A special congressional committee missed its Nov. 30 deadline for developing a plan to help troubled U.S. multiemployer pension plans. Panel leaders claimed to be making headway, but as the lame-duck session nears an end, construction officials say a solution probably will have to wait until next year and the new Congress.
Multiemployer plans are common in construction’s unionized sector. As of 2014, there were 759 such plans in the construction industry, or 53% of the total insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC). Construction plans had nearly 3.9 million participants, 37.5% of the multiemployer total.
Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, said on Nov. 29, “The problems facing our multiemployer pension system are multifaceted and over the years have proven to be incredibly difficult to address.”
Nevertheless, Hatch and Brown said they had “made meaningful progress” and think “a bipartisan solution is attainable,” and pledged to keep working toward a resolution. In a Dec. 14 statement to ENR, Brown’s office reiterated that point, saying he and other committee members “have made clear that they will continue working on this incredibly complex issue past the deadline in order to get it done right.”
James Young, Associated General Contractors of America senior director of congressional relations for labor, human resources and safety, notes, “Lame ducks are very unpredictable.” But Young says it is “rather unlikely” that the panel could draft legislation by the end of the session, which at ENR press time was scheduled for Dec. 21.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, is looking ahead to 2019 for further multiemployer pension developments. He said in a statement that after the committee’s hearings, “Congress is much more educated on the issues impacting multiemployer pension plans and the PBGC, and we look forward to working with the new Congress on solutions that will work.”
Another construction source says of the outlook for multiemployer pension legislation, “In this Congress, it’s dead,” adding, “It will go into the new Congress.”
Still, Young says it’s possible that the joint committee could release “something short of a legislative proposal.” That could be a “common set of principles or something else to sort of guide them in the new year,” he says.
In the new Congress, Democrats will control the House, and the construction source expects multiemployer legislation to originate in that chamber’s Ways and Means and Education and Labor committees.
Ways and Means’ chairman-designate, Richard Neal (D-Mass.), introduced a bill in November 2017 that would have the Treasury issue bonds to fund loans, which in turn could particularly help the most troubled multiemployer plans. That 2017 legislation could provide a hint about what Neal might pursue in 2019. Brown introduced a similar bill in the Senate last year. He was re-elected in November and is expected to continue to pursue the pension issue. Hatch, however, is retiring at the end of the current Congress.
AGC, for one, favors a comprehensive approach that would include developing “composite” or “hybrid” multiemployer plans. They’re described as a combination of traditional defined-benefit pension plans and 401(k)-type “defined-contribution” retirement plans.
Young says that the hybrid plan concept “is not a solution for the deeply troubled plans,” such as the teamsters’ Central States plan. He adds, “But it is a solution for the healthy plans. And in the construction industry, by and large, most of our plans are healthy, more so than, say, trucking or other industries.”
Under the 2014 Multiemployer Pension Reform Act, the last major bill on the subject, ailing plans got the ability to petition the Treasury Dept. for permission to reduce plan benefits. So far, Treasury has approved nine such requests, including five from construction union plans.
Proposals from two of those multiemployer construction plans—one from a plasterers’ union local in Oregon, the other from a plasterers’ and cement masons’ union local in Pennsylvania—received Treasury approval on Nov. 8. Votes by the plans’ members on the benefit cuts were pending at ENR press time.
Though no overall fix has emerged in Congress yet, there is wide agreement that a remedy for multiemployer pension woes is needed. Marco Giamberardino, National Electrical Contractors Association executive director for government affairs, says, “This is a problem of tremendous magnitude to both employers and employees in the construction industry.” He says, “It is something that has to be addressed before we have a significant financial disaster on our hands.”
Young adds, “The issue, we always say, is: the longer you push this off, the more expensive it’s going to be to address.”