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Congress may offer hope for Teamsters' troubled pension fund

Larry Bartkowiak of East Aurora made a decent living for decades hauling cars around the country.

His reward? A $2,800 monthly pension that could be cut by two-thirds, or maybe even eliminated someday, all because of the changing economics of the industrial economy.

"It was a tough job," one that kept him on the road for a week at a time and working 60 to 70 hours in each of those weeks, said Bartkowiak, 65. "I hustled. I thought I earned what I had coming, but now I've got to worry about whether I'm going to make it, whether there's going to be enough (money) around."

He's by no means alone in his worry. Bartkowiak's union, the Teamsters, said he is one of 8,442 retirees in Western New York who face the same pension pinch.

Those retirees got some good news last week, though, as the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would replenish dwindling multiemployer pension funds like the one on which Bartkowiak relies.

It's unclear whether that bill will go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate. But retired Teamsters such as Bartkowiak now at least have some reason to hope that they won't have to cut back on expenses or sell their homes to make ends meet.

"I'm counting on this money," Bartkowiak said.

Pensions in trouble

Bartkowiak and those other 8,000 or so retired Teamsters suffer from the bad luck of having worked in an industry that changed radically over the decades, to the point where it wrecked the financial foundation of the pensions they were promised.

They get their pension from the Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund, which represents workers at smaller trucking companies and other firms. Many of those smaller companies have shrunk along with the manufacturing sector they served, leaving an ever-smaller group of active workers paying into a pension fund with an ever-growing number of retirees.

The result? Central States is nearly $23 billion short of the money it needs to pay what it owes to its pensioners, according to a report last year by Cheiron, a financial analysis firm. That's why the pension fund may cut its benefits by two-thirds, lest it run out of money in a few years.

Worse yet, Central States is just one of a number of troubled multiemployer pension funds. Together, those financial laggards threaten to empty the federal cash reserve that is supposed to guarantee pensions even if the funds themselves go bust.

That cash reserve, which covers all multiemployer pension plans, fell nearly $54 billion short of where it needed to be as of the end of last September.

"The Multiemployer Program unfortunately continues on the path toward insolvency, likely by the end of FY 2025," the government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. said upon releasing its annual report late last year.

Congress to the rescue?

To help the pension fund Bartkowiak relies on and others like it, the House last week passed what it calls the Butch Lewis Act. Named after an Ohio pension rights activist who died in 2015, the bill would set up a government agency to lend upwards of $100 billion to troubled multiemployer pension funds. The idea is that by lending pension funds this money now, the government won't have to come to the rescue of the federal account that guarantees those pensions in a few years.

Supporters of the proposal billed it not as a bailout, but as a helping hand to the little guy.

"It covers about a million and a half workers whose pensions are in danger, or have already been reduced by a significant percentage," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat and strong supporter of the bill. "The thing that they thought they could depend on could be ripped away from them."

Teamsters from the Buffalo area canvassed Capitol Hill last week, and they won a convert in Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican.

"There is nothing worse than seeing multiemployer pension funds veer towards insolvency after thousands of Western New Yorkers have paid into them, some during their entire working lives," Collins said. "While the Butch Lewis Act is not perfect, it is the first step towards ensuring working men and women receive the retirement security they have been promised."

Other Republicans focused on the bill's imperfections. Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who represents the Southern Tier, voted against the measure, fearing it wouldn't force mismanaged pension funds to change their ways.

"These workers deserve a solution to this problem that's causing much anxiety and fear in their households and in their lives," Reed said at a hearing on the bill earlier this month. "What we have to make sure of is that when we have this opportunity to fix the problem, that we don't have any unintended consequences, that we don't have a perpetuation of existing problems."

Republican Rep. Jodey Arrington of Texas raised a different objection. Saying the bill merely put off the pension problem with borrowed money that future generations would have to pay back, Arrington said: "This is one of the most reckless, fiscally irresponsible pieces of legislation I’ve ever seen."

An uncertain future

The bill to aid troubled multiemployer pension funds now heads to an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled Senate.

But it would become law right away if Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, had his way.

"We owe it to these workers, who played by the rules and are counting on these funds, to shore up these pensions today," Schumer said upon introducing the pension bill with several of his Democratic colleagues last week.

The man who controls what the Senate considers, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, hasn't weighed in on it, and neither has President Trump. But given that the bill is considered a pro-union measure, many lawmakers assume the nation's top two Republicans will do nothing to push it forward.

"Not to state the obvious, but this bill is already dead on arrival in the Senate," said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the committee that drew up the bill, on the House floor last week.

Lawrence Bartkowiak, 65, worked 33 years as a Teamster. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The bill's backers aren't so sure about that. George Harrigan, principal officer for Teamsters Local 449 and Joint Council 46 in Buffalo, noted that an unusual number of Republicans voted for the measure in the House, which could give it momentum in the Senate.

What's more, some key Republican senators — Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — represent states with an unusually high number of retired Teamsters. And those very states are key to President Trump's bid for re-election next year.

In pushing the bill in the Senate, the Teamsters will continue to emphasize just how devastating it would be to some retirees if their pensions were to suddenly shrink or disappear.

"If these cuts were to take place, they couldn't even afford the roof over their head," Harrigan said. "They couldn't afford prescription medicine. Their lives, in a sense, would come to an end."

Bartkowiak said his own situation isn't that dire, but the mere thought of having his pension cut is already affecting him. He needs to replace his decade-old car, but he's reluctant to do so, just because he doesn't know if he'll be able to afford car payments. He said he might have to cut back on travel and on dinners out, too, if that pension cut becomes a reality.

Other retired Teamsters face the same possibilities.

"None of us were expecting this," Bartkowiak said.

Local Teamsters counted on pensions. Now they're getting cut.

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