New York State Teamsters Conference
Pension & Retirement Fund
Stay Informed: Email Alerts Sign Up
There are several reasons for the underfunding problem. The two biggest factors have been the loss of contributing employers (resulting in fewer contributions to the Fund) and two major market declines which had a devastating effect on the Fund’s investments.
Unionized employment in general has declined, and it was even worse for the trucking industry, which has always been a large portion of the Fund’s participants. Following deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s, the Fund lost more than 600 contributing employers and tens of thousands of participants. The loss of participants as well as an inability to attract new contributing employers to the Fund means older workers are retiring without being replaced with a sufficient number of younger workers. This imbalance has resulted in the Fund paying approximately $280 million per year in benefits, but only receiving approximately $120 million in contributions. The retiree to active ratio is two retirees for every one active participant, which is unsustainable at the present level of benefits.
The shrinking contribution base made the Fund even more reliant on the performance of its investments. Unfortunately, the historic market losses of 2001 and 2008 – 2009 had a disastrous effect on the Fund’s investment returns. During the last recession, the Fund lost $822 million or approximately one-quarter of its total assets. This is despite the Fund’s investments performing within their expected benchmarks. The recessions not only caused the Fund’s investments to go down, but also forced some contributing employers out of business. When an employer withdraws from the Fund, the Fund not only loses future contribution income, but the employer often fails to pay the amount necessary to fund the benefits its employees already earned. The Fund tries to collect this money through the assessment of withdrawal liability, but more often than not the employer is in financial distress and does not have the money to pay the liability.
The Trustees rely on very experienced investment professionals, who provide expert advice and recommendations to the Trustees on where to invest the Fund’s assets. These professionals attend each Trustees’ meeting, reporting on the performance of each investment manager and providing the most-updated market information. Because the Fund is governed by ERISA, the investments are required by law to be diversified. This means the Fund’s money must be invested in a number of different types of investments and not too concentrated in one investment area (for example, stocks).
Additionally, with the guidance of the professional consultants, the Trustees started a private placement portfolio over a decade ago. This strategy, not generally available to pension funds of smaller size, provides for direct, long-term investments that has resulted in greater returns over time. In fact, this investment approach has allowed the Fund to continue its higher interest rate assumption.
The Fund does not allow companies to withdraw, and has no ability to prevent them from withdrawing. Many companies withdraw because they go out of business and/or file for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, many companies recently have decided to withdraw from multiemployer plans, like our Fund, because they don’t have confidence in the pension system and fear greater withdrawal liability in the future. Some companies, like Wegmans, have withdrawn as part of their collective bargaining negotiations and with the approval of union members. Whenever a company withdraws, the Fund aggressively attempts to collect as much withdrawal liability as possible.
The Fund is diligent and aggressive in attempting to collect withdrawal liability from all withdrawing companies. In many circumstances, however, companies have withdrawn because they are going out of business and/or filing for bankruptcy. When this happens, the company often has no money to pay withdrawal liability, despite the Fund’s best efforts to collect it. The Fund’s attorneys look for any available assets the company – or sometimes the owners – may have in order to satisfy the withdrawal liability, and have instituted many collection lawsuits to collect any money the Fund can get from withdrawing companies.
The Trustees have been working to protect the Fund’s assets for many years. When the Fund experienced severe investment losses following the “dot-com bubble burst” and incurred negative investment returns for three consecutive years from 2000-2002, the Trustees took the difficult action of reducing future service accruals from 2.6% to 1.3% of contributions, and incentives were introduced to encourage deferred retirements. Following the enactment of the Pension Protection Act, the Trustees adopted a legally-required “Funding Improvement Plan” in 2008 that imposed mandatory increases in employer contributions rates in order to maintain current levels of benefits. Following the global financial market crash in 2008, the Trustees adopted a legally-required Rehabilitation Plan at the earliest opportunity in June, 2010. This Plan provided for further reductions in accruals and early retirement subsidies under certain schedules, and imposed significant annual employer contribution increases.
The Trustees also have taken a number of other actions to protect the Fund. They made changes to the investment strategy on the advice and with the oversight of the Fund’s professional investment consultants. The Trustees developed an alternative investment strategy which involved using private placement portfolios. These investments provide greater returns over time, and allow the Fund to appropriately maintain an aggressive investment return. The Trustees also implemented changes that provide incentives for employers to remain in the Fund. As employers continued to withdraw, the Fund’s withdrawal liability assessment assumptions were changed to require withdrawing employers to pay more by changing the calculation assumptions to better reflect the Fund’s severely underfunded status. In addition, participants employed by withdrawing companies are subject to penalties, and in some cases reductions in benefits.
The Trustees have required contribution rates increases every year. Currently, employers are required to increase contributions every year by between 6% and 8.25%, and in some cases participants are required to divert wages in order to pay for these increases. In an arbitration over whether to continue these increases, an arbitrator ruled that the current increases were unsustainable, after considering the cost and the number of employer withdrawals from the Fund in recent years. The arbitrator ruled that the current contribution increases could not be required. Based on this arbitration, the Trustees are restricted in the employer contribution increases they can impose in the future.
We cannot wait. In order to prevent even larger benefit reductions, the Trustees must act immediately. If the elections result in some action that will help the Fund, the Trustees can always re-evaluate the application and, for example, withdraw it. But, waiting is not an option, and the other pension funds that were not able to act soon enough now are facing insolvency.
The Trustees have said they will support any legislation in Congress that could potentially address the Fund’s solvency problems. If there is a legislative fix in the future, we will withdraw our application. But, if we wait to take action, we will be forced to make even larger cuts later, and run the risk that the Fund will end up paying no pensions at all.
The Fund is already paying out approximately $160 million more in retiree benefits a year than it is receiving in employer contributions. Time is of the essence. If the Trustees do not act now to fix the funding problem, much larger benefit reductions will be needed to save the Fund. If the Trustees wait too long, even a solvency plan with benefit reductions will not work, and the Fund will run out of money.