[Excerpt] Under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA), enacted as Division O in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (P.L. 113-235) on December 16, 2014, certain multiemployer defined benefit (DB) pension plans that are projected to become insolvent and therefore have insufficient funds from which to pay benefits may apply to the U.S. Department of the Treasury to reduce participants’ benefits. The benefit reductions can apply to both retirees who are currently receiving benefits from a plan and current workers who have earned the right to future benefits.
On September 25, 2015, the Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Plan (Central States) applied to the Treasury to reduce benefits to plan participants in order to avoid becoming insolvent. At the end of 2014, Central States had almost 400,000 participants, of whom about 200,000 received $2.8 billion in benefits that year. The plan reported $18.7 billion in assets that was sufficient to pay 53% of promised benefits. In its application to reduce benefits, Central States projects that it will become insolvent in 2026.
If Central States does not reduce participants’ benefits and the plan becomes insolvent, then the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) would provide financial assistance to the plan. PBGC is an independent U.S. government agency that insures participants’ benefits in private- sector DB pension plans. Multiemployer plans that receive financial assistance from PBGC are required to reduce participants’ benefits to a maximum of $12,870 per year in 2016. However, the insolvency of Central States would likely result in the insolvency of PBGC, as PBGC would likely have insufficient resources from which to provide financial assistance to Central States to pay 100% of its guaranteed benefits. Treasury is not obligated to provide financial assistance if PBGC were to become insolvent.
Under MPRA, participants’ benefits in the Central States plan could be reduced to 110% of the PBGC maximum guarantee level. However, participants aged 80 and older, receiving a disability pension, or who are receiving a benefit that is already less than the PBGC maximum benefit would not receive any reduction in benefits. Central States’ application for benefit reductions indicates that about two-thirds of participants would receive reductions in benefits. About 185,000 (almost 40%) participants would receive at least 30% or higher reductions in their benefits.
Treasury is currently reviewing Central States’ application and must approve or deny the application by May 7, 2016. If Central States’ financial condition and proposed benefit suspensions meet the criteria specified in MPRA, then Treasury must approve the application for benefit reductions. The plan has proposed to begin implementing the benefit reductions beginning in July 2016. If Treasury approves a plan’s application to reduce benefits, it must also obtain the approval of the plan’s participants via a vote of plan participants. However, MPRA requires Treasury to designate certain plans as systematically important if a plan is projected to require $1 billion or more in financial assistance from PBGC. Plans that are labelled systematically important may implement benefit suspensions regardless of the outcome of the participant vote. Central States is likely a systematically important plan. Legislation has been introduced in the 114th Congress that would affect potentially insolvent multiemployer DB pension plans. H.R. 2844 and S. 1631, the Keep Our Pension Promises Act, would, among other provisions, repeal the benefit reductions enacted in MPRA. H.R. 4029 and S. 2147, the Pension Accountability Act, would change the criteria of the participant vote and would eliminate the ability of systematically important plans to implement benefit suspensions regardless of the participant vote.