PBGC or multiemployer pension plans directly would risk a dangerous precedent, including opening the door to bailing out nearly $5 trillion in state and local governments’ unfunded pension promises.
There is no pain-free or easy way out of the multiemployer pension tragedy.
Enacting reforms now would be less distressing and cost far less than waiting until millions of workers lose their pensions.
The next Congress and administration must refuse reckless and risky taxpayer bailouts and instead correct past wrongs and minimize pension losses.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times