Thursday, December 18, 2014

Federal Spending Bill Brings Multiemployer Pension Changes in Through the Back Door

It never seems to fail -- Congress needs a way to spend money or make a bill budget-neutral and pensions are the ugly stepsister. I expressed my opinion on this just last month. So, what did they do this time? Our legislators appear to have found a different stepsister this time in multiemployer pensions. I'll talk more about what happened later, but first I'll provide some background for people who aren't as familiar with multiemployer plans. For those who like names, the new law is known as the Multiemployer Pension Plan Reform Act of 2014 (MEPPRA, until someone gives me a better name).

Multiemployer pension plans were authorized by the Taft-Hartley Act. In such an arrangement often found in industries where individuals may perform jobs for a variety of different employers (construction, trucking, mining, etc), employers contribute a negotiated amount of money per unit (hour worked, mile driven, etc) of work. Unlike single-employer plans, multiemployer plans are run by a group of trustees evenly balanced among collective bargaining units or unions and management. Benefit levels are theoretically set when the trustees determine that the plan's assets are sufficient to support an increase. And, once employers choose to participate in a multiemployer plan through the collective bargaining process, it may be difficult to exit as withdrawing sponsors are subject to significant payments known as withdrawal liability.

The first really significant changes to multiemployer rules came into being with the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act in 1980. The rules were largely unchanged until our legislators saw fit to treat well funded multiemployer plans differently from more poorly funded plans in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA). PPA introduced the colored zones dependent theoretically on a plan's level of danger of not being able to support its own benefit promises.

So, what does MEPPRA do and what level of concern should participating employers have? As is often the case these days, one of the primary purposes of MEPPRA is to protect the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the governmental agency that protects private pension benefits.

One of the most important tenets of ERISA-covered pension plans has been that benefits accrued by a participant cannot be reduced by plan amendment. This has long been one of the sacred cows of defined benefit plans (DB). Under MEPPRA, certain very poorly funded plans may be able to reduce accrued benefits of participants including those who are already retired and are receiving benefits. Such reductions are subject to a "rejection vote" by plan participants (active and no longer active), but in the case of "systemically important plans" (those where the PBGC projects it will be on the hook for at least $1 billion), the Treasury Department can override the vote of plan participants.

At the same time, premiums paid to the PBGC on behalf of each plan participant will double next year from $13 per participant to $26, further demonstrating PBGC's influence on our legislators. And, in a move that I think could bring further controversy when the rule is applied, the PBGC will have the ability to "facilitate" mergers of two multiemployer plans in order to improve their aggregate funded status.

Consider that last provision. As an example, let's say that there are two widgetmakes multiemployer pension plans and that the one for workers in states with at least four vowels in the names of those states is poorly funded while the one for workers in more vowel-challenged states is pretty well funded. In an effort to improve the aggregate funding, the PBGC comes in and facilitates a merger of the two plans. As a worker, how would you feel if you were suddenly in a poorly funded plan when you had not been previously. Perhaps the reason is that the people in the other plan have much better benefits than you do. So, the previously responsible management of your plan will be bailing out the less responsible management of the other plan. That might just make you want to say "Hmm" or perhaps something worse.

There are a number of other changes that are highly technical related to funding and to withdrawal liability (the amounts that an employer who chooses to cease participating in the plan must pay in order to get out) calculations, but these are quite complex and far beyond the scope of most readers. And, in case you were wondering, reading about those calculations will not bring chills of excitement.

All that said, what should an employer do to react to the passage of MEPPRA? There is no perfect strategy, but for employers participating in reasonably well funded plans (green zone), there should not be much that is needed. For the remainder (red zone or yellow zone) of plans, however, employers may need to weigh their options. They might consider doing some or all of the following:

  • Review all of their collective bargaining agreements that cause them to be participating sponsors of multiemployer plans. Pay particular attention to the size of the plan and the plan's current zone status.
  • If withdrawal from the plan is an option, request a withdrawal liability calculation to see how painful that strategy might be.
  • Consider the pros and cons of remaining in the plan as part of the company's overall risk management strategy.
  • Consider engaging an independent actuary (not affiliated with the plan's actuary) to assist with any strategy decisions. To the extent that the company is contemplating a strategy that could potentially inflame relations with one or more unions, it could make sense to engage this actuary through counsel.
Stay tuned. I'm sure it won't be long before pensions get to be an ugly stepsister once again.

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